B.T.S & S.B.S : Charlie’s Muddler

The Charlie Muddler was born in the spring of 2020 during COVID-19. As a PE teacher, when schools shut down in March, I suddenly had a lot of free time and nothing else was open, so it was the perfect opportunity to get outside and social distance through fishing. My fishing was progressing rapidly in the 2019-2020 season; I started fishing lighter and lighter tips before entirely switching to fishing only a dry line. My first dryline fish came in January, and I continued to hook fish through the winter into spring. In late March, I set a goal to catch a fish on the surface and experimented with different patterns while observing fish behavior and noting my experiences.

I started to combine what I felt were effective parts of other patterns with traditional waking patterns for steelhead. Bill Mcmillan’s steelhead caddis was an inspiration, as was Harry Lemire’s Greaseliner.

I played with Todd Hirano’s Little Wang and started to see some fish respond to the pattern, but they would never fully commit. I had done well with rusty/claret/orange patterns in the form of GP variations and had a lot of confidence in them as fish catchers. I also knew that the fish responded well to copper for some reason or another. My first two winter dryline fish were hooked on Picasse variants that used bucktail as the wing. Combining all these materials that I knew worked in different patterns, I spun up a muddler with a copper body/tinsel rib, orange/brown bucktail underwing, and spun deer hair head and collar. I didn’t have the mottled turkey the size that the original muddler called for, but I did have some white-tipped turkey, so I decided to use that to set it apart from other muddlers I had seen.

At this point in my tying career, I had never attempted to tie a muddler before; the first that came off my vise had a tightly packed deer head in my quest for a surface steelhead. When I got to the river to test, I found them difficult to cast, and the leader ended up twisting a lot when attempting a riffle hitch. I felt the pattern needed to be on an Alec Jackson 1.5 spey hook or Blue Heron #3 to present a meal large enough to coax a fish to the surface. While testing out the pattern, I would use my nippers to remove more and more deer hair so that I could have a castable pattern. As I continued to tie and test, I used less material until I had the style of fly that you currently see.

On May 6th, 2020, I arrived at the river to fish and had to pick a secondary spot as the location I chose had multiple cars in it. As the sun hit the water mid-morning, a caddis hatch began in the pool/riffle I was fishing. I noticed little fish rising to the caddis and started stripping out line to reach the far bank and swing through the pool. This muddler was tied on a Blue Heron #3 hook with almost a flat eye. I wouldn’t say I liked how the pattern cast or fished with a riffle hitch on a hook that large, so I began to tie it on with a reverse turle knot, running the tippet down through the hook eye rather than up in an attempt to keep the fly waking on the surface. A few casts in, I noted that the fly would sink upon hitting the water, and once it came tight, it would appear on the surface, leaving a small wake. Sometimes, it would bob underwater due to the currents and then reappear on the surface.

Once I reached my casting distance and stepped down through the pool, I could feel the tiny plucks of small fish feeding on emerging insects. I began to worry that would be the only action of the day. My very next cast as the fly just appeared on the surface and began to wake it happened, a toilet bowl flush and line coming off the reel. Unfortunately, I didn’t survive the first run from that fish, and it came unbuttoned. It was both exhilarating and heartbreaking at the same time. I had reached my goal of hooking a fish on the surface only to lose it. It was a feeling of achievement while simultaneously disappointed because I wondered if that would be my only chance for it to happen. The stars aligned properly, and I was given an opportunity that not many anglers get; my perseverance in fishing only surface bugs for two months and being skunked every day while other anglers swinging flies were having multiple fish days had finally paid off. Hands shaking, I sipped my flask and wasn’t sure what to do. Should I call it a win or keep fishing? I decided to keep fishing the pool until I got below a specific tree and then move elsewhere. As the insect activity increased, I questioned whether I should be home chasing brown trout instead.

I made a cast across a lie that contained a submerged log. I was nearing the end of the pool, and it happened again. Another toilet bowl flush rose, and it looked like a sea monster had just swallowed the water on the surface. Then, the reel started to scream. I played that fish much more gently and finally got it tailed in a back eddy. I had now achieved my goal of a surface fish. I had finally risen a lake run rainbow and successfully landed it. I sat on the bank and texted my wife that I finally reached my goal and would head home. I sat on the bank and reflected on the journey and the future. We expected our daughter in September, just as the fall season would begin. Perhaps I wouldn’t be fishing the next season as we tried to navigate life as first-time parents. I decided to name the pattern after our soon-to-be daughter Charlie because it just seemed to fit at the moment. All of the drives to and from the river and while fishing, I wondered what she would be like and if I’d be a good dad.

I returned to the river that spring a handful more times and had the same success. My confidence in the pattern in warm water was growing, and I fished that and only that pattern for the rest of the season.

The following fall, there was a series of fundraisers on social media due to fires out west. I participated in one tying a set of patterns that included the Charlie Muddler. My friend Bruce Kruk placed a bid on my auction but ultimately failed to win. I reached out and asked if I could send him a few anyway. I was learning to tie in hand and appreciated the extra practice. I forgot about sending him the bugs and figured my early hand-tying wasn’t up to snuff, and he didn’t fish them. As I mowed the lawn in the late fall, I could feel my phone vibrating in my pocket—a series of texts or messages.

I quickly checked my phone and saw it was Bruce. I could feel more messages, so I drove the lawn mower into the garage. Did he happen to fish the muddler? Imagine if someone else caught a fish on one of my flies. How cool would that be? I sat in the garage and checked my phone; I was right! He was fishing the fly and doing very well. Shortly after, more and more anglers discovered and fished the pattern, reaching out to me with success stories from waters I could never dream of getting to fish.

The Charlie muddler has been to waters that I could never dream of fishing. I’ve had success stories from Upstate NY land-locked Atlantics, Great Lakes migratory rainbows, Upper Columbia rainbows, The Deschutes and Clearwater rivers, and some coastal steelhead rivers. The following December, I raised a fish in 38-degree water on a smaller version of the pattern. As it evolved, one thing remained constant: a sparse dress.

A Few Notes Before We Start

I like this pattern on an Alec Jackson size three or TMC 700 size 1/0-2. You can vary the presentation using a lighter or heavier iron. For brown trout, I will swing them on an AJ #7 or smaller TMC 700 hooks. Regarding the presentation, I am not as obsessed with chasing a surface fish anymore. I cast these at steep angles and let them swim slowly, allowing the current to do whatever it wants. Sometimes, they skate, and other times, they are in the film. The takes are visible 90% of the time, and that’s good enough for me. A lighter wire hook allows you to probe skinny, boulder-filled water that can’t be approached by any other technique.

Another effective technique on heavier wire hooks is to position yourself 45 degrees above a known holding lie. I try to position myself so that when the muddler comes under tension, it rises in front of the lie ala Leisenring lift. This tends to be when the most vicious grabs happen, in my experience. The beauty of this pattern, in my opinion, is that it gets me back to the beauty of this pursuit. I can focus on casting and the rhythm of the water, looking around to enjoy nature, knowing that if a player is home, I’ll get a response.


Tail: Golden Pheasant Tippet

Body: Flat copper tinsel

Ribbing: Oval copper tinsel

Underwing: Hot orange bucktail

Wing: White-tipped turkey

Optional: red or orange dubbing to cover wing butts

Head/collar: spun natural deer

1. Depending on the hook choice I change the ribbing tie-in point. The Daichii 2061 has a large step from the return eye that can be problematic when wrapping the flat tinsel. To counter this I’ll start my oval ribbing right next to the return eye to eliminate the step and continue the thread just before the hook point. 

2. Strip 10-15 fibers from a GP Tippet feather while holding the tips to stay aligned. I will roll the fibers in my fingers to break them up while keeping the points aligned. 

3. Measure and tie in the tippets so that they extend just past the bend of the hook with two touching wraps of silk. Do not cut the butt ends, as we will bind them down to help make a smooth underbody for the tinsel. 

4. I’ve prepared my flat tinsel by cutting the tie-in point on an angle. Tie the tinsel in by the end with the angle facing down towards the hook point. This will eliminate a bump when wrapping the body.


5. Continue making touching wraps toward the head binding down the tippet butts making sure not to make wraps on top of each other. If the butt ends extend past the return eye step, I’ll trim them to just before the step. 

6. Wrap the flat tinsel forward with touching wraps and tie off on the underside of the hook. 

7. Wrap the oval ribbing forward with five open wraps and tie it off next to the flat tinsel. Trim both tinsels.

8. Cut off a section of bucktail from the brownish part of the tail rather than the white edges that dye better. I comb this out and then stack it by hand to try to even the tips or give a slight taper, with the top section being longer than the bottom. This is unnecessary, but I like it to look like a tippet in strands underwing Atlantic salmon fly. The key is a sparse amount. Measure to the end of the hook bend and tie in with 3-4 tight wraps. I pull the butt sections up to keep everything on top of the hook. I’ll also take tweezers and compress the tie-in point so that I’m squeezing the fibers towards the middle of the hook and  making room for the wing.  

9. Cut two turkey slips and place them back to back (good side out) with the right side slip facing you (tips down). Measure the wing length to be just past the hook bend or even with the tail  and secure with three wraps using a soft loop to compress the fibers. 

10. Because it’s a fishing fly, I’ll add a bit of cellire to the thread wraps and trim the wing and bucktail at an angle. Add a few drops to the trimmed butts for durability, and let it soak in while you prep the deer hair. Also, an optional step that I’ve shown is to take a small clump of dubbing (orange or red) and veil the wing buts to hide any thread wraps.

11. Cut a chunk of deer hair. I’m using deer hair for spinning;  that tends to have a lot of fluff and short hairs in it. Comb out everything and stack it. Then, the result should be the diameter of a pencil or a bit less. I line the tips up with the end junction of the tail and tinsel body. Take a loose wrap and spin the hair. The return eye might require you to coax the fibers around the hook entirely. I make a few thread wraps forward through the butts, grab them and pull them back and finish with a few half hitches and snip the tying thread.     

12. Trimming the head is not nearly as intimidating as the tightly packed muddlers you see sculpted with a razor. The deer gets a bit smashed down from how I finish the fly, so I first comb the buts back to their original position. I locate the tips of the deer collar and stroke them back while pinching all the butts on the top half of the hook upward. Make an angled cut on these using the hook eye as a reference point to angle upward. Turn the fly over and do the same with the bottom of the head, trying to make it symmetrical. Now look down on the fly from above. There should be a few long fibers on each side of the head. Trim those to match the shape. At that point, the fly is finished, but you can continue to trim and even things out as you see fit.     

Steve Szeliga is passionate about dryline fishing and swinging flies with cane rods and clicker reels. He enjoys tying Classic Atlantic Salmon patterns in hand to catch lake-run rainbows in Upstate NY. He also can be found exploring the West Canada Creek and the Upper Delaware River system for Brown Trout.