It appears that muddlers are out of vogue, which to be frank, is a jolly good reason for bunging them out there. And you CAN be subtle about it... if you want to be.
I am going to talk about a method I like to call 'nymphs'. It is not a true nymph technique. You may know it better as 'muddlers'. Why I call it nymphs perhaps needs some clarification. It has to do with the fact that as soon as a successful method becomes locally popular it remains successful no more. So I lie. Not to everyone of course. I think my boat partners might see some subtle sign, such as a large vee wake behind my top dropper. So they know too. They also call the method 'nymphs'. All lying bastards to a man.
You know the sort of thing: you are in a boat and your rod is bending and a yell comes across the lake. 'What fly?'. You don't want to answer, because then everyone will know, and then the fish will know. So you lie. Back in the pub you hear comments such as 'they were catching on nymphs, but we couldn't touch them'. But I digress.
Now an important point. You are probably wondering why I am discussing this technique now, after having gone to such extraneous lengths to keep it quiet for so long. Well the cat's out the bag and he's got a trout in his mouth. I wrote a booklet on stillwater fishing. It's full of priceless information such as trout struggle less when held upside down; water is densest at 4 degrees C, which is why some people believe in gods (but I don't buy it); that it comes recommended to fish all the time with short breaks for food and sex, etc, etc, and I also wrote about muddlers.
Of course, I expect quite a few of you to be more than familiar with muddlers already. There was a time when they were very popular. Less now, since the development of stillwater dries. I say 'dries' with tongue in cheek (it comes out as a sort of mumbled sound) due to having read an editor's comment from another magazine, dismissing such talk (and these are my words) as failing to hold proper respect to the English history of fly fishing - I should call them 'dry flies' - and if I understood him correctly I should be more archaic and fish in plus fours and tweed hats. Well, I am a modern angler with modern ideas and modern clothes. Archaic no, anarchic, well perhaps just a little.
So dries it is, and there are times when fish want nothing to do with them. Try pulling them and you may get the response. Ah ha! So this I should be fishing muddlers? Yes it jolly well is.
I don't know if you realise, but fish will rarely move up more than about six inches to take a subsurface insect. Whereas they can move fifteen feet to take a dry. OK, let's get real. Fifteen feet in New Zealand with crystal clear water, big fish, huge flies (and an elastic tape measure), but four feet, maybe a little more in England.
The idea with the muddler is not one of directly catching fish, although sometimes it happens, it is more one of waking the fish up - when they are not doing very much worthwhile, a state I can fully understand since this is my area of expertise, or knocking the fish off - when they are preoccupied near the surface and refuse to look at a thing, expect, perhaps, a muddler.
The way events usually happen is that the fish spies all this commotion at the surface some distance off and decides to wander on over there and have a closer look. Sometimes he takes. Sometimes he follows and then he takes. Sometimes he takes fifty three times with out getting hooked. Whatever he does, he often gets very excited. The most common result is that he turns away from the muddler and suddenly finds a couple of flies swimming straight towards him. These he takes - not much else he can do really, when you think about it.
This should tell you a few things; first your muddler must be buoyant, secondly it is the top dropper. The muddler you might technically describe as an attractor, if you feel so inclined. Now, like you, I also remember an article informing me and you that the muddler should be positioned on the point. As interesting as this article was, I do not follow this train of thought. You can if you wish. You will probably catch less fish (and that's fine by me).
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking tangles. No problem. Try putting the muddler closer to the fly line (about 8ft away) in order to get better turn over. Also throw in a tapered leader between the fly line and the muddler - that should sort it out. If that fails then book some casting instruction and your casting instructor will sort you out.
Fly spin and necking loops, however, can be a real problem. It is important to pay great attention to your leaders every dozen casts or so, and find any weaknesses, because if you don't the fish will.
The flies following the muddler are critical. The middle dropper must be slim enough to sink even when pulled fast. I like Cove pheasant tail nymphs for this. You could say this fly has a dual role to play. I like flies with dual roles - especially when one of them is to catch fish.
The point fly is a local choice. I find a damsel nymph (slim dressed) to be a pretty good choice. Although when the fish are turned on by fry, a white or black lure is the one to have.
Not much room for subtlety here you might think. Wrong. The subtlety comes at the angles fished at with relation to drift and style of retrieve. Ever notice how one side of the boat seems to catch all the fish? Well it's no coincidence. Fish run at angles, normally they come upwind at you with a slight angle away from the sun. Fish take great pleasure in requiring a pulled fly at an angle to them as being just so. If you can't get that angle then you fail to catch. Also, due to the way of things it makes quite a lot of sense that one side of the boat will find he can't quite get that angle. Fish the angles and when you find one that works stick to it... until it stops working. Angles are also a consideration when fishing 'blind' with dries; put the flies square across the fish direction - you cover more fish that way.
With regards to retrieve; a 'slowish' figure-of-eight with plenty of pauses is most effective. The pause being the key. Fish like to follow large muddlers for long periods of time: one reason why I often long-line such flies. A fish confronted by a fly which suddenly stops has two options - to take or to turn away. Very few fish can stop themselves. Incidentally, it's not only with muddlers I use pauses. Two other critical moments with regards to muddler retrieval are the 'drop' and the 'dibble'. I really don't know hoe a fish has taken my fly on the drop. Some sort of instinctive thing I guess. The secret to the dibble is a deliberate final change of direction on the surface before the fly is lifted off for the recast. Give me the bow for the best dibbling position.
I have three muddler set-ups. The first involves two trailing flies already mentioned coupled with a large (#10 longshank) muddler minnow. I like the grey sort (or 'gray' since it is originally a US pattern and US anglers are a strange lot). Grey has a sort of fishy subtlety to it. I know what you're thinking. 'Subtlety from the states? Not possible'. One of my boat partners prefers his muddlers black, another white. They all work even excluding fishy subtlety.
The second set-up involves small patterns, it is no more than fishing wets really. Except that the dibble is created with a mini-muddler. One time I got fed up with my bob-fly sinking and so I turned to this. A good team is mini-muddler grenadier on the top, followed by soldier palmer and then a black spider (sizes #12, #14, and #16 respectively).
The third is when you are confronted with fish moving to surface daphnia. We're talking hot here. Try this when no one's looking; hot yellow and orange muddler, fluorescent pink mini-lure, fluorescent orange gold-head mini-lure. Show it to the fish (they'll find it) and rip it away as fast as humanly possible.
The hardest thing to do with muddlers is to control the urge to strike. Just keep retrieving, the fish will hook up eventually, always assuming you don't run out of water. If that doesn't work then just stop and do nothing but watch. The fish may now take one of the other flies. Then strike. One of my boat partners looks away when a fish starts following - he just can't trust himself.
It is possible that there are a few of you questioning just what it is we are trying to imitate here. Well obviously our hot muddler fails to imitate anything known to the natural world. However the muddler minnow imitates a small fry. Injured perhaps, stunned when static (strike the take as you would a floating fry). The small muddler imitates an egg-laying sedge, which should satisfy even the most religiously entomological angler. So we are not necessarily lure fishing. Although I personally believe any induced take to be lure fishing of a sort and we are certainly attempting to induce the take here.
I am a great one for carrying stillwater flies to the river with me. I have had excellent sport with rabbit lures, Bob's bits and muddlers to name a few.
You know the scenario; it's late and the fish are taking egg-laying sedges, but your sedge just insists on sinking when you try to skate it. Well, if you are like me you have the answer lying right there in your box.
Mice aren't much different to muddlers really. They are just bigger, that's all. Although some have eyes and ears to see and hear with. The only difference in technique is that you retrieve with even more commotion than you thought possible. That, and you need a heavier line, otherwise you cast and the thing just doesn't go anywhere.
I use a deer hair frog along similar lines. I thought fishing the mouse was difficult. This is a real bitch to cast. The legs flap madly in all directions, desperately trying to cause you to lose control so it can kill you. And it's dressed on a 2/0.
In New Zealand I know some fanatics who know something about fishing. They tell me every once in a while over there the beech trees go into seed and there is this dramatic mouse population explosion. I imagine a caenis hatch, but with mice. Perhaps if I go there enough I'll get some of this heaven.
Back to muddlers proper - the thing to remember about them is that when they work, they are fantastic and when they aren't working get them off as quickly as possible. Perhaps I should also tell you of the other fish response you can achieve: it is 'put-down'. It is something your boat-partner will not be too happy with. You neither, I guess. Just tell him you are fishing nymphs.