Don Gapen's Muddler Minnow

Published Jun 21st 2013

This is an article about Don Gapen's Muddler Minnow, a fly that is tied in countless versions, but only few that resemble the original


Ted Patlen's Muddler Minnow

I love muddlers and have tied many, many of them. I like tying them, looking at them and not least fishing them. The muddler technique can be used for many types of flies from deep fishing baitfish patterns to streaking caddises.

Spinning hair
The idea of spinning deer hair to form a voluminous head is attributed to Don Gapen of Anoka, Minnesota in the US, and the original Muddler Minnow was tied by him back in 1937 specially developed to catch brook trout in Ontario, Canada.

I knew that it was quite a lot messier than most muddlers tied nowadays. My own muddlers are stacked, spun and trimmed and I actually strive to get them dense and smooth, but with a bit of uneven, rustic charm. Some muddlers are so meticulously tied that it's almost crazy, and even I don't go that far to make mine neat and tidy. I knew that this wasn't quite in the vein of the original Gapen muddlers, but we tyers tend to like neatly tied flies.

Messy muddlers

Not messy enough

I have experimented with messy muddlers with great success both for trout and pike, and I honestly thought that I had made them as messy as Gapen did. But during a recent visit to the Catskill Fly Fishing Center and Museum I saw one of Gapen's own Muddler Minnows, which is on display there together with a lot of other classic flies tied by their originators.

Even messier
And man, that is one messy fly!

First of all: the head is just a bunch of untrimmed, spun deer hair. No even collar, no nice conical bullet shape, no flat underside. Just hair sticking out in all directions.

Don Gapen Muddler Minnows

Original Muddler

When I announced this article on Facebook, I got this note from Mick Hall:

Hi Martin,
I have an original Muddler tied by Don Gapen way back in the late 1960s A fishing tackle store in Melbourne called J M Turvilles imported a number directly from Don they came in small plastic boxes and sold for $1.00 au If you would like a hi res shot to use any way you wish I will gladly send one to you.
Cheers Mick

You can see Mick's Muddler Minnow on the image here, and can again confirm that although it's very neatly tied and is trimmed and with a more distinct collar than the really early Gapen muddlers, it's still a lot more bulky than many of today's Muddler Minnows.

Neat muddlers

And man, that is one messy fly!

Secondly the rest of the fly is a mess too! A large turkey tail, a very rough body made of some kind of embossed gold tinsel, wound on the hook shank with no concern for smoothness or finesse. And sure the wing is squirrel and turkey, but a large bunch of each tied in so that it almost covers the body.

To top it all off the deer hair head is placed a bit down the hook shank, and the fly is finished with a large, bulky and not very elegant head made of thread and varnish.

Very, very different from most muddlers tied these days - including my own.

The method of closer trimming a denser muddler head is attributed to Dan Bailey, whose muddlers in the 50's were used to imitate grasshoppers and obviously needed to have a more well defined profile and maybe some better floatation, which is what the repeated spinning, packing and trimming of the deer hair yields. That technique is the most common i muddlers nowadays and the muddler style is used to imitate caddises, hoppers, baitfish and many other naturals as well as to create a large number of "fantasy flies" like bass poppers.

In Gapen's honor
So to honor Don Gapen and this fantastic fly concept, which has brought me countless hours of joy at the vise and at the water, I will show how to tie the Muddler Minnow Gapen style. I'm not the first one to have done so (apart from Gapen himself of course). Many tyers have tied flies that look like his original. I recently saw and photographed a fly by Ted Patlen, which is very true to the original. This fly is found in a picture above as well as in this article featuring a whole bunch of flies tied as the originators would have done it.

The Gapen family
The Gapen family is still in business and runs a tackle company called The Gapen Company, based on what Don Gapen started back in the 30's and now lead by Don's son Dan D. Gapen, who is an author and the CEO of the company. The company mainly manufacturers and sells spinning lures, but you can still buy the original Muddler Miinnow, tied much in the tradition shown above. You can also read a brief history of the family and their activities.

Muddler Minnow
Don Gapen
Year of origin
Target species
Brook trout
Brown trout
Largemouth bass
Sea trout (sea run)
Smallmouth bass

HookKamasan B800 size 2-4 or similar long shank streamer hook
ThreadWhite 6/0
TailTurkey strips
BodyEmbossed golden metal tinsel
Wing/sidesTurkey strips
Head/hackleSpun, natural deer hair
HeadTying thread

Step 1 -hook - I use a Kamasan B800 long shank, down eye streamer hook
Step 1 -hook
Step 2 - start thread - Start the thread about 1/3 back on the shank and take it to just in front of the hook bend
Step 2 - start thread
Step 3 - tail - Prepare two set of turkey strips, fairly large
Step 3 - tail
Step 4 - position tail - Place the feathers on top of the hook shank and let the weight of the thread compress them
Step 4 - position tail
Step 5 - tail tied in - Take a couple of loose wraps and tighten while holding the feathers in place, letting them compress vertically on top of the hook shank
Step 5 - tail tied in
Step 6 - thread base - Take the thread forward and build a base for the body. It doesn\\\'t have to be very even
Step 6 - thread base
Step 7 - tinsel - Use embossed golden metal tinsel if possible
Step 7 - tinsel
Step 8- start in the front - Tie in the tinsel in the front and wrap it in touching turns towards the rear
Step 8- start in the front
Step 9 - and back - When you reach the tail, turn back and wrap towards the front of the thread base
Step 9 - and back
Step 10 - tie down and trim - Tie the tinsel down, trim it and cover the butt
Step 10 - tie down and trim
Step 11 - squirrel - Prepare a generous bunch of squirrel reaching to the tip of the tail
Step 11 - squirrel
Step 12 - tie in underwing - Tie in the squirrel hair as a wing. Leave space for the head in the front of the fly
Step 12 - tie in underwing
Step 13 - turkey wing strips - Prepare two strips of turkey for the wing. They should also reach the tip of the tail
Step 13 - turkey wing strips
Step 14 - position wings - Lay one strip along each side of the squirrel wing, reaching the tips of the hair
Step 14 - position wings
Step 15 - catch strips - Let the thread lay over the wing strips, and let the weight of the bobbin compress them In the same way as the tail
Step 15 - catch strips
Step 16 - tighten - Take a loose wrap and tighten to compress the wing strips on the top and sides of the squirrel wing. Trim the butts and cover the remains forming a base for the deer hair
Step 16 - tighten
Step 17 - deer hair - Cut a sparse bunch of deer hair. It doesn\\\'t need to be stacked or ordered or even have tips for that matter
Step 17 - deer hair
Step 18 - position hair - Lay the deer hair over the wing base and take a couple of loose turns over the front part of the bunch
Step 18 - position hair
Step 19 - spin - Take one more turn and tighten slowly while letting go of the hair to let it spin around the shank
Step 19 - spin
Step 20 - stroke back - Stroke the spun hair back and build a small wall of thread right in front of it to press it back
Step 20 - stroke back
Step 21 - head - Form a fairly large head of the thread, whip finish and trim
Step 21 - head

Step 22 - varnish - Varnish the thread and let a bit spill into the base of the hairs to reinforce the spun head
Step 22 - varnish
The Muddler Minnow - The finished Muddler Minnow, Don Gapen style
The Muddler Minnow

Fishing the fly
My guess is that the Muddler Minnow of the 30's has been fished very traditionally either by casting it downstream across a current and letting it swing back or by casting and stripping it in lakes or even trolling it behind a boat. Unlike many of the modern muddlers (including many of my own), I don't think the Gapen fly has floated or even fished high in the water. The hook was heavy and the tinsel most likely metal tinsel, which has added to the weight, and the deer hair was tied so sparsely that it hardly added much buoyancy. I think this fly was a perfect imitation of a bottom dwelling species like a sculpin and was fished as such.

More on muddlers
If you want to tie a neater Muddler you can follow the instructions in many articles on this site:
We have a ton more.

And there's a video too:

And even more of those as well.

User comments
From: Bob - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted May 3rd 2014

I've used these up through Northwestern B.C. to Alaska and had some awesome days on the rivers. Even days the trout wouldn't take anything else

From: Alec - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted April 11th 2014

If you go to the Gapen tackle Website you can buy a DVD of Dan Gapen, Don's son, tying a muddler in the manner his dad and he originally tied it. The only difference from the above is that the original was tied on an Allcock's streamer hook and red thread was used.

From: Ed Null · e.null·at·  Link
Submitted June 23rd 2013

My go-to flies are maribou muddlers or zuddlers. I am guilty as charged of tying tightly packed, carefully trimmed, even multicolored heads. Love a white chin with dark on top. I find fishing a fly like this with a sinking tip line gives you the best of both. After a few casts, the fly will oak up some water, the tip will get it down, but the hair will keep it off the bottom a bit. Very effective on Missouri smallmouth.

Thanks, Martin, nice article.

From: Kate - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted June 21st 2013

The original muddlers look like messy hair days, for those of us who have hair; for those folks who feel more of the hot sun and the breeze on their scalp, we have the neat, shaved head muddler. What the heck, both varieties do a fine job of catching fish.

From: David - Full name and email anonymized  Link
Submitted June 21st 2013

The Muddler is one of the best patterns out there bar none. It will catch anything but a cold. It is a must have in the lfy box..

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