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Question: What to you get when you combine elements of a Muddler Minnow and a Zonker? Answer: A Zuddler - an excellent steelhead fly. Joe Emery and John Rode have combined a zonker strip, a muddler head and a cone head into a killer pattern.
It has often been said that most "new" fly patterns are, instead of being truly new, really just combinations of elements of existing patterns. We have been tying and fishing rabbit strip flies for our Great Lakes steelhead for a few years now. These flies are not only durable and cheap to tie, but have great action in the water and certainly catch both fresh and heavily fished-over steelhead. Rabbit strip is also widely available in many good colors.
Our first Zuddlers were tied in an effort to add buoyancy to our traditional zonkers. This seemed contrary to steelhead logic, where getting your fly down to the fish is essential. It was early fall and the first run of fish was into the lower holes of one of our local Ohio rivers. Due to a prolonged dry spell, the flow of the river had all but stopped. The truly remarkable thing was that during the last two hours of the day, the steelhead in the river would orient towards the surface and chase minnows in very shallow water. Casting and stripping zonkers produced some of the most exciting fishing that we had ever had. It seemed like one of the keys to success under these unique conditions was to keep your fly just under the surface of the water.
We developed several patters for those conditions, using deer hair or foam to create zonkers that floated or sank very slowly. The results were spectacular. It was a thrill to see a huge boil in the water and feel the fish take the fly, almost jerking the rods from our hands. The few fishermen on the stream that we met were having no success, complaining that only rain could bring the start of the steelhead season. We quietly nodded and hoped for continued clear skis.
Later at home, one of the flies we tied was a muddler-style zonker. It simply added a deer hair wing and head over the top of our usual zonker consisting of a rabbit strip tied over a dubbed or estaz body on a #6 4X long streamer hook. It was around this time that a cone head Zuddler appeared in an Orvis catalog, so we make no claims as being the creator of this fly. Unfortunately, the other fishermen got their wish, the rains came, and our unweighted Zuddlers went pretty much untested.
The Zuddler looked like a nice pattern, so John tied a few up in natural brown color with a gold cone head and gold holographic flash in the tail and collar. Although the new fly looked good, high and dirty water kept the natural looking Zuddler in the box for several trips. It was a few months later on our nearby, famous and heavily fished Elk Creek in Pennsylvania when we first really tested the Zuddler. With its heavily pressured fish and typically gin clear water, Elk Creek was a great place to test a pattern's fish appeal. To our delight, the light brown Zuddler lit up the otherwise reluctant Elk Creek steelhead. We knew we were onto something.
On subsequent trips, armed with some new color combinations, this pattern was out-fishing favorite home-water flies on steelhead from the Cattaraugus of New York State and our local Ohio rivers.
How to Fish the Fly
Zuddlers can be effective in a variety of presentations. This fly can be cast a bit upstream like a nymph, allowed to sink, mended, and then fished deeply through a run. Takes will usually come as the fly begins to straighten out below you. It can be cast in traditional wet fly style, mended lightly, and fished 2-3 feet under the surface in all but the fastest runs. In very fast, deep water the conehead fly can be combined with various sink tips to really get down. For thin water, the fly can be cast downstream on a forty-five degree angle and fished just a foot or less under the surface with the rod tip held up. And as described earlier, it can be cast and stripped near the surface to actively feeding fish. So it is a very versatile fly that can be fished at all levels of the water column.
Notes on Tying
These flies are easy to tie! We often tie for friends, and will tweak patterns a bit to suit changing water conditions, so we don't tie up scores of the same exact fly. But we wanted a fly that was very easy to tie mostly because we don't think that you can fish a fly properly for steelhead, which often means getting the fly down near the bottom, if you've spent 30 minutes tying time. You will hesitate to fish the fly down, or around downed limbs, if you are at all worried about losing it. So we changed the one element that is time consuming on a Muddler which is the spun, trimmed head.
After tying in the tail of crystal flash or flat braid, the rabbit strip and the body, we simply take about a half pencil sized shank of deer hair and tie it up top just behind the conehead. It helps to put a base of superglue, head cement or flex cement on the tread base to keep this hair from spinning and ending up, after a half hours fishing, as a throat instead of a wing. The deer hair is simply tied on about 0.25 inch from the end of the hair ends, pulling the tread snugly to create the muddler head. These ends are pulled back and the thread is wound and then whip finished in front of the hair head. The muddler head can be clipped to a good shape later if needed. Then the conehead is pulled back onto the deer hair to give it a swept back look. The conehead is secured against the muddler head by tying a head of thread in front of the conehead.
Our preferred hook is a Diachi 2220, 4x long streamer hook in size 6 for normal water conditions. For high and dingy water, we often switch to the same hook in size 4. In either case, the fly has lots of presence in the water; in other words it is not wispy, and probably displaces more water than many other patterns.
An alternate version of this fly results from a cross of a Bunny Fly (often called a Bunny Leach) with a muddler. The primary difference between this fly and Zuddler is that the rabbit strip is palmered around the hook shank rather than being laid flat across the length of the hook shank as in the Zuddler. The result is a "Buddler", with a somewhat bulkier profile and great pulsating action in the water. An easy and great looking way to tie this fly utilizes Gudebrod HT Braid as an underbody. By leaving about 0.5 inch of braid at the tail and three quarters inch at the collar, the braid can be quickly unwoven with a few pokes from a bodkin. This creates a fast, one material underbody and added flash. We often use this same body and flash technique while tying Zuddler bodies.
A color combination that had worked particularly well for the bruiser steelhead of the Salmon River in upstate New York, a natural colored rabbit strip with a purple braid body, became, with the addition of some deer hair, one of our top patterns. Why does this particular color combination seem to out-fish all others? We would only hazard a guess, knowing the pitfalls of anthropomorphizing our human bias onto the instinctive mind of the steelhead. It works, and it will work for you, and let's leave it at that. Suffice to say, the rabbit strip has great action, the purple body has always been a favorite attractor color for anadromous trout, and the addition of some deer hair up top seems to give the fly some buoyancy, keeping it upright and swimming well in all currents. The deer hair also gives the fly some nice bulk, creates a bit of micro-turbulence, and offsets the weight of the conehead. The natural/purple combination is tops in relatively clear water.
Several other color combinations have also worked very well for us. In heavily stained water, we often have success with a bright yellow Zuddler with gold or orange flash and body. White rabbit and deer hair over purple or pearl flash and body has also worked well, especially in cold winter water. Black rabbit with black or purple deer hair over silver, gold or purple flash and body has been very productive as an end of the day color, fished by swinging the fly a foot or so below the surface of the water. It appears that steelhead often lose their wariness at that time, feeding on baitfish silhouetted against the low-light of the twilight sky.
So far, this pattern has caught steelhead up to the 30" length, 10 pound class. We would be very interested to know if it works as well on other rivers and on other species. We are still waiting for a repeat of the extreme low-water conditions that created the cast and strip excitement of several years ago. We are opportunists, and we will take what we can get, and modify our flies to meet the conditions encountered. But we'll be ready with unweighted Zuddlers when it happens again!