I am a big fan of deer hair. It is versatile and hard-wearing and of course it is buoyant. I first became aware of it when I was given the first three volumes of Tom Stewart’s ‘Fifty popular flies’ by my uncle for Christmas one year. I consumed the contents avidly and can still remember being baffled how to make the ‘Muddler Minnow’. Deer hair was an exotic material back then and I had no access to it. Spinning deer hair would have to wait a while!
I had tied thousands of trout and salmon flies before I got to grips with the various deer hair techniques. I was making flies on a sort of semi-professional basis and was purchasing my materials directly from Veniards (as I still do). I bought some deer hair and sat down to figure out the methods required on my own (no step-by-step videos on Youtube back then). Working with deer hair is not difficult but it is messy and you need to be handy with the scissors to get a neat finish. The ‘loose loop’, tension control, packing and spinning were all mastered and I made up some muddlers for my own use. They went into the box along with some other ‘lures’ which I had read about like the Polystickle, Jack Frost and Appetiser. At a time when i was used to making size 16 winged dry flies these looked like monsters and I had my doubts whether they would work.
A club outing to Loch Fitty in Fife (now sadly gone due to pollution from mine workings) gave me a chance to try out these wondrous creations. Nothing worked until I tied on a Black Muddler. Low and behold I boated a rainbow on it! I think at that point I was as firmly hooked as the trout and muddler heads abound in my fly boxes to this day. I will stick deer hair heads on just about anything given the chance.
The Dunkeld receives the muddler treatment
The beauty of a deer hair head is it adds bulk without weight so that even small flies can create a disturbance in the water. This can be vital for bob flies in particular. These days there are a range of synthetics with excellent floating properties which you can use to form a head but somehow deer hair looks better and I am sure they catch more fish.
Deer hair comes in all sorts of different types depending on the species of animal and where on the pelt the patch of hair is located. In my opinion the best hair for spinning is deer belly hair. The fibres are relatively thick so they flare well under tension. Belly hair also takes dye extremely well so you can play around to get just the right colour you need.
I still use the Muddler in various colours for rainbows. I like the tail and wings to be made of marabou with a hint of some flash like the Red and Copper one above. I still have a soft spot for the simple all black muddler with a silver rib though and it still catches its fair share and more. White ones do well at any time of the season too.
Salmon flies can be given a new lease of life by adding a deer hair head. I use a muddler Goat’s Toe a lot and had fish on it. It’s not the prettiest fly I grant you, but it is effective so that will do for me!
A muddled Goat’s Toe
The ubiquitous Green Peter was an early convert to the muddler head and it is a useful addition to both the trout and salmon anglers armoury.
Green Peter Muddler
Some patterns work better with a big, bushy head while others require a smaller, neater head.
A Sunburst Bumble with a small deer hair head
I think the muddler head also has the advantage of creating a lifelike shape to a fly. Look at sedges and chironomids – they both have slim abdomens but bulbous thorax/heads. A spun and clipped deer hair head looks just like that shape and that may be at least part of the attraction for the fish.
Blue Zulu Muddler
The deer hair which has been clipped is pretty static but any training fibres which remain provide good movement as well as adding to the shape and colour of the fly. Hackle fibres and legs are given extra movement due to the turbulence created by the clipped head.
A Clan Chief tied on a size 6 iron and sporting a deer hair head. A mouthful for any salmon!
This brings me to the question of the shape of the head. Should it be spherical, a cone a wild straggly thing? The answer is all of these – it depends on the fly and the look you want for it. A small,neatly clipped ball shaped head may look fine and dandy or then again a shaggy shapeless one could be more in keeping with pattern so it pays to experiment a bit. I generally like to leave a few fibres as an extra hackle. This works very well when using blue deer hair and a blue Guinea Fowl hackle together.
A round head on this Claret Bumble
A tapered head with a cone added on this Yellow Muddler
The untrimmed black deer hair fibres add to the hackles on this Willie Gunn Bumble
Experimentation with mixed colours and other ‘additions’ to the deer hair have not proved successful for me so far, the only exception being mixed colours in a G&H sedge wing (but that is a different thing altogether).
A daddy with a large muddler head
When you need to create the maximum disturbance on top of the water a large deer hair head is the way forward. Look at the Daddy above. Without the muddler head the fly would be ok but the brown deer gives the fly the ability to push water away from in front of it as it pulled through the waves, leaving a big wake which the fish find so attractive. Takes to these flies can be savage on those wild days of scudding clouds and white horses.
The Peach Muddler
I will end this post with a small muddler which I rarely see used in Ireland but can do great execution with the brown trout here – the Peach Muddler. The lads in Orkney are very fussy about the correct shade of peach to use but I can vouch for this fly’s effectiveness when tied with seal’s fur dyed in Veniard peach dye. This is a great wee fly and a size 12 is about right for most conditions.