New spins on one of the most versatile flies of all time.
[by Jason Randall]
IT’S BEEN SAID THAT THERE’S NO WRONG WAY TO FISH A WOOLY BUGGER, as long as it’s wet. And while that may be true, some ways must be better than others because anglers experienced in the “woolly arts” seem able to use a bugger to tease open the mouths of the most reluctant fish. One thing is for sure; they often work when nothing else produces. More than once a Woolly Bugger has rescued me from a fishless day.
The Woolly Bugger is a tough fly to categorize; in other words, is it a streamer or a nymph? If I pull a conehead bugger out of my fly box, it looks like a small streamer while a different one looks like an oversized nymph with a long tail. I guess the actual category you place it in largely depends on how you tie it and how you fish it, since it can be dead drifted like a nymph, stripped like a streamer and even swung like a wet fly.
HOOK: Daiichi 1720, sizes 8 to 10.
THREAD: Red or orange 6/0 Uni-Thread.
TAIL: White marabou, pearl Krystal Flash or Flashabou (optional).
BODY: Pearl Estaz.
HACKLE: White saddle or neck hackle feather, palmered over the body, and a few extra turns at the head.
Tying the Woolly Bugger
There are as many ways to tie a Woolly Bugger as there are fly tyers, with countless pattern variations and customized names. A lot of tried and true patterns persist, but new ones are invented all the time.
The Woolly Bugger is often tied to imitate an immature insect. Many fly tyers speculate that central Pennsylvania native and Woolly Bugger inventor Russell Blessing designed the fly to imitate the hellgrammite, the large insect larva of the Dobsonfly, which can be up to a few inches in length.
The original Woolly Bugger had an olive chenille body, black hackle and marabou tail. Now, Woolly Buggers come in all the many colors of the rainbow, each designed to imitate a different prey species.
Not limited to Dobsonflies, the Woolly Bugger is an effective imitation for a variety of immature insects and other prey species trout love flies tied in colors to imitate the natural species. In Alaska, I fished for silver salmon with an Egg-Sucking Leech, which is essentially a black Woolly Bugger with a fluorescent pink nose on it.
HOOK: Daiichi 1720, sizes 8 to 10.
THREAD: Chartreuse 6/0 Uni-Thread.
TAIL: Olive marabou and olive Flashabou.
BODY: Olive chenille.
HACKLE: Grizzly-dyed chartreuse saddle or neck hackle feather, palmered over the body, and a few extra turns at the head.
As a streamer, the long marabou tail gives it a lifelike action. Orange, brown, yellow and olive are common colors to imitate sculpins, which vary in color from one river to another and according to season. Since sculpins forage on the streambed, a weighted conehead is a common feature for buggers that imitate them. Drab, earth-tone colors also imitate minnows and dacestaples of most large trout’s diet.
Buggers tied in bright blue, chrome and pink colors are effective for imitating the rainbow darter, common in many Midwest and Eastern rivers. In the fall, gaudy, vibrant colors imitate the ostentatious colors of the rainbow darter arrayed in its spawning finery.
At the tying bench, you can create large Woolly Buggers with wraps of lead to add weight to the body of the fly. This helps it fish lower in the water column and is a common element on steelhead buggers.
The Woolly Bugger as a Nymph
The versatility of the Woolly Bugger stems from the fact that it imitates many different prey species trout eat. Because of that, anglers should fish each one differently.
Present the fly on a dead drift before adding any kind of animated action. Blessing often cast the fly at an upstream angle so it could sink before it continued downstream, and ended his presentation swinging it like a wet fly across the current, occasionally adding gentle pulses that made the fly swim with an undulating rhythm.
HOOK: MFC6XL 7030, sizes 2 to 8.
BEAD: Gold tungsten bead matched for hook size.
THREAD: Black 6/0.
WEIGHT: .019 lead-free body wrap.
TAIL: Black marabou over chartreuse marabou.
BODY: Black chenille.
HACKLE: Black saddle hackle.
LEGS: Chartreuse round rubber.
NOTE: Cross wrapping gold wire or black thread over the hackle can increase the fly’s durability.
Pennsylvania guide and renowned tyer Tom Baltz likes an unweighted Woolly Bugger, but adds an appropriately-sized split shot on the leader just in front of the hook eye. Using a technique he calls the “slow roll,” he blends a dead-drift presentation with an up and down jigging and twitching action at various intervals, likely making the fly look like a hellgrammite.
`on mimics a nymph’s natural inclination to swim headfirst back to the stream bottom when it’s displaced from the streambed. At the end of the drift, allow the fly to rise to the surface on a swing like an emerging insect. Even add a rhythmic action during the rise by gently pulsing the rod to imitate a nymph struggling to emerge.
When I fish a Woolly Bugger to imitate an insect, I like tailouts below riffles and the heads of pools where fast water empties into deeper water. The fast water dislodges insects, which drop out of the current as the water slows. Trout recognize an easy meal and line up to eat. Since I want it to dead drift near the bottom, I often need additional weight, especially at the head of a pool so the fly can pierce the portion of fast current that shoots over the top of slower, deeper water. Larger trout often lie beneath the tongue of a brisk current waiting for food to drop down like a candy dispenser.
Woolly Buggers also work well for stoneflies. A heavily weighted fly scraping along the rocks and rubble of the streambed mimics the end-stage nymph crawling towards shore to emerge on land. Draw the bugger from the river margins towards the shoreline to imitate a stonefly’s pre-emergent migration. (continued on page 2)