The Woolly Bugger Isn’t all that, Or is it?

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Rubber-legged Woolly Bugger. Photo By: Louis Cahill

This isn’t Montana, Your Not Norman Maclean, and the Woolly Bugger isn’t all that.

This was a bumper sticker a guide buddy of mine had printed up a few years back. It was prominently displayed for his clients to read when they pulled up to greet him. That’s one hell of an ice breaker for checking fishing egos at the boat ramp, let me tell you. I give my boy J.E.B. Hall props for his comedic humor and gutsy style. For those of you who don’t know J.E.B., he’s a veteran Western North Carolina guide, Author of Southern Appalachian Fly Guide, and has spent multiple seasons guiding at Alaska West. Meet him one time and you’ll say to yourself, “this guy is the Johnny Knoxville of fishing”.

Most anglers fall into one of two categories when it comes to their perception of woolly buggers. They either love them or despise them. I love the fly pattern for two reasons. First, for its impressionistic design that’s capable of mimicking many different trout foods, and second, for its versatility in how the pattern can be fished. It’s rare for me to not break out a woolly bugger at some point during the day. When trout aren’t biting, I almost always can find fish willing to snack on them. The only time I keep woolly buggers out of the game and sitting on the bench, is when I’m fishing water where dry flies are the only thing required.

I believe in the woolly bugger so much, If I only had one pattern that I could take with me fishing, that would be it. Why the woolly bugger, you ask? Because it has probably caught more species of fish on this planet than any other fly pattern created since fly fishing was born. Now if I asked Jim Teeny, he would probably argue with me on this one, but what can I say, 90% of the time Jim strictly fishes his signature Teeny Nymph. And why shouldn’t he, the man has caught everything from steelhead to 100lb. tarpon on that fly. But if the tables were turned, and Jim Teeny would have invented the woolly bugger, I’d lay out a strong bet that’s what he’d be fishing instead. I meant no disrespect towards Jim Teeny, the man is a fish catching machine and a pioneer of the sport. He was just the perfect person to make my point on how effective woolly buggers are at catching fish, and I honestly couldn’t help myself.

The Design and Theory behind the Woolly Bugger

The Woolly bugger looks very simplistic at a quick glance, but look at it a little longer, and you’ll see its not your average, run of the mill, fly pattern. When you take the time to break apart the woolly bugger and study its design closer, you’ll notice each element of the fly carries both equal weight and importance, and they all play off each other brilliantly. The woolly bugger’s flawless design was created by a fly tier that understood how important it was for a fly pattern to not only have the ability to take on a multitude of characters (food sources), but also a large scope of fishing applications. It can be dead drifted, swung, or stripped, and it’s equally effective in all three cases. The reason the woolly bugger works so well, is because the pattern does a marvelous job of representing trout food that fall into each category. Dead drift a woolly bugger and it’s very effective at imitating stoneflies, hellgrammites and leaches. Swing and strip the fly and it looks just like sculpins, crayfish and other native minnows darting through the water.

If you want to dial in closer to a specific food source, just match the color woolly bugger to the food source you’re wanting to imitate. Very few fly patterns on the market are capable of imitating both aquatic insects, and finned specimens, and that’s what makes the woolly bugger so special. Most of the time you really don’t even have to worry about getting a drag free drift. From a fishes point of view, it looks like food whether the pattern is dead drifting the same speed as the current, moving across current or moving faster than the current. And because the pattern is generally of substantial size, it represents a large meal that most fish usually don’t want to pass up.

Go ahead, tie on a super realistic stonefly nymph and argue it will do a better job of imitating stoneflies than the woolly bugger. You’ll catch fish, I won’t argue that, but when you do tie it on, you’re limiting yourself to strictly imitating stoneflies. Tie on a woolly bugger and you’ll not only be imitating stoneflies, but also another half dozen other food sources. I’m not telling you what to fish, but doesn’t it make sense that the more food sources you can imitate at once, the better the chances you’ll find one of them, that day, on the trout’s menu? This is the single reason why I feel woolly buggers are so productive. 

If you’ve found yourself lately benching your woolly buggers like their inexperienced rookies on a sports team, put them in the game next time you’re on the water and the fish are ahead on the scoreboard. You just might find they’re the key to pulling off a victory.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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22 thoughts on “The Woolly Bugger Isn’t all that, Or is it?

  1. I really enjoy reading your blog. There is always some good info on here. This article in particular speaks to me. I may change what type of nymph I drop off of it, but there is almost always a Woolly Booger on my line getting them down and leading the way.

    • DD,

      Looks like there’s another woolly bugger lover out there. Glad you enjoyed the post man. Its a simple pattern that often gets a bad rap because of its old stature and simple design. I always have plenty on hand.


  2. I used to fish wooly buggers a lot (in that same clouser style dumbbell eye configuration) but lately have switched to Simiseal Leeches. They’re even easier to tie and work just as well, if not better. You might give them a try. They’re not as satisfying to tie, but you don’t care as much if you lose one.

    That being said, a black wooly bugger is really, really hard to beat IMO.

    • Matt,

      It’s just a woolly bugger photo we had on hand. Thats another great thing about the pattern, there are so many different versions you can tie and materials you can incorporate. I’ve got one tied on as my lead fly waiting on my client this morning, ha. Thanks for the comment.


  3. The WOOLY. What won’t it catch? Really, there are no vegetarian fish species well except for that amazon fish that eats nuts and apparently bit some guys sack off. I would put the wooly and clouser minnow at pretty much a neck and neck race on easy to modify patterns that can catch fish anywhere any place any time. If they don’t have them for sale in fishing heaven i’m going downstairs.

    • Charlie,

      Thanks for your always entertaining comments on the blog. I agree the clouser minnow is also a very good pattern. If trout are the target though I would get the woolly bugger the upper hand since it does a better job of imitating aquatic insects.


  4. You know when the novice picks up a learn how to tie flies book the first pattern is almost always a wooly bugger! They are easy to tie and they catch fish, what more do you need to know. You can also tie this fly in about 500,000 ways and colors, hell they have a book on just wooly buggers.

    I never leave home without one! Great blog keep up the great work!!!!!!


    • KC,

      Thanks for your positive comments and appreciate for the woolly bugger post. I figured a lot of people could way in on this one, since just about everybody has fished them, as well as, caught numerous fish with them.


  5. Definately a Plan B. I wouldn’t say my constant number one go-to-fly only because I didn’t start fly fishing because it was easy. However, I don’t fly fish to not catch fish. Got to avoid the skunk!


    • AirborneAngler,

      You’re dang right about getting rid of the skunk. I had a client the other day that pointed out how pleasant it is to take off his waders and gear at the end of the day when the fishing was good. He then chuckled and followed up with the task seems much more painful at the end of the day it is when your dog tired and have got skunked. I laughed, telling him I’m sure a lot of anglers out there could relate to that one. It’s so true isn’t it?


  6. I always use buggers prospecting a stream when nothing is happening on top. Particularly if I know there are good sized fish in there. We just slayed big bows all weekend with Golden Retrievers and different color variants I tie. A little bit of flash and a swing…bang! And its an easy tie, too. Of course, the bass love them just as much. Love the blog!

    • Doug,

      Sounds like you had a great time fly fishing for trout. I’ll have to look into that Golden Retriever fly pattern. We are glad you’re enjoying the blog and we appreciate the comment on the post.


  7. Pingback: “This Isn’t Montana, You’re Not Norman Maclean, And the Woolly Bugger Isn’t All That” | MidCurrent

  8. Pingback: THE WOOLLY BUGGER « The Trout Journals

  9. Got to this link from Midcurrent…..always find interesting things there…another great example. What else can you say about wooly buggers…it IS all that. Haven’t seen anything written about mini-buggers and sparkle buggers for perch and bluegills. Some version of the bugger will catch any fish that swims! Thanks for the article.

  10. Easy to tie and fish. Tied my first one when I was a very young boy and I now have passed three-quarters of a century by a number of years.

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