Fly Fishing: 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 funniest guy I’ve ever met in my life”.

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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34 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: The Woolly Bugger Isn’t all that, Or is it?

  1. First and foremost…For those that might be curious in the Teeny Nymph, be careful when googling “teeny nymph” at work. Get my drift? Nuff said.
    The woolly bugger is one of those classic patterns that will always be in every fly anglers box at some point in time. A buddy of mine fishes olive woolly buggers ALL THE TIME. It’s a real challenge for him to try not to fish an olive woolly bugger when he is out on the water. I can’t blame him though. It’s a fish catcher no matter what body of water you’re on. I’ve never thrown it in saltwater, but if I did, I’m sure I’d catch something. I also love the versatility, and the many different ways to tie one. And I’d have to agree with you about having one fly. I’d have to pick the woolly bugger as well. A squirmy worm coming in a close 2nd place 😉

      • Thumbs up. I look at it like this. A woman may be attractive when she gets up in the morning. But, put some sparkle, some color, wiggle, and voila. Irresistible! White is the color in the salt.-But marabou won’t last long.

  2. I also appreciate how many kinds of wooly buggers there are. And there are many more crazy fish catching variations you can get from your tying desk. Throw a sculpin head on the front, give it a dozen rubber legs, keep the tail short (dragonfly nymph), use AZ semi seal instead of chenile and hackle palmered… it is endless and they all catch fish.

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  4. Unlike Jim, many of us fly tiers can’t control ourselves, of course most of us don’t have our name on what we’re tying.

    I tie more Franken Buggers when a standard bugger would probably do just as well. From now on it’s just standard pattern wooly buggers, except I would add some crystal flash, and maybe some rubber legs, and a cone head and chain beads, no let’s add egg yarn and make it an egg sucking whats’it, better yet a muddler head and really move some water. Maybe a rabbit strip instead of marabou? So much for simplicity.

    Jim gave us a lot more than his nymph. Teeny’s mini sinking tip was the first non floating line I bought, it probably ruined my life. For fun tell Jim you are using a pair of his slotted glasses for driving in fog sometime.

  5. I do not understand those who disrespect the wooly bugger. For me it is and always will be a go-to pattern when dries are not an option. I have more confidence in a special WB color combo I tie than any other fly in my box.

    It is also a good fly for teaching tying to Project Healing Water vets, TU trout campers, and boy scouts because it teaches several techniques and because it is hard to tie a bugger that will not catch fish, even if your skills are not developed enough to make it look like what’s in the catalogue. Catching a fish on a fly you tie is a big deal to these newbies.

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  7. I have seen more first time anglers in my boat dead-drift a black or olive woolly bugger and even when they aren’t paying attention get connected to some decent trout, much to the chagrin of their better/more experienced fly angler in the same water. Some say beginners luck, I believe it is a productive fly in many circumstances that does produce. Keep your flies wet~
    Tight Lines,

  8. Modern military aircraft are often referred to as “weapon delivery systems”.

    A woolley bugger is the worlds best “marabou delivery system”

  9. All hail the woolly bugger. +2 on the all around buffet this fly offers to fish. For me it makes a great litmus test. I’ll try some variation of them every time I go out. And shame on those folks that snub grandpas old basic un-beaded bugger. On low, clear days with spooky fish, when a weighted bugger would send em running, that old-plain-what-the-heck-is-krystal-flash-and-estaz-rubber-what?-bugger lands softly, sinks slowly and does the trick!

  10. I highly recommend Gary Soucie’s book- Woolly Wisdom, its a well done and thought out resource with history, and hundreds of variation of the woolly bugger and wooly worm.

  11. Kent:

    Jeff from Oregon here.

    I have an arsenal of hand tied streamers that I fish locally swinging for salmon and steelhead and they serve me well . However, when I am having poor luck with them I break out one of my woolly buggers, either olive or rusty brown. I tie them with a little extra hackle and a little longer tail than most you see, makes for great action & profile in the water. The extra bulk makes them a bit hard to get real deep even with a sink tip, so if I need depth I string a tungsten bead on the tippet before I tie on the woolly bugger, works great. It is amazing how often this switch from my streamers to a woolly bugger will start producing fish.

    I have to be honest and admit that over the years I have caught more fish on a woolly bugger than any other fly. Steelhead, trout, pike, bass, you name it. I have yet to catch a salmon on a woolly bugger, but hang in there, my day is coming. I am going to tie up a few in pink for the salmon run this fall just for grins and try it out!


  12. Never met a fish I could not interest in a wooly bugger.

    If I could only tie, carry and fish one fly it would be an Olive Wooly Bugger – Size 8 weighted with a gold bead head and maybe a couple of wraps of lead.

    That said, I carry them year round, in a variety of colors and sizes. My go to flies are olive and black, although white and the copper/rootbeer chilli pepper have their place as well.

    I would say they need to be weighted, but carrying some unweighted flies have saved me (and my friends) on some very tough days.

    And they are not just for trout. Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass love the bugger, as to salmon (land locked both Atlantic and Pacific), shad, channel cats, pike, pickerel, striped bass, flounder, sea trout, blue fish, and so many more I just don’t feel like going on.

    Love the Bugger and wonder why others may not.

  13. The only two flies anyone ever needs to catch fish: Bugger and the Clouser.

    I have a small box of about 50 buggers that is probably the only box that never leaves my pack.

    • I only fish with one box of Woolly buggers with different colours. MAN trouts just can’t resist them here in the Arctic Finnish lapland. Best Fly ever made period.

  14. Of all the many modifications to the standard W.B. like beads, cones, flash, etc., rubber legs are hands-down the best enhancement.

  15. After lots of experimentation, I tie a brown woolly bugger on a curved hook in large sizes (with ronze hourglass eyes) and catch brookies on the bottom of trout ponds in New Hampshire in August. Add crayfish to the list — it is easier than any pattern I have come across, and seems to work as well if not even better.

  16. Some people love it, some hate it. The fact is that it’s a “fly-pattern”. Rather like Pareto’s principle (80/20), most fish are caught on impressonistic patterns, rather than realistic patterns and this is one of the best impressonistic patterns going!

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  18. I wish I could be in the category of love this fly but I just can’t get there…BUT, I’m trying. So I guess I’m in between. I definitely have caught fish with it. And all you say is so true so I have to respect it…I don’t know. I just prefer other flies. But I am starting to like it more the more I get into streamer fishing…great article. Never knew all that about this fly. What’s your favorite colors? Mines black.

    • Black works, usually. But, there are times when they prefer olive. That’s my go to. I add crystal flash, weighted shank, bead chain eyes, sparkle chenille in the tail, and on some, a hackle collar. I forego body hackle and add a leg on both sides. Bass and bream eat em’ up.

  19. I too am a Wooly Bugger aficionado and I had the pleasure of meeting the inventor of the fly, Russ Blessing here in central PA on Manada Creek. He was a true gentleman who sadly passed away several years ago, but his legacy will live on with this wonderful fly pattern.

  20. “tie on a super realistic stonefly nymph …you’re limiting yourself to strictly imitating stoneflies”

    I think I’d take issue with that. I once hooked a small rainbow, and while it was wriggling around, a big rainbow came out from behind a rock and started following it. Now knowing where the big rainbow was, I wanted to target it with a streamer, but I had none with me. The largest fly I had was a size 10 stonefly, so I put that on and fished it like a streamer, and caught that rainbow. That sort of versatility isn’t actually built into a fly (other than overall size), it’s due to the presentation.

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