Sunday Classic / 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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3 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / The Woolly Bugger Isn’t all that, Or is it?

  1. I agree that the Wooly Bugger is king of the suggestive fly patterns, with the Hares Ear being a close second. Ditto on what fly I’d choose if I could carry just one. I often steer clear of them just to give myself experience with other flies. New patterns often do very well for me at times and places and frankly the Wooly Bugger seldom is the best fly one could use in a given situation but its success and consistancy over a broad range of conditions make it must-have in your go-to box.

  2. You are right on target Kent. I have caught trout on the WB in every state I have fished for them. My original Montana guide called end of the day evening Wooly time for it’s special powers for big browns beginning their forays at dusk on the Paradise Valley spring creeks. Great bass and brim fly too.

    One other use I have for Wooly in trout fishing is in tandem rigs. I often use it as my first fly for weight and as an attractor with a smaller tantalizing morsel 18-20 inches off the bend. You usually catch them on either fly, but it is my opinion that the wooly is an attractor that makes the other fly more effective.

    I have my own custom tie in colors that work most of the time for me, but as you point out, you should pick a color for what you are trying to imitate. I would add pick size and color for conditions: light, water clarity, size of stream, and size of target fish. I carry my custom tie in various sizes plus black, olive,brown, white, and combos of those colors. Crystal buggers too.

    Versatility is the key and the reason we use this fly as the teaching base fly when teaching fly tying.

    Yet with all this, some look down on the wooly. Hard to understand why unless you are a pure dry fly fisherman. But hell, I think the wooly would catch fish if tied on light wire and fished honked up on the surface, don’t you? Never tried it, but what the heck.

    • I second you on using the wooly bugger as a good weighted lead fly with the smaller imitative offering on back. Thought that was my little trick.

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