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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13 thoughts on “The Woolly Bugger Isn’t all that, Or is it?

  1. I fish in and around Houston TX and it’s suburbs. I use it for Bass, Bluegill, Rio Grande Ciclids, heck even Spotted Gar will chase a Wooly Bugger. Catfish will hit them occasionally. Thanks for sharing

  2. Love ’em. I’ll rich one every day I’m in the water. Been throwing some version of one for years. Another go-to pattern I fish almost as much is Royal Coachwan wet flies. Lately started using white mariou for the wing. Damn if it don’t drive ’em crazy and much easier to tie. On the boogers I’ll include any crystal flash in the tail and hackle areas. Try both patterns.

  3. I have used Wooly Buggers over the last 4 decades in South Africa in stillwaters for trout. I match the colour of the weeds as close as possible at the time & I agree they out fish most other flies 90% of the time. I do try many other patterns but as you say on a slow day I always revert back to a wooly Bugger!

  4. I recognize that the Wooly Bugger is an extremely effective pattern. I dislike Wooly Buggers for one reason only. Like soft hackles, Wooly Buggers are easy to tie but difficult to tie well. Part of the issue is finding the proper materials. We may have different ideas on what a well tied wooly bugger looks like but I have tied hundreds of them and can count on one hand the ones I have been satisfied with. Some of you will think that’s silly, others will understand.

  5. My favorite fly is the one that catches the fish. Most of the time that’s a woolly bugger. Next in line- a crackle back.

  6. Thanks for reinforcing my thinking about the Bugger. Recently I was visiting my daughter and her family and went to a local lake near their home – fishing from a dock everyone was fishing Chronimids with an indicator – There was talk about “Walter” hooked and lost. I’m not a fan of the indicator so out came the Bugger – a few rolled eyes, but it wasn’t too long and I had Walter on and landed – My personal best for Rainbow Trout on a Fly Rod. I slept well that night.
    Love your newsletter.

  7. The bumper sticker would have been more effective at making an impression had ‘You’re’ been spelled correctly.

    • Has to be a fellow NY’er to “dis” a great slogan, bumper sticker etc. over a spelling or grammar error. It’s a fishing blog professor, telling about a BUMPER STICKER, not your Harvard thesis. Oh, is this spelled correctly? H-I-L-L-E-R-Y LOST!
      Now go Google “Woolly Bugger” & see if your smart enough to even know what that big, fluffy thing is on the back of the hook.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. This past Sunday, fishing the Chattahoochee, I couldn’t get any fish to bite what I was offering (I am quite new to fly-fishing for trout; grew up fishing for bass and later became proficient at fishing the mud flats of Charleston for redfish; needless to say my nymphing presentation probably sucks). I tied on a olive bugger and started stripping away. In about 30 min, I had four browns and a wild bow to hand. Saved my day.

    An olive woolly bugger, a farm pond, during the spring or fall fishing for bass is a great way to introduce someone to flyfishing.

  9. Sorry guys. I see my post is stil “awaiting moderation”. My fault, I guess I shouldn’t have politicised the comment. Please just dis-regard it. Lost my patience when I had to see someone rag on an interesting post over a, eh never mind. I have a feeling you guys may agree with me but why start. If you don’t that’s okay too. I’m too old & been fly fishing/tying for 45 years. That’s where I’m going now. As long as you stay away from NYC (& the government here) the rest of the state can really bring it when it comes to fishing & hunting.
    I promise, no more replys or posts. I’ll just enjoy your weekly newsletter. Really look forward to receiving it. The fish await. Stay well.

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