Our Man In Canada
September 3rd, 2001

The Absolute Beginner
The Ubiquitous Woolly Bugger


By Piscator

Many, if not most, fly fishers, if limited to only one fly, would most likely choose the Woolly Bugger. It would certainly be my choice. First of all, unlike imitative, specific patterns, the Woolly Bugger is an impressionistic pattern, which suggest a wide variety of things most fish like to eat - leeches, crawfish, tadpoles, and big nymphs such as Hexagenia. It works in both stillwater and fast water and attracts just about every species of fish which can be taken on a fly rod.

Woolly Bugger with red Flashabou stripe Of course, it's not the right fly to choose when fish are feeding selectively on something which looks mothing like a Woolly Bugger - when trout are sipping nothing but Hendrickson spinners, for instance. In such circumstances, the best fly is one which most closely imitates the natural. But, in situations where fish are feeding opportunistically rather than selectively - or not at all - the Woolly Bugger is the fly to tie on.

The Woolly Bugger is also a quick, easy tie. The basic pattern consists of only three materisls: a marabou tail, a wrapped chenille body, and a palmered saddle hackle. I'm far from an expert tyer, but I can crank out around a couple dozen in a hour. Nor does it seem to matter much if they're not tied meticulously. In fact, the first efforts of a beginning fly tyer, however messy, will usually take fish, particularly smallmouths in moving water. This makes it the ideal first fly for the beginning fly fisher who is also just learning to tie flies.

While the basic pattern is wonderfully versatile, it can be modified in a variety of ways to make it even more versatile.

Tail Variations

The tail can be lengthened or shortened. A longer tail increases the undulating movement, which more closely resembles creatures with long, undulating bodies, such as leeches. A shorter tail if better for suggesting big nymphs or the claws of crayfish. The density of the tail can also be varied to affect the sink rate: the sparser the tail, the faster the fly will sink.

Hackle Varations

The longer and softer the hackle, the greater the built-in liveliness of the fly. A long, soft hackle has a life of its own in still water, making it deadly on the sink or the dead-slow, stop-and-start retrieve. A shorter, stiffer hackle is most effective in fast water, as it is less prone to being flattened along the fly's body. A densely-palmered, short, still hackle will give the fly buoyancy, so that it can be fished on or close to the surface, especially if the tail is short.

Adding Things

A few strands of Krystal Flash or Flashabou added to the tail or run as a stripe down each side of the body prior to palmering can give the Woolly Bugger that bit of extra glitter, which sometimes is needed to turn the fish on. The popular Whitlock Leech is basically an all-black Wooly Bugger with a purple Flashabout stripe down each side and into the tail.

Adding a beadhead (metal or glass) is a more recent innovation. Besides changing the silhouette of the fly, this also weights the fly, causing it to sink head-first, as if diving for the bottom.

Colour Variations

The most popular colours for Woolly Buggers are black, purple, white, olives, and browns - singly or in combinations. These colours approximate the colours of most the living things the fly suggests. However, attractor colours are also effective, especially in fluorescents. Chartreuse, hot orange, yellow, and red - singly or in combination - are especially popular. The popular Egg-sucking Leech is a combination of purple tail, body and hackle, with a fluorescent red chenille head. Sometimes all that is needed ia a head of fluorescent red tying thread. One of my personal favourites, inspired by those highly effective, smoky-grey Powerbaits, incorporates this on a pattern with a white body and tail and black hackle.


Current issue
Woolly Buggers can be tied on hooks ranging from hooks as small as #10 2X long, to huge 8/0 saltwater models. The smaller sizes in natural colours are great for suggesting nymphs. The big versions are usually used for attractor patterns. The 8/0 Megabuggers are great for pike. I remember one August in Labrador when one of these in red and white as the hot ticket for big brookies. When tying the Megabugger, it's necessary to use more than one hackle feather, as the hook shank is so long. This is an excellent opportunity for creating a two or even three-tone hackle.

Fishing Techniques

Nymph and grub-like Woolly Buggers can be fished dead drift, sink-and-draw, or crawled along the bottom. Attractor variants are usually best fished on the swing or on a stripped or twitched retrieve. However, this pattern is so versatile that these guidelines should not be regarded as written in stone. It pay to creative, not only in tying variants, but also in presentation. ~ Piscator

We thank the Canadian Fly Fisher for re-print permission!

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