While doing research on the ubiquitous woolly worm,
the first thing I tried to pin down was the correct
spelling. I found it spelled WOOLLY...WOOLLEY...
WOOLY...WOOLEY, and WOOLLIE. I suppose if I'd spent
more time in this part of my research, I might have
found two or three more variations. For the record,
I'm partial to WOOLLY WORM.
The original Woolly Worm, one of the most used fly
patterns in the history of the sport of flyfishing - with
almost infinite variations - was first dressed to
imitate a caterpillar. The original dressing of black,
yellow, black chenille, with white hackle was a very close
Somewhere along the way, the Woolly Worm outgrew the
caterpillar image and countless variations surfaced.
They have been used successfully as leech, dragonfly,
damsel nymph, stonefly, cranefly larva, and forage
fish patterns. I'm sure at some time, woollys have
been mistaken by fish for every life form that swims
in freshwater, including the tiny chironomids. What
else is the Griffith Gnat but a tiny peacock-bodied
According to Roy A. Patrick, the author of Pacific
Northwest Fly Patterns, and Terry Hellekson,
who wrote Popular Fly Patterns (two excellent
reference books for old fly patterns), the fabled fly tier
in the Yellowstone Park area, Don Martinez, was chiefly
responsible for popularizing the Woolly Worm. Hellekson,
however, goes on to say that angling history records
similar flies were used in the nineteenth century.
Many times in my entomology seminars, I've been asked
if the Woolly Worm in any of its variations imitates
any life form closely enough to be considered an imitator
pattern. Or, has the success of the fly been due entirely
because it seems alive with palmered hackle and should
be classed strictly as an attractor. We may never
know...the fish just ain't talking.
I remember my pre-float tube days as a gradual learning
experience. I progressed from trolling pop gear (we
called all multi-bladed trolling rigs "Jack Lloyds" in
those days), to light spinning lures like Mepps spinners
and spoons, to Woolly Worms. It took only a season
or two for me to learn I could catch more trout trolling
Woolly Worms, than the less sporting pop gear, and at
least as many as I could with my favorite spinning lures.
In the intervening years I evolved from a boat, to an
inflatable raft, to a float tube, and in a broadening
knowledge of entomology, discovered other stillwater
patterns that more closely resembled the life forms
we find in lakes and ponds. I still carried Woolly
Worms in my stillwater fly assortments, but I was
mentally phasing them out, replacing them with more
That being the case, a legitimate question might be:
Why am I writing a column devoted to the (old fashioned)
Woolly Worm? Am I wasting valuable FAOL space? The
answer lies in the simplicity of the pattern. I know
some pretty experienced fly fishermen who carry fly boxes
stuffed with nothing but Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers.
The only fly that is easier to tie is a mohair stick fly.
Both types are basically attractor patterns and are very
effective in stillwater. I feel all beginning stillwater
fly anglers should be aware of Woolly Worms and Woolly
Buggers, and have a least some basic patterns in their
fly boxes. While the dark-olive, black, brown, and
yellow-bodied Woolly Worms are the most popular variations,
the tier is limited only by his imagination on the possible
effective combinations of materials.
There are a couple of (relatively) new tying techniques
that improve the basic Woolly Worm tie. The hackle-first
tie involves tying in the chenille at the bend of the
hook, then heavily palmering the hook shank with saddle
hackle. The chenille is then wound over the hackle
allowing the fibers to stick through between the wraps.
It makes a very durable Woolly Worm. I learned this
tie about 30 years ago from Ruel Stayner and his group
of Twin Falls, Idaho float tubers.
The other new tie was made popular by Dave Whitlock.
He ties a peacock herl shellback over the chenille
after palmering the hackle. While Dave's pattern
is mostly just a Woolly Worm, it offers fish a profile
that does look buggier.
Some other innovations I've discovered in my travels
include: trimming the hackle down to within 1/8- to
1/4-inch; trimming one side of the hackle before
palmering (this gives the illusion of long and short
legs); and using mohair instead of chenille to offer
a really buggy look; and using long-strand mohair
over the chenille instead of saddle hackle (I've
named this version my "Woolly Burger").
A pattern I've been developing during the past 25 years,
involves wrapping marabou over the hook shank before
winding on the chenille. This allows some of the marabou
fibers to stick out between the wraps (much like the
hackle-first variation). I then palmer the body and
trim the hackle fairly short. The fly, in appropriate
colors, is an excellent representation of a cased caddis.
Now an obvious question arises: How does the Woolly
"Bugger" fit into the picture?
There was a large group of Henry's Lake fly fishermen
fishing Woolly Worms with marabou tails, long before
anybody coined the term Woolly Bugger. A pattern
called the Henry's Lake Leech (a.k.a. Big Red) had
been first been tied with a marabou tail several years
before I heard someone call his pattern a Woolly Bugger.
The pattern also involved trimming the hackle short.
I still include Big Red in my top 20 stillwater patterns.
The last time I looked at the "bugger" selection in
a fully equipped fly fishing shop, there were five or
six dozen different patterns. Every time a new body
material comes online, somebody begins tying new
woolly bugger patterns.
In my section on leeches, in my book, Float-Tubing
The West, I list nine patterns that could fall
under the Woolly Bugger heading: My Black & Tan Leech,
Halloween Leech, Marv's Halloween Leech, Henry's Lake
Leech (Big Red), Canadian Brown Leech, Canadian Red
Leech, Horsethief Leech, Black Mohair/marabou Leech,
and my Woolly "Burger." Five of these leeches also
utilize variegated chenilles instead of the solid
colored chenilles used in the past.
Have Woolly Worms been made obsolete by Woolly Buggers?
Probably. Should new tiers experiment with both Woolly
Worm and Woolly Bugger ties? Of course. In my beginning
fly tying classes, the first pattern I have my students
tie is a Woolly Bugger.
Over the thirty five years I've been tying flies, I
moved from simple Woolly Worms in the beginning, to
mohair and fur bodied flies in the '70s. In the mid-80s
I returned to variegated chenilles for many of my nymphs,
wet flies, and streamer patterns.
Are my current trout flies so superior I will abandon
any attempt to improve them? Not at all. I suspect
new materials and tying techniques will come along in
the future that will tempt me to redesign a lot of my
best patterns. In the meantime, I would urge beginning
fly tiers to tie the most popular Woolly Worm (bugger)
patterns, and be willing to explore new materials and
invent some of their own patterns.
I don't care how effective a fly pattern is...it can
probably be improved. I've certainly changed my
attitudes in this department over the years. If I
had uttered those words 15 or 20 years ago, I would
probably have had myself committed. I used to argue
that if a fly catches fish...leave it alone! I now
believe that no matter how effective a fly pattern
may be, some slight change or modification might
make it even better. ~ Marv
Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West,
The Successful Angler's Journal,
More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More
Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from
Marv. You can reach Marv by email at
email@example.com or by phone: 208-322-5760.