The Woolly Bugger is probably the most famous and popular streamer pattern of all time.
It’s used in an astonishing number of ways in just as many different places and it never fails to produce fish in any of them.
When people play the “what if you could only fish with one fly for the rest of your life” game, the Bugger is a common answer, and a tough one to disagree with.
It catches a lot of fish – a lot of big fish.
What Is It Made Of?
There are a tremendous number of variations on the Wooly Bugger – so many that it’s tough to give a brief description of what one looks like, exactly.
It’s traditionally is constructed of a marabou tail (with or without flashy material), a chenille or fur body, and a hackle palmered from the tail to the head of the fly.
Typical colors are olive, brown, and black, though bright colors are often used in saltwater and for steelhead and salmon.
What Does a Woolly Bugger Imitate?
The truth is, nobody’s quite sure.
It looks a little bit like a leech, a baitfish, a grub, a cricket, a stonefly, a dragonfly nymph, a damselfly nymph – and the list goes on. I should note that I’m classifying this as a streamer pattern, but you can fish it like a nymph, too.
In most cases, the Bugger is used to imitate baitfish, crayfish or leeches – bigger, mobile, aquatic prey. However, the pattern was apparently originally tied to imitate hellgrammites, or dobsonfly larvae.
I would venture to guess that in a lot of cases the Woolly Bugger works like a spinning lure – provoking strikes from opportunistic, predatory fish.
When I was guiding, an older, wiser, guide once told me…
When something hits the water, a pike’s not thinking it could be danger. It’s thinking it could be food.
Given how often the Bugger produces big fish, I think that’s the instinct at work here.
Brief History Of The Woolly Bugger Fly Pattern
The Bugger comes to us by way of an older English pattern called the Woolly Worm (which apparently is also quite an effective pattern).
Most people credit its invention to Russel Blessing in 1970’s Pennsylvania, though Jack Dennis claims that it’s actually a variation of the Black Martinez popularized in the West. Others claim it was a Bass fly, developed in the Missouri, all the way back in the 19th century.
I’m inclined to give Blessing the benefit of the doubt here. I don’t know what evidence Jack Dennis has, but there’s not really anything to support the Missouri claim and an awful lot to support Russell Blessing (if these things matter).
How to Fish a Woolly Bugger – 3 Techniques
It’s been said that there’s no wrong way to fish a Woolly Bugger, so long as it’s wet.
There’s a lot of truth to that – it’s one of the most versatile flies on the planet. That said, there are a few ways that are better than others.
1. A Fly for Bad Conditions
This is one of the better patterns for those after-storm or early season days when rivers are running high and muddy.
Trout will often take Buggers in poor visibility when you can’t seem to even get a second glance at any other fly.
You can add a bit of motion in these scenarios to help your fly stand out from the junk floating in the water. However, keeping your retrieve fairly slow is usually preferable.
2. Fish it As a Streamer
In most situations, you can’t go wrong with fishing the Woolly bugger like you’d fish any other streamer.
Cast it perpendicular to the bank of a river and strip it back toward you in six-inch strips. This does a good job of imitating fleeing prey – a baitfish or crayfish making a quick dash for safety.
This is typically a good way to fish it in Stillwater as well. It’s really pretty similar to how you’d fish with spinning gear – casting and retrieving.
If this isn’t working, there are a lot of ways you can vary your retrieve. Pauses in the stripping can often induce strikes in colder water. I’m not sure why this is, but it does seem to work.
3. Dead Drifting
You can also fish the Bugger in a dead drift, like a nymph.
Cast across and slightly downstream and allow the fly to drift in the current. Be sure to keep a mend in your line to avoid it dragging the fly.
The only difference to regular nymphing techniques is that I like to add a bit of a retrieve to the end of a drift. Sometimes you’ll get interested fish following this fly for a considerable distance. The quick turn-and-flee action of this sometimes causes the predatory instinct of these fish to kick and you’ll get a strike.
Popular Variations Of The Woolly Bugger
The versatility of the Woolly Bugger has meant that it’s seen thousands of small tweaks – after all, if a new, foreign pattern is pretty good already, some slight changes might make it even better.
To fully account for all the variations on this fly would take several articles all to itself. Suffice to say that the Bugger is available in a huge variety of sizes and virtually every color of the rainbow. Different materials and varying levels of flash are used. It’s a little mind-boggling.
If you’re looking to add your first Woolly Bugger, probably try one of the standard olive, black, or brown varieties – but you’ll end up trying out all sorts of weird ones. They’re just that good.