Top Trout Flies Course
Lesson 10 – The Wooly Bugger
The Wooly Bugger
One of the Top 10 Trout Flies Ever Created
You didn’t think we’d let this one miss the list right? Part streamer, part nymph, the famous wooly bugger is an all purpose imitator of all things on the menu for trout of the larger variety. Trout are primarily insect eaters, but as larger brown trout get to a certain size, they have been known to become mainly carnivorous. This instinct remains true for all trout and while most of their diet is easier consumed with dead drifting insects in the water, they will chase down a meal opportunistically. This opportunistic instinct is what creates the drive to chase swimming baitfish, and in our scenario, wooly buggers. Let’s learn some more about this fantastic pattern in hopes it earns a proper place with the right sizes and colors in your box.
We aren’t certain who the original designer of the wooly bugger was. Some sources push to Russell Blessing, but we aren’t completely certain. Likely whoever did back in the day, designed it more as a wet fly to imitate larger insects, and as streamer fishing developed later on in the years, it became a go to fly with minimal variations needed to match common baitfish, leeches, stoneflies, dobsonflies and cranefly larva in the area. Let’s take a look at the graph below to understand the seasonality, sizes and colors to throw. At the end of the day, there is never a bad time to throw a wooly bugger, save maybe during an active hatch. Gaining confidence with a wooly bugger can lead you down the a path that turns you into a gluttonous streamer junkie. You have been warned! 🙂
Graphs – Seasonality, Size and Color
The Secret to Why This Fly is So Productive
So why is the wooly bugger such a productive fly? I believe there are several key reasons to why it has earned such fame and love in fly fishermen’s boxes. First, we know that a big part of the wooly buggers success, or any streamer is its ability to imitate fleeing baitfish. The profile of a wooly bugger, mainly the tapered (bigger to smaller) hackle on the front of the fly and the marabou tail when wet, make for a perfect combination to look like a baitfish. The hackle helps push some water and give definition to the body and the marabou tail pulsates like a swimming tail. When all of this happens in 2 seconds across the face of a fish, the predatory instinct goes off and the chase is on.
In addition to it’s excellent shape, its versatility is another huge reason for its success. When you cast this fly to the bank and strip it back to you, a baitfish is imitated. When you dead drift it along the bottom, it can imitate an injured baitfish, stonefly, dobson fly or cranefly larva. When jigged along in an up and down motion throughout a dead drift, it imitates a leech with excellent accuracy. Simple and small changes to the presentation can have a profound impact on its success and this is great for an angler because it means you can imitate several food sources without ever changing your fly.
Lastly, the other reason for the wooly buggers success is its ability to be tied in a variety of weights. Because it is a larger fly, you can add 1 or 2 layers of wire wraps under the body of the fly, add all kinds of beadheads including heavy coneheads and fish skull heads that really get it deep. The ability to be super flexible with the weight is a luxury that larger flies afford you. You can’t go adding coneheads to your WD-40 and expect to get the same results, but with a wooly bugger, you can decide the weight values yourself. Super heavy flies have a big advantage in fast water where baitfish are often caught. When baitfish struggle in this water, larger trout will sit on the bottom of the river under all that fast water, not having to work or move until the moment is right. They pounce and grab the wounded baitfish (which has to be equal to like 100 midges at least) and making it worth their effort to feed like this when baitfish are on the move.
Conversely, you have the opportunity to throw extremely light streamers in slower water areas where trout are relaxing, but still looking for a meal. A heavy streamer in that water would make too loud of a splash, spooking the trout and hitting bottom befor you even get a good retrieve. An unweighted streamer in this situation is superior to enticing a trout to eat. The ability to set different weights is key and we’ll go over the details of this in the modification section to give you some good tips on how to set up your box with different weights.
Now, let’s learn about the entomology behind the fly.
The Entomology Knowledge on This Fly
So we’re only partially accurate when we say “entomology” concerning this fly, because half of this fly is imitating insects, and half is imitating baitfish of all kinds. We will go over the insect detail here, and also discuss a few common kinds of baitfish as well that are likely imitated by the wooly bugger.
Sizes: #8 – #14 | Color: Olive, Black, Brown | Seasons: Summer and Fall
Damselfly nymphs are found commonly in stillwaters, but also exist in warmer sections of rivers that are typically slower moving. Anywhere you find slow frogwater and the water is warm enough damselfly nymphs exist. While you will see them in the rivers some, they are most noted as a stillwater bug and a big reason why a wooly bugger does so well in lakes. There is no need to modify your patterns to imitate a damselfly. A wooly bugger by itself is a great imitation to match a damsel. They are decent swimmers, and short twitchy retrieves in a lake is best to imitate damsel nymphs. Olive, black and brown are the best colors. Fish them around structure and weed beds in lakes next to drop offs.
Sizes: #10 – #14 | Color: Brown, Dark Olive, Olive | Seasons: Spring to Fall
A deceptive number of dragonfly nymphs exist in rivers. They aren’t great swimmers and crawl the bottom of rivers devouring other insects. When dislodged, they are easy trout food and a dead drifted bugger is a great imitation. If you want to get really imitative, tie them on shorter hooks and keep them in the #12 – #14 range and tie them fat. Dragonfly nymphs are round and shaped like an oval and can get about the size of a nickel. A double layer of chenille and a shorter hook makes a good imitation. These fish well in both lakes and rivers. Retrieve slowly and near the bottom in lakes and dead drift in rivers.
Sizes: #4 – #10 | Color: Olive, Black, Gray, Purple | Seasons: Year Round – Winter is Especially Good
Leeches are all over rivers (gross right?) but they have their purpose and are on the diet for trout. Matching a leech requires a slightly longer marabou tail. If you want to learn how a leech swims, but a piece of ribbon in a current and watch. The wavy vertical motion of the ribbon is how a leech swims around. They are actually quite proficient at swimming and can flatten their bodies and wiggle around the river well. This is also true of cranefly larva, but we’ll discuss them later. Usually 1/2 to 1x hook length should be the tail for a wooly bugger, but if you’re trying to imitate a leech with a wooly, then 1 1/2 to 2x length is preferred. This can create some short strikes however where fish eat just the tail, and miss the hook. To remedy this, you can add a trailer hook to the tip of the tail, or you can tie off a copper john on the hook bend and have it sit an inch or so behind the end of the tail. This helps hook fish as well when they try to short strike the long tail.
Sizes: #4 – #10 | Color: Black, Yellow/Gold, Tan, Brown, Olive | Seasons: Year Round
Most people overlook the fact that a wooly bugger does a pretty solid job imitating a stonefly nymph. The tail could be substituted for something a little less bushy, but when marabou gets wet, it compresses substantially. Dead drifting (i.e just nymphing) a wooly bugger as the heavy fly in your 2 or 3 fly nymph rig is a great way to imitate a stone, get your rig down deep and simultaneously imitate a wounded baitfish. Fish eat dead or dying baitfish too and this imitates it well all at the same time. I use this technique using the increasingly popular euro nymphing techniques with long rods, no indicators and keeping your line tight as you drift your nymphs to detect strikes. With a streamer and this direct connection, you can move the streamer just slightly often inducing takes with great success.
In summary, you don’t need to do anything to a wooly bugger other than change the presentation to imitate a stonefly. Tie in the colors and sizes above in varying weights to maximize your success.
Dobsonfly Nymphs (Hellgrammites)
Sizes: #6 – #12 | Color: Brown, Black, Gray | Seasons: Summer and Fall
I don’t think there is much of a difference between a stonefly and a dobsonfly as far as imitations go as it concerns a wooly bugger. They are different species, but are both long, legged and have a similar shape and profile against a wooly bugger so there isn’t much need to do anything different with a hellgrammite nymph when it comes to a wooly bugger. Brown and black seem to be the best producers for hellgrammite patterns, but olive and dark olive are great too. Standard wooly buggers in different weights work great. Try a lead free wrapped body under the chenille for extra weight.
Sizes: #2 – #12 | Color: Olive, Brown, Black, White, Yellow, Silver| Seasons: Year Round
A wooly bugger, in my opinion, is best suited out of the box to imitate a baitfish. While you can see all the other options above need little to no modifications, I still have my best luck fishing a wooly bugger as a standard streamer with a across the river retrieve. (We’ll discuss that later) Baitfish have small heads, oversized eyes and after the gills get fat and then taper down to skinny. The hackle on a wooly bugger is perfect for creating that natural taper found in baitfish and the marabou, when it gets wet wicks down to a thin line. In addition, the marabou when pulled through the water pulsates with the current imitating the side to side tail swimming motion of a baitfish.
While a standard wooly bugger is a great imitation for a baitfish, there are a lot of modifications you can make that can make a great difference. First, adding some flash like flashabou our krystal flash along the body and to the tail imitates the shine of baitfish. Some baitfish are well camaflouged, but most have a shiny reflection when the light hits them. This flash is a signal to fish and why things like spoons and other shiny traditional lures are often used. For us in fly fishing, adding some flash along the middle of the fly to imitate a shiny lateral line of a baitfish is a great idea. In addition to that, adding rubberlegs that are tied in extra long (length of the hook) will create additional motion along the flies side profile and help push a little more water around as it moves, all of which creates the “food over here!” signal that trout are looking for while in the river.
Crawdads | Crayfish
Sizes: #2 – #8 | Color: Olive, Brown, Black, Orange, Yellow| Seasons: Year Round
Don’t forget that in a large number of rivers and lakes, crayfish/crawdads, whatever you want to call them, can be a major food source for the trout. The key to making your wooly bugger look like a crayfish is adding a lot of rubberlegs to the body and back by the tail to imitate the arms of a crayfish moving up and down. The second tip is to heavily weight the fly near the eye of the hook. Weighting it here makes the fly sit on the bottom of the river with the hook point up which is how a guarded crayfish will sit. They will swim backwards so think of the eyes near the tail or bend of the hook. The last tip that is needed or highly recommended is to use a jig style hook. Something with a 45 or 90º bend is really helpful in getting the fly to sit right on the bottom of the river or lake and to swim well when retrieved.
The last thing I’ll mention here is though this is a trout course, wooly buggers are one of my top bass flies, especially when made into a crayfish imitation. Big and heavy and jig style make for this pattern to work great for aggressive bass on beds or near structure waiting to ambush their next meal.
Identify the Signals the River Provides to Learn When to Fish It
So as you can see from the “entomology” section above, there are a ton of different food sources a wooly bugger imitates. In general, you can’t go wrong fishing one for a day and as a beginner, it’s a great way to practice your casts streamer fishing and it’s a very forgiving way to fish that will maximize your chance for success. There’s never a bad time to throw a wooly bugger, but there are some good signals that nature provides us that have proven successful for me in the past to help catch fish. Watch for the following signs on the river and use the corresponding wooly bugger or presentation to catch fish.
- When you see violent and random jumping or eating on the surface. Often times, what we mistake for a random rise of a trout is actually the trout breaking up a school of baitfish. If you ever see a trout aggressively rise on the surface and any other small splashes around the trout, it’s likely a trout eating baitfish and should signal a chance to throw streamers. If you see several fish do this over the period of 15 – 30 minutes, it’s likely there are trout feeding on baitfish and odds are good for your success with a streamer.
- When no nymph or dry seems to be working. We all have those days where you throw every fly in your box and nothing is working. It’s possible it’s your presentation, or oftentimes I’ve found, the fish are on streamers and looking for a single, large meal, not a lot of little ones. It doesn’t happen a lot, but if you can’t find fish to eat your standard nymphs or dries, you shouldn’t overlook a streamer in these days.
- During Spring or Fall spawn. I don’t recommend fishing to spawning fish, it hurts the trout populations in the long run. However, during a spawn, many fish around the spawning fish get very aggressive and actively feed on streamers. Finding a bunch of redds (area of spawning trout) and fishing the next hole below the redd is a great place to throw a streamer. For most rivers, brown trout and rainbows are most prevelant and when the rainbows are spawning, I throw brown trout colored streamers, and rainbow colored streamers for brown trout. The idea is that the fry and baitfish moving around during a brown trout spawn won’t be brown trout cause they are just spawning and still eggs, but the rainbow fry from April or May of this year will be perfect sizes for trout to eat.
- When you are spooking trout from the bank as you walk up, but you aren’t seeing any rise. Often times this means trout have moved into an ambush position against the banks and are waiting for a streamer.
- If you see trout chasing each other or baitfish in the water. This ones pretty obvious but if you’re keeping an eye out, you’ll see this behavior more than you think. I’ve even seen trout schooled up together like giant trevally chasing baitfish in rivers with aggression. A streamer worked VERY well in those moments and will for you too. Also if trout are chasing each other around, they are territorial to one another and they are not going to let a little streamer like what you have on your line stay in their zone. They will attack it and you will catch them.
- Early morning or late evening. Trout thrive on any change in the environment. It gives them an edge over their food. Dark to light, cloudy to sunny, murky water to clear, shallow to deep water, fast to slow, rocks to no rocks, structure of any kind, streambank vs the stream itself, you get the idea. Any transition area or element in nature provides a great place to throw a streamer (or any nymph or dry for that matter). Trout wait in these transitional waters or areas hoping their prey comes in and struggles in this area making an easier meal for them in the process.
Watch for these scenarios in particular to maximize your success. I personally, if fishing the entire day sun up to sun down, will throw a streamer for the first 30 minutes of the day to find some trout and see where they are in the water in hopes it will tell me more about where I can throw dry flies and nymphs later. Then I spend the day dry fly or nymphing depending on what they are eating as I work my way up river. Then on the way back to the car or camp, I will fish a streamer as the evening hits and the transitional water peaks, and I catch most of my fish on streamers during that time.
Presentation Tips on the Fly
The way you present a wooly bugger determines what you are imitating. This is not unique to just a wooly bugger, but it is most prominent with this fly and why it makes it one of the top trout flies to have in your box. As a beginner, a lot of time is spent tying and retying flies on during the day, but if you fish a wooly bugger, you can just adapt your presentation throughout the day in different spots of the water and successfully fish the entire river and find a lot of fish.
Let’s spend some time now going over all the different ways you can present a wooly bugger.
Standard Streamer Technique
The standard streamer technique is to stand on one side of the river and cast downstream and across to the other bank with the streamer. The key is to be as close to the bank as you can get. Often you need to be 6 inches or closer off the bank or you might as well be a mile. Once you cast to the opposite bank, you can give one to three short strips to make the fly shoot off the bank. This is a common time for fish to strike the fly. If that didn’t work, just let the line in the current push the fly down and across the stream back to your side. You can simply do nothing here, do a few short strips or vary your retrieve until you get the desired results. Once the fly makes it back to your side of the bank, strip it back up to where you are before making another cast. Fish like grayling, dolly varden and salmon will take it often like this, but I’ve found most trout eat it at the beginning and middle of a cast, and less at the end. You only need to make 1-3 casts to a spot on the river before moving a few feet down or upstream. Fish will often eat a streamer quickly, or not at all, so don’t feel like you need to make 20 casts to the same spot.
Another standard technique is if you’re working upstream, to make a cast just like your fishing a dry fly, except when it lands, you’ll strip it back towards yourself. This is more likely how a baitfish runs, because running downstream with the current is much easier. You just need to keep in touch with your fly here, not leaving much slack because when a fish eats in this direction you often need to set the hook to make the connection. When fishing downstream the current helps set the hook for you making it easier to hook them most times. Work a hole or a bank or run with 5 or 6 casts and that will often be all that is needed to get the fish to eat or abandon the streamer. If you get fish that follow but don’t commit to eating, changing the size or the color of the fly is often needed. If you get a strike but miss it and you didn’t really hook the fish that well and think he may come back for another try. Rest the water for 2 minutes while you tie on the same size, just a different color, and that can often get them to come back as well.
This is one of my personal favorites, especially during winter or periods where fish are just holding to the bottom not making much effort to eat anything. The technique requires to you stand upstream in the middle or as close to the middle of the river or hole you are fishing as possible. Then you’ll cast downstream to one side of the bank and then do a mend to the other side of the bank. This makes a big curve in your line and as the current pushes out the line it will bring your streamer off the first bank and bring it over the other bank. If that doesn’t produce a strike, then you can just mend the line back the other way to the bank you just cast to and the line will push through the current and move your line to the other bank again. You can repeat this back and forth, stripping in a little line at a time or making the fly twitch by twitching your rod tip, all the while keeping the streamer moving around the hole like a dazed and confused little streamer that is struggling to make it upstream. This technique plus a little patience has caught me my biggest fish on streamers. Eventually their will power breaks down and they come up to eat it. You have to move it all around the hole methodically covering every part of the water thoroughly and you’ll find you can get a lot of fish to commit to your streamer in this way.
The Hungry Leech
The hungry leech is a hybrid of the struggling streamer, but instead you tie an egg pattern on in front of the wooly bugger by about 6 – 12 inches. You make the streamer look like it is trying to eat an egg and in the process the trout feel compelled to capitalize. Follow the same techniques as the struggling streamer just tie on an egg and you’re set on this technique. You can do any streamer technique as well with this egg on as well.
The Crazy Crawdad
In order to imitate a crawdad with a wooly bugger, use the tying variations we described above, but let the streamer sit on the bottom and make 2 short strips, then 1 long strip and then let it sit. You’ll have trouble getting it to sit on the bottom of a river unless you have sink tip or a slow moving river, but in stillwater lakes and ponds, you’ll have no problem getting it deep with a conehead and lead wraps. The 2 short long strips and 1 long strip seems to be the top performing retrieve, but feel free to mix it up. The key is to get it as close as possible to the bottom and make varying short and long retrieves.
Dead Drift Nymph Style
This is as simple as pretending the wooly bugger is a nymph. It’s as simple as getting a strike indicator above the streamer and letting it drift through a run. You can tightline it too and add other nymphs into the mix if you’d like as well to make a 2 or 3 fly nymph set up. Take the tips from our other lessons on nymphing for additional tips.
Tips on Stillwater Fishing
Aside from the other techniques listed above, the best techniques I use for stillwater is varying your depth. Fish often eat at certain depths in lakes as they cruise around the banks. Find the right depth and you can find fish. Make your casts where you’d like and then count to 5 and then retrieve. Next cast count to 10, then 15 and so on. When you hit bottom or don’t like counting past 30 for each cast, then try a different spot. Rinse and repeat until you find trout. Varying your retrieve is the other variable. Pick slow, fast and twitchy retrieves and vary those at the different depths. That will help you cover the water systematically discovering the pattern for the day on the lake or stillwater you fish.
Fishing Tight to the Bank
Fish will hide tight to banks and streamers can help pull them off for some enjoyable fishing. You can throw from upstream or downstream but the key is to get it down towards the bottom and then pull it off the bank. When you get it off the top of the current, it is often closer to where trout are waiting, making it easier for them to commit and get the strike. It’s important to get right on the bank and often if it’s grassy, you can even land it on the bank then twitch it off to get super close. Remember, especially if you’re new, to fish the banks with streamers, it pays off very well.
Common Variations and Ways to Modify the Pattern for Success
Much like the parachute adams is the mother of all parachute dry flies, the wooly bugger seems to be the fundamental base for a ton of streamer patterns. Streamer patterns are the most diverse category of fishing flies. Since you can tie in lots of sizes, weights, number of hooks (i.e. articulated vs single hook vs stinger hook etc) and the wealth of materials that can be tied on larger hooks seems to offer endless possibilities for creative tyers seeking to find the next great fly. With all of that said, making a few modifications off of a standard wooly bugger can quickly fill your streamer box with enough flies to last a season, and if you tie enough variety in weight and color and size, you shouldn’t have any problems producing fish consistently on streamers.
Let’s go over a few modifications you can make per material, then we can discuss a few standard variations that exist out there for you to try as well.
Aside from color and size variations, here are a few common materials you can use to modify a wooly bugger:
- Flash materials: adding flash to the tail or along the body is a good way to keep the pattern similar to the original but add more attraction for trout eating baitfish. Flashabou or krystal flash is the most common
- Rubberlegs: barred rubber legs or any color of your choice is great to tie in at the head of the fly so it flows along the body. You can keep them short, but I’ve found the longer the rubber legs the better on streamers.
- Chenille body: You can change the chenille body to use a wide variety of different chenilles. Some are clean and tight, others are loose and can change the look and color of the fly substantially. I like polar ice chenilles a lot personally, it adds a lot of body to the fly.
- Hackle: You can use standard hackle that creates a taper, or you can use schlappen feathers as well to creates a less tapered but larger body with looser feathers. Both work great and is a matter of preference mostly.
In addition to those modifications here are a few variations you’ll see out there:
The modification here is using schlappen feathers which have longer, more flexible fibers and creates a soft body instead of sticky fibers like hen hackle produces. This is how I prefer to tie a wooly bugger most times, though I can’t say it catches more or less fish than the standard. Something about how the schlappen lays around the fly and seems to move in the water makes me like it more, but try one out for yourself and decide what you think is best.
Adding a Fish Skull minnow head and wrapping it with lead free wraps makes this thing sink like a box of rocks and dangerous to throw on a fly rod. You’ll need a 6wt or more usually to throw this colossal bugger. You can use schlappen feathers or standard hen feathers to shape and complete this fly.
This is a simple invention and just requires some rubberlegs on either side with some krystal flash to make the fly look like a crawdad. In addition, adding a jig style hook and conehead helps it sit right, though you can certainly get by without.
Sculpin bugger is a standard bugger or schlappen bugger body with a sculpin head from flymen fishing company. These guys make some really cool beadheads with unique shapes that help make the fly. For streamers especially, their materials bring the standard wooly bugger into the 21st century.
The Krystal Bugger gets its name from adding some krystal flash to both the side of the fly extending to the toy and selecting flashy chenille. Tie this is a normal wooly bugger but add the flash in as you desire to help this fly stand out in murky water and imitate the flash we mentioned earlier that helps trout see this as a baitfish.
The balanced bugger specializes as a leech pattern. Since leeches don’t swim vertically in the current but horizontal, the key to this pattern is tying the beadhead out in front of the jig style hook to keep the fly balanced horizontally. Then when it is jigged, it looks just like a swimming leech and is hard for the trout to pass up. This pattern also fishes well nymphed and jigged as it works through the drift.
Egg Sucking Wooly
The egg sucking leech is a popular pattern, and all you need to do here is keep the egg part of the pattern and put it on the wooly bugger. Not a difficult tie, and the extra pink or red on the front of the fly helps aggravate trout during the spawning periods and making for some great streamer fishing.
Articulated Wooly Bugger
Two is twice as good right? To imitate larger baitfish and add some excellent action to your fly, tie an articulated version of the wooly bugger as shown below. You can add a variety of rubberleg colors and even color them with a permanent marker to make a variety of colors.
The wooly bugger is a versatile pattern with many variations available even beyond what we show here, but all fish well in their place and having a good variety in the popular colors and mixed weights will make for an excellent streamer and large nymph box.