Is Woolly Bugger Best All-Around Fly?

Reprinted from Fly Fishing Magazine

Wet-Line Woolly Bugger TroutI was introduced to woolly buggers by Bill Hunter on the day I bought my first fly fishing outfit.  He was just starting out in business and had a small fly shop set up in the front room of his house.  I’ll never forget how patiently he demonstrated the knots and casting techniques I would need to learn in order to get started in the sport.  I also clearly remember that the only flies he sold me that day were a handful of Woolly Buggers in assorted sizes and colors.

Time passed and a lot has changed since then.  Hunter’s has grown into one of the premiere fly shops in the country and I have accumulated enough flies and assorted paraphernalia to start a small operation of my own.  One thing that has remained constant, however, is that I still carry a handful of Woolly Buggers with me wherever I go.


The main ingredient that allows these simple flies to stand the test of time is their versatility.  Tied in different sizes and colors, Woolly Buggers can be effectively used in virtually any fly fishing situation.  Rivers, streams, lakes, ponds and the ocean are all well suited for exploration with Woolly Buggers.  Nearly every species of game fish from northern pike to striped-bass responds well to them.

The term “Woolly Bugger” better defines a style of fly than a specific pattern.  And, like the Muddler Minnow and a few other extremely versatile patterns, its basic design can be modified considerably to suit your particular angling needs.  For example, when impressionistic imitations of food organisms such as leeches, crayfish or dragon fly nymphs are needed, Woolly Buggers tied in blends of black, brown and olive do the job nicely.

I’ve taken many brook trout in Maine back country ponds fishing drab-colored Woolly Buggers with a sinking line and retrieve designed to mimic the undulating movements of a swimming leech.  These big, meaty flies have also provided outstanding results on smallmouth bass in both lakes and rivers.  It’s safe to say that if I was forced to go an entire season using only one fly, it might be a black Woolly Bugger.

Float Tube Woolly BuggerBait fish can also be effectively imitated with Woolly Buggers.  White or gold flies tied with a body of Antron instead of the standard chenille seem to work best, particularly when a soft red, black or yellow hackle is palmered over the body.  If you match your fly to the size of the water being fished, you can use this generic pattern effectively in anything from a small brook to the ocean.  In my area, landlocked salmon in tail waters are particularly vulnerable to these flies fished down and across with a strip-tease retrieve.

The most striking and diverse group of the Woolly Bugger type patterns are the attractors.  With no need to mimic the look of a natural food organism, the sky’s the limit for anglers attempting to create a fly with just the right blend of form, flash and color needed to entice a fish to strike.  If you’ve ever seen some of the outlandish combinations of colors and materials used on some Alaskan variations, you know what I mean.

I’m more conservative and generally tie my attractors with a matching body and tail.  Orange, yellow, purple, pink and chartreuse have all provided good results at one time or another. It’s impossible to select one color that is best under all conditions.  A few strands of Krystal Flash blended into the marabou tail, however, will almost certainly improve the performance of any color attractor fly that you choose.

A small purple Egg-Sucking Leech is an exceptional fly.  I’ve had great results with it from the Great Lakes to Alaska.  In fact, on a recent trip to Prince William Sound, I caught three different species of Pacific salmon on this fly in one day.  Egg-Sucking Leeches also yield good results on landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass and brook trout in Maine.  And in salt water, a small yellow Woolly Bugger palmered with a grizzly hackle is my go-to fly for mackerel.

Ease Of Operation

Native Brookie In Spawning ColorsAnother factor that contributes to the popularity of Woolly Buggers is their simplicity.  Fished upstream or down, weighted or just under the surface, they are one step away from a Daredevil in their ease of operation.  That’s why they are an ideal fly for newcomers making the transition from spinning gear to fly fishing.  Yet, Woolly Buggers are so effective, lots of guides (myself included) rely on them heavily as a searching pattern for new waters, or when no fish are showing.

Simple To Tie

Woolly Buggers are also extremely easy and inexpensive to tie.  The standard pattern consists of a chenille body, soft palmered hackle and a marabou tail.  One secret to tying effective woolly buggers is to properly size the marabou.  Tails that are too long foul around the hook bend while casting and those that are too short don’t impart good action in the water.  Generally, tails a bit shorter than the hook shank are ideal.  But if you wind up with a tail that’s too long, you can always pinch-off (not cut) the excess marabou off at streamside.

Basic Black Woolly Bugger

The instructions below are for a Black Woolly Bugger, but countless variations of this basic theme can be achieved by simply substituting different colors of marabou and chenille.

Hook:  Mustad 9672, size 4

Thread:  Black 6/0.

Tail:  Black marabou (Krystal Flash optional)

Body:  Black chenille (or Peacock Herl)

Rib:  Soft black hackle palmered over body.

Begin by tying in a thick bunch of black marabou that extends about 1 1/2 inches beyond the end of the hook.  You can add a few strands of Krystal Flash if desired.  Next, tie in a soft black hackle and a piece of black chenille above the tail.  Several turns of lead wire near the front of the fly, or a bead-head, can be added if an erratic, up and down, jigging-type motion is desired during the retrieve.  Wrap the chenille forward to within a 1/4″ of the hook eye, then palmer the black hackle over the top.  A whip-finish and dab of head cement will complete one of the simplest, yet most effective flies you will ever encounter.