The Venerable Wooly Bugger


Most Versatile Fly in the Box?

December 2020

Wooly Buggers can be deadly for trout. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Probably, if you are like most fly casters in the South, you have some of these flies in your repertoire, whether you target warm or cold-water fish. We’re talking about the Wooly Bugger. It comes in a variety of colors and sizes, while catching a wild array of cold and warm water fish – and even more. In this year’s July edition of On The Fly South, Capt. Martin Carranza said the first bonefish he caught from Miami’s Biscayne Bay back in the 1980s were on a Wooly Bugger because “he didn’t know any better.”

Despite the fly pattern’s popularity and ability to catch fish, most folks just take the Wooly Bugger for granted. It seemingly has always been there. But where and when was this everyman’s fly developed.

Buggers are tied in a wide variety of color schemes. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

The pattern is generally credited to Pennsylvania fly tier Russell Blessing, who introduced it in 1967. At the time he was trying to imitate either a hellgrammite or a Dobsonfly nymph. In the ensuing years, various anglers have found it also does well in mimicking any large nymph, baitfish, leeches, drowned terrestrials, clam worms, crawfish, shrimp and crabs. Much of the fly’ss success is attributed to the undulations of its Marabou tail and ability of the palmered body to trap bubbles. It would be hard to find a fly that is more versatile.

White Wooly Buggers are a good choice for white bass during their spring spawning run. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

On the other hand, the Wooly Bugger’s lineage can be traced to earlier times.  It appears to be a new and larger generation of the Wooly Worm pattern, which in turn developed from the British Palmer Fly that dates back as far as Isaac Walton.

In its more modern versions, the fly often is tied with a brass, lead or tungsten head in either a bead or cone shape to make it sink faster and stay down in the water column. As to the fly’s future, most tiers prefer to add a touch of their own when creating Buggers. This ranges from adding dumbbell eyes to putting some flashy material in the tail, or adding a rib of fine wire to reinforce the palmering. There is little reason to believe that future Wooly Buggers won’t continue to morph into new and fishier renditions.

When fished, the Bugger can be dead drifted beneath a strike indicator, but more often is quartered downstream and across the current, then stripped back through the moving water. It works equally well when stripped through slow to still water.

Additionally, for such a successful pattern, the Wooly Bugger also is one of the easiest of flies to tie.