The lively woolly bugger

Large flies such as Woolly Buggers are good for catching stream trout 10 inches or longer. Most anglers incorrectly believe that small flies are the most effective in crowded streams. Tips for using Woolly Buggers are given.
MOST TROUT ANGLERS are aware that on todays crowded streams little flies – 16, 18, 20, 22, and tinier – often catch more fish. Yet are trout really the gentlemen that some suppose, feeding daintily only on small stuff?

Not on your sweet patootie, pal. Stream trout 9 or 10 inches and bigger know the joys of pigging out on something substantial.

Item: fat minnow that bleeds – yum.

Item: senior cricket – love those dark juices!

Item: small chunk of old tree branch – oops, made a mistake.

There is a need for biggish flies that work on streams and lakes when trout aren’t showing. Among different types are streamers and bucktails, Muddler Minnows, Zonkers, Simulators, leeches, Woolly Worms, and Woolly Buggers (WBs). Innovators like Randall Kaufmann and Dave Whitlock keep new designs coming.

Compared to a tiny dry fly, a size 12 is big and a 2 is huge, but this is the range of WBs. Common colors in stores are black, brown, and olive with many variations, including materials that glint and glitter. If you travel, seek out local favorite patterns ….

THE MAIN PROBLEM WITH WBs IS believing in them. Like others when word of these flies began to spread, I bought a few and stuck them in a box with familiar biggish wets. Occasionally I’d fish a WB with just so-so results. Away from home, when I really wanted to catch trout I’d tie on a Green Woolly Worm (a pattern long favored by the late Norm Strung). Nothing beats a pet fly you’ve trusted for decades.

What turned me on to Woolly Buggers was a float trip of a few days on the White River in Arkansas. We began on the upper river (Cotter Trout Dock, in sight of the dam) and from the first the river is quite varied – dry flies here, then grab the rod rigged for wets. But fishing down under was disappointing, and I’d forgotten to tie Green WBs for the trip.

Meanwhile guide Everett Middleton was doing an excellent job positioning the johnboat just so, at times jumping overboard to walk the boat downriver with pauses for me to work out long drifts.

When I bit off the third or fourth unrewarding nymph, Middleton handed me an olive Woolly Bugger. “We catch a lot of trout on this,” was all he said.

Out it went to a run where I’d just come up empty, using a sink-tip line to keep the fly near bottom. Was that faint pluck bottom gunk again? I jerked the rod to clear the hook and felt the unexpected joy of a strong rainbow.

By day’s end I’d become a Woolly Bugger fan. By trip’s end I was a true believer and bought a lifetime supply from Everett Middleton, weighted and unweighted, sizes 8 and 6….

The fluffy marabou tail, typically as long as the body though sometimes shorter or longer, is what gives a Woolly Bugger an edge over many a large wet. Drop one of these suckers in a stream tied to a leader and watch the tail: it’s a lot of movement in a compact package. First the fluffy look disappears. Now there’s a sort of see-through tail in constant motion. If a WB could talk underwater I know just what it would say: “Try me. I dare you!”

In still water – because of that tail – an unweighted WB tends to sink level, offering a good profile.

In any type of water a WB is easy for a beginner to fish well because little skill is needed to make the fly look alive. Casting across riffles and smoother stretches is the way to go with an unweighted Woolly Bugger that instantly becomes the plaything of the currents. Try a dead drift first.

Always try to keep in touch with the fly. Raise the rod slowly or pull in any slack by hand. Stare at the area where you think the fly is. This way, if a trout only looks at the fly, you may detect a flash of flank as the fish turns. Revealed hidden trout lies are a real bonus.

On the next cast try to deliver the WB a bit closer to you from the trout lie and now make the WB dart in little spurts to suggest a morsel trying to escape. All this can be done with a floating line and a leader as long as the rod.

A harder way is to cast straight (or nearly so) upstream. If you keep stripping in the fine’s slack, it’s a dead drift. Watch the Ene end or strike indicator for any sudden pause. React instantly! You’ll hook some rocks or whatever, but the line also stops when a trout takes.

Another way is to jerk a WB downstream toward you – faster than the current but alive, man. This is work, but the first day I tried it I was rewarded by the sight of a husky brookie launching itself at the WB and nailing it. Casting beside heavy currents is probably best. Finally, there is fishing downstream. What’s needed is a pool or stretch with some eddying water and a sink-tip line weighted to go deep. Cast down the main current and if necessary pay out line till the Woolly Bugger is about 40 feet or more distant, then cant the rod away from the current. Now hold line against rod with a finger and wait while the fly wanders.

Before you let out or take in more line, jerk the rod just in case. Unlikely as this may seem, leaving the fly down there often works, particularly in areas where normal casts are difficult or impossible.

With a 9-foot or longer summer leader, currents may billow it up and make an unweighted WB rise from the depths like some monster nymph struggling toward the sky. That’s why you sometimes catch river trout on a long line near the surface when you thought the fly was working dose to the bottom.

Cold water in the 40s is different, with trout hanging just above the riverbed. To reach them now fishing downstream, a leader as short as 4 feet is best, attached to the fastest-sinking line tip, and a weighted WB.

Despite the above tips, let me make it plain that many of us regard this fly type as mostly a trip saver on streams and rivers. 1 can’t imagine not fishing drys when trout are rising, or nymphs when fish are active among them.

Still, put me on a strange river in the afternoon with no fish showing and I’ll probably explore first with an olive WB or whatever other color may be a local favorite….

WBs ARE MADE FOR POND AND LAKE: fishing, however. Across the country many anglers start with a WB (except for landlocks in the Northeast where traditional streamer flies endure).

Techniques are even simpler than for stream fishing. Because there are few currents (as in throughfares between lakes, and near incoming streams), you must provide motion to the fly with one notable exception – when the just-cast WB is sinking and you are using a floating line.

This is common enough when casting toward shore. You lay out a good cast and eagle-eye that fine. Should it suddenly tremble or twitch, there’s an unsuspecting trout that has just taken the fly as it falls. Too often one misses this with a fly dead-drifting in a river. But on a lake, there it is.

Wow! See how he runs!

Almost as easy is drifting in a canoe or boat. Fling the line out and wait for that magic tug. Following a shoreline this way is a help in locating hidden trout on water that’s new to you. One can also drift-fish from a float tube, though an occasional spurt with the flippers may be needed to maintain direction.

A slow-sinking “intermediate” line is a little better than a floater for this work because the former – sinking a bit – has less drag disturbance on the surface. But be aware that many a floating line, given a sharp yank, will often sink from the tip backward for a few yards.

Casting from boat or tube toward shore, working along it, is an obvious ploy. After the fly has sunk a few feet, bring the WB to life with little yanks while holding the rod low and ready to strike. For most work, a 9- or 10-foot leader tapering to 2X (9- or 10-pound-test) is about right for WBs. There’s strength to pull the fly clear of weeds and also some insurance against the surging power of a 5-pounder among weed stems. More than once I’ve been cleaned by quick, determined trout down under….

THERE ARE EXCITING TIMES WHEN trout are cruising for food in a few feet of water, sometimes visible from shore at the start of a days fishing. With a float tube you may be surprised at how dose you can get to these fish before casting. If you already have a 2X leader in place, try your smallest WB. But usually when fishing this shallow, a lighter leader tip (4X or lighter) is advisable.

Standing in a boat gives one the best possible viewpoint. Now you are practically stalking trout.

Because trout in shallows may suddenly turn in another direction and turn again while the fly is stiff in the air, this fishing is at times maddening. You pick one, hold your breath, aim the fly about 5 feet ahead, and lay that crazy, fluttery fraud gently on the water.

Once in a while a trout will take the WB with innocent determination and you’ll smile long afterward.


Weighted or Unweighted

How can you tell which flies are weighted when they’re mixed with others? Drop all flies on a hard surface. A fall of 1 foot is about right. Those that bounce a little are weighted.

The Original Woolly Bugger

About fifteen years ago some thinking fly tyer discarded the short, often red tails of Woolly Worms and substituted fluffy marabou, much longer and fuller. Voila, a Woolly Bugger!

The First Woolly Worms

In the 1930s Pflueger sold Woolly Worms with a tiny silvery propeller up front. Meanwhile, in 1934 Hardy in England was offering salmon flies as large as 6/0 with a similar front spinner. In time this bit of metal was considered incorrect and was dropped. The “new” Woolly Worms sold well from Boston to Boise and caught tons of trout.

* Peter Barret passed away on December 8, 1994, at the age of seventy-eight. In a career that spanned more than fifty all over the globe. His byline first appeared in FIELD & STREAM in 1942; he was its Executive Editor from 1977 to 1983, and later, its Fishing Editor.

Like his close friend Ted Trueblood, Barrett was a compleat outdoorsman who was skilled with a typewriter and camera as he was with a fly rod or rifle. But this droll, pipe-puffing Connecticut Yankee’s greatest contribution to FIELD & STREAM may have young talent. Many of us here owe our skills to his critical eye. Above all, he was a friend, and it is as a friend that we will miss him most.

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