Know Your Pattern: Woolly Bugger

Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Woolly Buggers. They are America’s favorites. Well the latter is only popular among fly fishers. But it’s hard to argue against the notion that the Woolly Bugger may be the most popular, adaptable, effective fly pattern ever invented. It’s certainly the king of streamer patterns.

The Woolly Bugger is easy to tie, and it’s easy to fish. I’ve had great success with it in high mountain lakes, small Midwestern spring creeks, and large Western rivers.

Here is a profile of this super-effective pattern:

1. How it’s made

There are two main parts to this streamer.

First, the body of a Woolly Bugger consists of chenille wrapped around the shank of a 4X long streamer look (sizes #6 to #10 are the most popular) with hackle wound through it. Then, a marabou tail runs behind the body.

Both the hackle and the marabou make this streamer look active as it darts through the water.

The most popular colors for the Woolly Bugger are black, olive, and brown. I’ve even tied it using red chenille with black hackle and black marabou to catch the big trout in Hyalite Resorvoir in the mountains above Bozeman, Montana.

Normally, the Woolly Bugger is weighted with either a beadhead or wire (underneath the chenille).

2. Where it originated

It is unclear who gets the credit for the Woolly Bugger, but it’s definitely a modification of the Woolly Worm (a Woolly Bugger without the marabou tail).

3. Why it works

Conventional wisdom says the Woolly Bugger imitates leeches, but it likely also passes for crayfish, minnows, sculpins, and large aquatic nymphs such as hellgrammites, damsel flies, stone flies, and dragon flies.

Trout will chase it and go into attack mode because it’s a high-calorie meal. Compared to a tiny may fly, it’s like the difference between an eighteen ounce steak and a Chicken nugget.

4. How to fish it

The key is to retrieve it so that it darts through the water. You can dead drift it down a run, then swing it and retrieve it with deliberate strips. Or, you can simply cast it down river and strip it back against the current.

Depth is important.

Let it sink sufficiently in the lake or river you’re fishing. You may have to experiment to figure out the definition of “sufficient.”

Bud Lilly used to say that color seems to matter a lot with Woolly Buggers. If black is not working, try switching to olive or brown. Your best bet may be to get intel at your local fly shop.

After you’ve spent a fair share of time fishing with size #18 dry flies or nymphs, it’s refreshing to lob a streamer through the air, let it sink in the current, and then retrieve it vigorously. The attack will always take you by surprise, and then the fight is on!

Other Flies in the “Know Your Pattern” Series

    H & L Variant

    The Royal Coachman

    San Juan Worm

    Parachute Adams

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2 thoughts on “Know Your Pattern: Woolly Bugger

  1. I’m back into fly fishing after many years away and I’ve been interested in the genesis of the wooly bugger. Back in the day the answer to the “if you could only have one fly” question was muddler minnow, but these days the wooly bugger seems to be the answer.

    • That’s an interesting observation, Kevin. Yeah, I can’t prove it, but from the talk I hear in fly shops, the Woolly Bugger is probably the most popular all-around streamer these days. There’s a book I want to pick up that might explain the genesis of the WB. It’s WOOLLY WISDOM by Gary Soucie. The muddler minnow is still a great choice, though. I’m glad you were able to get back into fly fishing!