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

Double Up for Fly Fishing Success

fly fishing success

Two is better than one when it comes to chocolate brownies, contact lenses, and trout flies. If you’re looking to increase your odds of catching trout, then double up. Use a lead fly and then a second fly, which trails behind it a foot or so.

Here are some double-fly combinations that really work. They include wet-fly combos, dry-fly combos, and dry-wet-fly combos. You never know which fly the trout may prefer on a given day:

1. The Hopper + Terrestrial

This is great for late summer during hopper season. Start with a size 6-10 hopper pattern—or some kind of large attractor pattern (such as a Stimulator). Then, trail either an ant or beetle pattern behind it. This is basically a dry fly combo, although it’s fine if your dropper (the ant or beetle) floats below the surface in the film. Last week, I was fly fishing in Colorado and talked to a fly fisher who used this combo in a high mountain lake and caught fish after fish on size 14 beetle pattern.

2. The Elk Hair Caddis + Caddis Emerger

This is a dry-wet fly combination which works well in the late spring (when the Caddis start to appear) and then into the summer as the Caddis flies continue to emerge.

I like a size 14 or 16 Elk Hair Caddis as my dry fly. Then, I use some kind of an emerger pattern as the dropper. One of my favorite droppers is a size 14 Red Fox Squirrel Nymph. I’ve had great success with this combo on the Yellowstone River in Montana’s Paradise Valley. With this combo, your lead fly acts as a strike indicator. I’ve often tied some synthetic red or white fibers at the top of Elk Hair Caddis so I can distinguish it from all the other Caddis flies on the water.

3. Woolly Bugger + San Juan Worm

My podcast partner, Dave, put me onto this combo. It’s worked well for us in the Driftless region of southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin. This is a wet fly combo. Start with a smaller-sized Woolly Bugger (8-10) and then use a San Juan Worm (tied on a size 8-12 scud hook) as dropper. I use a strike indicator and drift it like a nymphing rig. Then, at the end of the drift, I will swing it and strip it back to me.

On the swing and strip, it’s the Woolly Bugger that is effective.

4. Egg Pattern + Copper John

When I’m fly fishing during the rainbow spawning season in the spring, I’ll often turn to this wet-fly combination. I’ll begin with a standard-size egg pattern (12-14) and then use a size 18 Copper John as my dropper. I like a Red Copper John. Or, I’ll use a Dave’s Emerger. This fly was developed by Dave Corcoran, then the owner of The River’s Edge Fly Shop in Bozeman, Montana.

Regardless of which dropper I use, this combo has been lethal during the rainbow run on Montana’s Madison River. It can work, too, during the fall when the browns are running. But continue reading for another dynamite wet-fly combo.

5. Stone Fly + Egg Pattern

Dave and I used this last fall in the Gardner River in the north reaches of Yellowstone National Park. We had outstanding results. Start with a Stone Fly nymph pattern (size 8-10). The options are legion.

A Golden Stone Fly or a Rubberlegs Stone Fly (with a brown or tan body) works quite well. Then, use a standard-size egg pattern (12-14) as the dropper. Last fall, I had a 30-fish morning on the Gardner using this combination. The browns were all between 15 and 20 inches. I estimate that I caught half on the Stone Fly and half on the egg pattern.

6. Beadhead Prince + Pheasant Tail

This wet-fly combo, or some variation of it, may be the standard go to pattern when there is no obvious hatch.

Use a Beadhead Prince Nymph in a size 12-14 as your lead fly. Or go with another standard nymph such as a Hare’s Ear. Then, use a size 18 Pheasant Tail as your dropper. Again, your dropper could be any number of nymphs—such as a Copper John or Zebra Midge.

Remember, two are usually better than one. Try one of these combinations or experiment with some of your own. You’ll likely double your chances of catching the trout which are monitoring the food line you’re fishing.

S2:E23 One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 2)

fly fishing guides

The Gardner River gave us two days of memorable fly fishing last month. During our second day on the river, we had even a better day than the first, and we learned more about the art of nymph fishing. Every time we spend a couple days on the river, we are either reminded about something we forgot or learn something new. Click now to listen to this episode.

Listen to our episode “One Fine Day on the Gardner River (Day 2)”

Great Stuff from Our Listeners. At the end of each episode, we often include a feature called “Great Stuff from Our Listeners.” We read a few of the comments from this blog or from our Facebook page. We enjoying hearing from our readers and listeners, and appreciate your advice, wisdom, and fly fishing experience.

Have you ever had two straight days of unbelievable fly fishing on the same stretch of river? We’d love to hear your stories.

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Why I Don’t Tie My Own Flies

Steve does. I don’t. I do not tie my own flies. In this post, I make a case for why some fly fishers should not tie their own flies.

Steve, the other half of “2 Guys and a River” and I are life-long friends. In college, we hung out so much the haters called us “Bo and Luke” after the lead characters on the silly TV show “Dukes of Hazard.” We even went on double dates together, though neither of us married our dates, much to the appreciation (on some days) of our wives.

But Steve and I could not be more different.

Steve is a first child. I am not. Steve is so much of a first child that when we take fly fishing trips, Steve will make the bed every morning at the place we’re staying, even if it’s the last day we’re there. Yes, he makes the bed. Let’s just say that I don’t make my bed (though I will pull off the dirty sheets on the morning I leave).

We also differ on many aspects of fly fishing. We use different rods. We wear different waders. How we think about fly fishing brands, even, is so different. I tend to be practical and cheap; he is more brand conscious.

And we also differ on the topic of tying flies. Steve does. I don’t. There are consequences to my decision, such as not having the ability to tie a pattern at the river’s edge and feel the surge of emotion as I hook a brown with a woolly bugger that I tied. I don’t get to feel one with nature because I caught a fish with something I created.

However, I’d rather buy than tie, and here’s why:

1. We had too many kids.

We ended up with four, and with all their sports and school activities, I can barely get out on the river as it is. A lousy excuse, I know. But given the dizzying number of places to buy flies, I’d rather watch my sons play football or my daughters play soccer or attend one of my sons’ wrestling meets.

I can’t do it all, so I’ve made the choice to eliminate, among other things, tying flies.

2. I also love to hunt.

I’ve limited my sports to two – fly fishing and hunting. I’d rather fly fish and hunt upland game and waterfowl than spend time in a damp basement under a bright lamp with tiny hooks and peacock herl. Just sayin’.

Obviously, when I hunt is not generally in the evenings and in the winter, but even so, life is a series of trade-offs. And I’ve traded tying my own flies for other opportunities.

3. I’d rather write than tie.

In my free time, outside of fly fishing and hunting, I like to write. I’ve written two books, with another on fly fishing (with Steve, my podcast partner). I’ve written thousands of blog posts, it seems, and another hundred or so articles.

Writing is another choice I’ve made.

4. I’d rather work more than tie.

I’ve started a couple small businesses, so I’d probably rather throw my shoulder into landing one more client than spend an evening staring at a vise.

Again, it’s another choice. It’s probably more like a kind of illness, but I enjoy throwing my shoulder into what I feel I’ve been called to do.

5. The patterns on the market are legion.

I’m grateful for all those who tie flies, and the artistry that I can purchase amazes me.

Yes, I may be paying more per fly than I should, but you can’t have it all in this world. I’m happy to pay for flies. I just am. And I’m thankful for the talent that ties the flies that I can buy.

6. We have too much clutter in our house.

Until the kids all leave (and it looks like it will be a while, even though the two oldest are in college), we need every square inch of our house for kid stuff. I don’t have space for a bench and a corner for more boxes.

7. I can live with the ambiguity of who ties my flies.

Someone recently taunted me for my decision by saying that I’m contributing to slave labor, that most flies are tied in China (or Thailand) in a sweat factory, and that it is the dirty little secret of the fly fishing industry.


Just for starters, none of the flies I purchase are from big box retail stores. I generally buy from local fly shops. I know for a fact that at least some of the fly shops where Steve and I fish regularly purchase flies from local tiers. For example, one fly shop in Montana has this on their web site: “We stock only flies & gear useful within fifty miles of our door, we designed and/or tie around half the flies we stock …”

However, no doubt that many of the ties sold in both fly shops and big box retail stores are tied by, as a fly shop monkey said to me the other day, “a little old lady in Thailand.”

So do individuals who tie flies in bulk for that fly shop make a live-able wage for their work?

I have no idea.

Do the folks at the factory who make your nets and leaders and tippet and vests make enough money to live on? I don’t know.

Are the mutual funds that you invest in for your retirement comprised only of investments in companies with vetted labor practices? Do you know how your investments are used?

I have no angst about who ties my flies. I just don’t.

8. I still catch fish.

Steve and I have fished together for years and years. I will admit that he is a much better fly fisher than I am – for a variety of reasons.

But somehow, I still seem to catch fish. I’ve never had a day where I think, “Man, if I just had some hand-crafted flies, I’d catch more fish.” Just today, Steve and I each caught 20 browns before 10:30 AM. We fished different runs. We each caught a 20-incher. I guess he did catch two whitefish, and I caught none. So, there again, he is the better fly fisher!

Has there ever been a moment when I thought, “I sure wish I could run back to my truck and tie a fly that matches the hatch?”

In 35 years of fly fishing, maybe a handful of moments. And given what I am able to do because of my other choices, I am more than happy to concede the moment to another fly fisher who can.