The Versatile Woolly Bugger
If someone asked me what the most legendary flies were, several would immediately come to mind. The Woolly Bugger would likely be at the top of my list.
Woolly Buggers are simply fish-catching machines that provide a generalized imitation which can represent forage such as insects, leeches, shrimp, crawfish, or baitfish. Easily found at pretty much any reputable store selling fly fishing gear, they're also staples in the streamer boxes of just about any freshwater angler. Lots of first fish come on Woolly Buggers, and I can still remember catching my first fly-caught bass on one at Trinity Lake, CA back in the early 1990's.
These flies are simple in design and extremely easy to tie in just a few minutes. In "standard" form, one is typically assembled with a marabou tail, chenille body, and palmered hackle. While this configuration will surely catch boatloads of fish, many fly tyers like to substitute their own materials or add custom features. Much like the equally-legendary Clouser Minnow, the Woolly Bugger can be tweaked in too many ways to count. From shallow to deep in water clear to dirty, the bugger is at the pinnacle of versatility.
Below is a list of several common tweaks that can be made to the typical Woolly Bugger pattern which allows a person to customize it to various depths and conditions. Keep in mind that the variations don't end here!
Wire- Wrapping wire around the hook shank before adding material is a great way to get your bugger to sink a little faster. One aspect of this I really like is that the weight is completely hidden under the body which gives the fly a very natural appearance—something that can be important in ultra-clear water.
Keep in mind that the wire will cause the body to be a little thicker when you wrap over it with material. Since smaller hooks have a narrower gap, I stick to thin wire so the body doesn't get too thick and interfere with my hookup ratio. To maximize the weight of the fly, I will just wrap a longer length of that thin wire along the hook shank. When using a bigger hook with a nice wide gap, I can then step up to a much thicker gauge of wire if needed.
Change the Head- A basic Woolly Bugger has a plain thread head, but several variations exist. These flies match up really well with a bead head, cone head, or even a set of dumbbell or bead-chain eyes. These options can give the fly not just a hint more weight, but a bit of jigging action and some added flash. To make the fly even heavier, try tying one with both the lead wire body wrap and a heftier head.
Flash- I'm usually not a huge fan of using a lot of flash for much of my fly tying, but I do like incorporating a touch of it in some of my flies. Woolly Buggers are no different. An easy and common way is done by simply mixing in strands of crystal flash or flashabou into the tail section as shown above.
A strand or strands of flash can also be run up the body (before palmering the hackle) and tied-in at the head, or the flash can even be wrapped around the body along with or before the hackle. Once the hackle is wrapped over the top, not a whole lot of the flash usually shows through but it does give off an added glint.
Colors- Who says a bugger has to all be the same color? One of my favorite things to do is mixing up the colors, but I tend to go for more subtle changes. Some favorite combos of mine are an olive body/tail with black hackle, black body/tail with olive hackle, white body/tail with grizzly hackle, or a cinnamon-colored body with olive hackle/tail. Using a contrasting thread color also gives the head a subtle but interesting look as well.
Body Materials- A standard bugger uses a marabou tail and a chenille body with hackle that's palmered (wrapped) around it. While I can't recall ever straying from the standard hackle and marabou, I do often use different body materials to replace the regular chenille. Dubbing is a favorite substitute of mine because it can be teased out for an even "buggier" appearance, and Estaz or Krystal Chenille are also good choices if I want a fuller, more sparkly fly. Technically, folks would often call this a Krystal Bugger because of all the sparkle and flash.
Woolly Buggers catch an enormous range of species in both freshwater and even saltwater. By changing up things like their color, size, or weight, they can be used successfully in various water conditions and at different depths. Personally, I've hooked fish like largemouth and smallmouth bass, carp, panfish, small steelhead, and trout while using them, but the list of possible species is far greater. Fly fishing can seem way more complicated than it has to be, but the good old 'bugger still proves that simplicity can often still be the way to go!
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