The Woolly Bugger is not only easy to tie and fish, but works well because it looks like a big meal. Even if you’re already a pro at buggers, be sure to try some of these variations to catch more fish. A staple in every fly angler’s box, don’t forget the woolly works well in saltwater too.
Why do big fish smash the woolly bugger? Because it looks like a realistic big meal, that’s why. The Woolly Bugger is absolutely one of the undisputed best flies you should carry in your fly box.
It’s pretty clear from the real insects and invertebrates why the most popular bugger colors are black, brown, and olive.
Different variations of the bugger are also used as attractors to induce an instinctive strike, such as the crystal bugger in colors such as white and orange.
The bugger is used to pursue many types of fish, most commonly:
Panfish (using smaller sizes)
But don’t forget, saltwater anglers are increasingly using different forms of the woolly bugger to catch:
Whatever you fish for, all the variations of the Woolly Bugger have several things in common. The marabou used for the tail gives it a fantastic undulating movement, which can prove irresistible to large predatory fish.
Add to that lots of hackle wrapped around the body which resemble legs or appendages. And finally, the sheer size of the bugger just looks like a smorgasbord to fish.
Just to drive this point home, check out this image of a dragonfly nymph eating a minnow. If the offspring of a dragonfly can eat a small fish, how do you think larger fish view the dragonfly? OK we admit this photo is from an aquarium, but you get the point.
Dragonfly Nymph Eating A Minnow
Big food = easy meal = predatory fish food.
Coming back to the question, what specifically do buggers imitate? While the basic pattern is very similar from bugger to bugger, it actually depends quite a bit on the specific materials and how it’s fished.
As you saw in our graphics above, the bugger can imitate a wide variety of fish, both freshwater and saltwater:
Dobsonfly nymphs (Hellgrammite)
Woolly bear caterpillar
Of course if you are really into fly tying, you may know that many of these have their own specific patterns you can tie. At the same time, you can easily see how the simpler Woolly Bugger will emulate them well. This true as long as it is tied at least roughly to a similar size and color, but again you have more room for error with this pattern than most.
Rainbow Trout On Blue Sucking Egg Woolly Bugger
2. A Little More About The Bugger
Woolly Bugger or Wooly Bugger? Actually, spell it either way you’d like it.
The official name is actually Woolly Bugger. However, over time more people have adopted Wooly Bugger, and Woolly Bugger has dropped in prominence.
It’s easy to see how the two get mixed up, you actually have to think about it. So, go with whichever you prefer.
As far as who invented this widely renown streamer / wet fly, a number of sources credit the original pattern to Dobson fly nymph (Hellgrammite) imitations by Pennsylvania fly tier and angler Russell Blessing, in 1967.
[You’ve got to admit, Hellgrammites are pretty ugly – but you can see from the photo why they’d make a great trout meal, and why the woolly is such a spot-on imitation.]
While like many flies, the precise history isn’t fully clear, some historians trace the Woolly Bugger back to the British palmer fly tied by Walton.
Brook Trout On Black Bead Head Woolly Bugger
3. How To Fish The Woolly Bugger
How you fish it depends on the type of fish you are pursuing, size and type of bugger you are using, and what time of year.
Woolly buggers are effective fished year round. In spring, be sure to use more flash and weight to get it down in streams that have high flow and low visibility.
In summer, fish it slow and deep when the water warms. Fished this way, it’s one of the best trout flies for summer in addition to best flies for bass. In fall, use it for migratory predators – browns, salmon, and steelhead. For these big game fish, you’ll want to use egghead and flashy attractor patterns.
Woolly buggers can be drifted, stripped and fished from very small (think panfish bugs) sizes to through to larger (like hit-you-on-the-head-and-knock-you-out) sizes.
Some of the largest sizes work best with large-game sized gear. This is a good idea not only to handle the weight of the large fly, but also because you’re more likely to hook a beast with a bugger than with most other flies.
Brown Trout On Black Bead Head Woolly Bugger
The bugger is often best drift-fished like a nymph, bouncing along or close to the bottom at the same rate as the current. This makes it look like an injured or loose prey – easy pickings with a natural presentation – one of the best trout flies all-around.
Some patterns though warrant stripping, in particular attractor patterns designed for trout, steelhead, and salmon. For these, you want to make commotion for both visibility and sound to trigger an instinctive strike.
For migrating steelhead, browns, and salmon, if you are fishing an egg sucking or attractor pattern, try both the dead drift and stripping methods. Be sure to vary the speed, frequency, and depth of your bugger until you identify where the fish are and what they want.
The bugger is also a solid producer in the colder months of the year. Remember that in colder water fish are more dormant, laying deep in the belly of pools to conserve energy with a slow metabolism.
A good way to approach fish in the winter is to go deep with a weighted bugger, and then dead drift. Fish don’t chase food in the winter, as much as they look for the easiest pickings to conserve energy.
So, you’ll need to present the bugger closer to them than in warmer months when they’re more willing to move. For this reason, you’ll also want to spend more time fishing more lanes spaced closer together, to make sure you don’t miss a fish that might otherwise have taken it.
Four Bead Head Woolly Buggers
4. Tie It, Or Buy It?
The Woolly Bugger is quite easy to tie, yet with many variations. For those reasons, it is one of the best flies to tie for both beginners and experienced fly tiers alike.
It’s good for beginner fly tying because the woolly is straightforward – practically all you do is tie on marabou for the tail, wrap a chenille body with hackle all around, and finish it off. If you haven’t incorporated weight into your flies yet, such as bead-heads, bug-eyes, or wire-wrappings under the body, now’s your cue to give that a try.
Beyond that, it’s quite forgiving because you can use a large hook, and even flies with mistakes in them will catch fish. It’s not like you’re precisely matching the hatch, size, color silhouette of a size 18 caddis fly for example.
Experienced tiers like the fact that there are many variations, and it’s fun to try and perfect it for the fish you are pursuing. Not to mention, it’s a very good fly to make up your own variations, which many tiers do. Few things are more exhilarating than catching a fish not only on a fly you tied, but one you designed yourself!
For how to fly tie the bugger, see below for extensive information on the pattern recipes, material list and sources, variations, and a how-to video.
If you prefer to buy the bugger, here are several sources and options for you:
If you’re just learning how to tie flies, here’s an overview of the bugger’s construction:
If you (optionally) weight it with a bead head or cone head, affix that to the front of a long shanked streamer hook first, with super glue or resin. Alternatively use non-lead wire wrapped around the shank for weight, secured well with multiple wraps of thread. We like to carry both weighted and un-weighted in our fly box.
Next on goes the marabou tail (with optional flashy strands, of Krystal Flash or Flashabou added after the marabou, usually just a few strands will be enough).
Tie the hackle on near the tail, before the body so you can palmer it from tail to head after you build the chenille body.
If you use a ribbing of fine copper wire to helps protect the palmer hackle, be sure to tie that on near the tail as well.
For more experienced tiers, here are tips on how to improve the performance and durability of your woollies:
Be sure to use a long or extra-long shanked hook (even 3x), to not only build proportions that fish like, but also for ample room to tie the bugger securely.
If adding a bead or cone head, put a few wraps of lead-free wire right behind the weight, and secure it with both wraps of thread and superglue or resin. This not only helps lock the bead or cone-head in place, but also helps taper the body of the fly from front to back.
Be certain to choose and tie your marabou so it’s thick and puffy, not thin and narrow. This will ensure the type of underwater movement that drives fish crazy! A good way to gauge the length of the marabou is to tie it on roughly equal to the shank length.
For additional insight into building quality buggers, we like this video by Tightline Video:
Building a Better Bugger By Tightline Video
9. Best Fly Boxes For Woolly Buggers
Woolly buggers are large and usually fit well in a streamer box. But consider a few things before purchasing. First, since they have hackle wrapped all the way around them, which can get folded or bent, consider a box with large dry fly bays that will keep the hackle intact. Next, remember that woollies are have thick bodies of chenille, which take a while to dry out. I can tell you how many time’s I’ve forgotten to dry out my box well, leaving the lid open for 24 hours after fishing, only to discover my hooks are rusty or other flies are gathering mildew. With these thoughts in mind you’ll purchase a great bugger box.
Trout On Black Bead Head Woolly Bugger
10. Woolly Bugger Art
This section is coming soon!
The Woolly Bugger is easy to tie and fish, moreover it works really well because it looks like a big realistic meal. The bugger has many variations, sizes, and colors that will help you catch more fish. It’s not just a staple for freshwater fishing, but don’t forget the woolly works well in saltwater too!
How do you fish a wooly bugger?
Woolly buggers can be dead drifted just like nymphing, or stripped like streamers. They are effective year-round. In spring, use flash and weight in streams with high flow and low visibility. In summer, fish slow and deep. In fall, use egghead and flashy attractor patterns for browns, salmon, and steelhead.
Do wooly buggers sink or float?
Woolly buggers are designed to sink, to imitate large nymphs, leaches, salamanders, crayfish, etc. However, use a wide range of weights and depths. For spring high flows, use tungsten coneheads, beadheads or non-lead wire. To keep it close the surface, like a Woolly Bear Catapillar, use without weight.
What size is a wooly bugger?
Use a standard streamer hook, preferably 3x long, ranging in sizes 4 to 12. Smaller sizes imitate large nymphs and caterpillars, while the larger sizes imitate crawfish, leeches, sculpins, etc. Buggers are easy to tie on a large hook, and forgiving – even flies with mistakes will catch fish.
What color is wooly bugger?
The most common colors are black, brown, and olive which represent the natural colors of what they imitate (large nymphs, caterpillars, leaches, sculpins, crayfish, etc). Sometimes colors are blended to better imitate prey, with flash or ribbing. Attractor colors include white, orange, yellow, purple, pink, and more.
How do you tie an olive wooly bugger?
To tie an olive bugger, start with olive marabou for the tail. Consider adding Krystal Flash or Flashabou. For the body, use olive chenille, tapered slightly front to back. For hackle, use either straight olive or grizzly, both work well. Olive’s are often tied with a bead- or cone-head.
How does a wooly bugger work?
Wooly buggers are effective because they look like a realistic big meal. The marabou tail undulates underwater like live movement, and combined with a large body and hackle, will elicit strong strikes by fish. Buggers imitate large nymphs, leeches, caterpillars, crawfish, shrimp, sculpins, and more!