Ode to the Woolly Bugger

I'm not very good at tying fancy fly patterns. I'm fine with that,though, because I think some of the most effective flies are also the simplest. For example, if I were allowed one fly — and one fly only — to fish any river or lake, in any season, in any conditions, anywhere in the country, I would choose a woolly bugger. Probably a black one. Probably size #10.

The reasons are simple. Foremost, that pattern has been around for a long, long time, and it has proven itself in every trout environment imaginable. It’s smart to carry at least one or two buggers in your fly box, no matter where you fish. This fly is certainly no gimmick.

In fact, its beauty is born of simplicity. Slender black body. Basic hackle feather, palmered the length of the fly. Marabou feathered tail that wiggles just so in the water. Sturdy hook. Not much more to it.

And yet it is a tremendously versatile fly. Strip it through a run aggressively, and it can look like a baitfish, or some object that elicits a reaction strike. Dead drift it or swing it through the same run, and it looks like a worm or a leech, floating helplessly in the current. (That’s the trout equivalent of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese bobbing downstream).

The darker colors stand out in dirty water, so trout can see them. But the profile isn’t so gaudy as to spook wary trout, even in clear water.

I write this because the woolly bugger just saved my bacon. I’ve been fishing on my home stream in Michigan for a few days now with limited success. I haven’t seen many insect hatches. I hadn’t caught any fish more than a few inches long.

But on a hunch, I went out early this morning, and tied on that black woolly bugger I had resisted over the past few days. One cast through a deep pool behind a log jam, and bam… 17-inch brown trout.

Sometimes the “secret fly” is the most obvious time-worn option in the box. The trick is merely convincing yourself to tie it on.

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Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter

Kirk Deeter is an editor-at-large with Field & Stream, and he co-wrote The Little Red Book of Fly Fishing with the late Charlie Meyers.