Woolly buggers are one of the most versatile flies in fly fishing. You can fish a wooly bugger in a river, lake, or even on salt flats and you’ll catch fish, plus a range of different species at that. It’s certainly one fly you need to have in your fly box
The reason this is such a productive fly is because it imitates a range of fish foods but you need to know how to fish it in each situation. Join me as we take a look at all the ways of how to fish a wooly bugger pattern to match whatever the water conditions are.
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The History Of The Woolly Buggers
No one actually knows for certain where the wooly bugger pattern came from, but there are some theories around it. Some say it’s an evolution of the wooly worm, an English pattern that was very effective for trout and other small pan fish.
Another theory is that it evolved from the Black Martinez fly but most of the credit is given to Russell Blessing as he put the wooly bugger fly on the map in the 1970s.
What Is A Woolly Bugger?
To know how to fish a wooly bugger fly, you first need to understand how this effective fly looks, and it’s nothing special. If anything, the reason it’s such an effective artificial fly is because it’s so generic that a fish could mistake it for anything.
The simplest buggers are on a hook size from 4-10 with lead wire, fur body, and a marabou tail. But unlike most flies, you can tie buggers in any color you like, and you can even tie them on a size 20 hook if you want to.
Woolly buggers have, of course, evolved a bit from the basic bugger described above and you’ll even find them with rubber legs, a cone head, dumbbell eyes, and even two-tone versions.
So a wooly bugger is a wet fly and mostly described as a streamer or lure at local fly shops and online. It’s one of the fly patterns every fly fisherman should have fly boxes of and here is why.
What Do Wooly Buggers Imitate?
When you fish a woolly bugger, it pays to know what you’re trying to make a brown trout or other fish species think it is. The charm of a wooly bugger is that it looks like so many different flies at once.
Wooly buggers can look like alive or dead bait fish, leeches, fleeing crayfish, and aquatic insects like damsel flies or a stonefly, and more. If you held up an olive woolly bugger and a damsel, you’d think they were almost the same fly, same with a black colored bugger and a leech fly.
You can probably begin to understand why wooly buggers are so good at catching trout, sea trout, and saltwater fish now, they must be so damn appealing to the fish, and to fly anglers by default.
Any fly fisher who uses woolly buggers often will tell you they catch more fish, big fishes, and enjoy violent strikes from fish, all thanks to this fly, so let’s teach you how to fish a wooly bugger.
Woolly Bugger Fly Fishing Techniques
Upstream Nymphing Techniques
Fishing a wooly bugger like it’s a nymph is a very effective way of catching fish when nothing else is working. You can sacrifice your size 14 hares on the point and put a wooly bugger on instead for a dead drift, and it’s a very productive technique.
When you fish a woolly bugger like this, you are dead drifting it on a floating line and casting it upstream of the strike zone where you think a fish is waiting.
When dead drifting these flies, you’ll need to mend your line to ensure the fly goes down the river first and the line comes second, so as not to spook the fish or give movement to the dead drifted fly.
You can also add some split shot to make sure the woolly bugger sits deep enough, especially when the water is high and/or fast. And, also have the option to use a strike indicator too, which makes noticing when a fish takes your fly in the dead drift a lot easier, especially in winter when the takes are subtle.
If fishing a dead drift doesn’t work, you can add some action to the woolly bugger by raising and dropping your rod tip and adding some short strips into it. This may make it seem like an injured baitfish instead of a dead one or nymph, and provoke a trout to eat it.
Check our post here on What do Trout Eat here.
I used this technique in Iceland when fishing for seatrout below a waterfall. I had an orange conehead woolly bugger on, with a 12 IPS sink tip as the water was fast and the pool was deep. I just kept contact with my fly slowly stripping, and eventually was into a 14lb fish. My cousin jumped into the pool after me and go a 10lb fish.
Swinging Your Woolly Bugger
An effective way of fly fishing with a wooly bugger and a very exciting way too is by swinging and stripping it across the river. This is the kind of standard fly fishing technique most anglers use for streamers and it works well, especially in the fall when the fish are feeding on small baitfish.
Cast your wooly bugger to 90 degrees across the river and let it swing to 40 degrees before you start fishing it. This will give the fly some time to sink a bit. Once it hits 45 degrees let the wooly bugger swing across the river.
You can then add short or fast strips into the swing to give the flies more action. I love fishing a wooly bigger like this, as when you catch a fish they hit the fly so damn hard, sometimes boiling on the surface. The key is to stay calm, as you’ll often miss the first fish and have to re-cast and wait for it to come again on the same retrieve.
When swinging a woolly bugger, use wooly bugger flies with a weighted head like a cone or dumbbell eyes. I also tend to add a sink tip of 7-12 IPS (inches per second) when the water is deep just to get the wolly buggers into the feeding zone of big trout.
Again, in Iceland, this technique worked wonders and I pulled 4 seatrout out of a pool in the hour before dusk. I swang my orange wooly bugger slowly with slow strips and the fish just kept eating it.
Suspend & Strip
The suspend and strip method is a bit like the upstream nymphing technique but instead of letting it drift down the river, you’re doing a kind of patient retrieve.
Set up your woolly bugger so it’s suspended between the bottom and an indicator. Make sure to use a weighted wooly bugger and add any more weight as necessary, as you need the woolly bugger to sit suspended between the surface and the bottom.
You’ll want to be fishing this technique where the water is slow on the river or on a lake when the fish are feeding higher up in the water column. If you’re fishing it in fast water, you won’t be able to strip the fly in, as the water will just carry it downstream.
Once you have cast your woolly bugger into the slow water it’s time to experiment until you find the winning retrieve. Try slow long strips with pauses first, then integrate a fast strip or two, and then a short strip or two until you see what works.
Pausing between strips is key though, as when you pause, the wooly bugger is going to sink and the maribou on the tail is going to breathe and flutter in the water, make it the fly look very alive. When you next strip, the bugger is going to rise and do the same, creating a very enticing jigging movement.
Something I have to want you about when fishing woolly buggers with this technique is that when a fish decides to eat your bugger, it really wants to eat it. You are going to get the tug of your life, so remember to keep your cool and life your rod into it for a good hook set.
Lake Fishing A Wooly Bugger
When you’re fly fishing a lake, woolly buggers are great flies to use and you can use them in so many ways, including all of the above methods we discussed above.
At the beginning of the season when you’re buzzer fishing with 4 flies, a 20ft leader, and a figure of 8 retrieve to keep in contact, try putting a woolly bugger as your bottom fly. It will keep the rig sitting nicely in the water, and as you slowly bring it in, you’ll find the fish can’t resist a bite of it.
In a lake you can also fish a wooly bugger with a floating, sinking, or sink tip line with various strip rates. It’s best to experiment with both depth and retrieves until you find where the fish are feeding, and what strip they like best.
I love the feel of a tug on a full fly fishing sinking line, there is somehow a lot more direct contact between you and the fish, and it feels super exciting.
Fishing A Wooly Bugger In Salt Water
You can also fish a wooly bugger in saltwater for species like bonefish, triggerfish, and other reef species too. Before you do though, make sure you have bought some woolly buggers that are tied on saltwater hooks as the trout hooks will rust within a day in saltwater.
Some people wonder why saltwater fish eat a wooly bugger, but I think they look just like a baitfish when dark in color, and a lot like a shrimp when tan or white in color.
When you’re bone-fishing, the key to fly selection is matching the color of your fly to the bottom and matching the weight of your fly to the water depth. Bonefish look down on the bottom for all their food, so your fly has to be down there if they are going to eat it.
Make sure you have some white, tanned, and olive wooly buggers in your box for bonefish, as this covers both sand flats and turtle grass flats too. Then cast your fly head of the bonefish you can see, around 3-5 feet in front, and leave it. When the fish is about 1ft away, strip it and he’ll turn on it.
You can check out our post here on Bonefish Fly Fishing Guide.
Other good woolly buggers for saltwater include any with rubbery legs, black ones for fishing near the surface so the silhouette is obvious, and all the other colors too. You’ll even find they work really well for small tarpon in 10-15 lb class.