Don’t tackle fly-fishing without Woolly Bugger

While visiting my brother years ago, my family and I went fishing in a small lake located just down the hill from his home. The lake, kind of an overflow area adjacent to the Colorado River, is known to hold rainbow trout. Nothing big, just planters from a local hatchery, but I looked forward to catching a few fish nonetheless.

I also wanted to show Chris, my younger and therefore less-experienced brother, just what he was missing by scoffing at my new fly rod and choosing instead to use a spinning rod and his not-so-secret trout bait. While he baited up and cast his line, I tied on an olive colored Woolly Bugger. At the time, there was no particular reason for my choice of fly patterns other than the guy at the local fly shop told me it was generally productive. For me, the whole fly-fishing thing was fairly new, so I bought a few and was therefore obligated to use one.

As Chris sat back in his folding chair and waited for a fish to swim by and take his bait, I worked my way around the shoreline in search of trout. Unfortunately, the fish seemed to be swimming back and forth where Chris had cast his line, and he made it a point to let me know.

Then suddenly, finally, it was my turn. A hungry fish hammered my Woolly Bugger and the fight was on. “Now Chris will see what fly-fishing is all about,” I said under my breath. “Boy, is he going to be surprised.” And he was. Then again, so was I.

The fish was not a rainbow trout but a scrappy little largemouth bass. In fact, the bass was no bigger than the fly it tried so hard to swallow. That day I learned two things.

Largemouth bass aren’t afraid to take on something their own size, and trout aren’t the only fish that like Woolly Buggers.

In the years since that little bass tried to eat my Woolly Bugger, that fly pattern has proven to be effective for multiple fish species. Obviously trout and largemouth bass are on the list, but so, too, are smallmouth bass, wipers, bluegill and crappie. A few weeks back, an angler told me he even had caught a catfish on a Woolly Bugger.

While many fly patterns are designed to represent a specific insect, or class of insects, the Woolly Bugger imitates a long list of things ranging from crayfish to damsel flies, and leeches to fingerlings. To put it simply, the Woolly Bugger looks good enough to eat, and anglers have used it to catch fish in a variety of waters, including creeks, rivers, reservoirs and tidal pools.

It comes in a wide variety of colors and hook sizes, and is a fly that no self-respecting fly-fisherman would leave home without. Neither should anglers who fish with something other than a fly rod.

Any angler with your average fishing rod can fish with and find success using a Woolly Bugger. One way to do that is to slide a clear plastic bubble onto your fishing line, then tie a swivel to the line’s terminal end. From the swivel, run 3 to 6 feet of leader, depending on how deep you want the fly to be in the water. Then attach the Woolly Bugger to the leader.

Keep in mind that a Woolly Bugger is a wet fly, so it is designed to be fished below the water’s surface. Now you are ready to go fishing. All you have to do is cast your line like normal and experiment with your retrieve until you find one that catches a fish. Then try again.

Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at