Woolly Bugger: Use This Fly to Catch More Fish

If I was going to pick one fly to use in Colorado’s lakes and rivers, regardless of the time of year or fishing conditions, I’d pick the Woolly Bugger.
Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

Asking a fly fisherman to pick their favorite fly is a lot like asking a mother to pick her favorite child. It’s a question that’s nearly impossible to answer (although, I’m an only child but I’m still not convinced that I’m my mom’s favorite).

Most fly fishers, myself included, fill their fly boxes to the brim with hundreds of different flies or “patterns.” Each fly serves a unique purpose and is designed to imitate the various mayflies, caddisflies, midges, stoneflies, scuds and terrestrials that are common to Colorado’s waterways. And combining the “art” of casting a fly rod with the science of entomology (the study of insects) is what makes fly fishing so rewarding.

Yet, the endless selection of fly patterns and all the related technical jargon are also the primary reasons why fly fishing can be confusing and even a little intimidating for beginners. Therefore, in an effort to simplify things a bit, if I was going to pick just one fly to use in all of Colorado’s lakes and rivers, regardless of the time of year or fishing conditions, I’d pick the Woolly Bugger.

Most Versatile & Productive Fly Ever

The Woolly Bugger may well be the most versatile and productive fly ever invented. It’s also extremely effective for nearly every species of fish found in Colorado. I’ve caught big brown trout at North Delaney, brook trout in high-mountain beaver ponds, cutthroat trout in streams and have landed bass and bluegill in suburban ponds — all on woolly buggers. While trout fishing at Spinney Mountain Reservoir, I’ve also had northern pike attack Woolly Buggers so violently that nothing remained on the end of my fly line except a busted 4x tippet and a toothy grin.

The author with a Snake River cutthroat at Antero Reservoir.
The author with a Snake River cutthroat trout at Antero Reservoir. Photo by Nick Clement/CPW.

Although the Woolly Bugger is a very simple pattern, its marabou tail, chenille body and palmer-styled hackle is an irresistible combination for fish. This is likely because the fly mimics so many different types of aquatic insects and forage species. The Woolly Bugger’s marabou tail undulates or “breaths” underwater, closely imitating the movement of crayfish, minnows, leaches and sculpins — all primary food sources for trout and other game fish.

A conehead wooly bugger. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
A conehead Woolly Bugger. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
Wooly buggers come in a variety of colors. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
Woolly Buggers come in a variety of colors and sizes. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

All Colors and Sizes

Woolly Buggers come in a variety of colors and sizes (black with a peacock-herl or olive-chenille body is my favorite, but olive, brown and purple are also effective colors). I like to use the beadhead and conehead versions when fishing stillwaters or large rivers. The weighted head allows you to fish the fly deeper without adding clunky-to-cast split shot to the line. Additionally, the top-heavy design gives the fly a diving motion in the water, similar to a marabou crappie jig. When I tie Woolly Buggers at home, I often add copper or lead wire under the head, instead of using beads, to give the fly a more streamlined look.

On lakes and reservoirs, I retrieve Woolly Buggers with a series of short, quick strips, and then I will pause for a couple seconds to let the fly settle. The stop-and-go motion accentuates the action of this already exuberant pattern. When fishing rivers, I either dead-drift the fly in the current, or I will use the strip-strip-pause retrieve method mentioned above. I’ve also had great success fishing Woolly Buggers along undercut banks in rivers and streams. The Woolly’s lively motion can be just the ticket to coax a big trout from its dark hiding place.

Fishing wooly buggers at night is effective for catching brown trout. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
Fishing Woolly Buggers at night is effective for catching brown trout. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
A cutbow landed on a wooly bugger. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.
A cutbow landed on a Woolly Bugger. Photo by Jerry Neal/CPW.

I prefer to use a non-slip mono loop knot instead of a standard clinch knot when attaching Woolly Buggers and other large streamer patterns to the leader or tippet. The loop allows the fly to move freely with as little interference as possible from the leader.

Nighttime is the Right Time

Although you can catch fish midday on Woolly Buggers, I’ve had the best success fishing them in the early morning, late evening or after dark. In fact, fishing large-sized (#2-#4) Woolly Buggers after 10 p.m. has produced some of my biggest fish to date. There is likely no better fly to use for nighttime angling. Fish seem to hit this fly with extreme vengeance after dark. This will send an unmistakable jolt through your rod hand that will inspire you to keep casting well into the early a.m. hours.

As I’ve already mentioned, Woolly Buggers will catch almost anything that swims in a lake, river or stream. However, here are a few of my favorite locations to fish this pattern in Colorado: Delaney Butte Lakes, Lake John, Antero Reservoir, Spinney Mountain Reservoir, South Platte River, Eleven Mile State Park and Stagecoach Reservoir. Be sure to check out the Colorado Fishing Atlas for directions to these destinations.

Article by Jerry Neal. Neal is the senior videographer and a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. 

7 Responses

  1. Anthony, thanks for your question. I typically use sizes #2-#4, particularly when fishing at night. The bigger the fly the better after dark. During the day, I may use #4-#8. If you can find them, smaller sized flies in the #10 range work great in smaller streams and beaver ponds for trout. However, I almost always fish the larger sizes. Thanks and good luck!

    1. thanks for the info as to how to fish one……i just sat and made 4 on mustad # 2 limericks………gotta say they look sweet if i can find fish that big !

      1. Leigh,

        Thanks for your comment. The large sizes work awesome from dusk to dark. You’ll be surprised at the fish you’ll catch. The big “Buggers” work great, especially for big browns and rainbows. Good luck!

  2. I’m teaching my son to fly fish. There is a lot to be said for keeping things simple. Thx for the info.

  3. Best fly for big trout here in finnish lapland, size6 olive and black works always.Amazing fly.

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