Fly fishing with woolly buggers

11th of September 2022

In the category of flies known as streamers, the Woolly Bugger reigns supreme. Its popularity comes from its versatility—the Woolly Bugger can be used to catch a wide range of species, plus it’s equally effective in current and still water angling scenarios. In this article, we’ll explore common Woolly Bugger presentation techniques, explain whether to use a weighted or unweighted Woolly Bugger, and go over size and color selection. Let’s get started!

How to Fly Fish a Woolly Bugger

The Woolly Bugger’s elongated body, pulsing hackle feathers, and active marabou tail contribute to its irresistible appearance underwater. While this streamer can mimic a leech, crayfish, or large aquatic bug like a hellgrammite, most commonly, the Woolly Bugger imitates a baitfish. Fishing a Woolly Buggers calls for an active presentation technique — using the rod tip, an angler can impart a subtle, life-like action that mimics the movement of live prey.

In the sections below, we’ll cover Woolly Bugger fishing techniques that work in a wide range of angling scenarios.

Fishing a Woolly Bugger in Current

There’s a variety of ways you can fish a Woolly Bugger in current, but what’s great about this fly (and other streamers) is that you can use multiple presentation techniques in a single retrieve. For example, you can dead drift your Woolly Bugger until the current swings it into a downstream position, then use a stripping retrieve, thus employing three highly productive techniques in one cast! With that in mind, check out these Wooly Bugger presentation tactics.

Dead Drifting a Woolly Bugger

One of the simplest ways to fish a Woolly Bugger is to present it like you would a nymph. Cast slightly upstream, let the streamer sink, and carefully track its progress as the current carries it into the strike zone. Frequent line mending is required to create a drag-free drift, and many anglers add motion to a drifting Woolly Bugger using small twitches of the rod tip.

Fishing a Woolly Bugger with a Strike Indicator

A variation on the dead drifting technique is to fish a Woolly Bugger under a strike indicator. When the water is so deep or stained that it’s impossible to see a strike, an indicator can help you catch more fish. A strike indicator is often handy in still water fishing situations, which we’ll discuss later. In current, set your indicator depth so the Woolly Bugger will barely contact the bottom. Use the same presentation technique as with dead drifting, complete with frequent line mending.

Swinging a Woolly Bugger

When your dead drift is over, meaning you can no longer mend the line to eliminate drag, allow the current to take your Woolly Bugger. The fly will “swing” in the current until it’s directly downstream from your position. The whole time the fly is swinging, (and for a moment after it stops), be ready for an aggressive strike. Finish the presentation with a few quick strips to give hesitant fish one last enticement. 

It’s important to note that this swinging technique is not used exclusively to end a dead drift presentation—you can use swinging as your primary tactic. When you cast slightly downstream, your fly will begin to swing almost immediately, giving you the chance to accurately target downstream fish.

Quick Stripping a Woolly Bugger

A great alternative to drifting your Woolly Bugger is to use an upstream stripping presentation. Cast upstream at an angle and, instead of starting a dead drift, immediately begin retrieving the Woolly Bugger using fast strips, taking in about 6” of line with each strip. This tactic requires fast line stripping and even faster reflexes—when an aggressive fish turns 180 degrees to chase down your fly, you need to be ready to set the hook!

Fishing a Woolly Bugger in Still Water

In lakes, ponds, and reservoirs, Woolly Buggers are highly productive, but you have to apply the right technique. Here are two common Woolly Bugger tactics that work in still water.

Targeting Submerged Cover with a Woolly Bugger

While it’s not suitable for targeting deep structure, a Woolly Bugger is good for probing submerged cover in moderate depths. When fish are holding near stumps, laydowns, and dock pilings, for example, cast close to the cover and allow the Woolly Bugger to sink. Some anglers use a weighted fly line or leader in this situation, but simply selecting a weighted Woolly Bugger is usually sufficient to achieve the desired depth. Try to create a perfectly vertical descent, as close to cover as possible. Expect a strike on the fall, and if the fly reaches the bottom, add some movement with a quick strip or two, then try again.

Fishing Grassy Areas Using a Woolly Bugger

A Woolly Bugger is far from weedless, but you can still use one to effectively fish close to vegetation in lakes and ponds. If the vegetation doesn’t grow all the way to the surface, cast your streamer into the heart of grassy areas and retrieve it with quick strips, pausing between strips. When dealing with emergent vegetation, make long casts parallel to the weed line and use the same stripping technique. Both these tactics allow you to cover a lot of water and entice aggressive fish.

Weighted vs Unweighted Woolly Buggers

You may notice some Woolly Buggers have bead heads and some do not. The addition of a bead head significantly increases a Woolly Bugger’s weight and impacts how the fly moves. Choosing between a weighted and unweighted Woolly Bugger is an on-the-water decision, so it’s important to have some of both varieties in your fly box. 

If you’re targeting fish in a deep run, the swift current can easily carry your streamer so quickly that it never makes it down to the strike zone. In that scenario, an unweighted Woolly Bugger will likely pass over the fish’s heads, too far away to attract attention. By using a weighted Woolly Bugger and making an upstream cast that gives the streamer time to sink, you can target fish that would otherwise never see your fly.

Another use for weighted Woolly Buggers is in the still water of a lake or pond, or in a stream that features large, deep pools where the current is practically unnoticeable. With your strike indicator set for maximum depth, you can present the Woolly Bugger as you would bait under a bobber, but it’s important to add some movement to your fly by twitching your rod tip.

Since you always want your Woolly Bugger to sink, you may be wondering why a weighted Woolly Bugger isn’t always the right choice. There are cases when an unweighted Woolly Bugger is called for. If you’re trying to dead drift your streamer in a riffle or shallow run, too much weight can hinder the fly’s action and increase your chance of getting snagged on the bottom. Likewise, when you are fast stripping a Woolly Bugger in a still water angling situation, a fly that’s too heavy can inhibit your presentation. 

You should have both weighted and unweighted Woolly Buggers in your fly box and tie on the fly that’s right for your current angling scenario.

Woolly Bugger Color and Size Selection

When fishing in current, the most popular colors for Woolly Buggers are green, black, and brown, with some anglers carrying white or gray variations to better imitate silvery baitfish. There are also Woolly Bugger patterns that combine colors, which can result in a more natural appearance and help you match what the fish are eating. Some Woolly Buggers incorporate a sparkly component in the tail, body, or both, with the extra flash helping to attract attention in any light conditions.

With still water Woolly Bugger fishing, the color palette opens up a little bit. Anglers using Woolly Buggers in ponds and lakes may opt for bright hues of purple, pink, blue, and red. A color that seems unnatural above water can be extremely appealing to a fish in moderately deep water and dense cover where there’s less light.

As for Woolly Bugger size, it’s smart to stock a range in your fly box, from sizes 6 to 12. In most streams and rivers, a size 10 or 12 will be close to the size of the natural prey you’re trying to imitate. On the other hand, if you’re fishing in still water where the baitfish, leeches, and crawfish may be considerably larger, jumping up to a size 6 or 8 Woolly Bugger is a great option.

The Woolly Bugger — King of Streamers

Whether you’re targeting trout in riffles and pools, northern pike on grassy flats, or largemouth bass holding near docks or laydowns, Woolly Buggers will give you an edge. They’re highly productive flies and, because Wooly Buggers are most effective when the angler imparts a fish-attracting action, they’re more fun to fish than nymphs. Stock your fly box with a range of sizes and colors, remember the tips we covered here, and soon, you’ll join countless anglers that consider the Woolly Bugger to be the king of streamers.

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