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Intro to Fly Tying - The Woolly Bugger

There is a reason that so many people's first fly was a Woolly Bugger. It is not only an incredibly effective fly but it is tied in sizes large enough to be relatively "easy" for a beginner to tie. It also incorporates several different techniques that you will use on every fly you tie. A good fly - no matter the pattern - is well proportioned. To me, other than "neatness", proportions are the simplest way to look at fly and judge its merits. The bugger is great for teaching proportions.

Woolly bugger
A pretty simple Woolly Bugger tied with Hareline Fly Stubble Chenille and rooster neck hackle.

What the bugger teaches you are proportions, starting the thread, tying in a tail with a pinch wrap, adding materials like flash along the side of the hook, ribbing a fly, tying in and wrapping hackle, creating a smooth underbody and then a body atop it, and creating a thread head (and not crowding the hook eye!). With these techniques, you are well on your way to tying many other flies. What is an Elk Hair Caddis but a tailless Woolly Bugger with an elk hair wing? The same with a stimulator. A Griffith's Gnat and a Crackleback are basically dry fly hackled buggers without tails. Look at those complex articulated flies - quite often, their bodies are essentially Woolly Buggers with a few more bells and whistles.

The Basic Woolly Bugger Pattern

The basic bugger is simple. It is a marabou tail, usually a little weight, a body, and a palmered hackle. Though that basic pattern is pretty simple, the devil is in the details. Or is it that where it becomes interesting is in the details?

Hook: Usually a 3X or 4X long nymph / streamer hook - though this will greatly change the pattern if you use a different hook style. More about that below...

Thread: To match the body color, 6/0 (140 denier) or larger, generally.

Weight: Underbody weight, a bead, both, none, IDK, whatever you want to do. More about that below.

Tail: Marabou - though there are so many choices here (more about that below too...)

Rib: Metal wire (counter-rib for a more "bulletproof" fly).

Body: Typically chenille but there are a ton of options (yeah, more sensing a theme?)

Hackle: Hackle of some sort - I like schlappen but there are many options (yeah, more below, of course).

Charlie Craven's method (below) is the way I tie a bugger. There are about as many ways to tie a bugger as there are people that have tied a bugger. I like the method below because it, I think, makes the fly easier to tie, prettier, and more durable. I am a big fan of counter-ribbed flies like this one because they add an extra layer of security. It is a technique you will use on many nymph patterns as well.

There are, of course, many other ways to tie the same basic bugger so I include a few videos below to provide some of those variations.

Tim Flagler's bugger above is good - but it's not my method, at least not quite. For example, I do not like the tail method and prefer a more tapered tail than one that is so blocky. And I learned that the flash should not be all cut to the same length. His ribbing method is not one I like - but it works. I'd rather tie a wire rib in after the tail and flash. We each have our own aesthetics and none are necessarily right or wrong. It does have a number of characteristics of a well-tied bugger: a smooth underbody, a tail that is not too long nor too short, the hackle tapers nicely from the head to the tail, and the fly is clean and nearly bulletproof.

Kelly Galloup, of course, takes his time tying this fly. I takes him over a half an hour to tie while recording but the video is loaded with details and tips. I like his version a lot - though I almost always add weight.

Surprisingly, there are relatively few videos that show tying the fly on a true rotary vise. While I have a few issues with the tie below - it could be much cleaner - it shows how to use the rotary feature to create the body and wrap the hackle (IDK why he didn't use the rotary feature to rib the fly too...).

I included it because it shows the beginning tyer how to take advantage of their rotary vise. I use mine quite a bit when tying buggers and flies that use similar techniques.

Hook Choice

Hook choice sets the stage for the fly you are going to tie. Choose a shorter hook and you will - or at least, I think should - tie a smaller, more compact fly. Shorter hooks for buggers are standard or 1extra long (1XL) shanks. Often a "Woolly Worm" is tied on the shorter shanks. Hooks with 2XL or 3XL are what I would consider the standard lengths for buggers. Use a 3XL or 4XL hook and you've generally tied a longer, slimmer bugger. Tie these on heavy hooks - at least 1XH (extra heavy) or 1XS (extra strong) - or heavier hooks.

Comparison of two Mustad Hooks
Two Mustad Heritage Fly Hooks - S82AP and R73AP. To the left is 2XL, 2XS hook and the other is a 3XL, 2XS hook.

Of course, there are yet more options. Many tie some of their buggers on jig hooks with tungsten beads and often more underbody wire to get the flies to really sink quickly. With jig hooks, you're less likely to get snagged up and it provides a different - "jiggier" - motion than does a typical bugger.

Umpqua U301 Hook
A 3XL streamer hook is what I think of as a "typical" bugger hook.

Weighting a Bugger

I use non-toxic wire, a bead, or both. A beaded fly will be "jiggier". For a fly without a bead, I will place the central point of the weight just a bit forward of the center of the fly.

Beads and underbodies
Tails and underbodies ready for ribs, bodies, and hackles.

The key to this part of the fly is creating a smooth underbody using the thread to cover the weighted wire. This is a small ramp up to the wire if tying it like Tim Flaggler did with a bead and wire (video is above) or a small ramp on each end if using underbody wire without a bead. A cone is another choice for buggers, in which case tying it looks a lot like Tim Flaggler's method with the wire helping hold the cone in place and to add a little extra weight. Often, I just just the bead or cone as weight and omit the extra wire. In Charlie Craven's video (above), he does a great job of demonstrating how to create a smooth underbody.

I will say that unlike some videos I see out there, I pretty much always add some weight to a Woolly Bugger. The only time I wouldn't add weight would be if I were trying it on a sinking line or leader (not often). But many streamers and articulated flies use the basic bugger profile for parts of the fly. Whitlock's Near Nuff Sculpin, for example, changes the tail and head of the fly but that body is unmistakably a bugger. Kelly Galloup's Peanut Envy (video), Sex Dungeon (video), Articulated Boogey Man (video), Silk Kitty (video), and many other streamers have distinct bugger components to them. This includes some streamers large enough for pike and musky.

Tails and Flash

Marabou is the standard choice for bugger tails and I wrote an entire post about marabou some time ago so I won't rehash too much of that here. There are a ton of different ways to tie bugger tails depending upon what you want your fly to look and fish like. My personal preference is for a relatively full tail - two or three marabou feathers - with just a bit of flash on the side and the length should be a hook shank or a bit shorter. The general tradeoff with tails is that a longer tail moves more but results in more "short-strikes" and a short tail results in less movement.

Milwaukee Leech
The Milwaukee Leech - effectively a beadhead Woolly Bugger without a palmered hackle but the dubbing takes the place of the hackle.

It being fly tying, you can, of course, change the tail from marabou to something else. A tail of nothing but Flashabou, Polar Flash, or other highly mobile flash material is a rather "aggressive" option. Other natural materials such as Finnish Raccoon, Arctic Fox, or a rabbit or mink zonker strip are great marabou substitutes. And the standard tail on a Woolly Worm is kip or calf tail.

Bodies on Buggers

This is, arguably, where the tyer can can the most effect on what the bugger looks like other than the hook choice. Chenille - think pipe cleaner with a thread core - is the standard body material. One look at any online fly shop will show you a ton of choices. The Fly Fishers website returns three pages of results in a search for chenille. Rayon chenille is generally your typical "bugger chenille". My personal preference for a chenille-bodied bugger is variegated chenille which give the fly a more mottled appearance. The first bugger on this page was tied with a new chenille product I just bought, Stubble Chenille from Hareline. Chenille is great because it is relatively inexpensive, and comes in a great number of colors and "shininesses" ranging from dull (rayon chenille) to full of flash (tinsel chenille / estaz).

Different chenilles
There are TONS of options in chenilles - from plain to quite flashy, from small to quite large.

Much of the time, instead of chenille, I am creating a dubbed body. I prefer this as it gives me more options and allows me to build a "buggier" body. To me, I like the shaggy-bodied version better because I think it provides a better profile and more movement than most chenilles. On the other hand, it takes longer to create a dubbing loop, spin it up, and create a body than it does to tie in chenille and create a body.

Dubbing also allows you to create a customized body. You have total control over the body - its color and mottling, how much flash is added, the bulk of the body, different colors for different parts of the body - that's all under your control. Being a control freak while tying, this interests me. And, of course, you can start adding rubber legs, spinning blades, and other accoutrements.

Hackling a Bugger

Like pretty much everywhere on a bugger, there is room for you to do what you want. My personal preference is for a softer hackle - schlappen, hen neck or saddle feathers, or, in smaller sized flies, game bird feathers. There are some that prefer a rooster hackle which is going to be a little more rigid. This quality may be an advantage in faster moving water where the softer hackles are likely to get trapped against the body. What you see packaged as "Bugger Hackle" or "Bugger Saddles" are typically rooster feathers that are too large and/or not of dry fly quality. Personally, they are about my last choice of hackle. There is a school of thought that stiffer hackles should be used for flies used in fast water and softer, webbier hackles are more suited to stillwaters. I don't know that I totally buy that but it is rooted in the idea that the stiffer hackles will stand up to current and not just get matted against the body. To me, the perfect bugger feather is nicely tapered, relatively webby, and has a thin, supple shaft (rachis). Rich Osthoff is well known for fishing his soft-hackle Woolly Worms - Woolly Worms are generally a smaller version of a bugger, often with a hair tail replacing the marabou. I've oversized the hackle using hackle meant for Spey flies - tying a "Spey Bugger" that has a lot of movement.

Stiff vs. soft hackled buggers
Comparing the rooster (stiff-hackled) bugger to one tied with webby schlappen - this from John Shewey's strung Spey feathers from way back when...

There are a number of different ways to hackle a bugger. The method I like best is tying in a rib at the tail and the hackle at the head of the fly and palmer it back to the tail, securing it with the wire rib. Others "tip-tie" the feather at the rear of the hook after tying in the tail but before tying in the body and then palmer it forward. I prefer the first method as the rib provides a little more durability to the fly. What I do not like in a bugger is a fly that does not taper from the front to the rear of the fly.

New to Fly Tying?

Master the basic bugger first; then think about making modifications. Get to where you can tie a half dozen flies in a row that all have the same shape and proportions. Learn how to measure a tail against the hook, how to not crowd the hook eye and better yet, how to plan where your materials are going to end and your thread head begins. Learn to pick out natural materials like marabou and hackle so that you can tie flies that look the same as one another. This prepares you to tie a host of other flies and make fly trying a creative endeavor. I see a lot of beginners posting their own "new creations" and conservatively, 80% of the time, they look like shit. Not necessarily because they are poorly tied (though often they are) but because they don't represent anything a fish would eat. Without much background in fly tying, tyers don't know what is likely or unlikely to work. They're often "too creative" - it's harder to be too creative with a bugger.

Wide variety of buggers
A collection of Woolly Buggers and Woolly Worms (yes, that's a spinning blade...) from a evening of tying.

And I know what you are thinking - what does a Woolly Bugger represent? I have skipped that question until now. Buggers represent food. It is "buggy" and represents nothing, yet everything. It is a fleeing minnow, leech, aquatic nymph, cranefly larva, crayfish, or whatever you want it to be. To be honest, it doesn't look like much but they work because they move in the water quite well. Fish generally are nowhere near as smart as we often give them credit for. See food, eat food.

Articulated streamer
The streamer I fished yesterday (1/27) - basically an articulated Woolly Bugger.

What learning to tie a bugger does for the tyer is sets them up to successfully tie a host of other flies. By tying buggers, you have learned proportions, the pinch-wrap, the importance of a smooth underbody, how to create a tapered fly, tying in hackle, ribbing a fly, and a number of other techniques you will use again and again.

Variations on the Bugger Theme

Now that you have the basic bugger figured out, there are no shortage of variations on the bugger or the Woolly Worm, another variation on the palmer worm, the fly that gave rise to both of these flies.

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