The venerable Woolly Bugger, a streamer, could be the Swiss Army Knife of fly patterns. As streamers go, the classic recipe of marabou tail, chenille and hackle body, and wire ribbing has proved to be one of the most versatile patterns created. It can imitate bait fish, sculpins, crayfish, leeches, salamanders, and even nymphs. It is effective in both moving and still water, in weeds, rock gardens, sandy flats…and it should be in every freshwater angler’s fly box.
It’s the first fly I learned to tie and the one I still fish the most. Over the years I’ve tweaked it a bit, trading the marabou for rabbit fur strip, chenille and hackle for wiry dubbing…and I added bead heads and rubber legs. Is it still a woolly bugger?
How I plan to fish the fly dictates the choice of materials. I tie to accommodate my casting skill and the capabilities of the rods I use the most: a 6 weight (wt) two-handed switch rod running Airflow’s Skagit Switch line and Rio 10′ sink tips; a hand built ultra-fast 7 wt with Orvis 7′ Polyleader; or a 5 wt running Rio Gold line. Here in the Mid-Atlantic region of Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia, the brush-choked banks of our streams don’t often afford the room for a back cast, and casting across the stream in order to “swing the fly” downstream in a pendulum often calls for a well executed roll cast. Again, all this criteria dictates the size and weight of the fly, and an over-weighted streamer usually has me chucking and ducking at some point, opening my loops to avoid tailing ones – generally an unpleasant experience that usually results in less casting range, fatigue and frustration. So, if I absolutely must get the fly to sink, I’ll use tips with the reasonable sink rate, starting with an intermediate sink rate. In my opinion, these tips cast relatively smooth and with good distance and accuracy. I typically tie my streamers unweighted or weighted with dumbell eyes to keep the hook point facing up (Snag-free); I might also weight it at the fly head just enough to affect a taunting jigging action. The weight I apply is not intended to “bomb” the fly down to the bottom but make it “fishy”. Tying the tail with rabbit fur gives me an option to trim it down on on the water if the fish are biting short and missing the hook. If I don’t like the way the rubber legs are working, I can snip those shorter, or completely off.
Getting an unweighted streamer down to the fish is easier to do in current, and can be done effectively in all but the deepest holes by casting up stream, or up current. Throw a mend upstream to reduce drag and allow the fly to sink. Then as the fly passes you, you may have to mend down current in order to maintain the least amount of drag on the line – read the water. Drag will lift the fly, as will stripping. Towards the end of the swing, I usually mend again up stream and then play the fly a bit while I retrieve. Sometimes, it’s desirable to ungulate the fly up and down, so stripping or allowing drag (briefly) creates a desired jigging action. If that doesn’t get the fly down far enough, then get the fly swimming, letting the action of the fly materials entice a bite. Since I usually don’t use a strike indicator I might be missing a few takes, but I’ve found that by the end of the drift, I’ve drawn interest and often get hook ups.
Since a big fish will take a tiny fly, and small fish will take a large one, I deduce that size is not critical with streamers and instead I select one that casts the best. In my opinion, the color and/or the action of the fly are more critical to enticing a bite than size. That said, when a fly is on the surface, color is muted considerably, so this color “rule” is one I apply to subsurface techniques only. I’m just not convinced that any fish can distinguish the hue of the wings on a dry fly, nor am I convinced they can count the number of legs on that stonefly pattern.