Gary Kemsley believes one fly to be near perfect for numerous situations and applications, and shares the reasons why.
This is about a fly that you can trust; one that will produce in most situations when chasing trout. You’ve probably got one in your fly box – almost everybody does upon getting a season or two under the belt.
The fly is, of course, the Woolly Bugger. It’s a pattern that travels well and fools a wide variety of fish species around the world in both fresh and salt water. It comes in a myriad of colours, but the most popular are black and green; white has proven to be a winner in saltwater. This fly can be weighted in the head to give it a jigging ability, too.
The pattern accompanied the influx of US anglers who descended on our trout fisheries in the 1970s; fishing travel was particularly fashionable amongst those anglers who had the money for it at that time. I wonder how many New Zealand trout have been taken on a Woolly Bugger in New Zealand waters since then?
Like the vast majority of great fly patterns, the Woolly Bugger is simple to tie, with only three materials required: marabou feathers, saddle hackle and chenille. Better still, it’s possible to let your colour choice go crazy and tie flies that the fish have never seen before.
Want some inspiration? Have a look at the latest versions being touted in Taupo and Rotorua for the winter and spring runners in the rivers there. You might think that this simply supports the popular belief that crazy rainbow trout will have a slash at anything – and you’re probably right!
But this pattern is also very good when fishing for brown trout at the change of light and after dark, with the big black models proving particularly effective on the large browns that cruise the big river pools and mouths. Believe me, they will spot and take them without any trouble.
Personally, my all-time favourite version has a black marabou tail and orange chenille body, with a black hackle wound through that body from tail to head. The head is finished with a couple of turns of a longer saddle hackle, tied off and painted black.
However, a completely white version has fished well for me in saltwater, with a bright orange one working well on kahawai and mackerel when fished under lights.
Woolly Buggers are easy to fish, too – you can’t do anything wrong, really. I fish big pools in rivers with a slow, deep approach, getting the fly down as far as possible and creeping it around on or near the bottom. Due to the materials and the manner in which this fly is tied, it’s a very mobile pattern; the water flow over the body hackles creates a turbulence that activates the tail, making it undulate. Trout have great trouble resisting anything waggling its tail at them, so if you have done the first part right and found the fish, it’s likely that this fly will do the rest for you.
These flies work well when fished from the bank into still waters, too. A slow-sinking line can keep the flies above any weeds; I start at the surface and fish deeper and deeper with each cast till I find the fish. I retrieve the fly quickly so any fish that want it must chase it down, resulting in some savage takes!
When fishing from a boat into deeper still waters, I will change to a fast-sinking line so it tows the fly into the depths after the cast. I always give the fly some bottom time, a few fast strips, and then let it settle again. Often a fish will take the fly as it settles, so watch where the sinking line enters the water like a hawk – anything other than the natural sinking movement should be treated as a bite and the line tightened immediately.
If there is no response down deep, try fast-stripping retrieves to bring the fly almost (but not quite) to the surface. I stop the fly just out of sight, about a metre or two under the surface. This is known as ‘hanging the fly’. It always amazes me how often this works: within 10 seconds of stopping the retrieve, the rod will often wrench down with a fish tugging away on the end.
On a clear water day with a high sun you can sometimes see it unfolding, with up to three or four fish fighting over the fly – so if you use two or three flies, you may be in trouble!
In fact, this very scenario happened to me at Lake Rotoaira near Turangi. I was fishing with a green Woolly Bugger on the end with a small single-hackle Red Setter on a dropper 50cm above it. I’d made my cast, sunk the fly, jiggled it about a bit near the bottom and then made a fast retrieve. A mark with a waterproof marker pen on my fly line indicated where to stop the retrieve to get the best hang from the fly. As the marker came to my finger I stopped.
Almost immediately the rod tip went down and a fat, colourful 1.5kg rainbow took to the air. Then he jumped again, only this time he was about a kilo and dark in colour, and I quickly realised I had two fish on. Fortunately, they played each other out and I landed both. Nice result – and it was in a contest, too!
Woolly Buggers are also well suited to being fished with a greased leader when the trout are feeding well back in the weedy shallows of lakes such as Aniwhenua and Lake Otamangakau. The trout know these shallow areas offer good hunting grounds and will cruise around looking for damsel and dragonfly nymphs, as well as small baitfish that are not game to head out into open waters. In Aniwhenua the trout often slashed around in the shallows after small carp, while in Otamangakau damsel flies and their nymphs were the primary targets.
However, using anything but a dry fly will drive you mad, with the fly catching in the weeds all the time. So try using your highestfloating fly line attached to a two-metre leader that’s been greased with fly floatant, along with the smallest, lightest Woolly Bugger in your box.
Now look for areas where there is heavy weed growth covered by 20cm to half a metre of water, as well as the telltale wakes and swirls of cruising fish. Cast ahead of these indicators and start your retrieve as soon as the fly lands. Often success will be instantaneous and spectacular – but on other days you will keep hooking the weeds and wonder why you’re even trying!
But, as I wrote earlier, you can’t do anything too badly wrong with a Woolly Bugger – except leave it in the fly box!
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