How To Fish Stillwaters

September 1st, 2003

Stillwaters, lakes, ponds and reservoirs are the most underutilized fisheries in the North America. Why? Because the average fly fisher doesn't know how to fish them, or where to start. Stay tuned, you too can master stillwaters! ~ LadyFisher

The Ubiquitous Woolly Worm

By Marv Taylor, Garden City, ID

While doing research on the ubiquitous woolly worm, the first thing I tried to pin down was the correct spelling. I found it spelled WOOLLY...WOOLLEY... WOOLY...WOOLEY, and WOOLLIE. I suppose if I'd spent more time in this part of my research, I might have found two or three more variations. For the record, I'm partial to WOOLLY WORM.

The original Woolly Worm, one of the most used fly patterns in the history of the sport of flyfishing - with almost infinite variations - was first dressed to imitate a caterpillar. The original dressing of black, yellow, black chenille, with white hackle was a very close imitation.

Somewhere along the way, the Woolly Worm outgrew the caterpillar image and countless variations surfaced. They have been used successfully as leech, dragonfly, damsel nymph, stonefly, cranefly larva, and forage fish patterns. I'm sure at some time, woollys have been mistaken by fish for every life form that swims in freshwater, including the tiny chironomids. What else is the Griffith Gnat but a tiny peacock-bodied woolly worm?

According to Roy A. Patrick, the author of Pacific Northwest Fly Patterns, and Terry Hellekson, who wrote Popular Fly Patterns (two excellent reference books for old fly patterns), the fabled fly tier in the Yellowstone Park area, Don Martinez, was chiefly responsible for popularizing the Woolly Worm. Hellekson, however, goes on to say that angling history records similar flies were used in the nineteenth century.

Many times in my entomology seminars, I've been asked if the Woolly Worm in any of its variations imitates any life form closely enough to be considered an imitator pattern. Or, has the success of the fly been due entirely because it seems alive with palmered hackle and should be classed strictly as an attractor. We may never know...the fish just ain't talking.

I remember my pre-float tube days as a gradual learning experience. I progressed from trolling pop gear (we called all multi-bladed trolling rigs "Jack Lloyds" in those days), to light spinning lures like Mepps spinners and spoons, to Woolly Worms. It took only a season or two for me to learn I could catch more trout trolling Woolly Worms, than the less sporting pop gear, and at least as many as I could with my favorite spinning lures.

In the intervening years I evolved from a boat, to an inflatable raft, to a float tube, and in a broadening knowledge of entomology, discovered other stillwater patterns that more closely resembled the life forms we find in lakes and ponds. I still carried Woolly Worms in my stillwater fly assortments, but I was mentally phasing them out, replacing them with more sophisticated patterns.

That being the case, a legitimate question might be: Why am I writing a column devoted to the (old fashioned) Woolly Worm? Am I wasting valuable FAOL space? The answer lies in the simplicity of the pattern. I know some pretty experienced fly fishermen who carry fly boxes stuffed with nothing but Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers.

The only fly that is easier to tie is a mohair stick fly. Both types are basically attractor patterns and are very effective in stillwater. I feel all beginning stillwater fly anglers should be aware of Woolly Worms and Woolly Buggers, and have a least some basic patterns in their fly boxes. While the dark-olive, black, brown, and yellow-bodied Woolly Worms are the most popular variations, the tier is limited only by his imagination on the possible effective combinations of materials.

There are a couple of (relatively) new tying techniques that improve the basic Woolly Worm tie. The hackle-first tie involves tying in the chenille at the bend of the hook, then heavily palmering the hook shank with saddle hackle. The chenille is then wound over the hackle allowing the fibers to stick through between the wraps. It makes a very durable Woolly Worm. I learned this tie about 30 years ago from Ruel Stayner and his group of Twin Falls, Idaho float tubers.

The other new tie was made popular by Dave Whitlock. He ties a peacock herl shellback over the chenille after palmering the hackle. While Dave's pattern is mostly just a Woolly Worm, it offers fish a profile that does look buggier.

Some other innovations I've discovered in my travels include: trimming the hackle down to within 1/8- to 1/4-inch; trimming one side of the hackle before palmering (this gives the illusion of long and short legs); and using mohair instead of chenille to offer a really buggy look; and using long-strand mohair over the chenille instead of saddle hackle (I've named this version my "Woolly Burger").

A pattern I've been developing during the past 25 years, involves wrapping marabou over the hook shank before winding on the chenille. This allows some of the marabou fibers to stick out between the wraps (much like the hackle-first variation). I then palmer the body and trim the hackle fairly short. The fly, in appropriate colors, is an excellent representation of a cased caddis.

Now an obvious question arises: How does the Woolly "Bugger" fit into the picture?

There was a large group of Henry's Lake fly fishermen fishing Woolly Worms with marabou tails, long before anybody coined the term Woolly Bugger. A pattern called the Henry's Lake Leech (a.k.a. Big Red) had been first been tied with a marabou tail several years before I heard someone call his pattern a Woolly Bugger. The pattern also involved trimming the hackle short. I still include Big Red in my top 20 stillwater patterns.

The last time I looked at the "bugger" selection in a fully equipped fly fishing shop, there were five or six dozen different patterns. Every time a new body material comes online, somebody begins tying new woolly bugger patterns.

In my section on leeches, in my book, Float-Tubing The West, I list nine patterns that could fall under the Woolly Bugger heading: My Black & Tan Leech, Halloween Leech, Marv's Halloween Leech, Henry's Lake Leech (Big Red), Canadian Brown Leech, Canadian Red Leech, Horsethief Leech, Black Mohair/marabou Leech, and my Woolly "Burger." Five of these leeches also utilize variegated chenilles instead of the solid colored chenilles used in the past.

Have Woolly Worms been made obsolete by Woolly Buggers? Probably. Should new tiers experiment with both Woolly Worm and Woolly Bugger ties? Of course. In my beginning fly tying classes, the first pattern I have my students tie is a Woolly Bugger.

Over the thirty five years I've been tying flies, I moved from simple Woolly Worms in the beginning, to mohair and fur bodied flies in the '70s. In the mid-80s I returned to variegated chenilles for many of my nymphs, wet flies, and streamer patterns.

Are my current trout flies so superior I will abandon any attempt to improve them? Not at all. I suspect new materials and tying techniques will come along in the future that will tempt me to redesign a lot of my best patterns. In the meantime, I would urge beginning fly tiers to tie the most popular Woolly Worm (bugger) patterns, and be willing to explore new materials and invent some of their own patterns.

I don't care how effective a fly pattern can probably be improved. I've certainly changed my attitudes in this department over the years. If I had uttered those words 15 or 20 years ago, I would probably have had myself committed. I used to argue that if a fly catches fish...leave it alone! I now believe that no matter how effective a fly pattern may be, some slight change or modification might make it even better. ~ Marv

About Marv

Marv Taylor's books, Float-Tubing The West, The Successful Angler's Journal, More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume I) and More Fragments of the Puzzle, (Volume II) are all available from Marv. You can reach Marv by email at or by phone: 208-322-5760.

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