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It's a worm... It's a fly... It's Dynamite!

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Published on: Apr. 2, 1999

worm. Maybe it's the "worm" in the name-suggestive of the much-scorned (and deadly effective) garden hackle.

The modern woolly worm surfaced in the Ozarks of Missouri and Arkansas in the 1920s as a smallmouth bass fly. It's no wonder that the first fly I ever cast was a woolly worm.

I was so new to fly fishing that I held a fly rod like a shy teenage boy holds the girl of his dreams at the senior prom-awkwardly and uncertainly.

"What do I do?" I asked my mentor.

"Throw it in the water," he said, reducing great wisdom to simplicity.

"Then what?" I asked, recalling all the trout fishing lore I'd read over the years about the need to cast a fly with pinpoint accuracy and the delicacy of a brain surgeon.

"Then you wait till something happens."

That's one way to fish the woolly worm-let it tumble through the water like a dead whatever.

Or you can swim it with short strips or a hand-over-hand retrieve to make it look like a minnow, albeit one with serious skin problems.

Eric Leiser, in his book on stoneflies, classes the woolly worm among the stoneflies, but it imitates no given insect. Famed angler Lee Wulff classed the woolly worm along with the Royal Wulff and Mickey Finn as an attractor.

The traditional colors are brown and black but my favorite is an olive woolly bugger, size 10.

I once caught a world record channel catfish on a woolly bugger.

Only I turned it loose. I was fishing for bluegills when the channel cat inhaled the fly. There was an epic battle (I'll spare you the details) then I landed the fish, a nice one of about 3 pounds. It was a glorious fishing accomplishment, because I was using a brand new 2-pound test tippet.

Since I wasn't keeping fish that day, I turned the catfish loose. A couple of days later, I was thumbing through the records of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and happened to see the channel cat line class records. There was none listed for 2-pound test. A three-inch channel cat could have qualified for a world record.

Anyway, the woolly worm is lethal fished dead-drift or given hand action on the retrieve. In addition to world record channel catfish, I've caught trout, bass and panfish, including crappie, on woolly worm variations, and I'm convinced the woolly bugger will take pike as well-they'll hit anything moving, especially if it has a bit of glitter.

When you're fishing a woolly worm deep, tie it weighted or use a split shot a few inches above the fly. It works best with a sink-tip line.

Make a strike indicator by painting the first three or four inches of your leader butt with fluorescent paint, available from hobby stores. If there is a change in the motion of the drifting fly line-a hesitation or jerk-set the hook.

Anglers unused to fishing nymphlike flies won't see many strikes and will catch most fish as the fly swings at the end of the drift. Those takes are the ones you feel, since there is tension on the line, rather than a loose dead-drift.

The simplest woolly worm fishing I've done was on the Madison River in Montana. I was using a Bitch Creek nymph, a large, ugly black fly which is a variation of the woolly worm. Despite the exotic locale, we were in a good ol' Missouri johnboat manufactured in the Ozarks, and we were fishing Ozarks-style. Ozark johnboats and Ozark fishing techniques are universal.

As the boat drifted, we'd flip the nymph slightly ahead of it and let it drift until the boat, moving slightly faster, passed the sunken fly. Then I'd pick up the cast and flip it again.

The skill level was just about equivalent to bank fishing for bullheads.

But I caught fish.

So, here we are with a fly that is so good that purists don't want to use it. The perfect fly for them is one that never catches a fish. It is the ultimate challenge. "If I can catch a fish with this No. 38 imitation of a Petri dish culture, I am the world's greatest angler!" they thunder.

Fine, but give me a chunk of woolly worm and a discount house fly rod. I'm gonna catch me some fish!

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