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

By Joel Vance | April 2, 1999
From Missouri Conservationist: Apr 1999

Maybe that's another reason the fly can't get no respect. It defies easy classification. It won't hold still. It is all things to all people. It is a Big Mac oozing savory juices on a silver serving platter designed for coq au vin.

The woolly worm is so effective that some trout anglers are reluctant to use one. It is treated by fly fishing purists as barely more acceptable than a nightcrawler as a lure. Why? It is a pattern that dates to Izaak Walton, 300 years ago.

Yet English fly dressing books don't mention it, and there are no English flies in books I've seen that even remotely suggest the woolly worm.

The woolly worm catches fish from pike to panfish, from tench to trout, and is so simple to use that even a mistake is correct. Fishing a woolly worm requires no more finesse than mud wrestling. It takes no real skill, and I suppose that's why so many slick fly casters feel that fishing a woolly worm is like Michael Jordan going one-on-one with Mister Rogers.

Where's the challenge?

In my opinion, the perfect fly wallet for someone who wants to catch fish would contain nothing but woolly worms in various sizes and colors.

It's even easy to tie. The most hamfisted fly tier, who might break down in tears trying to fashion a No. 20 Adams, can whip up a woolly worm that will catch fish.

Woolly buggers are woolly worms with chrome fenders. They also have tails, sometimes of a glitter material. A friend ties one with a couple of shiny strips that flash in the water.

You could catch dead fish out of a supermarket meat display with that thing. It is dangerous to carry in your fly wallet. Voracious bluegills will leap from the water and chew through your waders to get at it.

The woolly worm/bugger has become popular on Western trout streams where large flies are so frequently effective. Western angling guru Bud Lilly says woolly worms and their kin are especially effective fished on the bottom in early spring. "I know this isn't a lot of people's idea of graceful fly fishing," he says in his Guide to Western Fly Fishing, "and it does seem a lot like bait fishing with a fly, but it's deadly when the timing is right."

There it is again-that apologetic, abashed, left-handed compliment, as if the angler is ashamed to be caught using a woolly 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!

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Assistant Editor - Charlotte Overby
Managing Editor - Jim Auckley
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer