Back to Basics — Back to Buggers

by | Mar 16, 2018 | 16 comments

Bill texted me at 2:00 pm.

“How’s the fishing, and where should we meet?” he wrote.

The chilly April day was changing from perfectly cloudy and drizzly to a pure washout. More of the darkening sky slid over the horizon as I hustled back to the truck. Patches of heavy rain were dumping buckets throughout the region, and in a few hours the whole river would be muddy.  Some sections were still fishable, but not for long.

Under the shadow of the rear hatch, I stashed wet gear into the truck and changed into a drier shirt as another SUV arrived from upstream and turned into the dirt pull-off. Both side windows slid down, and I saw three fishermen inside.

“How’d you make out?” the young driver asked. “Is it muddy down below too?” He gestured in the direction of the rising river, just out of sight beyond the hemlocks.

“No.” I shook my head. “Fishing was pretty solid. Water is cloudy but fine.”

I spotted their truck’s wet and dripping undercarriage. Surely, they’d been through some heavy rain just a few minutes earlier.

“Is the creek all mud upstream?” I asked.

“Yeah.” The passenger in the backseat nodded. “Rain’s coming down hard.

Strange. I’d begun the morning by fishing the lower river, but I moved to this middle piece when heavy rains sent brown lines into the river from every ditch and driveway in the valley. Those mud lines mixed quickly, and I’d assumed the whole river would be a hopeless mess as I packed up and flipped on the windshield wipers. That is, until I found dry roads and sunlight about five miles upstream, so I’d parked right here in the dirt and gravel.

Apparently, I’d lucked into the perfect choice of locations, with muddy conditions both above and below this early afternoon stretch. But with the intel from the three fishermen, I knew the entire river was about to be chocolate soup.

“Alright, well thanks,” I said. “Good luck.”

As three solemn fishermen drove away, the guy in the rear seat looked back. I stared, nodded with a half smile, and he gave a little wave.

I closed my hatch, climbed behind the wheel and cranked the engine. The wipers started up again, and I remembered Bill’s text about where to meet. So I typed back:

Don’t come here. It’ll be blown out in a half-hour.

— — — — — —

Bill and I met on the upper river, with hopes that the rain buckets had missed the headwaters. No luck. It was muddy too. So we drove one valley over, hoping to find clearer water on a small stream that flows only through forests and no farmland. Still no luck. We could have driven into the mountains to fish the brook trout streams, but with more than half the day gone, neither of us had the ambition in us. So we hopelessly fished the mud for a short time. Then we stood and talked at the tailgates for another hour as evening set it, wishing that one of us had brought beer.

Somewhere in the conversation, Bill said something that stuck with me.

“I’m reverting back,” he said. “Going back to the basic bugger. Sixes and eights. No frills. Nothing fancy. Just a black bugger.”

That’s a damn good idea.

As much as I try to keep things simple for myself, I’m too often lured in by the latest, greatest, next-best-thing-ever streamer pattern to come around. And while I do believe that reasonably sized, natural streamers catch more good trout than huge streamers, I find myself looking at a simple #8 bugger these days and thinking, “Oh, that’s not nearly good enough.”

For many years, my best streamer has been a basic, two-and-a-half inch olive sculpin. And even though my go-to streamer before that was, in fact, a simple black Wooley Bugger, I still feel compelled to throw bigger and flashier stuff, probably too often — and probably because they look cool.

I swear streamer fishing used to be better around here, and I blame that on the enormous popularity of tying and throwing big meat. Everyone is chucking large streamers, and some trout on popular waters now seem to be laughing as they back away from the big bugs. I’m looking at you, Galloup, Shultz, Schmidt and Lynch, and you, Madden, Pierce and Strolis. And to all the streamer junkies out there slingin’ the big flies . . . this is all your fault.

Seems to me that I used to be able to rustle up at least a few fish just about anytime I tied on a streamer. But now, if there’s not a real streamer bite, I’m screwed.

So last night I once again sat down to tie the fly that used to fill my streamer box — a black bugger. As a minor addition to the old standard, I’ve always allowed myself the eccentricity of an olive grizzly hackle, but nothing else. So I started there.

As I attached the tail, I decided that a couple strands of krystal flash wouldn’t hurt anything. After all, trout do like a little shimmer and shine. Midway through palmering the barred hackle, I paused. Hey, what’s wrong with a couple rubber legs, really? The extra wiggle surely improves the attraction of the pattern. Then, at the head of the fly, I wrapped a schlappen collar. (It just seemed so thin without it.) Lastly, I added a red hot collar behind the eye — because it looked good.

I took the fly from the vise and turned it in my fingers, admiring it from every angle.

“Well that looks just fine,” I thought.

Then in a moment of impulse, I reached for the Beadalon wire, found another hook of the same size, lined up a couple red glass beads . . . and I articulated the damn thing.

I gave it a deer hair head and collar too. It looked fantastic.

Shit.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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16 Comments

  1. Tough to improve on perfection. Wooly Buggers are my “Go To” streamer.

    Reply
    • Right on, Andy. Simpler is so often better . . . but that’s hard to remember sometimes!

      Reply
  2. This is one of my favorite Troutbitten stories. The last several paragraphs are classic. I knew as I was reading where this was heading, because I’ve been there too. We all have. Funny stuff and so true!

    Reply
  3. I dead drift, swing, and sometimes jig (inducing a take) an olive wooly bugger. Skunk no more for sure.

    Reply
    • Skunk no more. That would make an interesting article title. I like it.

      Reply
  4. Trying new patterns is part of the fun of tying flies for a hobby. But, I find myself going back more and more to the patterns I grew up with like basic woolly buggers and hare’s ears, PTs, etc. Experimenting is fun, but I know where my bread an butter lies. Tie hard, my friends!

    Reply
      • Haha, love this. Flies really do seem to catch anglers as much as fish. I know for you it’s always intertwined with logic and strategy, but none of us can totally escape the aesthetics and romanticism of our pastime.

        Reply
  5. my favorite fly is the murdich minnow. I love to tie em, and love to see the murky whiteness of it swim under the surface only to be interrupted by the violent bronze flash of a smallmouth. however, last week my bro in law and I were out and I wasn’t having any luck with the murdich. but he was cleaning up on a size 10 simple black bugger (similar to the picture but with a brass bead). go figure.

    Reply
    • “Similar, BUT . . .”

      See what I mean? 🙂 Everyone wants to change it. Adding a bead or conehead completely changes the performance of the original bugger. I love it.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
  6. LOL great read Dom, thanks for the laugh. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Such a timely article. I was up at **** this past weekend with hopes of throwing sulphur dry flies to rising fish. An inch of rain and a creek that went from 355 CFS and gin clear to 885 and brown sunk my spirits. So I started tossing a black bugger and picked up 6 nice size fish on the swing. Had a blast and the black woolly saved my weekend!

    Reply
  8. Another great read. Good to know you’re vulnerable like the rest of us.
    *Always appreciate your willingness to respond to questions – thank you.

    Reply

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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