Tying Your First Fly: The Woolly Bugger
New to fly tying? Read and watch along as Fly Fishing Expert Robert Levin shows how to tie the woolly bugger—the perfect beginner fly.
So you have your tools together and your materials ready, let’s tie your first fly! Watch the video below to see how to tie the wooly bugger or read on for exact instructions!
When tying a fly, the first step is to have the hook held firmly in the vise. You can create a lot of tension on the hook with a strong thread so the hook needs to be held tight. You want to find a balance between keeping some tension on the thread but not having it so tight that you snap the thread. This is part of what we call “controlling the material.” This is the start of the learning curve—getting comfortable with each type of material will take a little practice. Once this is done, though, you will actually begin to enjoy the pastime. As you move forward, know that each material has its idiosyncrasies but I’m here to give you tips to tame them for the most part.
Most flies start by fastening the thread to the hook shank. The video demonstrates this process. The thing to keep in mind here is that starting the fly with the thread too loose will allow the fly materials to shift around on the hook shank. This means that, if you’re able to use it at all, the fly won’t last very long. Many fly tyers put a small dab of super glue on the thread after anchoring it on the hook shank. This isn’t a bad habit to develop! Some fly tyers even do this after attaching each material component of the fly. It is generally not necessary, but there is no question that this makes the fly more durable.
Next, consider the proportion of the fly. Since most flies are replicas, even if in profile only, of food substances fish naturally feed upon, it is believed that fish memorize those profiles. The flies you tie need to replicate those profile proportions. In most cases, the hook size will dictate the size of the fly components. Furthermore, fly recipes will generally hint at what these proportions are depending on the length of the hook shank. There are gauges sold to measure feather fiber length for wings on a particular hook size, which can be very helpful for a beginner, but after a while, you will just know what looks right.
Don’t be fooled though! Big fish still eat small insects and crustaceans. Legendary fly fisher Lee Wulff loved to catch big Atlantic salmon on little twenty-something hooks. His 1967 record of a 148-pound striped marlin taken on a fly rod and 12-pound tippet off Ecuador still stands!
The next step is the best tip for fly tying that I could ever pass along. Just about every fly you will ever tie requires that you fasten some material to the hook at a particular position on the hook shank. It may be on the top, bottom, or either side. As you hold the material against the hook shank and wrap the thread coming from the bobbin with tension around the material, the thread pushes the material away from where you are holding it. When you tighten the thread and let go of the material, it spins away from where you were holding it. Here is the best thing you will ever learn about material control: as you hold the material against the hook with your thumb and forefinger, pinch it. Then, bring the thread up between your thumb and forefinger and include it in the pinch. Continue upward a short distance and create a short loop at the top, then bring the bobbin tip down including the thread between your fingers again and maintain the pinch. Now, while holding the pinch, pull the thread tight against the hook. Repeat this a second time. The material is now tied in place on the hook shank where you placed it.
Some materials are a bit more chaotic than others. Natural materials often fall into this category. Individual fibers like hair and fine feathers, such as Marabou, are notorious for this chaos. For hair, there is a tool that is basically a cylinder with a closed end, like a lipstick cap, that you place some clipped hair into and tap it on a solid surface. This aligns the ends of the hair for your use. For Marabou, you just gather a clump together in your fingers and shift the fibers a bit if necessary. Marabou is typically used for tails because, in the water, the fibers swish back and forth and create a motion that simulates a swimming fish’s tail. For many flies, the length of the tail is about the length of the hook shank. You place the bundle of Marabou against the hook shank to measure it, then move the bundle to the tie point and use the pinch method to attach it to the hook.
On many flies, yarn or chenille is used to create a body profile. The shape of this profile is typically an oval with the back and front tapered to a point. Keep this shape in mind when wrapping turns around the hook shank. To build up the profile you will typically wrap multiple layers of yarn on top of each other. Make each subsequent layer shorter than the last and you will end up with an oval shape.
Some fly bodies are made entirely of loose fibers that are wound around the thread before being wrapped on the hook shank. This material is called dubbing. It is often used where a certain color is required and a pre-wound yarn of that color is not available. By mixing some fibers of the right colors, you can closely simulate the required color. Dubbing is an advanced material and will be included in a future article.
Finally, wind the hackle you previously fastened to the hook shank. Clip the tip of the hackle with your hackle pliers and wind the feather forward, leaving a space between each turn as shown in the video. Some applications of hackle require that you do not leave any space between turns. This is typical for “collars” which simulate the wings of an insect. For the woolly bugger, when you get to the edge of the bead make a few close wraps before tying off the hackle and trimming the extra unwound stub. For new fly tyers, I suggest you end the tie with some half hitches and a small dab of head cement. When you get comfortable with these first steps, you will want to learn how to do a whip finish. There is a tool for doing that but you can actually do it with some manipulation of your fingers. You will see that tool demonstrated in the article for tying the next, more advanced saltwater woolly mantis fly.
If you are following along with this introduction to fly tying and the instructions to tie your first fly, you now have been introduced to the basics of this pastime. It is not hard to get started and give this a try. Chat with a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated and they can offer all the tools, materials, and additional information for you to do this. Like all activities, practice makes perfect. Your skills increase each time you sit down at your tying bench. Thousands have found this to be a relaxing and rewarding activity, even those who don’t fly fish. You can do it—it is worth the try!