They’re neither worms nor flies; woolly worms flies are man-made replications of a larval insect plus a host of other crawlies. Indeed, these wooly worms are most popular as lures for “wet” fly-fishing, which means they pretend to be many stages in an aquatic insect’s life cycle. While the intent may be to represent the true woolly worm – a fuzzy caterpillar – the fly version can successfully mimic other choice grubs, small fish, and more.
Their history hails back to the 17th century with mention of palmered flies in The Compleat Angler. The art of “palmering” involves a form of “dressing,” or building, a fly. Woolly worm flies go by many names and include a range of “species.” You’ll discover black woolly worms, olive woolly worms, and the most interesting “hot butts” and “egg-sucking leeches.” The “beadhead” is often comprised of a gold bead, the middle section is chenille in an appropriate color, and the tail may be made from red fibers.
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For anglers, the woolly worm fly is an ultimate delight. However, for many it is shunned as an aberration of nature. Perhaps the lure is too easy to use, as it attracts such a wide range of fishes from trout and bluegills to pike and beyond. Many rebel at its use claiming there is no challenge in the woolly worm’s charms. It is simply so attractive to fish that the fun of the hunt is gone. Some even suggest there is more honor in futility.
During the 1970s, the woolly bugger developed as a “descendent” of the woolly worm fly. Like its ancestor, the woolly bugger is versatile and a great imitator. Let it ride high or sink it deep to become a faux salamander, a fish, a leech, and even shelled creatures. Entire books are available on the woolly worm fly family. Experts recommend that sportsmen should keep several colors and sizes in their tackle boxes.
Their inherent success frequently lies in the pretense of acting like a regional replica. In Europe, they are decorated in colors that imitate the larval stage of the stonefly. In the U.S., they are often specific to damselfly or caddis fly larva, which are also called nymphs. The nymphs may vary in color by location and that is why any good sportsperson will carry a host of woolly worm flies in a rainbow of colors. The art of the woolly worm’s success often lies in how it is presented in the water. Make it bounce, pull it along, or let it jerk in a rapids pocket as if it is a larva or perhaps in the throes of death.
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