Red Woolly Buggers by Mark Usyk

I'd struggled through my first year with a fly rod in my hand in epic failure for the most part. The casting came fairly easy when I decided to give it a try. It was the catching that challenged me. My first fish came a couple months into the struggle, if you can call a four inch minnow a fish. I've found them in the Field Guide to North American Fishes, Whales and Dolphins… So as far as I'm concerned when I catch a minnow I've caught a fish. To argue the contrary is like standing around at a wedding reception debating whether or not the little cocktail wienies can in fact be referred to as small hot dogs or not. In the end, they both make a turd. Just like in the end I'll hook minnows from time to time the same as Bass. And now that I think about it, when I do catch minnows, I sometimes refer to them as little turds. Ahhh, the universe is a mysterious place.


When I set the goal that first winter of catching a Trout on the fly rod while the banks were covered in snow, I may have been a little premature in my aspirations, but I meet challenges with indifferent ignorance head on sometimes on a daily basis, so why should a winter Trout be any different. My first winter I got a lot of casting practice in. I cleared a lot of ice out of the guides, and did my best on a couple of days of single digit temperatures to keep my spirits high while my fingers lost their ability to feel the fly line let alone tie a knot in a leader. I literally caught nothing but a cold that first winter. Well, probably more like three or four colds.

During my second year of the fly rod I gained some confidence. I caught my first Trout on the fly, a few nice Bass, and in general cut down somewhat on lost flies in trees and bushes. I was still horrible. I still carried a spinning rod with me for those times when I couldn't take the frustrations of that long, whippy, source of four letter words and just wanted to catch a fish. But as a whole I had progressed more than gone backwards. And me being a quitter, the fact that I was still pushing forward meant something deep down inside. I was going to continue to improve, or die a horrible fly fisherman. But either way I was going to die a FLY FISHERMAN. Good or bad.


So that second winter, as I sat at my vice thinking about the creek out back and how I was about to again take back up the struggle the following day I rifled through a small assortment of feathers, in search of what I wasn't sure. I wasn't overwhelmed yet by mountains of hooks and materials of every sort, I was only in the beginning stages of fly tying, still convinced I was doing it to save money. My hands came to hold a bag of red marabou and I shuffled through a handful of hackle packages, coming to rest at the matching red. I then proceeded to tie up a red Woolly Bugger. A red Woolly Bugger? Yes. Why? I told you… Because the universe is a mysterious place.



The next day around noon, feeling the temperature was just about at the days peak I layered up and fought my way into my waders. I marched down my street, a dog barking inside through a picture window alerting its owners to the fact that the crazy fishing guy is at it again. Doesn't he know it’s winter? At the creek I found myself standing uneasily on a six foot shelf of ice, the winter hard at work trying to close off my opportunities for what could be the rest of the season. Time was limited. Perhaps a day, perhaps only hours, but soon the water would be hard all the way across. Rather than stand on the ice above the water I slid myself carefully down into the water and found it waist deep. I stripped line from the reel and made my first cast 45 degrees upstream and across.


I made half a dozen casts, letting my strange creation of red feathers drift and drag across the bottom of the slow moving stretch of creek. Each one came up empty. I wondered to myself why I had tied such an odd fly, why I hadn't just gone with a typical olive or black, or why I didn't just fish a tiny nymph like everyone else would this time of year. Then I remembered my head-on ignorance. Ah yes. I wasn't doing anything out of the ordinary after all. I cleaned ice from the guides for the second time in as many minutes and thought to myself I ought to just go home. One more cast and I'd hook the Bugger in the keeper and call it quits.


As the odd and homely creation made its final swing across the tail end of the slow run I lifted the rod tip and began to reel it in, accepting failure yet again. That's when it happened. The line went tight, and for 5 seconds I was convinced I had snagged a log, and then the line resonated with tension as it began to cut across the surface of the creek to the opposite side.


I laughed out loud, then the seriousness of my first winter catch on the fly took over. I was suddenly fearful that at any second the tippet would snap and I’d never even get a glimpse of whatever it was playing tug-of-war at the other end. In the end I found myself struggling with the rod held high and behind me, my left arm stretched out for all it was worth trying to capture the bruiser of a fifteen inch Brown Trout, the fish undoubtedly embarrassed by having been fooled by such an unnatural and peculiar fake.


Since the air temperature was hovering around the twelve degree mark I didn’t want to keep the Brown out of the water very long. I tossed the fly rod up on the ice. I needed proof. I did my best to snap a couple selfies with the humiliated Trout which did it’s best to look away from the camera in shame, and I removed the hook. All the while laughing out loud to myself like a lunatic. Had anyone been in earshot of the scene they most likely would have been calling the people that hand out the strait jackets. “There’s a nut job standing in the half frozen creek, I think he’s got an unhealthy brain freeze going on. You better go pull the poor S.O.B. from the water before he hurts himself.”

The fish swam back out into the easy current, most likely with an image of that ungodly red thing it had for some reason thought would be a good lunch stuck in it’s mind, most likely hoping none of the other fish were close enough to see it all unfold. I almost made another cast. Almost. But then I thought the odds of another Trout as the temperature was beginning its drop in the same spot on that same Woolly Bugger were slim. I figured why ruin the rest of the day by ending the outing with a bunch of empty casts. I’d end it with a fifteen inch Brown on a peculiar, but somehow now attractive red Woolly Bugger that had been tied due only to the mysteries of the universe.


I should have made a few more casts. That evening the ice managed to reach from both sides to meet in the middle, and the rest of the winter the Trout stayed safely below. Locked under ten inches of ice, while the air struggled to climb above -20 above it, I stared out my window for the rest of the winter knowing they were there. It was possible. And Mother Nature was laughing her butt off deciding to close off my opportunities until spring. The ice is all but gone today, and the slush flows are thinning out. Time to tie a red Bugger.