More to wool than scratchy sweaters and subsurface sculpins
It's natural to assume that wool is absorbent. As a tying material, it's virtually always used for subsurface sculpin imitations. The kinky wool, bound around a hook shank in bunches, flares out so that when trimmed it simulates a sculpin's broad head. And it looks and performs well in this capacity, too.
So assuming that wool is absorbent is quite reasonable—but it's wrong. Wool is, in fact, stubbornly buoyant. Just because you can make something sink doesn't mean it wants to. Wool and yarn strike indicators, for instance, float exceedingly well with a dab of silicone floatant.
I learned how buoyant wool can be about 25 years ago, when I tied a bass streamer with a tightly packed wool body and couldn't get the thing to sink after 20 minutes of splatting it onto the water, and squeezing the air out of it underwater. It was supposed to sink. Don't ask me why I blew off this revelation for a couple of decades. I guess I just didn't think it through.
I finally did get around to experimenting with wool's buoyancy, though, and eventually came up with the Woolly Wing, which some of my friends also call the Woolly Wonder. I use it to imitate caddis and stonefly adults, varying the size of the hook and the colors to match the naturals hatching on the water.
From a trout's view, caddis and stonefly adults look similar. Both species have stout bodies and distinct profiles on the water, wings that come together over the back and show along the edges and past the rear of the abdomen, and six legs radiating out from the sides of the thorax. Eyeing their prey from below, trout can't see that stonefly wings lie flat while caddis wings cup over the body. And stonefly tails (which caddis don't have) are wisps of minor consequence.
I use a Woolly Wing during caddis (#12-18) and stonefly activity (#6-10) on my home waters such as Washington's Yakima River. After catching a lot of trout, the fly just keeps on floating.
The Woolly Wing's plump body, and the way it presses down into the underwater world of the trout—where they can see it coming from far off—offers an advantage over big, high-standing dry flies like the Improved Sofa Pillow. Although larger, these flies often have a smaller footprint, and may drift by unnoticed and untouched.
I have created a series of variations to imitate specific insects, but I never hesitate to simply fish a Woolly Wing as a stout, attractor dry fly or as a buoyant lead fly for a dry/dropper rig. I've had excellent fishing with big (#4-6) Woolly Wings when no adult insects of any kind were around, perhaps because the trout mistook it for a grasshopper or other terrestrial.
The wool I use—and I can't say I've noticed any significant difference in the looks or the buoyancy from one brand to the next—is marketed as Sculpin Wool or Lamb's Wool from Wapsi, Hareline Dubbin, and others. I prefer fairly thick, coarse wool for my Woolly Wing.
Skip Morris is the author of ten books on fly fishing and tying. His latest is Trout Flies for Rivers (Stackpole Books, 2009).
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