June 30, 2023
For the past couple years, I have traded texts and phone calls with Fly Fisherman editor Ross Purnell to determine which flies we will feature in the Fly Tier's Bench column for the upcoming season. He generally gives me free rein to pick the flies if they fit in seasonally and don't overlap too much, or perhaps even complement, other features in any given issue.
This past year was a little different. We hashed out a few different flies but when it came time to finalize the list, Ross very strongly recommended, "You have to look at Ol' Mr. Wiggly."
I'm pretty amenable to suggestions, but this one was a fly I had never even heard of, which was both compelling and worrisome. Ross went on to tell me about his experiences with this small mouth pattern, and told me that he fished this fly more than any other smallmouth fly the previous year in Pennsylvania, and that it was already a staple pattern in Michigan and Wisconsin.
It seems that pressured smallmouths in low, clear water don't crush the conventional chugging poppers of yore like they used to; in fact, the loud popping often spooks them. Savvy bass anglers are now using more subtle, low-floating patterns like Charlie Piette's Ol’ Mr. Wiggly to fool them as they get more finicky.
With this information in my hot little hand, I set out to reach Piette, and rang up Tim Landwehr at Tight Lines Fly Shop in De Pere, Wisconsin, where Piette worked for more than a decade. As it turns out, Piette had just recently moved across the country to manage the Gorge Fly Shop in Oregon, but Landwehr was happy to extol the virtues of this apparently incredible pattern before giving me Piette's cell number so I could finally talk to the man himself. This fly comes highly recommended!
After leaving Piette a fervent message telling him that I simply must talk to him about this fly, he called me back right away and I was struck by what an easygoing, humble guy he is, a trait that carries through with every truly good angler and tier I have ever met. Piette was very forthcoming with the details on his fly and gave credit where credit is due for the ideas behind it.
In the fly-fishing industry's equivalent of an unpaid internship, years ago, Piette just hung around Tight Lines enough that Landwehr finally hired him. Piette worked in the shop while he finished his bachelor's degree, and he started guiding while pursuing his master's degree at University of Wisconsin in Green Bay. During the early days of the Tight Lines smallmouth operation, the shop had a repeat client named Jack Allen who was a backcountry largemouth bass guide down in Florida. The patterns Allen fished made the Tight Lines staff take a whole different approach to topwater flies for smallmouths. Allen often fished slightly oversized sponge panfish spiders for Florida fish, and the Wisconsin smallmouth ate these unusual patterns very confidently and in an entirely different manner than they would a conventional popper. After also experimenting with Western patterns like the Chernobyl Ant and Fat Albert, Piette combined the ideas for a bit more purpose-built fly for his home waters.
The resulting fly came to be known as Ol’ Mr. Wiggly, no doubt owing to its protuberance of extra-long, dangly Sili Legs. Constructed only of various colors of 2mm foam, Sili Legs, and a bit of dubbing, Piette's simple fly has taken the Midwest smallmouth fishery by storm.
Ol’ Mr. Wiggly (OMW) sits lower on the water than conventional topwater flies for smallmouths and creates less of a disturbance when it lands on the water. It seems smallmouths have gotten wise to the old, loud, bubbling patterns and seem to really key in on this more subtle offering. You can occasionally add subtle twitches when fishing this fly, but it's meant mostly to be dead drifted.
The long Sili Legs add all the movement you need in clear, slow water, and they present the illusion of life even in the flattest and shallowest water. Piette likes to fish the OMW in tailouts and smoother flowing water. Purnell tells me that the fish most often gently sip this fly like trout suck in mayfly duns or spinners. The smaller, more collapsible profile also makes for a fly that lands softly and is easier to cast than its predecessors.
Piette fishes the OMW as you might fish a hopper from a drifting boat, with a downstream cast angled toward the bank with a long, essentially dead drift in most cases, but he did mention that imparting a little tug now and then can also draw strikes. Often, when you make an upstream mend to continue the drift, just that slight unintentional movement of the fly can draw strikes.
Piette likes the blue and green Loco Foam versions to imitate the dragon and damselfly emergences of summertime, and fishes other colors in the interim as conditions and prey dictate. I'm sure bass take this fly as a hopper, cicada, or small frog from time to time, depending on the color schemes. It simply looks alive in the water.
While the OMW looks unconventional to this old trout fisherman, I can clearly see where a stealthy yet animated pattern like this could be an ace in the hole. I've tied up a couple dozen in preparation for this article that will go directly into my own fly box, and I now have an actual fly order from the esteemed editor Mr. Purnell for a couple dozen more for his personal stash as well. I guess I should have known this fly was gonna be a good one the minute I found out it was invented by a guy named Charlie.
Step-by-Step Fly-Tying Instructions for Charlie Piette’s Ol’ Mr. Wiggly
- Begin by dressing the shank from the hook eye to the bend and back again, then return the thread to the bend, creating a corrugated thread base on the shank. Cut a strip of Loco Foam that is slightly wider than half the hook gap and about 4 inches long.
- Leave the thread hanging about even with the hook point and put a small drop of Super Glue at the bend.
- Fold the foam in half so the folded end extends beyond the hook eye. Tie down the folded foam at the bend on top of the glue with three vertical turns of thread. Wet the thread with saliva or use dubbing wax to help the thread sink into the foam without "grabbing" it as you wrap.
- Dub a portion of the body with Black Peacock Ice Dub, pull the foam forward over the dubbing, and cinch it down in place with four or five tight, wetted thread turns to create the next segment.
- Repeat the dubbing and segment steps a total of three times, creating three segments.
- Tie in three strands of black/blue Speckle Flake Sili Legs in a short loop on either side of the body in the last segment. The short loop will keep the otherwise loose ends out of your way while you tie the rest of the fly.
- Fold the Sili Legs loop back to clear them out of the way and dub one more time to just short of the hook eye. Fold the foam forward one final time and form the final segment just behind the hook eye.
- Separate three strands of Smoke Gray Speckle Flake Sili Legs from the hank, keeping the strands attached at their bases. Clip the bunch in half at the center and tie in three strands along the near side at the center of their lengths, with the connected end to the front.
- Finally, tie in a narrow strip of yellow foam on the top of that final segment as an indicator. Wrap the thread forward under the folded end of the foam to just behind the hook eye. Whip-finish and clip the thread there.
- Place your lower scissor blade into the loop of blue/black Speckle Flake Sili Legs and clip them at the center. Lift all the Smoke Gray Sili Legs above the hook and trim them to about one shank length. Trim the back end of the indicator to just a bit longer than the next segment.
- Put a light coat of Super Glue on the top of the bottom piece of foam beyond the bend and pinch the top layer down onto it, gluing the two pieces together.
- Clip the end of the foam body to a short angle to complete the fly. Coat each of the segment wraps with a thin layer of Super Glue all the way around to increase durability.
Charlie Craven co-owns Charlie's Fly Box in Arvada, Colorado. He is the author of four books, most recently Tying Streamers: Essential Flies and Techniques for the Top Patterns (Stackpole Books, 2020).