The Missing Wooley Bugger

My Wooley Bugger was missing. It was Sunday afternoon, the first day of a week-long vacation, and I planned to drive from my home base in Durango up to Lime Creek for a couple of hours of fishing. But I loved that old Wooley Bugger, and it bothered me that it wasn’t where it belonged, snug in my little aluminum fly box.

I’d caught at least four dozen trout with the precious fly during the last year. Even if I didn’t tie it on the line that day, I wanted to bring it along. You know, kind of like a good luck charm. It seemed like a necessary component of my vacation, during which I planned to fish several streams, drink some beer, do a little backcountry hiking and maybe climb Engineer Peak.

Anyway, fishing was number one on the agenda, and going fishing without my battered old Wooley Bugger was unthinkable.

The Wooley Bugger is a fly created by wrapping the long body of a fishing hook in thick, rough thread until it looks like a fluffy tube with a smattering of long hairs sticking out all over and a big luxuriant tail sticking out past the bend of the hook. When it’s dry, a Wooley Bugger looks sort of like a tiny discolored carrot, complete with greens. You can buy or tie them in different colors; brown or black are popular, at least here in my corner of southern Colorado.

My good luck example is dark gray with a spiral of copper wire around the body. Once in the water, the Wooley Bugger’s hair and thread all cling together and the fly transforms into the shape of a hairy minnow. Or maybe the fish think it looks like a caterpillar that fell in the drink, or a tasty piece of filet mignon or something.

Whatever it looks like underwater, fish want to eat it, and that’s what counts. I could just go buy another one at the fly shop, but like I said, I was kind of attached to this particular one. It and I had a history together.

Fishing territory
Fishing territory

I thought back. Where had I last seen the thing? Then I remembered my friend Jay borrowed it a couple of weeks before when we were fishing on the Piedras River over near Dolores.

I’d already caught a couple of nice brookies with the Wooley Bugger that morning, then had switched to a Royal Coachman for kicks. Jay had so far only hooked a single small brookie, too small to keep, on a No. 14 Adams dry fly. He borrowed my treasured Wooley Bugger, tied it on his tippet, and promptly hooked and landed a nice 10-inch brookie and then a 14-inch rainbow.Combined with what I had in the creel, that was plenty for lunch, so we headed home.

Then his old VW van had a flat tire on the way back to town, we hitched a ride with those two nurses in the pickup truck, ended up going out to lunch with them, then dinner, then, well, we ended up leaving the fish in their refrigerator. And I lost track of my lucky fly. I just hope the nurses didn’t let those tasty fish go to waste. I’d hate to think they died in vain.

Anyway, I was pretty sure that the last time I’d seen my Wooley Bugger, it had been hanging from the end of Jay’s 7-foot, No. 5 fly rod.

I dialed Jay’s number. No answer. But Jay usually doesn’t answer his phone unless he’s expecting a call. And he hates answering machines. So I hopped in my car and drove the two miles to his house. I spotted his old Volkswagen van parked in the street in front of the house, so I figured he was home and pulled over the curb. The front door of his apartment was open. I knocked on the screen door.

“Hey, Jay, you in there?” I yelled over the jazz flowing out of a boom box inside. Jay loved listening to jazz. He was also reasonably good with his battered old trumpet, though I rarely heard him play.

“In the kitchen! Come on in,” he said.

He was in the middle of preparing vichyssoise, which is some kind of weird cold French soup whose main ingredient is strained potatoes. Personally, I prefer a nice hot chicken noodle.

The kitchen was a full-scale mess. He was preparing a meal for half a dozen friends. He hadn’t invited me, but considering that cold strained potato soup was on the menu, I wasn’t too put out. I turned down the jazz a few decibels, then asked him if he still had my Wooley Bugger.

“Yeah, man, I caught two fish with it this morning,” he said.

“I want it back. I’m heading up to Lime Creek, and you know it’s my good luck charm,” I said.

“It’s probably in my fishing vest hanging by the door.”

I wandered over and rifled through the vest as Jay started complaining that he had seven people — including a couple of hot chicks — due for an early dinner in less than two hours, and he was low on butter and needed more wine. I didn’t find the fly in the vest. His rod was leaning in the corner, but it had a No. 12 gnat tied on the tippet, not my Wooley Bugger. I made a quick inspection of his decrepit straw cowboy hat, in which a large number of flies were impaled, but no luck there, either. I stepped back to the kitchen to voice my concern over the missing fly. But Jay was still blathering on about his wine shortage.

He’d bought four bottles of his favorite cheap table wine specifically for the dinner, he said, but had split one bottle the night before with Leslie, a woman from work. Leslie lived a couple of blocks away and had invited him over to watch a horror flick on the tube. She loved suspense films, but couldn’t stand to be alone in the house while watching one. It wasn’t the first time Jay had shared a bag of popcorn with her. I’d been to her house a couple of times myself in the role of movie companion.

Leslie was a nice and intelligent lady, a good conversationalist, and very cute. I didn’t mind at all when the really scary parts of a movie arrived and she reflexively grabbed an arm or huddled close against my shoulder. Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t like she’s a tease or anything like that. She just loves scary movies and likes to have someone to hold onto during the creepy parts.

After the movie was over, Jay and I each knew we’d get a grateful smile and maybe a friendly hug, then the door. That was okay with me. Jay and I never spoke of such things, but we each knew the score with Leslie, and each reveled in the experience of a private movie showing with her. She just wanted someone to hold onto for a couple of hours of Hollywood fantasy, then she wanted her privacy. She didn’t have a steady boyfriend to keep her company, which is why she enlisted me or Jay on film nights. I didn’t know why she didn’t have an actual boyfriend. Somewhere on the edge of my conciousness, I had been thinking of applying for the position.

Anyway, Jay had shared popcorn and one of his precious bottles of wine with her. That got me thinking. Maybe he was interested in the boyfriend role, too. That would mean I’d have competition with Leslie, if I decided to ask her out on an actual date. Maybe I’d better rent a horror film, buy a bottle of wine or a six-pack and invite her over to my place. Well … maybe tomorrow. I was going fishing today.

Jay went on to say that he had consumed another bottle of wine himself that morning while preparing one of his famous exotic meals. I could see that for myself — his eyes were a bit more watery than usual, he had a crooked grin on this face, and he was trying to hum along with the stereo in between telling his tale of woe about the depleted stock of wine and preparing the vichyssoise.

As I mentioned, Jay is famous for his exotic meals — exotic for a down-home small mountain town, anyway. Jay loved to cook, and he loved to have a group of friends enjoy his efforts.

One time, for example, he raided all the local stores to assemble a meal for five of us consisting of grilled duck, baked papaya with almond sauce, Waldorf salad and some kind of fruit dessert that’s supposed to be served flaming. But by that stage in the meal, we had consumed all the brandy, so we had to eat the fruit sans flames. It was delicious anyway, as far as I can remember.

Today, though, Jay had gone fishing at dawn and taken enough trout to serve his invitees. And he’d used my Wooley Bugger to take a good portion of those fish. But instead of giving me thanks for the loan of my good-luck fly, I realized he was still asking me go fetch more wine and a couple pounds of butter while he continued his culinary preparations.

“But what about my Wooley Bugger?” I asked.

“It’s around here someplace,” said Jay. “But I really need more wine and some butter. I’m workin’ on deadline, man, and I still need to make the dumplings. There’s some cash in the flower pot. Be a pal, buy me some wine and have it back here pronto.”

I gave in. The Wooley Bugger would have to wait. A friend in need is a friend not to be ignored. I walked over to the flowerpot, an ugly brown cylinder that squatted ponderously on the floor and was filled with what appeared to be a small dead shrub and some random twigs jammed in at various angles. I groped underneath the distressed plant and came up with a twenty and a handful of ones.

I glanced back toward the kitchen and saw Jay opening yet another bottle.

“When you get back, you can have some of this, too,” he said, tipping a glass toward me so suddenly that some spilled onto the floor. Not even noticing the splash, he took a giant swallow, then held the empty glass high. “Get, say, four bottles of this, two pounds of butter, a large can of hot green chili peppers, a fresh pineapple and a big bag of peanut M&Ms. You can stay for dinner if you want — I invited Sandra from the office, and she’s bringing along her female cousin, who’s in town for a week from Atlanta.”

He winked at me.

Sandra was a curvey redhead who manned the phones and front desk at our place of employment in downtown Durango. She’d been working there about eight months and Jay had been talking about her for at least that long. Jay has this thing about freckles, and Sandra’s gorgeous face was covered with them. Every time Jay set eyes on her, a goofy smile would slide onto his face and he would stand straighter and his belly would miraculously flatten a little. Any day that Sandra was working the front desk, Jay would just happen to wander by several times to shoot the breeze and gaze wistfully at her freckles.

I had to admit Sandra was smart, cheerful, attractive and fun to be around. I began to wonder if her cousin might share her bright demeanor. Maybe my fishing trip could wait until tomorrow.

“I’ll go fetch your groceries, Jay,” I said. “And I’ll think about the dinner invitation.”

I headed out in search of wine for a friend. But on the way out, I stopped at Jay’s van and gave it a quick inspection to see if he had maybe left my lucky fly in there. No such luck.

I drove home and quickly changed into more presentable jeans and a clean golf shirt. That passed for formal wear in Durango, at least for me. Then I stepped on the gas and headed to the liquor store.

Copyright Daniel C. Nielsen

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