As author of Olive the Woolly Bugger, I can take credit for having created the character and the stories in my books, but the person truly responsible was a man by the name of Russell Blessing.
Not long ago I received an email from someone whose name I didn’t recognize: Fred Blessing. The message subject was “Woolly Bugger”, so obviously I opened it with great curiosity. Fred began by saying that he had recently come across my kids’ books about Olive the Woolly Bugger. He then introduced himself as the son of the late Russell Blessing, creator of the Woolly Bugger fly. I was familiar with who Russ Blessing was, for obvious reasons (you don’t launch a series of books based on a Woolly Bugger without doing a little research first). News of Russ’s death in October 2009 spread through the fly fishing world, but Russ Blessing wasn’t what most would consider a household name to everyone who fly fishes. I would soon learn that Russ’s relative anonymity was no accident.
Fred went on to tell me that his father was a very humble man and not in any way was he ever interested in claiming fame for the fly that had gained such notoriety in the fly fishing world: “He would never tell anyone about it, and if they would mention it while coming across a fellow fisherman he would simply play it off and would never take claim to it being his fly.” The mark of a truly humble man indeed.
Fred had written a heartfelt tribute to his father, hoping to have it published in Russ’s honor before he died. Sadly that didn’t happen and Russ passed away after a long battle with cancer. According to Fred, his wife “graciously read my tribute to my father the night he passed away, so for that I’m grateful that he at least got to hear it. I would however like to share it with the world, letting fellow fly fishers know what kind of person my father really was.” Fred then added, “I do think you will enjoy the tribute and I would appreciate anything you can do to help my tribute to go public.” Fred also sent me this photo of he and Russ and Russ’s best friend and fishing companion, Werner “Dutch” Fetter. It’s always nice to be able to put a face with a name in this day of often impersonal electronic correspondence.
When I read Fred’s tribute to his father I was touched. I decided immediately that I could blog about it, and reach out to other bloggers and ask that they also blog about it, but let’s be honest: How many people actually read all the fly fishing blogs out there? Not to detract from the many excellent blogs, but my other blog, the Unaccomplished Angler, has a limited readership. This blog has an even more limited readership. I felt that Fred’s tribute to his father deserved a more traditional place of honor, so I fired off an email to Joe Healy, a contact I had recently established at Fly Rod & Reel magazine. Joe was very receptive and after a series of back and forth emails, it was decided that I would write a brief intro and conduct a Q & A interview with Fred Blessing to share some information about his father.
My role in all this was really nothing more than that of intermediary, but it was a real honor to help the Blessing family get the word out about who Russ really was: beyond just being the man behind what has become arguably the most famous fly pattern in the world. I would like to offer a heartfelt thanks to Fred Blessing for reaching out to me with your story and for sharing so much about your father. Thank you to Joe Healy for your willingness to honor Russ’s legacy with some widespread coverage. And thank you to Russ Blessing for the woolly bugger: the value of your creation reaches far beyond my little series of books, but without the woolly bugger there would be no Olive.
To read the interview with Fred Blessing and Fred’s tribute to his father on the website of Fly Rod & Reel, please click HERE. To read the Q&A with Fred Blessing and his tribute to his father on the website of Fly Rod & Reel, please click HERE. EDIT: Since Fly Rod & Reel went out of business in 2017, the link to the article about Russ Blessing is no longer functional. In an attempt to preserve the content, I have copied and pasted it here:
Q: Your father, Russ Blessing, is credited with having invented the Woolly Bugger. How and when did he arrive at this invention?
A: When he created the fly in 1967, he wasn’t an avid fly tier like he was in his later years. He actually created it for smallmouth bass. He wanted to create something similar to the Dobsonfly larvae. He later added a marabou tail, which created the Woolly Bugger.
Q: How different was the first Woolly Bugger than what we typically see today?
A: There are so many different patterns and colors today, but to me the original Woolly Bugger had olive chenille body, black hackle and marabou tail. Dad always believed that the more movement in the water from the hackle and tail the better. His Buggers always looked that way.
Q: Woolly Bugger is a curious name. Can you tell us how Russ came to call it that?
A: (Grin) My sister Julie named it when she was 7. She saw the fly and said, “ It looks like a Woolly Bugger.”
Q: The Woolly Bugger has become very widely known, well beyond the boundaries of North America. How was your father able to so effectively promote the pattern?
A: In August 1967, Dad was fishing the Little Lehigh. Barry Beck was fishing downstream and wasn’t having any luck, like everyone else that day. Dad landed a nice trout, then another. Barry approached him out of curiosity and Dad gave him a Woolly Bugger to try. Barry started catching trout. They later became friends and Barry did an article on the fly in 1984. It became well known after that. Dad never wanted to promote the fly; he just wanted to catch fish. He was very humble about his creation.
Q: The Woolly Bugger is known to be very effective on a wide variety of gamefish. What species did your father most often fish for?
A: Early on he fished a lot for smallmouth bass; he just loved to fish. Even in his younger years, he would fish with bait. Once he got more involved with fly fishing and tying flies, he then really started getting into fishing for trout.
Q: Where was his favorite fishing destination?
A: He had a few favorite spots. One was only a few miles from his home, Manada Creek outside of Harrisburg, PA. He would even fish there in the winter if weather permitted, on the regulated sections. His favorite had to be spending time in upstate PA fishing with his friend Dutch. Sorry, I wont give that location away (grin). Dad pretty much stayed local.
Q: The legacy of the Woolly Bugger will likely last as long as there are fish to be caught. What would your late father most like to be remembered for?
A: First, that he was a dedicated family man, a man of strong faith, someone who was generous, honest…I could go on and on. That’s why we all miss him so much. He never wanted recognition for inventing the Woolly Bugger—he was just happy he created something that could give a fly fisherman an opportunity to catch some fish. Second, that he was a pretty darn good fly fisherman.