Russell Blessing Remembered
- By: Fly Rod and Reel
The late Russell Blessing probably helped you catch a bunch of fish. The man who created the Woolly Bugger never sought to become a household name, but his invention has attained a heralded status among fly anglers worldwide. What follows is a brief interview with Russ’s son, Fred Blessing, as he remembers the man behind the fly that has helped anglers worldwide catch more fish than perhaps any other pattern.
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 small mouth bass. He wanted to create something similar to the Dobsonfly lava. 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 special 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.
Kirk Werner is the author of Olive the Little Woolly Bugger, Olive and The Big Stream, and Olive Goes for a Wild Ride. Russ Blessing was Fly Rod & Reel’s “Angler of the Year” in 2006; a profile of Blessing appears in Fly Tying: 30 Years of Tips, Tricks, Patterns by Fly Rod & Reel Books. Order it at 1-800-685-7962.
A TRIBUTE TO ‘’ MY FISHING BUDDY’’ RUSSELL BLESSING
So many stories, so many memories, and I was blessed to spend them with who I believe is one of the greatest fly fisherman to fish the waters of Pennsylvania, Russell Blessing. Possibly better known to some as the "creator" of the famous Woolly Bugger.
It was Russell, my dad, who got me started with an interest in fishing, I can remember as a young boy going over to Swatara Creek fishing for bullhead catties. There was the time when he was baiting my hook with his homemade dough ball when he told me to keep an eye on his rod; well, like most boys I always seemed to find some other interest. The next thing I knew, I looked up in time to see his rod flying into the creek, it happened that quick. We knew a big carp had decided to grab the dough ball and run. It wasn’t a week later Russ decided to go back to the same spot to fish, when he suddenly got snagged on another line in the creek, as he reeled it in he noticed that it was not just a line, but a fishing rod. As it turns out it was his rod. We spent many summer days and nights fishing the “Swatty.” We always did catch a fair amount of good catties.
It was Russ who got me into fly-fishing as well, even then as a young boy. I would spend my summers on vacation fishing all day in the little runs of northern Pennsylvania. The brookies were always fun for me, and I was hooked for good on fly-fishing. I never felt comfortable fishing the “bigger” water, for me it was always the native brookies. Over the years we fished together mainly hitting the runs and small streams.
Russ would spend his spring fishing with good friend Dutch in Northern Pennsylvania. When they both retired, they would spend all spring fishing together—as long as there was good water and flies, they would fish well into June. I was older and had a family of my own, it was hard for me to spend time fishing with Russ, but we did whenever we had a chance. For the last 10 years or so I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some time with Russ and Dutch fishing upstate in the spring; it started as a long weekend for me and for the last four or five years it has turned into a week.
It was then, when I finally started to grow interest in the “bigger” streams. Bigger streams mean bigger fish, and as beautiful as those native brookies are, nothing compares to a nice brown running the reel.
For years, while fishing with Russ and Dutch, I was on any rise trying to catch as many fish as I could. After all, that’s what I was there for. While Russ would just patiently sit back on a fallen tree and watch and wait. A rise would swirl directly in front of him, I would mention it to him, and he would say “Probably a chub.” It wasn’t what he was looking for. I would still be out there ‘flogging away, sure I was catching some trout here and there, mostly the Fish Commission’s beloved cookie cutter rainbows. Russ would still sit, watch and wait. I never really understood that.
What more could a fly fisherman ask for…I had worked my way into their daily routine every spring during my week with Russ and Dutch; I would cook them breakfast, and after weeks of oatmeal, Dutch was certainly looking forward to eggs and sausage. They would do the dishes and set the table for the next morning. We would scout our favorite spots during late afternoon into evening, looking for rising fish, and if lucky enough we would find some. Grab a bite to eat at the local tavern and back to camp for a few more festive beverages and of course fish stories. I’ve heard many of them before, but I always seem to enjoy them more every time I hear them. Life is good…..
In early spring 2008, Russ Blessing was diagnosed with prostate cancer. We figured our annual fishing trip would have to be put on hold for a year. But as it turned out the treatment wasn’t scheduled to start until June of that year. Russ got his treatments and later was pretty much given a clean bill of health; they believed the prostate cancer has been subdued. In late April 2009, Russ was upstate once again fishing with his friend Dutch, when he noticed he was having trouble with his balance. He was taken to a local hospital and later transported to Harrisburg. After numerous tests it had been determined that Russ’s cancer had spread to his brain, lungs and liver. He was due for some more treatment again. I was hoping, praying, for another opportunity to have another trip that May with my fishing buddy, my friend, my father…..For this trip would be more important than any other. We did our trip together this year, and for that I am forever grateful.
Dad had been battling the cancer all summer long with treatments, faith, family and friends. The prognosis for the cancer wasn’t good. We continued to keep faith. As a last hope for some treatment of this rare small cell cancer, once again the prognosis was not good. As I stood there in the room of the cancer center with my mom and dad, holding back the tears, feeling helpless, moments after the doctor leaves, Dad turns to me and says “I guess Dutch is going to need another fishing buddy, it be nice if you can still get up there with him a few days.” Then he says “Your mom needs a hug.”
Anyone who knows my dad knows that this is the kind of person he is, always looking out for others, not a selfish bone in his body. Not only is he in my mind the best fly fisherman in the world, he is the best dad in the world.
In a day of technology where we all have become too accessible through cell phones, texting, e-mails and the like…Life to most of us has become life in the fast lane, just like ‘’flogging’’ away trying to catch every fish, for it seems to be about quantity, not quality.
You see I get it now Dad, sitting, watching, waiting, taking time to enjoy life, enjoying what is around you, getting out of the fast lane, waiting for that opportunity to reward yourself, and in this case waiting for that big brown, the big swirl that makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck.
Only God knows your fate now Dad and I wanted to take time to say how much you mean to me, the great home and life you have given me. Whether or not we ever get to fish together again no one knows, but next spring I will be sitting on that fallen tree, enjoying life, thinking about all the great times we shared together, watching, waiting for that big brown , and when that reel starts running and the heart starts pounding I know you will be there with me. If I’m lucky enough to land that big brown, I no doubt will have a tear in my eye, knowing that my “fishing buddy” would be proud.
So many stories, so many memories…and for them I am forever grateful.—Fred Blessing