What’s more important: fly or presentation?

Most anglers believe selecting the appropriate fly pattern is the key factor to catching fish. When fellow anglers see me on the water their first question is always “what fly are you using?” In order to catch fish consistently, is the fly pattern selection the most crucial factor? Perhaps the more fundamental question should be: how do we present the fly to entice those hungry trout? This story demonstrates the importance of presentation versus pattern selection and explains why.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by Vickie Loftus

My husband and I kicked out in our SuperCat pontoon boats on a private Oregon Fishing Club lake close to Portland one recent midmorning, savoring a break from the long, cold, and rainy Northwest winter. The sky was cloudy, the air temperature warming up to 50 degrees. Water temperature was 48 degrees and the surface was glassy with a few midge pupae floating in the surface film. A few surface rings were visible indicating fish feeding in the top two feet of water.

Photo by V. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

We both used an intermediate 7’ sink tip line to keep the fly high in the water column where the fish were feeding. Both of us used the same fly, a grey callibaetis pupae nymph. This fly is a productive pupae pattern when there are emerging insects.

It did not make a difference if we fished either along shoreline or in deeper water as long as we fished the upper two feet of the water column. The trout were dispersed due to the oxygen-rich environment throughout this small lake.

As I trolled the lake, I would stop kicking approximately every 50 feet, make 10-12 slow, 4-6 inch strips, wiggle my rod tip releasing the stripped line back into the water, then start moving again. This allowed the fly to sink, simulating the natural movement of the insect. If you troll the same time you strip, that increases the speed of the retrieve, which in cold water reduces hookups. Therefore, it is important to stop trolling before you start stripping in cold water conditions since fish are reluctant to move. Using this kick, stop-and-strip, release-and-kick method of trolling, I immediately hooked fish. This told me I was presenting my fly at the correct depth in the water column where the trout could see it. I am sure they saw it as food, and the retrieve imitated the movement of the fly similar to the movement of their natural food source.

However, I wanted to test whether adjusting the way the fly moved would make a difference in my catch rate. We both continued trolling with identical lines and flies, but I changed the speed of the retrieve. Here is what happened:

As I sped up the retrieve, I continued to receive a lot more bumps, nibbles, and pecks, but overall the fish would not take the fly. By this time, my husband had out fished me 3-to-1, landing six fish to my two. This is a striking indication how important the retrieve is in simulating the natural movement of the insect. Since I knew that the rate of the retrieve and the importance of the pause was critical in my catch rate, what would happen if I changed the fly?

Photo by T. Loftus, all rights reserved

Photo by T. Loftus

I changed the fly to a A.P. pupae emerger and tried the fast retrieve. The fish continued to refuse taking my fly. I then modified my retrieve back to the original slow, short retrieve with a pause in between the strips. The fish started taking the fly again and I was able to hook them.

This experiment illustrated that the retrieve, not the fly, significantly influenced the behavior of the fish. Both flies were effective in catching fish, but what made the difference in the hook up was the speed of the retrieve and the pause in-between retrieves. The slower retrieve with the pause made the fly’s movement more closely mimic the natural movement of an insect. My husband continued to catch fish during my experimentation which made for a lot of shared laughter over cocktail hour.

Fly selection in late winter when there are visible clues that fish are feeding:

Late winter or very early spring is not normally a time to use small flies – unless visible feeding is present. If the water temperature warms enough to generate an insect hatch, it will be primarily limited to midges during midday. When midges are hatching and you are fishing in cold water (water temperatures below 50 degrees), go for a pupae emerger fly pattern. Slow down the speed of the retrieve and incorporate a pause between the strips. Length of the retrieve should match the type of fly. Shorten the length of your retrieve to 4-6 inches for smaller flies.

Present the fly in the same depth of feeding fish:

When you see midge pupae dangling in the surface film or midges dancing on the water, it suggests feeding fish are present in the top few feet of water. Presenting your fly at the same level in the water column where the fish are feeding is critical. This is because trout react to food sources that are at or above their level in the water. Their eyes do not allow them to scan below in the hunt for food unless their nose is on the bottom rooting for insects. If the trout sees the fly, they will investigate it.

The next time you answer the call of the wild and find yourself on the water, willingness to adapt to conditions may allow you to turn potential failure into success. Have fun experimenting and focus on keeping your fly at the same depth where the feeding fish are cruising. This can mean all the difference turning a slow day into one filled with great fish stories.

Things to try:

If the bite slows, first change the retrieve before you change the fly. When trout refuse a fly it is more likely due to the method you are presenting the fly verses the actual fly pattern.

If the water is below 50 degrees, slow down the rate of the retrieve and incorporate pauses. Also, fish mid-day when the trout are more active.

When emerging insects are present, fish the top two feet of the water column so they can see your fly. This should increase your chances for hookups.

Length of the retrieve should match the type of fly. Shorten the length of retrieve to 4-6 inches for smaller flies.

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