Pattern vs Presentation | Trout eat anything, but sometimes they eat another thing better

by | Sep 21, 2018 | 22 comments

The other day I was listening to a podcast featuring Charlie Craven. I was dreaming of fishing while raking another giant pile of leaves in the backyard when something Charlie said caught my attention: “Trout are not very smart. They eat everything down there.”

It’s a point I’ve heard repeated time and again — that trout brains are small, and they eat sticks, leaves and rocks all the time. Ironically though, the next piece of the podcast interview rolled into what an excellent fly Charlie’s Two Bit Hooker is.

Does that duality make any sense? Sure it does. I think Charlie’s thoughts in the interview match what a lot of us think about fly selection — that trout will eat anything, but sometimes they eat another thing better.

Photo by Matt Grobe

Pattern vs Presentation

The old debate among fisherman about pattern vs presentation is a good one, because just as soon as we have things figured out on the river, the trout throw us a curve ball.

I believe the way you fish a fly is far more important than the way it looks, and I believe that everything works sometimes. But that only goes so far.

The other day, I got back into this recurring discussion with a friend who insisted that pattern means nothing. But he had to chuckle in agreement when I said, “I’ll bet I can tie a fly for you that won’t catch a fish.” Put that way, it makes sense, right?  I mean, there are some boundaries and limits to a trout’s gullibility.

Now back to what Charlie said — that trout are eating everything down there . . .

What are they eating?

I’ve killed a lot of trout. Sorry. I know that’s a little out of bounds to some in the fly fishing culture, but I grew up in western Pennsylvania, where acid mine drainage devastated the viability of wild trout in cold water fisheries. All of the creeks I fished as a kid either didn’t have the right PH level or they warmed too much in the summer to support wild trout. A lot of western Pennsylvania is still like that. Burke calls it trout purgatory.

So, because I grew up around a put-and-take system (where the state puts the trout in the river and fishermen take them out), and because I like to eat trout, that’s what I did for a long time. I kept most of the trout I caught.  I checked the stomach contents of all the trout I gutted, and I can confirm that they really do eat anything. It’s an interesting mess inside a trout. Sure, most of it is caddis parts and crayfish claws, but I found a lot of sticks, pine needles and pebbles. I’ve also seen gum wrappers, corn, cigarette butts and random pieces of plastic.

As a side note, stocked fish have a lot more junk in their stomach than wild ones. Freshly stocked fish are doing more sampling down there than wild trout.

When trout aren’t biting, I’d rather change my approach than change the fly . . . usually.

All trout sample things in the drift, trying to determine if stuff is edible. You can watch videos of trout doing this: they pick something up, decide it’s not food and spit it out in a fraction of a second. Strike detection, therefore, is probably more important than pattern, right? And if you can get a trout to be curious enough to eat your fly, you have to set the hook before they drop it.

When trout aren’t biting, I’d rather change my approach than change the fly. In between casts, I’m better off stepping to the side and modifying the angle of delivery, adding weight, lengthening my tippet or moving on to target a different water type. The way I show the flies to the fish is what matters most.

Accepting that idea comes with time. Like everyone else, I’ve waded through the fly bins, the magazine articles and the endless catalogs of new patterns trying to understand what flies I should carry. But the best fishermen I know all have a handful of go to patterns that they use ninety percent of the time — probably more. Most of those patterns are dead simple. My own handful of flies is basic, yet refined enough to cover any situation encountered on the water.

READ:  Category | Troutbitten Fly Box

I carry nymphs, wets, streamers and dries that are big, small, bright, dull, colorful and drab. And I guess, over time, I’ve sorted out the excess and kept what works best. Pretty simple, really. Time with those patterns has given me confidence in them. They fooled more trout, so I took the other ones out of my box because I don’t want to be overwhelmed with options.

But just about the time I’m getting cocky about my handful of confidence flies, a slow day that’s saved by a rogue pattern shakes me up.

Once in a while . . .

Yesterday morning I planned to methodically fish a wide and varied stretch of pocket water. I did that for three hours (fishing my handful of confidence flies) and turned up nothing. Disappointingly, all of the rig changes I made simply didn’t work. When I got to the top of the run, I walked far upstream to relocate and reassess.

The next piece of river had enough logs and undercut banks to inspire a new determination, so when I fished up through the section and still caught only a few small trout, I decided to mix things up. I walked back down to re-fish the same water, tied on a small #18 RS2 as a trailer, and I immediately started getting into fish. The RS2 apparently made all the difference. So I hiked up to some prime big fish water where a heavy run dumps into the next pool, and on the third cast I hooked this guy.


Whiskey. Hey now.

Technically, the RS2 is in my handful of flies. But it’s one that I don’t use very often these days. I had trailed two of my other small favorites yesterday morning with no luck. In fact, I went back to those other flies after a while to see if they would also produce. They didn’t. There was just something about the RS2 that turned the trout on, and it lasted for a few hours until they finally started taking other flies too.

READ: Troutbitten | Tags and Trailers

I’ve had that kind of thing happen enough times to believe that sometimes the specific pattern really does matter. And then again, it goes the other way just as often.

You probably have a story about the one time you slayed ‘em on the Prince nymph until the fly came apart, right? The ribbing came off, the herl unraveled, and all that was left were the crooked tail biots and a bare hook. And they kept taking it! Sure they did. I know they did. That’s my story.

Most days fall somewhere in the middle, though. And changing the approach instead of changing the pattern usually gets better results, because a trout will eat anything — sometimes. So I think it’s best to find a handful of flies, build confidence and stick with them until you have a really good reason not to.

I’ve also come across a few really special patterns through the years too. Because of that, I always have a few experimental flies in my box. I’m looking for the next superfly.


Photo by Chris Kehres


Almost that time . . .

Fish hard, friends.


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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. I will take issue to some extent with the premise that “trout will eat anything”. In recent years, I have fished for wild trout exclusively (primarily because the Little j, my home stream, is not stocked). However, like Dom, I grew up killing everything I caught and this included lots of stocked trout. Their stomachs inevitably included debris (sticks etc.) from the flow. I also have killed and eaten many wild trout (before my age of enlightenment). I rarely saw non-food items in the wild trout stomachs. In fact, the wild browns I killed, or stomach pumped (yes I had one), usually had a belly full of only one bug. It may have been tiny black midges, cicadas or sulfurs…. but one bug at a time. My belief is that wild browns (may not apply to brooks or bows) make a decision to eat (or even sample) an item based on three attributes, in this order: 1. Size 2. Color and 3. Form. This hierarchy allows a wild brown to avoid wasting energy on non-food items. It explains why a trout will often repeatedly ignore our perfectly presented dry fly and then confidently inhale our new offering. This is not an argument for perfect facsimile flies. Anyone who has seen my CET patterns with their “rusty brown” thread tails and poly wings will attest to that. But they are effective because they match size, color and the keying attributes of form ( i.e. upright wings, protrusion thru the surface film and both a surface and underwater profile that suits the trout). Get the “keys” (and the presentation) right and you’ll catch the fussy fish more often!

    Bill Anderson

    • Really appreciated this… thanks for sharing and wholeheartedly agree.

    • I’ve watched videos of feeding trout,and literally everything that floated by and could fit was grabbed. Reason you never saw in stomach is because trout instantly expelled anything not edible. After watching surprised we hook as many trout on flys that we do!

      • Right on. Some trout do that. Some don’t, too. Water type matters as well. But for sure, we’re all missing a lot of takes down there.

  2. I’m of the opinion that on any given day, a trout will eat anything depending on unknown factors. I’ve tied some monstrosities just to see if the trout would eat. Eventually they do. I enjoyed this post tremendously and will keep it in the back of my mind when I’m out.

  3. Dominick,
    I really enjoy your articles. Keep them coming. I was listening to The Freq this past week and found out to late that you were playing at The Ale House. Sorry I missed you, maybe next time.
    Take Care,
    Steve(from Riffles and Runs B&B)

  4. Kind of funny that in a post about flies you don’t have a picture of any.

  5. Hi Dom, I read your article and I agree. Then I read Bill’s reply and I agree. I agree with Howard, Too. It brought me back to the old saying that “there are no absolutes in fly fishing.”

  6. Reminds me about a day I had in late fall four or five years ago on a mid-size CT freestone. Stocked in the spring only, so by that time it’s a mix of wild and holdover fish that have been pretty well pressured. I just couldn’t catch. On anything, fished any way. I found a consistent riser, one of many, that I couldn’t fool. I sat down and watched it for a bit. Then I tossed a little pine cone up-drift from it. You can probably guess what happened. Even after that I still didn’t catch it. Sometimes…. I just shrug.

  7. Thanks Domenic. I too carry just a few patterns and change presentation far more than flies. I’m getting back into the trout groove now that I’m stationed in PA after years in SoCal and the Middle-East.

    • Good stuff.

  8. I was lucky enough one day to attend a lecture with Gary Lafontaine, and something he said stuck with me. It’s been awhile so I’ll paraphrase “you don’t insult the intelligence of a trout, it’s got the brain the size of a pea. What you DON’T want to do is insult its instinct”. He was a great observer and quite a wit to boot.

  9. Ah, Dom, your post takes me back to the beginning of my fly fishing days nearly forty years ago. My first g0-to fly on the South Platte near Deckers was the famous RS-2. I must have cast it ten thousand times, back in the day before tandem nymph casting was much thought of. The other nymphs I flailed were buckskins and hare’s ears on that river. And I changed those nymphs when one stopped working and others hooked fishies. Fly selection does matter, and it is critical at times and over certain fish. Where I live in Catalonia, that parachute Adams that works all over the world for me, from Peru to Patagonia to Montana to the Pyrenees, is spit at by the huge browns and rainbows in the privileged no-kill section I call my home water. Those same fish are equally highly selective of nymphs. Here’s a fun homage to the legendary Rim Chung:

  10. I have fished many seasons on the upper delaware season and i can tell you first hand pattern and presentation matter. When those fish are on a sz 18/20 sulphur you better have a size 18/20 sulphur and it better be yellow or orange depending on the color they are eating. Anyone who says otherwise hasn’t fished that system. You can try and throw an adams or an olive and you may get lucky and get one fish but you have not solved that riddle.


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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