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

by | Sep 21, 2018 | 17 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 it 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 they’re 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 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.




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: 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.

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


Photo by Chris Kehres


Almost that time . . .


Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky



Share This Article . . .

Since 2014 and 600 articles deep
Troutbitten is a free resource for all anglers
Your support is greatly appreciated

– Explore These Post Tags –

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.

More from this Category

Why do we miss trout on a nymph?

Why do we miss trout on a nymph?

Late hook sets are a problem, as is guessing about whether we should set the hook in the first place. But I believe, more times than not, when we miss a trout, the fish actually misses the fly. However, that doesn’t let us off the hook either. It’s probably still our fault. And here’s why . . .

Loss of contact, refusals and bad drifts. All of these things and more add into missing trout on nymphs. So how do we improve the hookup ratio?

Fishing Light

Fishing Light

You’ve probably been wading upstream on a favorite trout stream and seen another angler’s lost tackle. Maybe the whole mess was in the streamside trees, with split shot and bobber attached, or a misguided F13 Rapala with rusted hooks. Maybe you’ve snagged a pile of monofilament stuck in waterlogged branches and lodged against a rock. And when you’ve seen all that mess, maybe you were stunned by how heavy the tackle was. Are you with me? . . .

Be a Mobile Angler

Be a Mobile Angler

Wading is not just what happens between locations. And it’s not only about moving across the stream from one pocket to the next. Instead, wading happens continuously.

Many anglers wade to a spot in the river and set up, calf, knee or waist deep, seemingly relieved to have arrived safely. Then they proceed to fish far too much water without moving their feet again. When the fish don’t respond, these anglers finally pick up their feet. Maybe they grab a wading staff and begrudgingly take the steps necessary to reach new water and repeat the process.

This method of start and stop, of arriving and relocating, is a poor choice. Instead, the strategy of constant motion is what wins out . . .

Beyond Euro Nymphing

Beyond Euro Nymphing

Euro nymphing is an elegant, tight line solution. But don’t limit yourself. Why not use the tight line tools (leaders and tactics) for more than just euro nymphing?

Use it for fishing a tight-line style of indicators. Use it for dry dropper or even straight dries. And use it for streamers, both big and small.

Refining these tactics is the natural progression of anglers who fish hard, are thoughtful about the tactics and don’t like limitations. I know many good fly fishers who have all come out the other side with the same set of tools. Because fishing a contact system like the Mono Rig eventually teaches you all that is possible . . .

New Structure | Old Structure

New Structure | Old Structure

One of my favorite places in the world is a deeply shaded valley that runs north and south between two towering mountains of mixed hardwoods. The forest floor has enough conifers mixed in to block much of the sunlight, even in the winter. The ferns of spring grow tall, and thick moss is spread throughout. The ground remains soft enough here that all large trees eventually surrender to the valley. When they can no longer support their weight in the soft spongy ground, they fall over, leaving a broken forest of deep greens and the dark-chocolate browns of wet, dead bark. It’s gorgeous.

Fallen timber also dictates the course of this cold water stream. The fresh tree falls force the creek to bend away from the hillside. Rolling water carves away the earth and lays bare the rocks — these stones of time, as Maclean puts it. And when water cuts into a neighboring channel, previously dry for centuries, new river banks are undercut and fresh roots exposed . . .

Light Dry Dropper in the Flow

Light Dry Dropper in the Flow

. . .The flow of the fly line through the air is finesse and freedom. Contrasted with nymphing, streamer fishing, or any other method that adds weight to the system, casting the weightless dry fly with a fly line is poetry.

The cast is unaffected because the small soft hackle on a twelve-inch tether simply isn’t heavy enough to steal any provided slack from the dry. It’s an elegant addition that keeps the art of dry fly fishing intact . . .

What do you think?

Be part of the Troutbitten community of ideas.
Be helpful. And be nice.


  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.

  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.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Recent Posts

Pin It on Pinterest