Perfect from the Start

by | Jun 28, 2020 | 15 comments

Call them educated. Say they’re picky, experienced, touchy or selective. The wild trout that many of us target are efficient feeders, and they don’t buy lousy presentations of a fly.

In many regions, the rivers are so rich with bug life and baitfish that these trout have options. They eat what they want. In some places, like the spring-fed streams of limestone country, trout feed all year long, with no pause for water that’s too warm or too cold. It isn’t, so they eat whenever they want. There is no “feeding season,” because it happens 365. And when a trout can feed on what it wants, when it wants, that trout doesn’t eat poor presentations of a fly. The cast and the drift — our presentation — must be perfect.

Photo by Bill Dell

From the Start

I know experienced anglers who believe that if the fly is drifting naturally as it approaches the trout, it should be enough. But they’re wrong. It’s not enough.

A dry fly angler may cast well above a rising trout and drop the fly in the same lane at long distance. But if drag sets in quickly, the cast is useless. Can you mend to feed enough slack above the dry and set up a perfect drag-free look as it passes over the rising trout? Sure, if you’re handy with the fly rod. But selective wild trout rarely buy it. Because, before the dry settles into the drag-free drift, our trout has already seen the fly dragging far upstream. And the fly is refused before it ever gets close to the trout.

READ: Troutbitten | Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #10 — Mend Less

I’ve met anglers who’s nymphing strategy starts with long casts, well above their target water. They believe in giving the fly time to drop through the column by casting further upstream of the trout, eventually setting up the right level and speed of drift before it reaches the fish. But this is another mistake. Because the extra line on those far-off casts causes drag, and the trout see it coming further than most of us estimate. Then, just like the dry on the surface, trout refuse the dragging nymph long before it approaches them.

These are wasted casts. And they are long moments spent drifting flies that will never be eaten.

What’s the solution?

Stick the landing.

READ: Troutbitten | Stick the Landing While Tight Lining

We must make casts that show a perfect presentation from the start. And for dry flies and nymphs, that means providing a drag free drift at the beginning.


Much of our success, in whatever we do, goes back to refining the basics. And fly fishing is no exception.

Choose shorter casts over longer ones, for the extra control. Wade as close as possible. Stay mobile and take two steps over rather than stripping off another six feet of fly line.

READ: Troutbitten | Be a Mobile Angler

And remember, perfect presentations on a dry fly are often set up in the air rather than mending line on the water.

Likewise, the best dead drifts with a nymph include a tuck cast, turning over the line and the leader to poke our flies through the surface with only the tippet that must enter. The rest stays above the water. Yes, we tuck cast, even in shallow water.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Strategies — The Tuck Cast

Sometimes, longer drifts cannot be helped. But it’s up to us to make the presentation perfect from the beginning, or at least as soon as possible.

Photo by Trevor Smith

Never underestimate how far away a trout can see upstream. And never underestimate how far away a trout will refuse a fly. It might drift perfectly, right past the trout. But the decision — the refusal, may have already been made with the fly twenty feet upstream.

Make it perfect from the start.

Fish hard, friends.


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

Quick Tips — Put More Juice in the Cast

Quick Tips — Put More Juice in the Cast

Keep it tight and crisp. Cast with speed. Be more aggressive. Build more momentum with the rod tip. The casting stroke should be snappy, energetic and sharp with abrupt and forceful stops between two points. I’ve used all of these descriptions and more to communicate the correction for the most troublesome fly fishing flaw out there — lazy casting.

By the end of December, I will log over sixty guide trips this year. On these trips I meet a lot of good anglers from all over the country who want to take the next step and turn a corner with their fly fishing game. I also meet anglers relatively new to fly fishing who are looking to build on the basics. And on the majority of my trips, at the end of the day, the number one thing I leave with my new friends is this: put more juice in the cast. Cast with more power.

Here’s why . . .

Quick Tips — Thumb on Top | Finger on Top

Quick Tips — Thumb on Top | Finger on Top

There’s a reason for everything, right? It’s a truism of life. And that goes double for your fly fishing game. Most of us will never get the hours we really need to learn everything we’d like about the river. Trout fishing runs deep. Questions we ask of ourselves on the walk back after dark linger in our minds until the next time we hit the stream. Until then, we research — we read, watch and talk about trout on a fly rod, filling in the hours, days and weeks until our boots are wet again.

Sometimes, things like these quick tips might answer that nagging question in your mind. Other times, one of these tips might create a new question to chew on. Both are significant. Both are valuable.

When we hold the fly rod, should the thumb or the forefinger be on top?

I use both. There are good reasons for each hold, so let’s get to that . . .

Quick Tips: Fish what you can, and leave the rest

Quick Tips: Fish what you can, and leave the rest

We’re in an extended high water period in Central Pennsylvania. Honestly, I love it. When the creek are full the trout are happy, and so am I. I’ve heard the lament of so many anglers across the region about unfishable conditions and poor results. But that’s not the reality I’m in. And if the water clarity is decent — if the trout can see the flies — I’ll take high water over low water every time. Success in such conditions just takes some discipline to fish what you can, and leave the rest.

Sure, blown out water is a bust, and there’s really not much you can do about that. But I’m not talking about muddy water and flood conditions. So far this fall season, we’ve averaged flows that are two or three times the norm for this time of year. But consider that our fall water is usually pretty low, and you might suddenly become thankful for the opportunity to fish a creek with some decent water coming through.

No matter the river or the flows, good fishing happens by staying within your effective reach. Fish within your means. If you are only comfortable in water that’s knee-deep, then find water below your knees and fish only what you can reach from there. Try hard not to fall into the grass-is-greener-on-the-other side trap.

Quick Tips — Let’s talk about your trigger finger

Quick Tips — Let’s talk about your trigger finger

Fly casting has a lot of moving parts. Two sets each of arms, wrists, hands and fingers all work together to flex the rod and propel the line and flies to the target. There’s a lot going on. It can feel overwhelming — like sitting behind a full drum kit for the first time and realizing that all four limbs have a responsibility to do independent things.

So it takes a while to get all those parts working together in concert. But anglers and musicians alike need only understand the basics and then put in the playing time. Given enough practice, good things follow.

I’ve noticed the most overlooked aspect of those moving parts is the trigger finger. I meet anglers with all manner of bad (inefficient) habits that hold them back. But the trigger finger issues are easily solved, because there’s not much variation with its job.

In fly casting, all movement of the line should come through the trigger finger . . . with limited exception.

Quick Tips — When to Fish Just One Nymph

Quick Tips — When to Fish Just One Nymph

John and I always keep count. He’s the only fishing friend who can pull me into such a race. And I’m not sure why.

Like all fishermen do at some point, I used to keep count of my catch. I even roughly calculated my catch rate at the end of the day, like this:

“Let’s see, I fished for five hours, but I took a twenty minute break around lunch. Walk in time was fifteen minutes, so subtract that too. I caught twenty-six trout, but I COULD have caught those couple of trout that came unbuttoned if I was more careful, so let’s add those in and say thirty. Multiply, divide and there’s my catch rate.”

That sounds like fishermen’s math, right?

But I don’t count much anymore. And I don’t like to compete against anything but the river and the trout. I don’t mind losing to the river on occasion, either. Because loss is a wonderful teacher.

But John baits me back into counting every time we fish together. And there’s no fuzzy catch-rate-math involved — just straight up fish counting.

Quick Tips — Set the hook at the end of every drift

Quick Tips — Set the hook at the end of every drift

I watched the line, waiting for some indication of a strike and intently expecting a fish to eat the nymph. Then at the end of the drift I looked away, scanning for my next target upstream. When I lifted the line for the backcast, I was surprised to find a trout on the line. He bounced off quickly because I never got a good hookset.

That’s happened to you a hundred times too, right?

Nymphing is an art of the unseen, and no matter the material attachments we add to the line for visual aid of a strike, trout take our flies without us knowing about it — probably way more often than we can imagine.

That’s why it’s best to end every underwater drift with a hook set. Do this with nymphs and with streamers, at the end of every dead drift presentation, and you’ll find unexpected trout attached to your line. The short set also prepares the line and leader for your next backcast. Here’s how . . .

What do you think?

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


  1. I think the degree to which any individual trout refuses a fly due to long distance drag depends a lot on their mood. Happy, steady risers seem to be less sensitive to slight imperfections in presentation. In my neck of the woods, a lot of wild trout are caught by guided clients who have anything but perfect presentation skills.

    • Thanks for the thoughts, Rick.

      Happy and steady risers are a rare thing, honestly, no matter where you are. Out of a full year, that’s a small percentage of time.

      But certainly trout can be taken with less than perfect presentations. I think we agree with that, and I’ve been through it here on Troutbitten. But do you want to catch more trout, and do you want to catch tough trout in tough waters? Get things perfect from the beginning.


      • Happy, steady risers are getting scarcer than ever around hear. They are a godsend when you find one for sure. So much pressure from drift boats and anglers in general. Not to mention the return of eagles and osprey which are all over the UDR system. No one can argue against the benefit of a drag free presentation from the get go. And completely agree that aerial mending beats water mends 9almost) every time. Hey, I hope your streams have more water in them the freestones up here. Been an unusually dry June. Keep cranking out your unique takes on the sport. Cheers

        • Those big wild bows on the UDR are a lot more forgiving than the browns when it comes to a perfect drift.

    • I think that to many monorigged are caught up with long drifts. In true pocket water or highly oxygenated runs my drifts start with a tuck cast and sticking the landing. This might be a 1 to 3 second drift which covers 3 to 10 feet. Hook set at 2 to 3 o’clock and redeliver. It works

    • Ahhh! Tenkara!!

  2. Because of drag or poor presentation a trout will refuse a fly. What does the trout think the fly is or what’s wrong with the fly. I understand that it may look unnatural, but I can’t imagine that every real fly in the water looks perfect.

    • Gary Borger put it this way: Imagine you have cut up your steak into bite size pieces and while you’re eating one of the pieces suddenly crawls off your plate. Are you really going to stab it with your fork and eat it?

      • Oh what a visual that is! I’m going to use that in teaching my grandson fly fishing.

  3. Love your blog! So how far *can* a trout see upstream? Here’s my situation:

    I’ve spotted a nice fish, but the only way I can get a good drift is from directly upstream. I want to land the fly close to minimize drag and avoid having to put more slack into the system (maybe a bucket cast?). I have had a couple refusals and ended up putting the fish down.

    For next time, how far in front of it do I need to drop an emerger or dun so that it comes into its vision “naturally” versus just “appearing” on the water? Maybe I should throw a terrestrial, which is more likely to just plop in its face?

  4. Another great LESSON.

  5. An exception to your rule is French Nymphing in crystal clear slowe water – still with no fly line on the water for drag but longer presentation drifts while avoiding being seen by Mr. Trout.

  6. I’m just leaving one comment, and technically it’s not even mine.

    ‘Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence’ V Lombardi.

  7. Mending right after casting to get a drag free drift is critical for dries. It’s hard to do right and not pull the fly a bit so most people dont do it. If you can master it you will have good drifts right from the start. Pros can do all of the fly line and have the mend stop at the leader with no motion of the fly. Most of us (me included) end up figuring out how to cast some slack in the right spot to avoid mending.

    When the action is slow i spend my time looking for tough situations and figuring out how to mend well to get the drag free drift for when the hatch is on. after many years i am still terrible at it.

    • Hi Mauro,

      Honestly, I’d say the “pros,” as you put it, know how to cast with slack and be accurate before the line hits the water. I think that’s a greater challenge than mending.

      I agree with you that a good mend is also hard to do.

      But I’m a big advocate for mending less, almost always.

      This article explains my thoughts more:



Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Recent Articles

Recent Posts

Pin It on Pinterest