I’ve been fishing with Smith for over a decade now. And when we first met, he was an inexperienced but eager angler with a pile of questions. Much of what he knew about fly fishing at the time had been learned intuitively, from time spent on the water answering his own questions formed from a non-stop curious mind.
Like all the good anglers that I know, Smith is intellectual about the process, but he also appreciates the beauty and artistry of our craft. He’s content enough just to catch a few fish among the majesty of a winter canyon, yet he’s relentless enough to search and wonder how he can improve the technique and catch more fish. There are two sides to every fisherman, and Smith has a wonderful balance to it all.
Long ago, on one of our first trips together, I caught up to Smith in a knee-deep limestone green run. He was angled downstream and wading methodically through the fast water. Though not in a hurry, Smith had covered a ton of the river since I’d seen him a few hours ago, and I wasn’t even sure it was him until I got close enough to see his tall, six-six form throwing fly line loops that reflected the last rays of direct light. The sun ducked behind the westside mountain of oaks and hemlocks just as I approached to find Smith swinging wet flies. It was his favorite tactic back then, and Smith was good at it.
I watched his loops for a while and waited for my friend to notice me standing bankside off his casting shoulder. When he didn’t, I grew impatient. So I picked up an old dry log about the size of a baseball bat and tossed it in the water above him. He startled when it landed, and he jumped a bit. It’s funny to see a big man like that in the grip of fear, if just for a half second.
Smith knew where the log had come from, so he refused to look back at me. He ignored it when it bumped against his leg. And he pretended it didn’t exist when the big stick nearly caught his fly line laying downstream in the water.
“Slow day,” Smith bellowed in my direction. “I’ve only caught two since I saw you last.”
I could hear the expectation in my friend’s voice. He wishfully wanted me to volunteer that my own fishing had been similar. But I couldn’t. Because I’d found a trout or two in every pocket and in nearly every seam that I’d cast to. The drifts had to be dead on, but when they were, so were the trout.
“I think it’s your presentation,” I stated flatly.
Smith stopped casting and turned to look my way for the first time. He grasped the leader and dangled his pair of wet flies. Then he put both hands against his broad hips.
“Go ahead,” Smith replied. “I can take it. What am I doing wrong now?”
Smith and I had been through a number of these moments. With most of my fishing friends, I never offer unsolicited advice. But since I’d met him, Smith was on a mission to shorten his learning curve, and he’d put much of what I’d shown him to immediate use.
“Well . . .” I paused and dragged out the moment, just to mess with Smith a bit. Then I grabbed another dead log and flung it in the water above him. “You’re fishing an attractive technique, but these fish want a natural presentation.”
Smith plucked the dead log from the water as it passed him, and he whipped it hard so it landed at my feet.
“Now what the hell does that mean?” he asked.
Here’s what I told Smith . . .
Natural or Attractive
Let’s call it natural if the fly is doing something the trout are used to seeing. If the fly looks like what a trout watches day after day and hour after hour — if the fly is doing something expected — that’s a natural presentation.
By contrast, let’s call it attractive if the fly deviates from the expected norm. Like any other animal in the wild, trout know their environment. They understand what the aquatic insects and the baitfish around them are capable of. They know the habits of mayflies and midges, of caddis, stones, black nosed dace and sculpins. And just as an eagle realizes that a woodland rabbit will never fly, a trout knows that a sculpin cannot hover near the top of the water column with its nose in heavy current.
So if you choose to fish your sculpin pattern in such a manner, it’s an attractive presentation. It literally attracts the attention of a trout because it’s unusual. Does that mean a trout will eat the fly? Well, sometimes. But it depends on the trout. And it depends on the situation.
This Trout and That One
Anglers often don’t want to believe this, but the trout in my home region can be far more difficult to catch than just about anywhere else that I’ve fished. The easy assumption is that selectivity is a result of angler pressure. But that’s not it. These trout are especially selective because they feed every day of the year, and they have a ton of food in front of them. There is no off seasons here. In other regions and rivers that have large temperature swings, the feeding season is much shorter. So the trout eat now or die later. (Alaska is a good example.) However, the trout here have an abundance of food, and they live in temperatures favorable for feeding every day of the year.
Another huge factor is wild vs stocked. Wild fish eat as they should and they grow as nature intended. But most stocked trout are genetically selected to feed aggressively and grow quickly. They are simply more eager. The old adage that a stocked trout becomes “just like a wild trout” once it’s been in the water for a while is false. They surely become more like their wild brothers, but if they are from hatchery stock then their genes never change — they will always feed more aggressively and grow more quickly.
So, trout in areas with a shorter feeding season are more apt to take an attractive presentation than trout that feed 365. Likewise, a stocked trout, bred to feed aggressively, is more likely to take an attractive presentation than its wild counterpart.
Determining what is natural vs attractive is as easy as considering the food forms themselves.
Dead drifts are natural presentations for dry flies and nymphs, because that’s what the naturals do. True drifts follow one seam, unaltered by the attached tippet. They glide down a single lane, in step with the current speed, just like the naturals. And trout know it.
There are certainly variations, and that’s what makes things interesting. Adult caddis may dap on the surface to lay eggs or collect a drink, so slashing trout may respond to a hopping CDC and Elk fished on a tight line dry dropper rig. Likewise, when mayflies are emerging, a dead drifted nymph that finishes with a short (or long) lift of the artificial in the water may be just the trigger that trout are looking for. These minor variations on a dead drift are still within the realm of a natural presentation.
But swinging a nymph across and against the currents is not natural. No nymph has the propulsion system to fight a strong current and hold its position or swing across. And a dragging dry fly may fool a few small fish, but it’s a poor imitation for the natural.
Swung wet flies is a great example of an attractive presentation. In most cases, the swinging wet is not a natural look, yet over the right trout and in the right situation, it’s a presentation that can fool a lot of fish.
Performed with skill and intention, a brace of wets can look very much like emerging insects. But the way most anglers swing wets causes the flies to race across seams in a manner that no real insect could ever duplicate. And outside of the presence of hatching insects, even the best wet fly swing is an attractive look rather than a natural one.
Similarly, the streamer game is full of popular and common retrieves that look like nothing trout see in nature. Sometimes these attractive presentations fool fish, but just as often, a more natural look is the better choice.
Again, the key is to consider the baitfish you are imitating. A crayfish cannot and does not swim from one bank to the next, riding mid-column, without stopping. Likewise, sculpins are poor swimmers, and they have completely different habits than dace or small trout.
I’m not suggesting here that attractive presentations produce fewer trout than natural ones — not always. I’ve caught plenty of trout with my sculpin imitation fished fast in the top of the water column. Trout eat it — sometimes. And I do not suggest that trout have the brainpower to consider how a crayfish should swim, but they are surely conditioned to what they see in their natural surroundings.
Yes, trout eat attractive stuff sometimes. And yet . . . there are many days when the same trout simply will not take an attractive look from any type of fly. Sometimes trout want it natural or nothing.
If you are fishing for trout that fall head over tail for an attractive look, then do it! Attractive presentations are arguably easier to accomplish, and the angler can usually cover more water with each cast.
But if the catching is slow, then pause to consider if what you are doing with the fly is natural or attractive. What do the real food forms do?
Fish always with intention. Understand the trout’s prey, and be aware of your presentation of choice — is it a true imitation, or does it deliberately deviate from the natural standard?
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
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