What really matters?

A friend of mine and I recently got into a “debate”, not truly a debate, but more of a conversation about what really mattered when fishing. This specific case had to do with fly fishing and fly tying. We ranked in order of importance, in our opinions, what matter the most when fly fishing. Is it the fly? Is it the presentation? Is it the size? We both came to a settled agreement that 1st is presentation, 2nd is pattern of the fly, and 3rd is the size. I thinking, personally, 2 and 3 are interchangeable, while 1 is pretty concrete.

This can be applied to all facets of fishing. Whether you are talking about saltwater vs. freshwater. Fly fishing vs. Spinning/Bait-casting. There are several factors out of our realm of control. Weather, pressure systems, temperature, food availability, and the list goes on and on. The fact of the matter is, we have fewer options of things we can control vs. the amount of things we can’t. That’s why they call it fishing, not catching. So let me break this down in my own take on how I have perceive my successes on the water and how am I am able to catch fish.

Presentation vs. Pattern

The first bit of this debate is comparing pattern to presentation. Whether we’re talking flies or crankbaits, the same rules apply. I am an avid fly tyer, I have been for a long time. I fish what I tie and tie what I’m going to fish. I am also an avid bass angler, I fish from a canoe, from shore, boats (when one is available). Let’s start with fly fishing first. I am not a perfectionist by any means when it comes to my tying. I have been around quite a few seasoned tiers and have seen what they do and how I can be a better tier. When I am tying my flies, I look at three basic things. 1.) are the proportions appropriate for the hook 2.) Are the basic parts of the insect present (tail/shuck, abdomen, thorax, head, wing)? 3.) Is the color close enough. Those are the things I focus on. I don’t sweat to many of the details most of the time. For instance, “I forgot a leg on my stonefly”, to me not a big deal. I am a biologist by trade and I know nothing in nature is perfect. More than likely the nymph missing the leg is going to be eat first. Remember that thing Darwin said, “Survival of the fittest”, missing a leg isn’t all that advantageous and trout are generally lazy. I think pattern is more crucial on dry flies rather than nymphs, but that’s my opinion. The same holds true for bass fishing or any freshwater fishing for that fact. Does my bait resemble the natural food of the fish I am targeting? This is when presentation becomes and overwhelming factor in your success on the river, ocean, lake etc.

I can tie the prettiest fly in the world. I can have the most realistic lure and fly out there, but if I don’t present it right? All the doesn’t matter. Let’s talk about dry flies really fast. Some rivers, you can cast a dry fly and it gets whacked immediately. Other rivers, if you don’t have the perfect drift, you’re essentially screwed. I’ve caught plenty of fish on a poorly tied fly that was presented nicely. Trust me, some of my first flies were garbage compared to what I’m tying today. Those early flies still worked though. A bit of luck was involved, but they we presented properly and gave the fish an opportunity to strike. For arguments sake, we could tie a fly that looks great on the underside, but horrible on top. The fish only sees the bottom of the fly thats floating, right? I’d like to do an experiment about this, maybe that’ll be a later post.

Back to presentation. I have had plenty of success bass fishing to. The action of the lure is super important in bass fishing. You and I can throw the same lure in the same hole and work it differently or not at all and one of us is going to elicit a strike. It comes down to how the fish sees that lure. If you’re working a bait pattern there are 3 ways to ignite a strike. 1.) Working the lure as if the bait is injured. Injured bait is easy bait. 2.) Show a fleeing bait, fleeing bait can cause strikes. A fleeing bait doesn’t give the fish enough time to analyze and sometimes they will strike out of instinct. 3.) Drop the lure right in front of them eliciting an instinctual strike. The 3rd is  particularly affective when throwing heavy jigs into deep cover, such as lily pads. Most of the time, fish that are holding in heavy cover will hit the heavy jig or bait on the initial decent or after 1 jig. If they don’t hit by then, take the bait out and plunge it into another section.

Art Lee wrote the book Fishing Dry Flies for Trout on Rivers and Streams . In this book he discusses the differences between “Matching the Hatch” and “Presenting the fly”. He stated “No fly is right unless it’s fished properly”. I’m not saying never match the hatch, but you can’t live and die by that outlook on fishing. Thus the development of attractor patterns. These flies are made to standout and do not necessarily “Match the Hatch”. Sometimes a fly that sticks out of the crowd gets eat.

A perfect example of when “Matching the Hatch” can be a downfall is looking at the Palolo worm hatches in the Florida Keys. The palolo worm is a worm that lives in various water. During the spring and summer these worms spawn. This in turn causes a Tarpon feeding frenzy. It’s hard not to get excited when you see numerous tarpon breaching and rolling on the waters surface as they eat these worms. They gorge themselves. You’d think that throwing a palolo worm pattern would be easy pickings in these conditions. It’s not! Think about it. You’re asking a fish to pick your fly out of thousands of spawning worms in the ocean. The pattern isn’t going to catch the fish. How you present the pattern is going to catch the fish. Working the fly in a way that makes it stand out from other worms is what gets you hooked up. Same same can be true during large hatches of mayflies. Out of all those flies to choose from on the water, the odds of your fly being picked out diminish. You have to work the fly pretty much perpendicular to the rest of the group.


Pattern and Size

It’s tough to make a distinct distinguishing element between the two, when talking about their affect on fishing of course. I think these two things are interchangeable in respect to their importance in successful fishing. One day, the color of your fly may be crucial, while on another day, the size of your pattern may be crucial.

This is one of those situations where you need to take into account the conditions surrounding your fishing. If water is calm and clear, you probably should throw something to flashy or to big. Fish are especially choosey in these conditions. They’re vulnerable and susceptible to being preyed on. If it’s easy for you to spot them, it’s easy for other predators to spot them. Trout will most likely be feeding on natural colored patterns of appropriate size. This is something any steelheader will atest to. I fish winter steelhead. During low water conditions when water becomes more clear, the steelhead are less likely to strike bright colored egg patterns. I find myself switching to smaller nymphs of natural colors, usually brown or black in a size 12-14. During times when water flow is up, I increase my nymph size and am able to play around with the color a little more.

The same is true about bass fishing. Color is more of a factor than size when bass fishing, most of the time. You usually pick natural colors in clear waters and brighter more vibrant colors in murky water. This is particularly true with crankbaits and most other hard baits. I have had better success in deep cover using the opposite. Murky water I tend to use more muted colors. Fish are generally reacting to vibrations and silhouettes at this point. The color is the last thing on the fishes mind. Heavy baits that move a lot of water are going to help you get strikes and land fish, in my own experience that is.


Saltwater is a little different. In freshwater, you have a hierarchy of predator and prey. Generally you’re able to target the predatory fish relatively easy. Saltwater is a different story. Everything in saltwater is food for something else. The lines tend to be blurred in saltwater at what is predator and what is prey. Predators are prey, and some prey of other fish are predators for others. It gets really crazy out in the ocean. The other factor that affects success in saltwater is conditions. Fish are either on or off. It can range from water temps to the phase of the moon, to the movement of the tides, to the amount of wind in an area. A well placed, well tied, perfectly matched fly can be flat out refused in saltwater. It’s frustrating to the point of madness.

I would have to stay the overwhelming front runner in saltwater success is presentation. At least from a fly fishing aspect. A fly has to be presented properly and in a short amount of time. You have seconds, not minutes or hours, to present your fly and make strips an tics to entice your trophy. That’s just get to going. Hooking up is another feat in and of itself. Hook setting is an art of it’s on the flats at least. Trout setting is a no go, strip strikes are the name of the game.



I’d have to say that I stand by my scientific background when I say how ugly your fly or how pretty your fly is, in the grand scheme of things won’t make as nearly as big of an impact as to how well you present the fly. Also your lure, if not worked in the proper way, may not elicit  strike. Feel free to comment, share, and discuss. This is how we change tactics and learn new things. I learn new things all the time to better improve my fishing. Neat tricks and techniques can help anyones game.

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