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Pattern, Presentation, or Both?

by John Evans
(San Antonio, TX)

This beautiful Redear Sunfish couldn't resist a Killer Bug bounced along the bottom.

This beautiful Redear Sunfish couldn't resist a Killer Bug bounced along the bottom.

Anglers love a good debate, and tenkara practitioners are no different. One argument I hear from time-to-time is whether fly pattern or presentation is more important. We all have our favorite flies that we cast with confidence, but even the best fly must be presented in the right way. So, which is more important—pattern or presentation?

Experience shows that both matter. There’s no doubt that certain patterns work better on some days. Time of year also influences which fly works best. Some patterns have a history of producing good results under a variety of conditions. The Utah Killer Bug, Elk Hair Caddis, and Hare’s Ear Nymph come to mind.

Yes, I know there are one-fly only advocates, but I’m just not convinced by that theory. When the fish are feeding off the bottom in deeper water, an unweighted sakasa kebari is not going to cut it. Sometimes the only fly the fish will strike is a nymph bouncing along the bottom. Sometimes streamers are effective, and at other times a favorite dry or wet fly does the trick.

But presentation is key . . . often more important than the fly itself. In fact, tenkara angling emphasizes presentation. You can’t just plow into a creek, slap a fly on the water any which way, and expect to be effective. Yes, even an old blind hog finds an acorn now and again, but the angler who stealthily approaches his quarry, who presents the fly in a natural way in fish-holding water, who works the fly as an insect might appear on the water, is going to catch more fish. I repeat: it’s presentation and pattern.

Experience, the most thorough of all teachers, shows us this.
Frank Sawyer, who knew a thing or two about fishing, and who gave us some of our most effective patterns (pheasant tail nymph, Sawyer’s killer bug), repeatedly emphasized the importance of stealth and presentation. In his books, he describes how to cast the fly so that it enters the water properly and how to gently work the artificial. Today we may focus on Sawyer’s patterns, but a review of his writing shows that approach and presentation were keys in his thinking.

I would also say that one common mistake most of us make is to overwork a fly. Hey, if a little twitching is good, a lot of twitching must be better. Again, experience shows that’s not true. Most insects, if they fall into the water, struggle just a little and then sit still. We would be wise to imitate what happens in nature. Fish quickly identify any object that’s moving too much or making too much of a commotion. (Yes, I know there are exceptions to this rule, but the principle remains.) Often, a dead drift is most effective of all.

My encouragement is to consider both pattern and presentation. Find the flies that work in your area, in the way you fish, and tie those patterns with confidence. But remember that most fish are easily spooked and soon detect anything that’s not natural. Approach the water carefully and cast the fly thoughtfully, watching the drift and presentation. There’s no magic pattern that compensates for sloppy fishing.

Comments for Pattern, Presentation, or Both?

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Feb 06, 2018
Presentation and Size
by: Les Albjerg

Another great thought provoking well written entry John. What a beautiful fish!

According to my mentor Clive Stevenson, Presentation is number one. One of his arguments however is the pattern can enhance or detract from the Presentation. Thus in his teaching Pattern is secondary. His other major criteria was size. The right size fly is more important than the Pattern according to Clive. This was born out to me one morning on the Umpqua River. I was fishing to a nice pod of rainbow trout, and they wouldn't take the size 18 fly that had worked so well several days earlier. I dropped up to a size 12 elk-hair caddies and Wham! fish on! So, I decided to test Clive's theory. Presentation wise, they were responding to a dry fly. So, I dug out 8 different dry flies in size 12 that I had. Everything from a Black Ant to an all white pattern. I caught fish on all of them. So in my learning and experience, it is Presentation, Size, and then Pattern. Oh, and if you can't get them to take anything, and you are seeing fish munching away on insects hatching, Clive always said, put on a good streamer, and the trout will get upset that some little fish is eating their gourmet food and hammer your streamer. It has worked more than once for me.

Or, become more of a worm fisherman like I am becoming!

I think that is why Tenkara is such a deadly method. The more I study it and put it into practice, it is mainly about Presentation. Another P word I would add is Presence. Tenkara puts a premium on being in the right place before you cast to the fish or potential fish in a holding spot. I was talking to Josh and Andy my two steelhead fishing buddies last week. I said to them in the conversation, "Don't walk through a potential holding area without fishing it first." Both of them said they hadn't ever thought about that.

Feb 07, 2018
Loved the article
by: BKCooper

I always enjoy reading what you write, and I agree with your point. I will add this though. There is also something to be said fishing how you want. If using a dry only increases your enjoyment of the experience then there you go. So long as we don't delude ourselves by expecting the same results then we should be OK with that. The fact is you catch 90% of fish under the surface, but catching them on top is 10 times more fun!

Feb 07, 2018
Agree with both comments
by: John Evans

I agree with both Les and BK. Les is absolutely right that size is often a critical factor in flies. I've had the same experience he's had--several patterns worked about equally well IF they were the same size! I generally tie size 12-14 flies, but sometimes that's too small and sometimes too big.
And BK is correct that an angler should fish according to what brings him the greatest enjoyment. As long as the method is legal and ethical, why not go with your favorite patterns and presentation? I find that I take it in spells. Sometimes I enjoy the strike detection challenge of fishing nymphs, but it's hard to match the joy of seeing a fish explode on a dry fly. In cooler weather, the nymphs down deep seem to work better. In warmer weather, I'm usually reaching for dry flies. Just depends . . .

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