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Presentation, it's a word that we hear often in the fly fishing world but one that most experienced fly fishers will tell you is the most neglected part of most anglers skill set. Talk to any professional fly fishing guide and they will tell you that most of the anglers that they guide do not truly understand presentation.
What exactly is presentation? Presentation is simply the act of presenting, in this case, an artificial fly in such a manner that the target fish will be take it. This sounds simple and despite comments to the contrary it really is but it's something that only comes with practice.
Several years ago I had the privilege of spending a couple hours on the stream with a world famous fly caster. This individual, whose name I will not reveal, was a truly gracious person and I enjoyed the encounter but I was totally amazed when they started to fish. Their casting was flawless; tight loops on both the back and forward cast, line shooting effortlessly through the guides. Unfortunately each time the line touched down on the water the leader was a straight as a ruler and the fly immediately skated across the surface like a miniature water-skier. Being somewhat in awe of the personage I was accompanying I was at a loss as how to tell them that they needed to put some slack in their leader if they had any hope of hooking any fish. There was an obvious disconnect between fly casting and fly fishing.
Over the 50+ years that I have been actively involved in fly fishing I have noticed an increasing reliance upon equipment rather than skill to produce results. This is a flawed concept and I have beaten this drum many times over the years in this column. It's wonderful to own great equipment; I have a tackle room full of it but without the ability to use it one might as well be fishing with a broom!
To learn to properly present a fly, whether it's a dry fly, nymph, wet fly or streamer, you must be able to control what the fly is doing when it is on or in the water. Your fly is connected to a leader and the leader is attached to the line and all of this is on or in the water. Unless you are fishing completely still water everything starts moving from the moment your line and leader hits the water. Unfortunately not all of the water is moving at the same speed or even in the same direction, and therein is the problem.
Perhaps presentation is such an overlooked subject is the fact that it cannot be taught in a short period of time. Time on the water observing and experimenting is really the only way that a person truly becomes proficient at presentation. Reading the water is an acquired skill and understanding all the aspects of presentation is a life-long endeavor. Regrettably many anglers today do not have the time to devote to becoming truly proficient at reading the water and making the proper presentation. However, there are a few things that any angler can do that will help them make better presentations.
First, take time to observe. Since many anglers only have a few days each year to spend fly fishing they are naturally eager to start fishing as soon as they arrive on the water, but by taking a few minutes to observe before beginning to thrash the water will likely result in more success and less frustration.
Secondly, if there was only one tip I could give that will improve your presentation it would be to shorten up your casts. It is much easier to control your fly and set the hook if you are making a 30 foot cast rather than trying to set the hook on a fish that is 50 feet away. The closer you are to your target the more control you have, you are able to see what is happening, you can observe the fish and, if you are fishing dry flies, you can watch the behavior and drift of the natural insects that the fish are eating. All this will greatly enhance your ability to make a good cast that will result in a proper presentation.
Casting a long line is the curse that has afflicted many fly fishers. When I was giving fly casting clinics everyone wanted to learn to throw a long line. Before they even had gotten the basic motions for making a forward cast they were anxious to learn how to double haul. The crowd at the double haul demonstration is always longer than the line where basic fly casting techniques are being taught. Is there a place for the double haul? Absolutely, but most anglers will only rarely, if ever, be in that place. I never discouraged people that wanted to learn to double haul but I always emphasized the importance of learning how to cast properly at shorter distances before spending time and effort perfecting the double haul.
Thirdly, remember that each situation is different. You don't present a streamer the way you present a dry fly! If you want to be successful when fishing terrestrials, especially hoppers and beetles you need to deliver them with a sold splat. I remember fishing on the Au Sable River in Michigan from a canoe. The river is renowned for its cedar trees that grow out over the water. They are called sweepers because they jut out from the bank and rest low over the water; there lower limbs sweeping the surface of the water. Big browns love to live in the shade of these sweepers and the key to getting them is to place your fly as far back under the limbs as possible and deliver it with a solid splat. This type of fishing requires accuracy since your target is often only the size of wash tub and you will likely only get one shot at putting your fly on target. If you miss you're in the trees. If the fly hits the water with a good solid splat it may just cause that big old brown to stick his head out and see what the commotion is all about. Without that splat he is unlikely to even take notice.
It is likely that the changing dynamics of presentation is what makes it appear to be so difficult. It's not possible or practical to describe every situation that an angler faces when attempting to make a proper presentation. For many anglers the answer to a fish that they cannot move is to change flies or use a finer tippet when the answer might be as simple as taking a few moments to observe, adjust their casting angle by taking a few steps to the right or left and putting their fly where the fish wants it. Try it sometime. What have you got to lose?