Unless you’re good at casting, it’s useless to tie flies…

messy flies

well conceived, amusing and leaving a belly full of food for thought, here’s a fantabulous fictional ‘interview’ on Presentation vs Imitation, the Age-old debate parts 1-2-3 by Carlos Azpilicueta that i hope you’ll not only enjoy but benefit from.

“In this special article, I moderate an interesting, entertaining talk session on one of the most debated and less resolved issues in the history of fly fishing. Far from trying to solve anything, the participants contribute various original points of view that are bound to give more than one reader and flyfishing enthusiast something to think about.”


Quillan and Rodney are keen fly fishermen and staunch defenders of two different positions and approaches that, although they can complement each other, usually clearly and vehemently define which type of fisherman you are.

Some consider and defend the imitation concept as the key to success in fly fishing. They’re the Imitators (Quillan) and their main endeavor is to fill their fly boxes with all kinds of patterns. They’re usually great fly tyers and are very knowledgeable of everything having to do with fly dressing techniques and materials. Many of them are avid entomologists and some even use aquariums and binocular magnifying glasses to study aquatic macroinvertebrates.

The so-called Presenters (represented by Rodney) heartily defend their approach. The presentation approach gives priority to technical skill in casting and presenting the fly. Besides casting, they also love to read and understand the currents in the stream and everything related to how the angler manages on the stream.

Surely no other debate has filled more pages of fly fishing literature. And, to the satisfaction of many, I’m afraid it will continue to do so for many years to come.

Part 1
…positions get defined

Mod: Good afternoon, Quillan and Rodney. Since we already know your respective positions, we can dispense with presentations.
Rod: What we really need less of are imitations.
Mod: Sorry. It was just of way of getting started. I certainly didn’t intend to…
Quill: You certainly are touchy, Mr. Presenter.
Mod: I’m touchy?
Quill: No, I don’t mean you. I’m referring to my debating opponent, the expert flycaster.
Rod: Well, that’s precisely where I think the first error lies.
Mod: What do you mean?
Rod: Associating the idea of presentation with only casting.
Quill: Well, I relate my idea of imitation almost exclusively to dressing the artificials.
Rod: And that’s one of the great limitations of the position you defend. Presentation spans a whole series of concepts and approaches that are much more far-reaching than the simple cast: the fisherman’s position in the stream, reading the water, interpreting the insects, adapting the leader, etc. There are a lot of things you have to do before your dry fly is ever seen by a trout. And they’re all part of the concept of presentation. If you do them right, the fly will be successful; otherwise, you won’t have the slightest chance. I like to quote Gary Borger, “Presentation can be defined as the culmination of everything you are and everything you know and understand about the world of fly fishing.”
Quill: Then, no matter what you tie on the end of the tippet, if you do all those things right, the trout will take it, right?
Rod: Just as long as the size is right, and often not even that.
Quill: Your passion for what you do best, casting, besides revealing your clear limitations as a complete fly fisherman, blinds you and, thereby, irresponsibly confines any further development.
Mod: Let’s start focusing the issue and analyzing some of its more important points.

…historical view

Trout vision curiosities

  • The trout devotes almost half of its small brain to using and controlling its vision
  • Professor Muntz’ experiments show that trout not only perceive colours but also tones of the same color. The colors they most clearly distinguish are, in this order, red, orange and yellow.
  • Trout fry have four types of cones (vision cells responsible for color). This endows them with very good chromatic vision, thus increasing their ability to locate food. When they grow, their retina reverts to a three-cone system, like in human beings.
  • Fish stop feeding for a little while just after sundown. They need a few minutes to adapt their visual system to the new light.
  • Because the cornea of a trout’s eye sticks out a bit from its head, it’s much more prone to be damaged by careless manipulation or leader tangled around its head.

Rod: Hold on, Mr. Moderator. I’ve just been called irresponsible and limited. Me and several legends in the history of fly fishing, such as Charles Ritz and Marryatt.
Mod: All right. Defend yourself. Briefly, please.
Rod: Charles Ritz spent most of his angling life expounding that technique was 85% while the other 15% was imitation. Marryatt, for many, the greatest fly fisherman in history, used to say, “It isn’t the fly, it’s he who presents it.” And remember. He worked closely with Halford, the epitome of the imitation approach.
Quill: Come on, Rod. Insinuating that you’re to be lumped together with those great names, worthy of all my respect and admiration, is pretentious, to say the least. Your quotes date from a period in which the best imitations, what we would call realistic patterns today, were dressed by the great scholar, Halford. They were crude, floated poorly, hardly used any synthetic materials and didn’t apply a lot of the transcendental scientific criteria that appeared later. With imitations like those, it was logical to think that their presentation was decisive. They had to justify their frequent failures.
Mod: What scientific criteria are you referring to?
Quill: The research on light reflected and transmitted by insects and materials and the important advances in our knowledge of trout vision. One of the weak points of all of Halford’s patterns was the opaqueness of the materials be used: quills, floss, horse hair… Seen from below against the light of the sky, these bodies were inexorably dull and lifeless.
Mod: Do you maintain then that imitation has been gaining in importance in fishing over the years?
Quill: Absolutely. The most realistic imitations of only 10 years ago can’t hold a candle to some of today’s patterns. We’ve got a whole new category today, the clones.
Rod: Your thinking isn’t logical, Quill. Today’s reality isn’t just a shortage of trout. For reasons irrelevant to this debate, a lot of insect species are waning. So lots of the copious hatches we used to know are rare now. Which goes to show that imitation is a lot less important today.

Part 2
…the steak theory

Rodney: Maybe you think those clone patterns of yours are less prone to drag. If you do, you’re completely mistaken. The fish reacts primarily to the presentation and only to a lesser degree to the fly. Let me tell you something else. Only when the presentation is good does it make sense to consider the imitation. And always in that order. I’ll give you an example. It isn’t mine; it’s Nick Lyons’. The name’s bound to be familiar. You get served a nice, thick steak. And just as you’re about to cut off the first morsel, the steak budges a fraction of an inch to the side. I bet the fright it gives you is enough to kill your appetite. At any rate, I’m sure that steak doesn’t look so succulent any more.
Quillan: That’s a pretty funny example, Rod, but I see it differently. If a thick, dark red, rare steak were to suddenly move on my plate, I’d think someone had kicked the table. So I’d gobble it fast in case somebody’s after it. Now, if it was scrawny, tough and overdone, even if it lay there stone still, I sure wouldn’t even taste it.
Moderator: Hey, you guys are making me hungry.
Quill: Obviously for the first steak, the dancing Daisy one.

…the dry fly myth

Flies declining in English chalk streams

Only streams with such highly alkaline waters and such regular flows and temperatures can support such an enormous quantity of insects and rich aquatic life. Nevertheless many mayfly species and species of other orders have been declining in recent years, causing alarm for English chalk streams. One of the more bizarre theories attempting to explain this decline points to the great amount of unused contraceptive pills poured down the drains. They dissolve in the water and affect the reproductive capacity of many female insects.

Mod: One thing is certain, fellows. Halford’s flies haven’t survived the passage of the years. And they caught thousands of extremely selective trout, feeding on duns and spinners on the surface of the crystal-clear waters of the mythical English chalk streams.
Rod: True. But they can’t have caught so many trout when they ended up disappearing. Walt Dette says that a fly pattern that doesn’t catch trout ends up disappearing no matter how pretty or how well-dressed it is.
Quill: Only a tenth of the hundreds of Halford’s patterns ever proved to be really effective.
Many hours on the stream have convinced me that today’s realistic patterns always work much better than a general pattern. When the insect is available to the trout, of course. I also maintain that the only realistic imitations that function as such are underwater patterns. I’ve got a theory about the dry fly.
Mod: Please be so kind as to share it with us.
Quill: Certainly. For some time now, I’ve been convinced that dry fly fishing has never existed as such.
Mod: Do you realize the transcendence of that statement?
Quill: I certainly do. The dry fly, taken as an imitation that floats like a mayfly dun, for example, is a myth. There is no way you can make an artificial float the way a natural fly floats. Try as you may, it’s physically impossible. Because of the weight of the hook, because of the materials (all absorb more or less water) and because it’s tied to a tippet that unbalances it, falls from above and adds extra weight.
Rod: Put that way, it sounds logical.
Quill: All the innovative patterns that have attempted to achieve this floatability have failed throughout history. What I’m saying is a cinch to prove. Take your best dun imitation and gently place on the water in a glass. Observe it for a few seconds. Do the same with an inverted hook pattern, a single-wing (thorax type), a palmer, a funnel dun, a compara dun, whatever you want. See the huge difference between the way they float and the high-floating, subtle, graceful subimago? Once you place them on the water, they all break through the surface tension to some degree. Note the tail filaments. Those of the natural flies barely touch the water. Those of most artificials are grotesque, indecipherable, semi-submerged appendages. And you placed the imitations on the water gently. Now tie them to a tippet and drop them from a certain height. Dismayingly revealing.
Now try it with one of Halford’s classics. I can’t understand how this fellow could think trout took these imitations thinking they were adult ephemeropteras. Those hooks were quite a bit heavier than today’s too. And the materials he used weren’t as hydrophobic as today’s either. In spite of all this, a beautiful, romantic story was born: the dry fly.
Rod: Sadly enough, I think the leader often makes them more stable. It’s funny. I set out the other day to count all the patterns, current and old, that try to imitate a Baetis Rhodani subimago. I soon had no less than 24 different imitations for this fly. And, except for the possible size variations, it’s undoubtedly one of the best defined in color and physiognomy. Nobody uses many of those imitations anymore. It’s certainly makes you think.
Mod: What does it make you think?
Rod: That there are only two possibilities. Either, like my debating opponent says, it’s absolutely impossible to even come close to properly imitating these insects or, as I’ve been saying, the root of the problem lies elsewhere, in what really makes the difference between the success and failure of any fly. At any rate, I thought you defended the imitation concept above all.
Quill: I do, and well above presentation. But referring almost exclusively to today’s realistic patterns.
Rod: Current realistic, underwater patterns.
Quill: Exactly. Although CDC gives you very good floatability—usually the first two drifts, you’ll get very few drifts with the artificial floating like a dun.
Mod: Then, when you tie on a dry fly or what you think is a dry fly, what are you actually tying on?
Quill: An emerger at some floatation level of all the various possible levels. Just that. Definitely not a dry fly as we’ve just defined it, in any case.

Part 3
…about magic wands

Rodney: Aside from this interesting “theory”, as you so aptly call it, I think the pattern-buffs, whether they extol exact imitations or not, are actually trying to compensate deficient casting techniques. The worst is that lots of them aren’t even aware that they’re doing it.
I’ve got another theory.
Moderator: Your turn then.
Rod: I call it the magic wand syndrome. Man constantly strives to find utensils to make life easier and save toil and sweat. Even knowing there are no miracle products for losing weight or lightning-fast systems for learning Russian in 6 months, we’re always willing to try out something new, just in case. No matter what…to avoid suffering and pain. Fly fishing has two magic wands. Rods that cast yards and yards almost by themselves. They make unbelievably delicate presentations, even against a headwind. Then you have the infallible flies that no fish can reject.
Quillan: I hope you aren’t insinuating that I go around selling magic wands.
Rod: In a way, you do. What you defend can be bought. That’s why most all fishermen change the fly before changing the cast or the presentation. And that’s why most angling forums, debates and discussions always focus on this or that pattern. It also explains why there’s a lot more literature about fly tying than any other angling-related topic. Fishermen keep trying to replace practice and training with a new rod or a new pattern. So they keep failing. They refuse to accept that the only magic wands in fly fishing are training, study and hours of effort. And, Quillan, you can’t buy those in a store.
Mod: Mmm, interesting.
Quill: And quite wrong. There’s a lot more skill involved in the option I defend than in yours: knowledge of fly-tying materials, manual dexterity, creativity, imagination, an artistic flare and, particularly, knowledge of entomology. Though I’m sure you consider how you handle the butterfly net more important then recognizing exact species of mayfly under the binocular magnifying glass.
Rod: He who fishes better catches more fish than the guy with the better imitations.

…slight point of encounter

Mod: Don’t you guys believe that, in the ultimate analysis, the guy that makes the best presentation with the best imitation will catch the most fish?
Quill: Yeah, but that hardly ever happens.
Rod: You’re right there.
Mod: Hummmph! Please enlighten us.
Quill: The angling styles of the great majority of fly fishermen are much closer to one option than to the other.
Rod: Almost always closer to imitation. Obsessed with changing flies to solve all their problems.
Quill: More and more anglers are focusing almost exclusively on presentation and stock their fly boxes with only a couple of patterns.
Rod: Yeah, but they’re still a small minority.
Quill: It’s funny but usually the guys that catch the most fish know little about casting. I think I know why.
Mod: Why?
Quill: Because they make the best presentation they know how to make. They get as close as they can to the fish and, with little more than the leader, they drift the fly past the trout’s snout. No technique, no special training. That’s all they do. And once the fish sees the fly, either it looks a lot like what it’s eating or see you later, alligator. And that, Rodney, summarizes everything you’re trying to defend.
Rod: You’re describing a special type of fishing done in certain streams under specific conditions. That kind of fisherman does catch fish in his usual streams but he’s very limited in any kind of river where he can’t get so close.

…dragging isn’t always decisive

Quill: I maintain that a realistic imitation doesn’t need an impeccable presentation; it can even drag a bit.
Rod: Never. The trout, for example, is much more finicky about a poor presentation than about a specific fly pattern. If a trout knows anything, it certainly knows how to tell the difference between something that floats and drifts naturally from something that’s forced.
Quill: What poor presentations do is highlight the deficiencies of a given imitation. Natural insects are continually subject to whimsical eddies and micro currents. They rarely drift in a straight, predictable line.
Rod: True. That’s what makes a proper presentation so difficult. The imitation has to follow the not-so-uniform drift of the natural insect.

…conclusions

Mod: Let’s try to wind up with some last thoughts, OK?
Quill: I’d like to end on this note: the vast difficulty, study and work required to create almost perfect imitations always pays off on the stream. Very few fishermen systematically use this type of fly, but they undoubtedly catch the most fish. Today’s artificial fly, with current knowledge of the art of fly-tying, stands out as much more important than presentation. Never, until very recently, has this been so clear.
Just about anybody knows how to cast and make more or less presentable presentations. But very few can tie patterns that truly imitate natural insects and then use them for fishing. That’s the real source of this controversy.
Mod: Your turn to finish up.
Rod: Fly fishing is about placing a fly on the water without spooking the fish and making it drift naturally. No matter how good your imitation is, it’s always going to be tied to a tippet, which, in turn, is tied to a thicker leader and a much thicker fly line. Between you and the fish, there’s almost always going to be a multitude of currents that are sometimes absolutely indecipherable. You’ll be surrounded by vegetation and obstacles and the wind is rarely going to be your ally. This whole reality interacts with itself and changes with each step you take and each minute that goes by. In the stream, I sincerely prefer to rely on my skill and knowledge more than what I have in my fly box.
Mod: Many thanks to both of you for this interesting debate. Happy fishing until next time.

6 thoughts on “Unless you’re good at casting, it’s useless to tie flies…

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