Presentation surprises

From southwest estuaries to the Snowy Mountains, Philip experiences the power of presentation. 

Let me put an idea to you: it’s not your fly, but what you do with it. While this concept may be as old as flyfishing itself, it’s not a popular one. (Macedonian A to Macedonian B, “I think you’ve got drag; next cast, put a bit of slack in your horsehair.” Macedonian B, “Shut up and give me that fly of yours with the black hackle instead of red.”) Among the few hundred people I guide each year – not to mention some of my fishing mates – the fly is king.

Boat or bankside, “What are you getting ‘em on?” remains the most popular question. Not, “What presentation is working best for you?”

So, are flies important? Absolutely sometimes, quite important other times… but not so important more often than we’d like to think. But don’t stop reading Craig’s ‘Effective Flies’, and please let me take my Dirty Stick Caddis to Lake Eucumbene.

This high-country brown took a Dirty Stick Caddis, but it was how it was fished – drifted quite shallow down a foam line – that made the difference.

What’s undeniable, is those anglers who fish flies well, will catch an order of magnitude more fish than those who don’t. While this fact applies to every species we might throw a fly towards, let me give you examples involving just some of them.

Nelson estuary perch

When JD and I launched his boat onto the lower Glenelg River at the beginning of a mid-June trip, it would be fair to say we were excited, but also a little bewildered by the extent of our options. The river looked perfect, with about a metre of visibility, and a slight downstream current to match the outgoing tide. But the Glenelg estuary is huge, and even within a short distance of Nelson, there are sandflats, shallow lagoons, bottomless holes and channels, gently-sloping banks, or vertical cliffs plunging straight down. Clear edges or scrubby; weed-beds or mudflats. While it all held promise, after a few hours fishing for only a couple of EPs and a bream, we were beginning to suffer a little from FOBITWS (fear of being in the wrong spot).

Days are short in June and by 4pm, when we chose a small crescent-shaped cove for what was likely to be our last session for day one, the shadows were already sneaking over the river edges. Tying a medium weight Merri Minnow to a long leader, I cast ‘upstream’, and after letting it settle into what looked to be one or two metres of water, I began a steady retrieve – just a tad faster than the gentle current. On the second cast, halfway back, I felt just the slightest resistance, and lifted. What could easily have been weed or my imagination, turned into a 30cm perch.

If fished precisely the right way, the Merri Minnow caught any number of Glenelg estuary perch…

Soon after, I had another perch… and then another. Before long, I was starting to lose count, with a couple of nice bream thrown in. But at the back of the boat, JD was missing out – despite having already changed to a matching fly, and then matching leader setup. Eventually, I swapped places so my friend could fish off the bow and get exactly the same drift/ retrieve. It worked. Soon, JD was catching fish as fast – if not faster – than I had been. From the stern, I tried to replicate the just-faster-than-the-current presentation I’d achieved from the bow, but the angles weren’t quite right, and I could only manage the odd take. Well, at least I didn’t have to spend the rest of the evening apologising for catching all the fish!

… and some bream too!

Ovens cod

After lunch on a sunny afternoon in late March didn’t seem like an auspicious time to be fishing for Murray cod on the Ovens River near Myrtleford. With the autumn leaves just starting to put on a show, and the river quite low and almost painfully clear, the gravelly riffles and gentle runs seemed to say ‘trout’ more than cod. Still, Max and I had caught our share of trout over previous sessions, so the pact (and for this ‘hit and miss’ species, a pact is often needed) was cod fishing: 8 weights, Outbound lines, and 6 inch flies.

Now, when fishing for trout on north-east Victorian streams, positive reinforcement usually occurs often enough. The rainbows and browns might not always be easy to catch, but you’re at least seeing rises, or polaroiding fish, or noticing refusals, bumps from misses, and so on. However, for me at least, cod fishing often lacks these regular doses of encouragement. You know the cod are there, but man, you have to dig deep to believe it sometimes.

This was the archetypical ‘dig deep’ session. Perhaps on evening, the cod might begin giving themselves away with the odd boof or swirl, but right there and then, all I could see was clear water and gravel with no sign of fish of any description. It took some mental effort to constantly place the fly as close as possible to likely snags, or to let it sink enticingly into the deeper, shady pools. My experience is that cod need to be teased into taking in these conditions, yet my default is to automatically rush things when there’s little sign of life – exactly the wrong approach. Focus Philip, focus.

Working downstream, I came to a fallen tree which floods had swept in parallel to what kayakers would call the true left bank. As a relatively recent addition to the river’s structure, the tree still had many branches intact. It offered perhaps 30 metres of prime cod habitat, albeit habitat never more than waist deep and in full sun. I dutifully worked my way down the snag; plonking my dumbbell-eyed purple & black fly as close to the half drowned branches as I dared, letting it settle, and then swinging it down and away from the tree, across the current, and back to my rod tip.

I expected any take would come soon after the fly settled beside the snag, or failing that, as it travelled down along it. As for the actual swing afterwards across the brightly-lit run, it felt like merely going through the motions. But then, a few casts later, as the fly departed the edge of the sunken branches and came out into the open water of the run, there was a fish hot on its tail. A cod, and not a bad one, maybe 60cm. Right through the swing, I waited breathlessly for the inevitable hit… but it didn’t come. I stripped the fly the last few metres up the current below me. Still nothing. Finally, the big artificial was just a couple of rod lengths below me, the cod inches from it. Almost out of room, I watched as the fly fluttered in the current, and in desperation, gave it a short, sharp twitch. The big fish moved forward fractionally, and nonchalantly inhaled it. My stunned delay no doubt provided the slack and the time to let the cod eat the fly, and after a short, savage fight, I landed it.

A final twitch made the difference with this Ovens cod.

In my cod fishing, it is a luxury to witness the eat – blind fishing is the norm. You can imagine though, that since that Ovens afternoon, I add that one last twitch to any retrieve before recasting. And sometimes, it turns a window shopper into a fish on the line.

Wendouree and Eucumbene ‘snatchers’

My son Daniel had an annoying spell recently at Lake Wendouree. On no less than four occasions, this happened: pre-cast with some initial line stripped off the reel, dry fly flicked a short distance onto the water in preparation for the ‘proper’ cast, and bang! A trout instantly came from nowhere to eat his dun or spinner. In his surprise, Daniel missed all but one such take on the strike.

Daniel hooked up to a Wendouree snatcher.

Then, just recently at Lake Eucumbene, I’ve had the same thing happen several times with a Bruisers Bug (a big, leggy foam dry). Fortunately, I was able to respond to the shock quickly enough to land a couple of these trout.

In the case of both Wendouree and Eucumbene, trout were leaping for spinners, or damsels, or dragonflies – or all three. And landing the fly right on top of a trout was a happy accident. We knew there were leapers in the area, but we couldn’t sight them between jumps.

Regardless, trout noticing the alighting fly, evidently created an illusion of flight. Leapers are often somewhere between difficult to impossible to fool, but this presentation worked.

And one from Eucumbene a few weeks later.

On those rare occasions when I can actually track a leaper subsurface, the same trick often succeeds… if my cast is quick and accurate enough. This is a classic illustration of presentation over fly – for example, a broad, chunky Bruisers Bug bears almost no resemblance to a dragonfly, let alone a dainty damselfly. It’s the fly landing very close to an active trout which triggers the take, not a cunning choice of pattern.

Yambuk salmon

On a recent trip to southwest Victoria, I was able to grab a few hours at Yambuk Lake. It was a December afternoon, with a stiff south-easterly countering the sun’s intensity: perfect for a walk down the dunes track to the river-like section near the lake’s mouth.

The estuary was closed to the sea, and yet the brackish water was surprisingly clear. It was easy to make out the deeper channels among the broad sandflats, plus the odd dark patch of weed. Better still, as I waded the edges, I could make out the flashes of salmon schools here and there, and even the occasional bream darting away.

The deeper channels proved to be the places to fish at Yambuk… 

However, my flies – first an olive BMS, and then a Merri Minnow – were all but ignored. The best I got from the normally voracious salmon were a couple of half-hearted follows, and the few bream I polaroided fled before I could even get a cast off.

Now, I can reluctantly accept missing out on finicky bream. But salmon? Normally, all you have to do is put a fly near one, strip it quickly, and brace for the slam. Not today though. Eventually, I decided to let the BMS settle into the dark depths of one of the channels, and after a count of a few seconds, I drew the rod tip up smoothly and over my right shoulder with a ‘hang’ motion. Whack! The quickest of several suddenly desperate salmon slammed the fly as it travelled to towards the surface. Keep in mind that, over the previous couple of hours, countless schools of flats salmon had virtually ignored my efforts.

… – but only if the sink-and-draw retrieve was just right.

The sink-and-draw proved the difference, and over the next hour, I was able to catch as many salmon as I liked before time ran out and I had to depart. Like I say, defeating Australian salmon might not normally seem like anything very clever. But on this occasion, it was a clear example that even an ‘easy’ species, can sometimes need just the right presentation.

Presentation perfection

The reason I (and many of my colleagues who fish a lot) bang on about presentation, is because we regularly see the cost of not doing it correctly. Where you put your fly, and what you do with it, often makes all the difference. Even with my own supposed knowledge and experience, all the examples above were presentation surprises. It was what was done with the fly that worked, despite only fully appreciating the power of those particular presentations after the fact. Flyfishing certainly is full of surprises, and they don’t stop coming – even after 50 years.

Here’s an idea. Next time you’ve put some thought into choosing the right fly, but the fish aren’t eating it, continue to back your judgement. Instead of diving into your box for a new pattern, persist a bit longer with your original choice, but vary your presentation: depth, speed, cadence, drift, placement… and so on.

The greatest challenge as you work through these variations, will be to maintain belief that the fly will work. Once you stop believing, the game is up. All good presentations rely on attention to detail, and that’s almost impossible to maintain without belief in your fly.

Keep the faith however, and you should be ready for a pleasant surprise.