Presentation Is Everything

Small changes in presentation can make big differences in catches.


Photo by Jerry Audet

Small changes in presentation can make big differences in catches.

Bigger is better. It’s something I ascribe to almost religiously when surf fishing. Fishermen are limited only by what can actually be cast, bought, or made, and most vastly underestimate the size of the forage that a 30- to 50-pound-plus striped bass can eat. It’s not exactly fun throwing 15-inch lures all night, but that’s small in comparison to what a large striper can consume. This is not limited to surf fishing, either; the large swimbait craze in freshwater bass fishing really highlights the matter. The lures those fishermen use are gigantic—often three-quarters the length of the fish they’re hunting … larger than what many of us throw in the surf.

Photo by Eddy Stahowiak

However, the size of the lure is completely trumped by a single critical factor: presentation. In fact, presentation can make or break any lure, bait, or fly offering in any situation you can think of. It is far more important than color, action, scent, sound, or even profile. I believe presentation is the single most important factor besides the actual physical presence of your intended target (that is, are there fish in the water you’re fishing?). A tiny lure, properly presented, will out-fish a gargantuan lure presented poorly 100% of the time. It’s a simple concept, but one often lost on beginners and even intermediate anglers, who tend to get lost in action and color which, in my opinion, is putting the cart before the horse. Even profile—probably the runner-up for how I fish—means relatively nothing compared to presentation.

eel flies
Pack sand eel flies in a variety of sizes for late-season stripers.

Let me start with a recent example before I dive into this concept in more detail.

A few months back, I was fly-fishing the surf on a dark and stormy night. I stood, precariously perched on a rock in my wetsuit, muscling an 11-inch Rhode Island Flat Wing fly on a 5/0 hook into a moderate current. As of this writing, I have yet to catch a truly big striped bass on a fly rod. In an effort to change that, I have been throwing much larger flies than in past seasons, hoping to finally crack 25 pounds in the surf. In fact, I’ve become obsessed with throwing giant flies to the exclusion of all others this season. For large fish, bigger is better, right?

I had been fishing for almost two hours and caught only a couple very small fish. Everything felt right, and there was an energy to the air and smell to the water that told me I should stay at it. So, I continued casting my large fly into the current over and over.

I was starting to fatigue both mentally and physically. The big fly was getting hard to cast, and I ended up catching myself in the back of the head with it! Luckily, it didn’t stick in my scalp – just the top of my hat, so I went back to shore to use my light to get the hook out of the fabric, which took a few frustrating minutes. I was sweaty, getting eaten by mosquitoes, and was beginning to lose my cool. I ripped the fly out of my hat and angrily threw it on the ground, where it landed in a small pool of water.
Then, suddenly, things became clear.

As I stared at the fly lying in the puddle, I noticed how fully it had opened upon hitting the water. The Flat Wing really expands in calm water, creating in a big profile. However, it also has a ton of drag (usually a good thing) and doesn’t sink very fast. I had this one especially full … and it was floating. I knew my line was swinging fast in the current, but I hadn’t really considered that perhaps the fly was right on the surface, not until the moment I saw it lying there. It doesn’t float when you’re stripping it back in under normal conditions, but in the current, it was likely getting swept away.

I cracked open my fly box and was dismayed to see the only fly I had that would get down (even on an intermediate line) was a 2/0 Clouser Minnow. It was about 3 inches long. Switching from my giant Flat Wing to this tiny offering went against everything I believed, but the combination of fatigue and frustration—and the belief that presentation rules all—prompted me to tie on the fly.

fly fishing curent
In fast current, changing up your fly profile can help you get down to where the fish are holding.

I scooped up the Flat Wing and put it back in my bag, then waded back out to my rock. It took only a couple of false casts until I shot the Minnow out across the current. The moment it touched the water, I stripped to stay tight to it. On the very first cast, it was only 10 seconds before it was nailed, right in the center of the current. The fish took off hard, and in the outflow, it was a relatively long fight on the fly rod, lasting several minutes. At 16 pounds, that bass was probably three times the size of the other two fish I had caught that night.

Interestingly, after that fish, I started getting fish every cast, and several of them were well over keeper size. I couldn’t believe switching to the smaller fly was so productive. To prove it wasn’t merely a stroke of luck, I went back to the Flat Wing and a moderately-sized Hollow Fleye, and neither produced even a small fish.

You may be thinking that this smaller fly was simply “matching the hatch,” but there were no baitfish around to match on that night. Early and late in the year, I fish that particular spot because it is much warmer than the ocean, and as a result, the fish stack up in the current, even when no bait is present.

The ability to get the lure in front of the fish is more important than lure size, profile, or color.
Photo: Jerry Audet

The thing that had changed was my presentation. I wanted to fish a bigger fly, completely ignoring that it was being presented in a manner that was both unnatural and illogical. I wasn’t paying attention to the conditions in front of me. This is something that took me many years to understand. When I began fishing for smallmouth bass as a kid, I figured the only thing that mattered was whether the fish were hungry. There was no thought about even the simplest presentation factors like depth or speed. I threw lures that generally did exactly the same thing because they looked good to me. However, over the last 25 years of fishing, I’ve become convinced it’s much less about what lure you are casting, and much more about how you’re presenting it.

The greatest example of this in the surf is the bucktail. How many times have you heard, or read, that all you need is a white bucktail? Hundreds, probably, yet here I am contributing to this cliché. While I don’t fish them very much anymore, I did at one time, and I understand why fishermen ascribe to this notion.

bucktail striped bass
Good bucktailing skills are particularly important because properly worked jigs are deadly and can be used in a very wide variety of conditions.

You can fish bucktails in any way imaginable. You can fish them very fast, very slow, in current, in calm water, on top like a popper (really!), and everything in between. Few fishermen worry about bucktail color, fancy head shapes, underwater sound, or even profile. It’s all about the delivery and the presentation. Bucktails can be presented in the right way, just about all the time, because they are so versatile.

The size and profile of my Flat Wing may still have yielded me larger fish that night. It may have been better to go bigger, but because it wasn’t getting down in the current and swinging out quickly, the fish either weren’t interested in chasing it or (more likely) the way it was swimming didn’t look natural. If I’d had a full sinking line and had wrapped the fly with some lead wire, I may have done even better than I did with the small Clouser. The key was getting the fly down against the bottom in the current. Presentation trumped size, color, and action in this case—as I believe it does in all cases.

My point is, lure size, color, scent, sound, profile, action and even the presence of bait are all secondary to presentation. You can take the greatest, most perfect lure in the world, throw it into a soup of bait and predators, and still not catch anything by presenting it wrong. For example, if you surf-fish, think about how you traditionally work a pencil popper. Now, imagine slowly dragging it through the water just below the surface without any wake, popping, or dancing motion – just a slow, straight retrieve. Would it still work the same? Certainly not! And on nights this does work (which, by the way, it can), it very likely would not work by slashing it across the surface. Further, fishermen in the Cape Cod Canal load their plastic Cotton Cordell pencils with shot and then bounce them along the bottom like a jig! Do you think this has anything to do with how they work on the surface? Absolutely not. It’s simply presenting a bait-shaped piece of plastic down where the fish are holding. Presentation!

Photo: Eddy Stahowiak

Consider the popular freshwater lure, the Jitterbug. What would happen if you just burned it across the surface? It might work at some point, but 99.9% of the time, this lure works best when slowly retrieved with stops and starts. Or, if you fish dry flies for trout, what happens if you get the drift wrong and your fly drags? You can match the hatch perfectly, and then easily ruin it by messing up the dead drift.

Many anglers, especially beginners, do not understand that nuance in presentation can make a major difference in catch rate. They often say things like, “That guy just had the right lure” or “She had the better casting position.” While this can be true, it often isn’t the primary reason others are catching and you are not. In my experience, 9 times out of 10, it’s something about the way they are presenting their lure that is making the difference.

So, how do you address this? How can you ensure you are presenting your offering in the best manner possible? In short, experience, hard work, and attention to detail. You must start by understanding the behavior of the fish you are trying to catch—behavior that changes with the season, moon phase, forage, fishing pressure, and a myriad of other factors. Next, you must understand the water you are fishing, which primarily relates to having an intimate understanding of the structure but also the water movement, temperature, turbidity, and other factors. This is why so many experienced anglers suggest focusing solely on just one or two spots at first. If you spread yourself too thin, it can make it difficult to truly learn an area. And, finally, you must be confident in what your lure does in the water in as many conditions as possible. Know how it swims and how deep it dives at all the practical retrieval speeds. Know what it does if you stop it; know what it does if you twitch it or sweep it. Be able to picture how it reacts to bumping bottom and how it acts in big surf, fast riffles, deep pools, or anywhere you are likely to throw it.

As you can see, this is not so simple, and something that can be constantly worked on and perfected over a lifetime. The worst thing you can do is just fish the same way, all the time.

Striped bass
Small changes in presentation can make big differences in catches.
Photo: Jerry Audet

One last, great example of really understanding presentation is in varying your retrieve. Having a deep repertoire of retrieves can be very important. It sounds simple, but many anglers of all experience levels rely on straight retrieves or mechanical and predictable twitches. Two anglers I respect very much told me they often try to work their plugs as randomly possible which, in their opinions, is also as naturally as possible. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving it tons of action with jerks, twitches, and sweeps – instead, it could mean varying the speed by small increments throughout the retrieve. Sometimes, it doesn’t take much to get the plug in the right zone or present it in such a way that “convinces” the fish to eat. You don’t have to go crazy. Start with small changes and see where they get you before making drastic changes.

Instead of rushing out to buy the latest lure, work on learning how to present what you already have in as many ways as possible regardless of fishing discipline—from brookies to bluefin. Buy a few versatile lures or flies and really dig in, learning as many ways to fish them as possible. Work on learning and cataloguing which presentations work under specific situations. Then, once you believe you have nearly mastered a handful of lures and locations—which may take years—you can expand to others. Or, if you’re like me and like playing around with new lures and spots, at least you have your tried-and-true dependables to fall back on when your new toys aren’t working out. In fact, having complete confidence in a few lures and locations can “prove” to you whether a new lure is worth keeping or selling at the next swap meet.

There’s no such thing as “too big” when it ones to striper lures. Even small bass will attack super-sized plugs.

Besides identifying spots where fish will be, the most critical thing to think about is presentation first, beyond and above anything else. Instead of worrying about getting the latest lure or fly, chasing reports, or stealing your buddies’ spots, focus instead on understanding and ensuring the best presentation you can under as many conditions as you can. Presentation is everything!

In fact, I think if you get the presentation right, you can actually trigger fish to hit that are not hungry or in a feeding mode. These are often referred to as “reactionary strikes.” It’s hard, nearly impossible at times, and takes experience, but it is possible. In fact, I think the truly great fishermen, across all species, understand this intuitively on a level many of us struggle to comprehend. However, if you can develop some “go-to” presentations that work for your species and areas, you can drastically increase your catch rate, even when times are tough. I have a few secret presentations myself.

3 on “Presentation Is Everything

  1. Gilbert Six

    My wife has taken a liking to fishing I always liked fishing I haven’t fished in over 15 years and wasn’t to good at it back then/ Iyour write up was very informative / we would appreciate illustrations to how to tie lures and rigs to catch these fish / my wife cat has a fish almost everytime we go fishi g / we are fishing the the far rockaways and the great kills area in New York/
    Ps keep writing it’s I teresti g stuff.
    Thank you

  2. Torken Seven

    Seventeen bass on the seaworm and twenty one/ inches like the magic of the old rod got from a neighbor/ show me the memory like a flashlight and shadow. Show me with hot tea and cold landings/ everytime walking ti the jetty in sand with what might benlike heavy feet or the ground giving in with sound/ i drive through new york, vermont, connecticut/ i still dream of the boat landing/ quarterdecks rotting on the porch/ the black snake licking across the way/ the bees no honey
    Thank you thank you thank you this life

  3. Michael Clough

    I will do much reading on this sire…thanks for putting these fishing tips out here for us to learn from. Michael

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *