What is More Crucial When Flyfishing for Trout: Fly Imitation or Presentation?

Perhaps I can lay an old flyfishing argument to rest. It usually goes like this: "Which is more important, imitation or presentation in flyfishing for trout?" The question has been going around and around for decades, including occasionally, on this website.

I think it's a really dumb, pointless question. That's because imitation and presentation aren't mutually exclusive. You can have both at the same time. So as a practical matter, what's the point? I can't see one, except perhaps for stirring the discussion pot.

(The trout in the photo I dragged out for this posting is a Yellowstone cutthroat. with the red slash of color below its jaw showing amply why they're called cutthroats. Despite a reputation for relative stupidity, cutthroats at times feed as selectively as any other trout--demanding both good presentations and good imitations.)

Anyway, let's consider both presentation and imitation for a minute. Presentation is, essentially, a good cast that has the fly behaving on or in the water as you would like it to. This might be a fly-first, drag-free drift in dry-fly fishing. Or getting just the right drift with a sunken nymph, or just the right swing of a streamer fly. Circumstances depending, this might be an easy cast to make or one that requires exceptional casting skill. A good presentation is what it is, and good casters are able to make them more often.

Then there's imitation, which is completely independent of your casting skills or making a good presentation. Sometimes a good imitation is needed to catch fish; sometimes it isn't. A "good" imitation means a reasonable facsimile of whatever it is that trout are feeding on selectively--most often during a hatch of some sort. It does not mean a precise imitation of some insect, complete with individual, knotted legs and monofilament eyeballs. Just a reasonable suggestion in the right size will most often do. The trout, of course, will define what's reasonable by accepting or rejecting your fly.

So when I'm flyfishing for trout, I want the most perfect presentation possible, honed by 50 years of casting practice. And I want the best imitation possible, too, in terms of a functional, relatively simple fly pattern. Fortunately, I don't have to choose between them. And neither do you.