Photography: Louis Cahill
We have all heard the old saying “Practice Makes Perfect.” But repetition doesn’t make this old adage true. Let’s face it. Saltwater fly fishing is tough. Wind, weather, and difficult fish force errors on even the most experienced fly fishers from time to time. There are simply too many uncontrollable variables to become “perfect,” but with practice you can reduce your margin of error and become damn proficient—taking advantage of a higher percentage of your opportunities.
In saltwater casting there are three skills that almost everyone can improve: using the backcast to present the fly, making a short (quick) cast, and increasing line speed. Here are my thoughts on why these three skills are so important (and underappreciated) and how to improve on them.
If you are ambidextrous, you never have to worry about what direction the wind is blowing or which direction a fish is coming from. For the rest of us, using your backcast to present the fly accounts for up to half of your opportunities—so you’d better make those backhand casts count.
As a guide, the most common problem I see with the backcast is that people don’t consider it a viable option, or they don’t have the awareness to know when to use it.
When you are on the casting platform, try to be aware of the wind direction at all times. The greatest casters in the world will pin their shirt to their skin if they don’t pay attention to the wind speed and direction. You should also pay attention when the boat swings left or right, or whether the shoreline angles left or right because these changing angles potentially change the angle of your cast. These are mental skills that can be developed, and as you gain experience you’ll become more aware of all these external factors, and that puts you one step closer to knowing when you should use a backcast.
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To beat a strong wind coming in at their casting side, some fly fishers attempt to cast with their arm across their chest, and the rod working over their opposite shoulder. Don’t do this. With your arm in this position you greatly reduce your stroke length and your power. Casting over your opposite shoulder works great with a dry fly and a 3-weight rod, but doesn’t work in the wind with a 10-weight rod and a crab pattern.
When you use a backcast to present the fly, remember to keep an eye on your target. This is difficult to get used to, but pays huge dividends. Most trout fishermen never see their own backcast because it is overhead, over their shoulder, and directly behind them. But they always keep an eye on their target.
In the salt it’s even more important not to lose track of the fish, so turn your body sideways to your target and open up your stance so it’s easier to swivel your head and keep your eyes on your target.
Cast sidearm, not overhead, and fully extend your hauling arm on the presentation cast to generate the power you need to turn over the leader and make it land straight.
An accurate cast in the salt means that not only is the fly on target, but the leader is extended and the fly is ready to swim immediately. There should be no need to strip in slack before you can begin to move the fly.
Opening up your stance like this not only helps you keep an eye on the fish, but also puts you in perfect position to start stripping your line right away. Since you made a backcast presentation, your rod arm is not crossing your chest and is already extended toward your target. This lets you strip line immediately, and come tight to your fly quicker. The faster you can come tight to the fly the better. This is especially important when permit fishing.
Remember that the backcast presentation should be nothing more than a replica of your forward cast, so you should focus on all the same things you would to present a good forward cast. High line speed, tight loops, sharp double-hauling technique, and a correct trajectory are all important for a successful backcast presentation.
While you can certainly cast long distances with a backcast, this cast is most critical at short range. If the fish are a long way off, the guide can maneuver the boat, or while wading you can move, to get in position for a forward presentation. Backcasts come into play most often when fish sneak up on your backside, or when clouds or surface glare obstruct your vision. The less time you have to prepare, the more you’ll depend on your backcast.
When you need to extra power on the backcast for distance or to beat the wind, try locking the fighting butt and reel seat of your fly rod against your forearm.
A common error I see when coaching saltwater anglers is that when they switch to a backcast, in their minds they reverse everything else as well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told someone to cast more to the right, and they cast more to the left instead. Remember that when you cast, your line is always moving in a 180-degree straight line. Direction doesn’t change. If you cast more left on your forward cast, the line on your backcast moves to the left as well.
The 12 o’clock presentation is really when the backcast gets exciting. Most right-handed fly fishers up on a casting platform quickly learn that when a target is at 3 o’clock, they can’t use a regular forward cast without hitting the boat, the captain, or both. It’s easy to see you need a backcast.
Things get trickier when your target is at 12 o’clock. Do you use a forward cast or backcast? Let’s say you are bonefishing in the Bahamas. You’re a right-hand caster, and the wind is on your right shoulder. You spot a fish at 2 o’clock at 35 feet moving left toward 12 o’clock. The wind and the fish are on the right side of you and the boat. If you were to take a right-hand forward cast, you would have to cast over the guide and skiff and likely hit or snag something.
If you wait for the guide to turn the boat to the right so you can have a forward delivery with a clear backcast over open water, you’ll still be forced to carry line in the air with the wind blowing it right into you. Also, with the fish that close, repositioning the boat wastes valuable time, and the extra movement of the guide and the boat, and the extra slap of water off the hull could all spook the fish.
This is a frustrating saltwater scenario that is too common.
The solution is simple. Turn slightly to your left on the deck and make a forward cast toward the rear of the boat. The line as you false cast is downwind of you. You know the fish is at 2 o’clock and moving toward 12. Simply present your backcast at 12 o’clock directly in front of the boat and in the path of the oncoming bonefish.
How easy was that? No extra movement from the guide and boat. No loss of valuable time. No fighting the wind in your face or your casting side. Start taking advantage of a backcast presentation and you open all kinds of opportunities.
Short, Quick Cast
Many fly fishers are intimidated by saltwater fishing because they think that in order to be successful, you must be able to cast great distances. That can be true on calm days with high sun, when you can see your targets from afar (and they can see you). However, seeing and spotting fish for most people is challenging, and it often takes time to locate the oncoming bonefish, permit, or tarpon.
In reality a great deal of your shots on the flats are under 50 feet, and if you can make them quickly and accurately, it can pay huge dividends.
You might be wondering, “How hard can it be to make a short cast? Isn’t this the easiest task in the fly-fishing world?”
You might be surprised how hard it is to cast a 12-foot leader and a heavy fly, into a 20-knot wind, at a target just 25 feet away, and get the line and leader to turn over and land straight. Slack in the line prevents you from immediately moving the fly, a killer if you only have a short distance to work with.
Short shots often fail because of a lack of line or weight outside the rod tip. According to AFTMA standards, the weight needed to properly load the rod is accounted for in the first 35 feet of line. (And most saltwater rods are made much stiffer, and don’t really load deeply until there is much more line outside the rod tip.)
Loading only the tip. One of the key essentials in fly casting is stroke length. Your stroke length needs to be equal in proportion to the amount of line you have outside the rod tip. When you increase the amount of line outside the rod tip, your stroke length should increase as well. So if you have to make a short, quick cast, you need to have a compact casting stroke.
Many fly casters have the same casting stroke length no matter how much line they have outside the rod tip. This can make it very difficult to load just the tip of the rod and fully extend a longer leader with a heavier fly into a strong wind.
It’s still a good idea to add a lot of power during this shortened stroke length to help increase line speed when casting in strong wind. Just a quick, short casting stroke is all you need to form a tight loop and load the tip of your rod to make a quick, short cast.
The ready position. To have a successful quick cast, starting from the ready position is key. In the ready position you already have 10 to 12 feet of fly line outside the rod tip, so you can deliver the fly with one backcast.
When you cast short, you have a compact stroke but you need all the power you can get to develop line speed and turn the leader over.
Once your casting stroke stops on your delivery cast, the fly line passes the rod tip and forms a loop. At this point you can add more power, and force the leader to turn over, by snapping your line arm away from your target.
This movement applies extra power to the presentation and helps to deliver the fly without slack. It also allows you to carry a little extra line to load the rod—line you later “pull back” to help apply force, turn the leader over, and put your fly on target.
High Line Speed
In the salt, the wind can be both foe and friend. It makes casting more difficult, and chop on the water makes it more difficult to see the fish, but wind also masks your presence and makes the fish less wary.
To help fight the wind that negatively affects your distance and accuracy, you must add as much controlled power as you can to the cast. High line speed helps you to stabilize the line in the air, which makes you more accurate, gives you distance, and gets the fly to the fish quicker.
Remember that in salt water you are not only battling the wind, you are battling the clock as well. You only have so much time available before the fish spooks or moves out of casting range. High line speed not only helps you get the fly to the right spot, it helps you get it there in time.
Strength is an important factor in high line speed. The stronger you are, the more power you can apply to your cast. But strength will get you nowhere without technique, so let’s hit some important points.
First, bend your knees and get low. This lowers your center of gravity and gives you the balance and stability you need to apply extra force to the line by using core strength and not just arm strength.
Too many anglers stand up straight and cast directly overhead. This makes it difficult to apply power from the legs and core, and this stance also holds the line much higher off the water, allowing the wind to affect accuracy and distance. Saltwater casting is an athletic endeavor, so stand like an athlete crouched for action.
When you bend your knees, your fly line also travels lower to the water and this psychologically encourages you to increase line speed to avoid hitting the water during the cast.
Load the rod. If you want to generate high line speed, your most obvious resource is your fly rod. You can’t generate high line speeds with your arm alone.
You have a great tool you likely paid a lot of money for. You may as well make it work for you by loading your rod deeply into the butt. The high line speed comes when the rod snaps back to the straight position, and the deeper you load the rod, the more power you’ll get from this “recovery.”
To properly load a saltwater rod, first you must carry adequate line length (and weight) outside the rod tip. You’ll also get a deep load by lengthening your stroke. This means your hand travels a greater distance, and that distance is amplified by the rod.
A precise double haul also helps deeply load the rod and add power and line speed to your cast. The double haul itself is a complicated enough affair that entire book chapters and magazine articles have been devoted to it. Simply put, a “haul” is when you pull on the line during the application of power to add line speed and power. If you pull on both the forward and backcast, you have a double haul.
Timing is critical with the double haul, because if you don’t time your haul just right you can work against yourself. Start each haul with the hands close together and extend your line or hauling arm so you pull the maximum amount of line and add as much power as possible.
When you bring your hands back together after making the haul, you are doing the opposite of hauling—you are adding line and slack into the system, which can be a detriment, unless you do it at just the right time.
Skills for the Salt
With these three skills you’ll be better armed to meet any conditions on the flats, and you’ll make the most of those valuable moments when the pressure is on, and your guide whispers “two permit at 2 o’clock, 40 feet.” Go get them!
Capt. Bruce Chard has been a saltwater guide for more than 20 years, and is on the cover of this issue with a tarpon caught near Big Pine Key. He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and director of Yellow Dog Flyfishing Schools (yellowdogflyfishing.com).