Simple steps to deliver your fly to the fish
Casting a spinning rod and casting a fly rod and line share one major similarity: When the rod stops, the lure continues along the same trajectory. Everything else is different. In conventional fishing, you cast the lure and the line follows. In fly fishing, you cast the line and the lure (or fly) follows, allowing you to fish with floating dry flies that are nearly weightless.
Your first objectives in fly casting should be to learn to bend the rod (called loading the rod), and stroking the rod correctly.
Too many beginners try to cast the line by moving their arm in exaggerated windshield-wiper movements and they never really load the rod.
Try not to move your arm or wrist like a windshield-wiper blade. Instead, your forward stroke should be analogous to hammering a nail into a wall: The rod grip is your hammer. It is a short, curved stroke that accelerates quickly to the target and then stops suddenly. The acceleration loads (bends) the rod, and the rod “unloads” after the sudden stop, propelling the line forward.
The “apple and the stick” analogy is another common teaching tool. Imagine spearing an apple on the end of a limber willow stick. Your goal is to hurl the apple as far as you can. If you start too quickly, the apple will fall to the ground behind you. You must start slowly, accelerate smoothly through the stroke and then stop abruptly to throw the apple.
If you decelerate smoothly at the end of the stroke, the apple may actually stay on the stick—it is the sudden stop that causes the apple to fly, and so it is with casting a fly line.
These are good analogies but fly casting is actually much more complicated than hammering a nail or throwing an apple, because fly casting is not just a forward motion. There is a mirror-image cast to the rear (backcast) for every forward cast. If your backcast is faulty, you will also struggle with your forward cast.
For this reason, it’s helpful to turn your head and watch your backcast. This is not only for beginners; this is good advice even for experts looking to hone an already excellent casting stroke. You can also videotape your casting as you practice so you can see what’s going on behind you.
The old way (and the wrong way) to teach fly casting is to have a beginner move his arm like the arm of a metronome back and forth from the 10 o’clock position to the 2 o’clock position. This was quaint in the movie and book A River Runs Through It, but in real-life situations, your arm will need to move along different paths to deal with different situations.
Clock positions are not as important in fly casting as the timing and application of power to and from those positions. To be a good caster, you need to understand the physics behind casting, or the basic principles of fly casting, so you can make whatever cast you require: into the wind, with high bushes behind you, under an overhanging branch, or whatever.
Fly Fisherman editor-at-large Lefty Kreh is one of the world’s most accomplished casting instructors. He has taught thousands of people how to cast, produced fly casting DVDs, written a host of magazine articles, and given casting demonstrations around the globe. His recent book Casting with Lefty Kreh (Stackpole Books, 2008) is an authoritative reference that outlines four basic principles and then expands on those principles in the following 400+ pages.
- “You must get the end of the fly line moving before you can make a back or forward cast.”
- “Once the line is moving, the only way to load the rod is to move the casting hand at an ever-increasing speed and then bring it to a quick stop.”
- “The line will go in the direction the rod tip speeds up and stops—more specifically, it goes in the direction that the rod straightens toward when the rod hand stops.”
- “The longer the distance the rod travels on the back and forward casting strokes, the less effort is required to make the cast.”
These basic casting principles apply to nearly every casting situation, but they are difficult to learn and apply on your own. The best way to learn casting is from a qualified instructor through your local fly shop or fly-fishing club.
An experienced friend or relative may help you learn, but although they may be experienced fly fishers, they may not be good teachers and may not be able to adequately evaluate your cast and offer instruction.
If you cannot arrange professional instruction, there are DVDs and books to help you learn. Ed Jaworowski’s books Troubleshooting the Cast and The Cast: Theories and Applications for More Effective Techniques are both excellent, as is Kreh’s previously mentioned book. Other valuable references include The Orvis Guide to Better Fly Casting: A Problem-Solving Approach (Al Kyte), The Essence of Fly Casting (Mel Krieger), the L. L. Bean Fly-Casting Handbook (Macauley Lord and Jim Rowinski), and Joan Wulff’s Fly-Casting Techniques.
Books are helpful, but the best home study may be DVDs. There are excellent teaching films out there including Lefty Kreh on Fly Casting (reelresources.com), The Essence of Fly Casting (melkrieger.com), Introduction to Fly Casting (scientificanglers.com), and Joan Wulff’s Dynamics of Fly Casting (royalwulff.com).
Don’t try to learn fly casting merely by fishing. Learn to cast before your first fishing trip and you will have more success. It’s hard to concentrate on casting when you have to deal with moving water, fish, and everything else.
Take your assembled rod, reel, line, and leader to a grassy park. Don’t practice in a parking lot as abrasive pavement rapidly wears out a fly line. You’ll need a large open area without obstructions such as trees, wires, or fences.
Mark your fly line with a permanent marker at 30 feet. The marker indicates when you have enough line out to begin loading the rod. There are also two-tone lines on the market with a color change that indicate the first 30 or 45 feet of line.
Place a target on the grass such as a hat or paper plate to help you develop the sense of distance and accuracy.
Grasp the rod with your thumb on top of the rod grip, opposite of your target. There are other specialized grip techniques, but this one is common and effective.
Do not squeeze the rod too tightly. You should have a loose, comfortable grip, and only squeeze the rod grip when you force the rod to stop abruptly at the end of each stroke. Over gripping the rod causes hand fatigue which in turn prevents you from making a quick stop at the end of the stroke. Over gripping can also cause tendonitis in your forearm and elbow.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. When you make short to medium casts, a parallel stance is all you need. With longer casts, you get better performance with one foot forward (left foot forward for right-handed casters).
Thread the line off the reel and up through the line guides and out the tiptop of the rod tip. It can be awkward sometimes to thread the thin tippet through the rod guides. If you drop it, the weight of the line drags everything down to the ground and you must start over. Instead of threading the tippet or leader end, grasp the fly line near the tip. Pinch the line into a loop and pass this loop through the guides, pulling the leader and tippet up behind the line. The line is easier to see and hold onto, and if you do drop it, the shape of the loop will prevent the line from sliding down through the rod guides.
Use a clinch knot to tie a small piece of yarn to the end of the tippet. Pull about 20 feet of line off the reel and lay it out on the lawn to the right of where you are standing (or to the left, if you are left handed). Make sure the line is straight and not in coils or S-curves, or it will not cast well.
Use a horizontal sidearm cast to flick the rod tip forward from your right to your left in a low plane right above the grass. By casting low and sidearm, you can watch both the forward and backcasts as they unroll, and learn from them. If you do this correctly, the rod will bend and the line will form a loop as it rolls out to your left and then settles to the grass.
Using your arm and flicking your wrist the way you’d throw a frisbee (on the backcast) and skip a stone at the lake (on the forward cast), cast the line repeatedly back and forth low to the ground to your left and right.
During this exercise, keep a firm wrist and stop the rod abruptly after each stroke. Come to a complete stop after each cast to reassess your success and prepare for the next cast.
Your goal is to make the line form loops in both your back and forward casts. Loop formation is the intent of this exercise—the tighter the loops the better the cast. Visualize hitting the rod tip with the line as it passes in front of you—this helps develop tighter loops.
As you learn to create and control loops the byproduct is that you are also learning how to load (bend) the rod, learning correct timing, and learning how to apply power to the rod to get the desired results.
After 15 minutes of this low, sidearm practice, cast the rod at a 45-degree angle and then vertically. You’ll use all these casting positions when you are fishing, so get used to them. Find a casting plane that is comfortable for you but be aware that you may have to modify it in actual fishing situations.
If you want to become proficient at golf, you go to a driving range. You also practice your putting aside from the regular time you spend golfing. Fly fishing is no different. To improve, you must practice. Frequent fishing also improves your casting but not as quickly or dramatically as practice casting on a pond or in your back yard without a hook. Practice allows you to focus on casting fundamentals without distractions.
Using these self-starting practice steps, you should be able to teach yourself how to cast the line, leader, and yarn (fly) from 15 to 30 feet in about an hour. After two or three practice sessions you should be ready to start fishing.
Fifteen minutes of practice every day over the course of a summer or fall season can make you an excellent caster—then all you have to worry about is finding the fish, using the right patterns, and presenting the fly correctly.
In conventional angling you use the reel to retrieve the line after each cast, and the speed of the retrieve and rod tip movement controls the action of the lure.
In fly fishing, the reel retrieves line only when you are landing a fish or when you are finished fishing. Between casts, you retrieve and control the line with your hands.
Line control is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of fly fishing—mostly because experts and the fly-fishing media too often assume that line control is a widely known skill. It isn’t.
Before you cast, you must pull line off the reel. If you want to cast 40 feet, you must pull 40 feet of line off the reel. Stretch the line one arm-length at a time to straighten it. After you thread the line through the guides you’ll have 40 feet of loosely coiled line lying on the ground (or in the water) nearby.
You can’t cast a pile of slack line so to prepare to cast, hold the rod with your thumb on top of the grip and your forefinger underneath. Pinch the fly line lightly between your forefinger and the cork grip. With your other hand, draw the line from behind your forefinger and allow it to fall into loose coils at your feet or in the water. Some anglers hold loose coils in hip-held stripping baskets, or in a boat in weighted wastebasket-type containers. In most cases, especially when casting short distances, the loose line lays at your feet.
Don’t draw the entire line into the tiptop. Leave about a rod-length of line outside the tiptop when you begin casting—it’s easy to get that short amount of line moving.
When you retrieve line, the line should be pinched between the forefinger of your rod hand and the rod grip. When you begin to cast, remove the line from under your finger and hold it in your opposite hand.
While you are casting, your nondominant hand controls the line—holding it tightly during the casting stroke so that the rod can load, and loosening the grip and allowing line to “shoot” after each casting stroke to gradually lengthen the amount of line you are casting. This is called false casting, and it not only allows you to extend your cast, but to gauge the distance and angle to your target, and to shake water from your fly to help it float.
Using few false casts is a sign of an expert angler because you can shoot more line, more accurately, with each stroke. It’s helpful when fishing because you can deliver the fly quickly and with less chance of spooking fish. However, when you are just starting out, false casting can be a small success and pleasure all in itself, and can help you measure your casts for accurate deliveries.
When you have the right amount of line outside the tip, you will make the final delivery cast, sometimes allowing a final “shooting” of line with your opposite hand. As soon as the line sails to the target, pinch the line (again) under your casting forefinger so you can retrieve the line with your opposite hand. If you do not use and perfect the “pinch” you are forced to let go of the line after each pull, and then fumble to grasp the line again for a subsequent pull. With the forefinger pinch, the line is always trapped and under control—ready to set the hook—even in between pulls when your hand is moving.