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Pillars of Fly Fishing: Fly Casting Loop Control

How to squeeze your loop for sneaky fly-fishing presentations, and open it up for indicators and split-shot.

Pillars of Fly Fishing: Fly Casting Loop Control

The best way to practice narrow loops is by casting through a Hula Hoop. It’s not a matter of getting just the fly through the loop, it’s the challenge of firing the loop of moving fly line right through the hoop. Watch the video below to see this and other loop control exercises. (Joe Mahler illustration)

I  consider fly casting and loop control to be two of the primary pillars of fly fishing. After all, casting is how you present your offering to the fish. A perfectly tied fly connected to the best-engineered leader is useless unless you know how to successfully deliver the package. Then why are things as important as fly casting and loop control discussed and practiced so little? This is not a jab, but a question I frequently ask myself.

I’ve seen my friend and mentor Joe Humphreys conduct numerous on-the-water demonstrations over the years. One afternoon Joe was working with a private group  and demonstrating how to cast into tight brush. Joe tried to emphasize the importance of the casting stroke and loop control.

During the demonstration, Joe shot a beautiful loop of line 6 feet under a limb, and rose a quality 14-inch brown trout to his dry fly. It was an amazing cast. After he released the fish, the group walked up to Joe. The first question they asked was, “What fly did you catch that fish on?”

Instead of asking relevant questions about how the cast worked, they wanted to know more about the pattern he used. But the reality is that you have to make that cast before the fly even enters into the equation.

We’re all guilty of this mindset. I can recall countless occasions when I’ve witnessed other anglers putting a hurting on the local trout population while I struggled to hook a single fish. I often asked them what fly they were using—one of the least important questions.

As with all aspects of life, successful people ask the right questions. And when I asked the least important questions, I got consistently poor information.

Eventually I learned that fly patterns aren’t as essential as how you present the fly—specifically casting and loop control. While rigging and choosing the correct patterns are a foundation of your fly-fishing, casting and loop control form the cement that holds all those pieces together. They are at the very core of fly-fishing success. For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on loop control.

What is a loop and why is it important? The loop is the shape or form the line takes while unrolling off the rod tip behind and in front of you. The size and shape of the loop directly affects the performance of the cast. Furthermore, the loop affects how line and leader land on the water.

Think about the fly line as the delivery vehicle for your fly. We need to engineer our loops to combat the environments we face. Sometimes you want to narrow the loop. At other times, you require a wider loop. The rigs you fish and the situation you’re in will influence, or even determine, the kinds of loops you need. Failure to recognize these situations, along with the inability to skillfully adjust your loop size, will result in pure frustration. Trust me, I know this firsthand!

First, let’s talk about learning loop control without a fly rod. If you want to learn new casting techniques, begin practicing without a fly rod in your hand. Most humans are incapable of focusing on more than one task at a time. This revelation has been a game changer for me while teaching my students at Penn State and privately. Anytime I notice someone struggling with casting, I ask them to set the rod on the bank. Then we work together focusing only on the hand movements until they’re done correctly. Once these movements become second nature, I bring the rod back into the equation.

This may seem silly, but it is the fastest way I know to teach a new casting movement. My hope is you first spend time working on the following concepts without a fly rod. I think you may be surprised by how quickly you pick up these loop control concepts.


Tips For Loop Control

Haul for tighter loops. I believe that relying more on your line hand to make the cast prevents you from overpowering the rod tip with your rod hand. It’s too easy to apply excessive force with the rod hand during the cast. In general, the shorter you can make the casting stroke, the tighter your loop will be. So anytime I’m looking to create a narrower loop, I use a haul to create most of the casting energy.

My casting hand basically holds the fly rod with the finger on top, moving in short and straight back-and-forth casting motions while my line hand makes long and fast pulls on the line. You could say the line hand is creating 90 percent of the casting power.

Two illustrations: One of a hand holding a fly rod at the cork with his/her index finger on top; second illustration is of fly angler wearing a baseball cap casting tight loop under a bridge on a stream
A grip with the index finger on top restricts your wrist movement and helps generate a straight rod-tip path and tighter loops. Narrow loops can help you cut through the wind; make quick, accurate casts; and they can help you cast around and under obstructions like overhanging branches and bridges. (Joe Mahler illustration)

Make sure the line hand is pulling in a short, powerful, and smooth manner. Both the rod and the line hand travel in short movements. The only difference is that the line hand is creating the casting energy. You’ll notice immediately how your loops tighten up when you switch power to the line hand.

Focus on the path of the rod tip. The path of the rod tip during the casting stroke largely determines loop size and shape. The line follows the rod tip. A relatively straight rod tip path creates a tighter, narrow loop. An arcing rod tip path creates a wider loop.

Switch your grip. The grip you use can greatly influence the path of the rod tip. For wider loops, I place my thumb on top of the grip, so my wrist can move in a wide arc during the casting stroke. This isn’t to say you can’t throw tight loops with your thumb, because you can, but the thumb grip allows your wrist to make wide arcing movements.

For tighter loops, I prefer using the finger-on-top method. This grip basically creates a natural wrist lock, preventing your wrist from opening too much during the casting stroke. Just try it for yourself while reading—pretend to hold a fly rod with both grips and see how much wrist movement you can make. Start with the thumb and watch the path the thumb takes during the casting stroke. The line will form a similarly shaped loop in the air during the cast.

Now try the same with the finger on top, and notice how little rotation you can make with your hand. This nice, straight, back-and-forth movement with the finger on top is perfect for creating tight loops, due to the straight path of the rod tip. Practice using both grips—you will need them both.

Pull the trigger. Another important loop control concept is understanding that the loop height forms at the level where the rod tip stops on both the forward cast and the backcast. It’s like pointing a gun at a target and pulling the trigger—the loop forms exactly where the rod tip stops during the cast. Stopping the rod tip is the equivalent of pulling the trigger. Make sure the rod tip is below the height you want your loop to go before coming to a stop. For example, if you’re casting under a bridge that sits 4 feet off the water, make sure the rod tip is 3 feet off the water when you stop the rod. Remember to drift your rod hand slowly forward and rely on a short, powerful haul of the line hand to tighten the loop, shooting the line deep under the bridge.

Practice course. My favorite method for practicing loop control is with a Hula Hoop, which provides immediate feedback on your loop size. Many people use Hula Hoops laid flat as targets to practice for accuracy, but using one in a vertical plane helps you develop a different dimension of your casting game. Using PVC pipe, traffic cones, and several Hula Hoops, you can create a loop control course. Use a fly line with a color that allows you to easily watch your loops roll off the rod tip.

First, draw an imaginary straight line from your eye to the middle of the Hula Hoop. With your finger on top of the rod grip, follow that same line a short distance with your index finger, and begin making short, powerful double hauls corresponding to each forward and backward casting stroke. Following the straight line and coming to a sudden stop (along with a good haul) will tighten your loop and send it through the Hula Hoop, instead of over it.

I think one of the most important virtues of using Hula Hoops is that they make practicing loop control fun. If you enjoy practicing, you’ll stick with it and keep honing your skills, getting better every time.

An illustration of a fly angler wearing a ball cap and waders casting an open wide loop
With the thumb on top of the rod grip, your wrist can move in a greater range of motion—perfect for creating an arcing rod tip path and a wide loop. (Joe Mahler illustration)

Tight Loop Situations

A headwind is a natural force pushing toward you, and you often have to try to move your fly and line through it. You need to counter this headwind with opposing forces—speed and casting power—but you also need to reduce the size of your loop. Like a large sail on a ship, the wider the loop, the more it’s affected by the wind. But a tight, narrow loop is more likely to cut through the wind and arrive at the target with less resistance.

Think like a skydiver. If you want to speed up your descent, you make yourself smaller and shaped like a missile. If you want to slow down, you stretch out like a starfish to increase wind resistance.

Wind is the fly-fishing community’s four-letter word. A strong headwind is something we all encounter, so we might as well learn to deal with it. If Jim Morrison had been a fly fisher, he likely would have said that a tight loop will let you “break on through to the other side” of a strong headwind. Because they are less affected by crosswinds, tight loops can often result in more accurate casts as well.

Tight loops can also help you make an impact—literally. Casting beetle imitations is one of my favorite summertime trout tactics. Beetles are hard-bodied terrestrials that create a loud “plop” when they fall into the water. This noise grabs the attention of nearby trout, so it’s in your best interest to mimic this when presenting your fly.

Most beetle patterns are made of foam. They are lightweight and wind-resistant with a tendency to land softly. By using a narrow loop with more speed, and directing the cast right at the surface of the water, you can make a louder “plop” and attract more fish.

A narrow loop can also help you get your fly to the target quicker. As the saying goes, “the quickest way between two points is a straight line.” Simply put, tight loops are likely to travel faster, since they unload off a fast-moving rod tip. So anytime you need additional speed and/or greater impact as the fly strikes the water, cast a tighter loop. This can help on saltwater flats with traveling fish, or floating in a drift boat when you’ve got to quickly put a fly in a specific spot along the bank.

You can also land a fly gently with a tight loop if you wish. Just aim at a spot slightly above your intended target. The line will extend and lose its forward momentum, and the fly will settle gently to the water. The only problem with this is that there’s not much slack in your line and leader.

If you fish small streams, or in any constricted situations, the ability to tighten a loop and cast through narrow openings becomes critical. Fish rarely make it easy, and they often protect themselves with overhead cover. This shelters them from predators such as ospreys, and provides larger fish places from which to ambush prey. Big fish love to hide under obstructions, and catching them may mean casting through a narrow tunnel of mountain laurel on a small mountain stream, shooting line under mangrove branches for tarpon, or casting under a low bridge. Your fly will not find safe passage through any of these if you can’t tighten your loop.

When Wider is Better

The ability to throw tight loops is a sign of an experienced caster, but there are times when you need a wide loop. The ability to control your loop size and make it larger or smaller will help you catch more fish in a variety of situations. My first suggestions for making wider loops are to use the thumb-on-top grip and straighten out your casting hand while making the forward casting stroke.

An illustration of a fly angler wearing a ball cap and waders casting an open wide loop
Wide loops can prevent tangles when using nymph rigs with multiple flies with split-shot. They can also help you land a dry fly gently with slack in the line and leader. (Joe Mahler illustration)

For tighter loops, you use the finger-on-top grip while keeping your elbow bent during the casting stroke. This tight elbow position keeps your hand moving in a short, straight path. For wider loops, use the thumb-on-top grip and straighten out your hand during the casting stroke as if you’re making a karate chop. Make this motion, and you’ll notice that your rod hand and rod tip move in a wide arc. This arc opens up your loop, sending the fly line tip high in the air and far away from the rod tip.

I think speed is a killer when it comes to most dry-fly presentations. I know I previously mentioned using a tight loop with a beetle presentation, but that’s an anomaly. Good dry-fly casts often involve a delicate presentation with slack landing on the water, which you can produce by creating a wide casting loop. A wide loop travels more slowly than a tight loop, and the slower line speed creates less impact when the line lands on the water. The softer landing spooks fewer fish and allows the line, leader, and tippet to puddle down on the water is a series of “S” curves, creating slack to drift the dry fly naturally.

Wider loops are also beneficial for casting heavy flies and strike indicator rigs. When I cast these setups, I want to make sure any heavy fly or rig travels far away from the rod tip. Opening your loop protects your rod tip from future warranty work, protects your head and body from injury, and greatly reduces the chance of tangling.

Using a wider and slower casting stroke with heavy rigs allows them to sail high over the rod tip. If you hear a streamer buzz by your ear, it’s a warning shot that you should open your loop. With the benefit of painful experience, I’m more concerned about a #4 split-shot smacking me in the back of the head than I am about the hook point.

A narrow loop helps you cast into the wind, but if the wind is at your back, a wide loop becomes a huge advantage. While you make a small, narrow loop to slice into the wind, you can intentionally make a wide loop to catch the wind at your back. Basically, you’re turning the loop into a kite, and the bigger the loop, the bigger the kite, allowing the wind to help move the fly line to the target. I think about “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” the beautiful song from Mary Poppins, every time I have a strong wind blowing at my back.

These tips are nothing more than simple physics. You can use them to make longer casts, or just to make medium casts a lot easier, and less painful.

I hope these loop control tips will help you better enjoy your time on the water. And make sure to spend a few moments practicing each week. As the world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma says, “Learning doesn’t have to be difficult if you do it incrementally.”

George Daniel is the author of Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers (Stackpole, 2015) and Nymph Fishing: New Angles, Tactics, and Techniques (2018). He is a Fly Fisherman contributing editor and owner of Livin’ on the Fly (Instagram), an educational/guide company. He was a coach for the US Youth Fly Fishing Team and Fly Fishing Team USA, and is now the director of the Joe Humphreys Fly Fishing Program at Penn State University.

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