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How To Fly Cast, From Two of the Greatest

Apply these principles to make longer, more efficient casts.

How To Fly Cast, From Two of the Greatest
Lefty Kreh demonstrates his casting technique. Photo Lefty Kreh

Every fly fisher would like to cast better and more efficiently. Why is it, then, that many fly fishers can't cast well and don't understand fly casting? Much of this problem, we believe, stems from the way fly-casting instruction began several centuries ago in Europe, where most fly fishing occurred on small streams not more than a few yards wide.

The tackle of the day was a long 12- to 16-foot wooden rod and a short line, not much longer than the rod, constructed of twisted horsetail hairs. With such a long rod and short line, it was only necessary to lift the rod to a vertical position and return it to a near-horizontal position to make a cast. Since the rod/line combination remained constant, anglers only needed that one casting motion. Tackle and fishing conditions are different now.

As fly tackle changed, casting instructors began teaching the fly-casting stroke by relating it to the hands on a clock face. Thus was born a teaching concept that persists today. Most books, magazine articles, and videos teach that certain casting motions should be performed with reference to positions on a clock face. We believe this is a major reason why so many fly fishers are not better casters. We believe that if you can eliminate the casting stroke positions as related to a clock face, you can become a better caster.

What is Fly Casting?

Fly casting can be explained easily without getting into physics and using technical language. Fly casting is the smooth and gradual acceleration of the rod to put a bend in it by pulling against the weight of the line, which causes the rod to flex, or load. At the final moment of the cast, the hand is greatly accelerated and stopped, which allows the tip to snap back straight, causing the line to unroll toward a target. In the case of a forward cast, the target is toward the fish; with the backcast, the target is a point in the air behind you (typically 180 degrees from the forward cast target). The backcast is simply a forward cast in the opposite direction, so the same principles apply. The more you can unroll the line efficiently, the easier it will be to cast.

Fortunately, good casting does not require strength. Anyone can cast well, especially if they use proper technique rather than muscle.

The Four Principles of Fly Casting

Fly casting is not magic. It can be described with basic high-school physics. There are many methods of fly casting, but regardless of how you do it, the following four principles will govern your cast.

The dictionary defines a principle as "a fundamental truth, law, doctrine, or motivating force, upon which others are based." Whether you use a short 6-foot rod or a 14-foot two-handed rod, these four principles will apply. They never vary.

Once you understand and accept these principles, you can become a better and more efficient caster. They can also help you learn to use other casts, such as an extra-high backcast, a better roll cast, or a curve cast.

1. Before you can load the rod, you must remove all slack from the line.

Loading the rod requires line tension against the tip, so that when you move the rod, the weight of the line holds the rod tip back, causing the rod to bend. You wouldn't try to cast a spinning lure before reeling the lure in close to the rod tip to eliminate slack. It's the same with fly casting. If there is slack between the lure/fly and the rod, you can't make a good cast.

2. Once the slack is gone, the only way to load the rod is to move your casting hand with ever-increasing speed to a sudden stop.

The cast involves continuously "getting faster," with the slowest movement at the beginning of the stroke and the fastest movement just before the stop. At the final moment of the cast, you make a much faster, very brief (one inch), speed up and abrupt stop (many people call it a power stroke; it should be called a "speed stroke.") The size of the casting loop is determined by the length of the speed-up-and-stop (speed stroke). The faster and shorter you make the speed-up-and-stop (in the final moment of the cast), the tighter the casting loop and the faster and farther the line travels. If your hand continuously accelerates during the stroke, the rod will continue to load deeper into the butt. If your hand does not accelerate during the stroke, or if it slows, the rod will lose part of its load.


3. When your casting hand stops and the rod straightens, the line continues in the direction the rod tip finished its travel.

This principle is key to determining casting direction and accuracy. Once the rod tip stops, you cannot change the direction of the cast. It's the same as a rifle shot. Once a bullet leaves the barrel, you cannot change its direction.

You must determine where you want the line to go before you stop the rod. If the rod tip finishes its travel toward the target, the line will go in that direction. You can, however, alter the line behind the fly (by mending line in the air), but the direction of the cast is determined when you stop the rod. This is an important principle to understand if you want to improve your accuracy or make specialty casts, such as curve casts.

4. The longer the distance the rod and your arm travel during the backcast and forward cast strokes, the easier it is to make the cast.

The converse is also true: The shorter the casting stroke, the harder you must work to put the same load into the rod. When you need to cast farther, throw heavier flies, or cast into the wind, don't cast harder; cast smarter by lengthening your casting stroke.

We don't advocate a different way to cast or a different style of casting; we offer a different way of thinking about casting. All casts have these four principles in common, and they apply to everyone. They are invariable. They have no exceptions. You can use them or abuse them.

The distance you move your hand, the direction you move it, and the speed at which you move it must change for different fishing situations. Therefore, any rules of instruction must allow for these changes.

Any instructions that don't allow for variationseven though they may work sometimeswill often leave you frustrated when you encounter different situations. Anglers who always attempt to cast precisely by moving their rod between two predetermined clock face points often experience a helpless feeling when they try to throw a heavily weighted fly and it hits them in the back, they catch a tree on their backcast, or they tangle their line on the forward cast. These and other problems occur precisely because the casters are following instructions suited to different (unrelated) conditions. Your casting must be adaptable to changing fishing conditions, from relatively calm trout fishing to windy flats fishing.

If you focus on the four principles behind your casting movements, you will be able to identify your faults and correct them under a wide variety of fishing conditions to make casts that you thought were impossible.

Applying the Principles of Fly Casting

Using the four principles, we'll explain how to make a long, accurate cast that you can use in fresh or salt water. Let's examine why most people have trouble making long casts. They begin the backcast with some slack in the line. They can't make an effective backcast until they get the end of the line moving. The rod is lifted to a near-vertical position before the line begins moving. As the backcast continues, the rod tip travels a short distance back and down, creating a sag in the line on the backcast. Remember, the line will go in the direction that the rod speeds up and stops.

To make the forward cast, they begin moving the rod forward toward the target. But they can't make an effective forward cast until they remove that sag from the line and get the end of the line moving. This means that most of the forward cast is used to remove slack and does nothing to move the line forward.

Using the four principles of casting, let's see how you can improve the cast. First, lower the rod to near the water's surface and strip in line until all slack is removed. As you bring the rod tip up and back on the backcast, the line end will move immediately and your entire backcast will move the line while the rod tip is moved upward.

The size of your casting loop is solely determined by the distance the rod tip speeds up and stops. If you make a short speed-up-and-stop while the rod tip is moving upward, you will throw a small (tight, efficient) loop that has no sag. But if you allow the rod to tip downward on the stop, you will get a sag in the line. Remember, all backcasts should end with the rod tip stopping at an upward angle.

On the forward cast, many instructors advocate always directing the rod tip downwardthat's not good, except for short casts. The line will go in the direction in which the rod tip stops. Direct the cast at eye level. If you imagine that the surface of the water in the target area is at eye level and aim your cast to that height, your line and fly will settle to the water quietly and delicately. For the longest casts, it even helps to have the tip finish going slightly upward.

Directing the cast at eye level also allows any line that you shoot to the target to flow through your line hand easily. Thus, you can trap it whenever you choose, stopping its forward progression and dropping the fly on target. This will give you both distance and accuracy.

The Backcast. To load the rod on the backcast, first pull all slack out of the line. Then move your arm and the rod back behind your body in a straight line with ever-increasing speed to a sudden stop. The slowest movement is at the beginning of the stroke and the fastest movement, a speed up and stop, or speed stroke, is just before the stop. Use a long stroke, with continuous hand acceleration up to the stop, to load the rod deep into the butt section, and then shoot the line at the stop. During the backcast and forward casts, rotate your hand about 45 degrees away from your body and keep it beneath your shoulder. Use only your forearm and do not bend your wrist. Illustration: Mark Sussino
The Forward Cast. On the forward cast, the same loading and speed-up-and-stop principles apply. Make a long stroke with a continuous acceleration to the stop to load the rod and shoot the line in the direction you stop the rod tip. The size of the casting loop is determined by the length of the final speed up and stop, or speed stroke. The shorter and faster the speed-up-and-stop, the tighter the loop and the faster and farther the line will travel. Use your line hand to keep slack out of the line. Aim the cast at eye level. As soon as the rod stops, tilt your thumb toward the water just enough to move the rod tip out of the line's path. Too much tilt will open the loop too much. Illustration: Mark Sussino

Three Helpful Guidelines to Fly Casting

The following three guidelines can help anyone improve their casting, regardless of their casting style.

1. If you are right-handed, place your right foot to the rear and your left foot slightly forward. Left-handers should do the reverse. This allows your body to move back and forth easily during the cast.

2. When the rod stops at the end of the backcast and at the end of the forward cast, make sure your thumb is positioned behind the rod handle relative to the target. This improves accuracy and allows you to transfer energy to the cast (backward and forward) more efficiently.

3. Keep your elbow low during the cast. The angle of the backcast is determined by the angle of the rod when it stops, not the height of your elbow or arm. Raising your elbow on the backcast can cause tailing loops.

Making Longer Fly Casts

There are many situations where a short cast of less than 40 feet is called for, but in most saltwater and many freshwater situations the ability to make longer casts into the wind and with little effort is vital. Using the four principles of casting, let's see how you can cast easier, farther, and with more enjoyment.

To make longer casts with ease, move the rod through a longer stroke on the backcast and forward cast. This is difficult to do if you move the rod vertically from 9 o'clock to 1 o'clock and stop the rod on the backcast with your thumb pointed upward. It takes hundreds of hours of practice to make a straight backcast if you stop the rod with your thumb in a vertical position on the backcast. Many people rotate their casting hand outward to take the rod behind them if their thumb is positioned vertically. This allows them to move their casting hand back farther. But, since the line goes in the direction the rod tip speeds up and stops, rotating the rod outward causes the line to unroll in a wide loop, which wastes some of the cast's energy.

Here is a simple way to make longer casts and allow the rod to move both efficiently and well behind you. Face the target and lower the rod until it is near the water's surface. Turn your casting hand so that the bottom of the reel faces inward and is angled at about 45 degrees. Imagine during the backcast that you are going to bring the rod tip up a ramp, all the while keeping the rod tip in contact with the ramp until you finish the cast with a speed-up-and-stop. To make the best backcast, don't allow the rod tip to rise above your head until after it has passed behind you.

If you start with the rod tip too high, you will probably get a sag in your backcast. And remember, the line will go in the direction that the rod tip stops. If your rod tip moves back and stops going in an upward direction, you will get a flat backcast.

Now make a forward cast as described earlier, accelerating the rod, aiming the cast at eye level, and finishing with a speed-up-and-stop that points the rod in the direction you want the line to go. You can shoot line after it is on its way in front of you.

If you want to make a false cast, make a backcast just as the line straightens out in front of you (before it unrolls completely and begins to drop; remember, the line should not have any slack in it). Make the backcast as described, but realize that the ramp will not be as steep because the line is already in the air.

Once you reject the clock-face casting instruction and apply the four principles to your fly casting, you can become a better caster. You'll cast farther and with less effort.

Lefty Kreh is a Fly Fisherman Editor-at-Large and author of Presenting the Fly and other fly-fishing instruction books. He lives in Hunt Valley, Maryland. Ed Jaworowski is a professor at Villanova University and author of The Cast. He lives in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania.

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