The Progressive method of teaching fly casting was first introduced in the mid-1960s as part of the curriculum of the Orvis Fly-Fishing School. The school was the first of its kind, and wildly successful. Now after more than 50 years in operation, we are still teaching many of the same things Bill Cairns taught in the original schools . . . but now we have the added help of a half-century of refinement. The progressive method is a way in which we systematically introduce a next step to an individual’s casting progression—from a basic pickup and laydown cast, to shooting line, and eventually double hauling.
I was fortunate enough to know and work with Cairns, as well as Head Fly-Fishing Instructor Truel Myers, on what we now describe as the progressive method. The progressive method is not actually a style of casting, it’s more a style of teaching where we work with students as a group, then hone in on their individual learning style or speed.
From the first day I met Myers, he constantly instilled in me that we teach students as individuals. Everyone casts a little differently and picks things up at a different pace. The classes may be geared to beginners, but we don’t ever want to hold anyone back in their progression due to inflexible curriculum. In some situations, we have had students double hauling on their first day of casting. Sometimes we focus on other skills. No matter what, casting should be easy and fun.
The part I enjoy the most about working with the schools is that the students tell me what fish they plan on targeting. Then I work with them on skills for casting small poppers at bluegills in backyard farm ponds, or for traveling to the Seychelles to tackle giant trevally. They choose the scenario. We can improve your casting so it’s smooth and efficient in every situation.
Bending the Rod
We start each class with an understanding of the tackle and the mechanics of a basic cast. To cast a fly rod, you simply have to make it do three things: bend, stop, and travel in a straight path.
We start the students with a relaxed grip, with the thumb on top of the cork, and the line pinched between the index or middle finger and the cork grip. The relaxed grip is similar to a golf grip. The rod and the forearm should form a straight line. If the grip is off, having the rod tip low will be a little challenging and perhaps uncomfortable. It shouldn’t be! We want this to be easy.
The progressive method starts with a simple pickup and laydown cast. You start with roughly 25 to 30 feet of fly line out of the reel or 20 feet of line out the tip of the rod. Start your cast with the rod tip low, basically touching the ground or the water’s surface.
Next, make a backcast by moving the rod in a smooth, accelerated motion up and back to an abrupt stop. There are so many different ways to describe this motion, but essentially you want to peel the line off the water by speeding up the rod.
This speed-up causes the rod to bend under the weight of the line. If you continuously and smoothly accelerate, the rod will bend more and more deeply. This is known as loading the rod. It’s like when you pull a string back on a bow to fire an arrow—the taut string stores energy. When you release it, and it comes to a stop, it propels the arrow to the target.
Where you stop the rod on the backcast dictates where the line goes. If you stop the rod too far back, you’ll direct it down to the ground behind you. If you stop too soon, you may not have enough energy to completely propel the line behind you. When you are just learning to load the rod, try to stop the rod so the line behind you unrolls parallel to the ground.
After the backcast, you must pause and wait for the line to roll out before you can make a forward cast. The timing here is very important. You should let the line almost straighten completely before you make your forward cast. If you wait too long, the energy in the line dissipates, and the line drops toward the ground. If you come forward too soon, there may be a midair collision, or you’ll get an inefficient cast that may result in a loud snap. That snap usually means you lost your fly.
Just like in the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears it has to be “just right.” The easiest way to tell if your timing is just right is to simply look at your backcast. I like to watch my backcast and have students do the same when practicing so they can see where the rod tip is stopping. Out of the corner of your eye, you can see the line unrolling, and it can help you improve your timing.
When you see the end of your fly line straighten, it’s time to smoothly accelerate the rod forward. Push with your thumb and use it like a rudder telling the rod, line, and fly where to go. At the end of the forward cast, come to an abrupt stop with the rod tip around eye level.
During both the back and the forward cast, you want the rod tip to travel in the straightest path possible. The rod tip should track in a straight line whether you view it from overhead or from the side.
After you stop the rod tip at eye level, the line should roll out in front of you and straighten in the air.
Once it is straight, follow the line with the rod tip as it falls down to the water.
Many new casters feel the need to help, or in some cases, force the line down to the water. There’s no need for that. Gravity will drop the line down on the water for you. You don’t have to force it.
I’ll be the first to admit, learning how to cast from written direction is incredibly challenging, even when you have photos to look at. Everyone learns a little differently, and learning comes from a combination of seeing something, hearing something, and feeling something, so it’s important to get some hands-on time with a rod, and carefully watch efficient fly casters.
Orvis’s Fly Fishing 101 courses are free at any Orvis retail stores or dealers. We offer one- and two-day schools in many locations across the country, as well as species-specific or technique specialty schools. If you are new to fly fishing, or just want to improve your game, it’s worthwhile. You can also find additional resources at orvis.com.
*Pete Kutzer is a wingshooting and fly-fishing instructor at The Orvis Company in Manchester, Vermont.