December 20, 2022
This article was originally published in the December 2005 issue of Fly Fisherman.
The only way to learn the feel of casting a long, weighted line with a flexible rod is to experience it, not unlike learning to ride a bicycle for the first time. Convincing or inspiring the learner to jump on the bike and go for it may well be the best form of instruction. Casting a fly is identical; almost anyone can learn to do it simply by casting.
Over the past decades there have been many ways to teach fly casting, especially using key descriptive words and phrases. I will briefly review them and then introduce a relatively new descriptive teaching concept that I call "the pull through." It's the most elemental and important aspect of a casting stroke, in which the casting hand precedes the rod tip through most of the casting stroke, and the turnover and stop takes place only at the end of the casting stroke.
Besides getting out there and doing it, traditional teaching aids such as analogies, visuals, and key words and phrases may help you focus your efforts and hasten your learning process. Although most of these instructional tools are valid and useful, at times they can inhibit learning and possibly lead to serious casting faults. The following are examples.
Throwing a ball is an excellent analogy for communicating the athleticism and fluidity of a natural throwing motion. It can, however, lead to using too much wrist in a throwing motion that fails to effectively bend and unbend a fly rod.
Words like "whump," "snap," "flick," "flip," and "pop" are commonly used to convey the feeling of bending (loading) and unbending a fly rod. Again, they are good words, but they are often misconstrued to indicate a too-quick loading and unloading of the fly rod, resulting in a dip of the fly rod tip and tailing loops. Spelling "whump" with two or three Us–"whuuump" or possibly "snaaap"–might help you understand the speed of the motion, especially for longer casts.
Phrases like "accelerate to a stop," "speed up and stop," and "start slow and end fast" are common instructional tools that accurately depict the tip of the rod during a casting stroke. However, many learners get poor results when they attempt to emulate those slow-to-fast directions with their casting hand. A more useful instructional phrase might be "a smooth, even hand movement to a stop." The rod tip should accelerate throughout the casting stroke.
Another common phrase that has almost become a mantra in fly casting is "Applying power too early in the casting stroke creates a tailing loop." This statement is incorrect. It is possible to apply maximum power in the beginning of a casting stroke. The key to a good cast is maintaining, or even increasing, the rod bend throughout the stroke. The real culprit here is unloading the rod too soon!
Let's look more closely at a fly-casting stroke. The first step in all fly-casting strokes is bending the rod. Significant movement of the line only takes place after the rod bend. Starting a casting stroke too slowly, or for that matter too quickly, usually results in a poor rod bend and an inefficient cast. Some words that may help include "do not start a casting stroke slowly" or "do not start quickly." A somewhat better description of a casting stroke might be "bend the rod and sling the line" or "bend the rod and accelerate to a stop," or whatever words work for you following "bend the rod and…"
Picking up the line from the water and changing the back-and-forth direction of the line helps begin the casting stroke with a good rod bend. Notice that many casters make their best backcast from the water. That's because the friction of the water helps bend the fly rod early in the casting stroke! A roll cast however requires a more forceful rod bend, as it does not have the loading advantage of a water pickup or an aerialized line between back and forward casts.
The roll cast can be an excellent introduction to the unique feel of the fly cast. Forcing the rod into a bend and keeping it bent–finally unloading (stopping) in the intended direction of the cast–is almost like putting a casting loop in the fly rod itself.
The Pull Through
And now to one of the most elemental and important aspects of a fly-casting stroke, one often overlooked by experienced casters and many instructors. It is a pullthrough motion. In this motion, the casting hand precedes the rod tip through most of the casting stroke and the turnover and stop takes place only at the end of the casting stroke. A push through movement in the casting stroke has the rod even or ahead of the casting hand through much of the casting stroke-somewhat akin to a punching motion. While it is possible to cast fairly well with this motion, especially with a stiff, powerful fly rod, the pullthrough casting stroke is superior.
Some analogies might be useful to more fully understand this concept. Imagine a brick on the end of the line. A hard push-through motion will likely break the rod, but a pulling motion could easily move the heavy weight. Imagine a three-foot-long rope pulled through to smack a waist-high board. Pulling the rope through could almost break the board, and pushing the rope through would be futile.
A biomechanical company working with Olympic athletes and professional baseball teams concluded that the closest athletic event to a distance fly cast is a javelin throw. Try this: Lay out about 70 or so feet of fly line on a lawn behind you, fly rod pointing at the fly, and pretend to throw a javelin, turning the rod over only at the very end of the throw. You may be pleasantly surprised with this extreme pull-through casting motion. Now try the same cast with a push-through casting stroke, noting the significant reduction in speed and the likely resulting tailing loop.
Shorter casts use a fairly short pulling motion at the beginning of the cast. Many instructors teach the caster to pull down his elbow or hand during the casting stroke, resulting in an excellent pullthrough movement. Longer casts, however, require pulling on a more horizontal plane; the longest casts very close to the same plane as the projected forward cast. Start all fly-casting strokes with this pulling motion–a short pull with short casting strokes and a long pull with long strokes. Combine this pulling motion with a good rod bend, and you're almost assured of an efficient cast. Good luck.
Mel Krieger is the author of The Essence of Fly Casting and founder of the Mel Krieger International School of Flyfishing (www.melkrieger.com). He lives in San Francisco, California.