Casting a lure with a spinning rod and casting a fly line with a fly rod share one major similarity: When the rod stops, the lure (or line) continues along the same trajectory. Everything else is different. In conventional fishing, you cast the lure/bait and the line follows. In fly fishing, you cast the line and the fly follows. This allows you to use floating dry flies that are nearly weightless.
Your first objective in fly casting is to learn to bend the rod properly—also called loading the rod—so the rod does most of the work. Too many beginners try to cast the line by moving their arms in exaggerated windshield-wiper movements, and they never really load the rod.
When you learn to cast, don’t move your arm or wrist in an arc, which produces rod movement like a windshield wiper blade. You want the rod tip to travel in a straight path toward the target, so your hand should move in a relatively straight path as well.
Your forward stroke is analogous to hammering a nail into a wall: The rod grip is your hammer. The forward motion of your hand produces a short stroke that accelerates quickly to the target and then stops suddenly. The head of a hammer necessarily travels in an arcing path because the hammer handle doesn’t bend. With a fly rod, your application of force produces acceleration that bends the rod, allowing the rod tip to travel in a straight path. When you stop the rod quickly, the rod unloads (comes to the straight position), 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 (a backcast) for every forward cast.
If your backcast is faulty, you will also struggle with your forward cast, so it’s helpful to turn your head and watch your backcast. This is not only for beginners; it’s good advice even for experts looking to hone an already excellent casting stroke. You can also film your casting as you practice so you can see what’s going on behind you. Your buddy with any smartphone can provide excellent material for analysis. The slo-mo function of an iPhone is a great way to view details that are difficult to pick up at full speed.
The old way (and the wrong way) to teach fly casting is to have beginners move their arms 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 needs to move along different paths to deal with different conditions.
Clock positions are not as important in fly casting as the timing and smooth application of power. To be a good caster, you need to understand the physics behind casting so you can make whatever cast you require: into the wind, with high bushes behind you, or under an overhanging branch, with no restrictions based on the hands of a clock.
Fly Fisherman editor-at-large Lefty Kreh is one of the world’s most accomplished casting instructors. His 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.
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 club.
A fly-fishing 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 also many excellent DVDs to help you learn. Ed Jaworowski and Lefty Kreh recently collaborated on a 180-minute instructional film called The Complete Cast: Applying Principles to Fresh and Saltwater Fly Casting ($50, tforods.com). The lessons in this production can’t be consumed all in one sitting. It’s like a graduate course in casting that thankfully starts right at the beginning. But you’ll have to practice and come back to the film over and over again to see constant improvement.
Short Stroke Vs. Long Stroke
*For casts at close range, you need only a short casting stroke where the rod hand moves very little and the rod moves just between the 1 o’clock and the 11 o’clock position.
* For maximum power, the rod hand should move farther along an imaginary “shelf” and the rod should move as much as 180 degrees from the 9 o’clock position to the 3 o’clock position.
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, wind, and a sharp hook.
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 about 30 feet. This mark 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 to indicate the best spot to load the road. Place a target on the grass such as a hat or paper plate to help you develop the sense of distance and accuracy.
YOUR FIRST LOOPS
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. Don’t squeeze the rod too tightly. You should have a loose, comfortable grip, in conventional angling you use the reel to retrieve the line after each cast, and the speed of the retrieve and rod tip movement control the action of the lure. In fly fishing, you use the reel to fight a fish or to retrieve the line, and to store it while you’re not fishing. While fishing, you retrieve and control the line mostly with your hands.
Line control is perhaps the most overlooked aspect of fly fishing—mostly because experts and the media too often assume that line control is already a widely known skill. It isn’t, but it’s just as important as casting.
Before you cast, you must pull line off the reel. If you want to cast 40 feet, you need 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 30 feet of loosely coiled line lying on the ground (or in the water) nearby, and another 10 feet of line up in the line guides and extending out of the tip-top.
Some fly fishers hold the loose coils of line in stripping baskets attached to their waist, or in a boat in weighted wastebasket-type containers. In most cases, especially when casting short distances and in shallow water, the loose line lies at your feet.
Learning to Form a Loop
*Lefty Kreh demonstrates a loop control exercise. With the line extended to his left, he flicks the line directly to his right, low and just above the grass and inside a restricted casting lane. After coming to a complete stop, he makes a backcast to place the line back in the original starting position.
- "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."
When you retrieve, pinch the line between the forefinger of your rod hand and the rod grip, and pull the line using the opposite hand. Pull. Pinch. Pull. Pinch. This is how you retrieve line whether you are attempting to swim a fly in stillwater, or you are dead-drifting a dry fly and you need to constantly remove slack from the system.
Keeping the line pinched under your forefinger is important because this is how you maintain control of the line so you can instantly set the hook when a fish takes the fly. It’s also important just from the practical standpoint to maintain tactile control of the line so you can grab and pull without looking. Without that pinch, you’ll be grasping blindly trying to find a loose, wildly dangling fly line.
When you begin to cast, remove the line from under your forefinger and hold it firmly in your opposite hand.
While you are casting, your non-dominant hand controls the line—grasping it tightly during the casting stroke so that the rod loads properly, and loosening that grip at just the precise moment to allow the line to “shoot” after each forward 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, or to shake water from your fly to help it float.
Using few false casts is a benchmark of expertise, because it demonstrates you can shoot most of the line with just one forward cast. This is 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.
For long casts, when you shoot the line toward the target on your final delivery, form an “O” with the thumb and forefinger of your line hand to guide and control the line with as little friction as possible. With your hand in this position you can instantly pinch and stop the line when it’s at the target, and since the line never leaves your hand, you can seamlessly place the line back under your rod finger and start stripping without even looking at the line. Your eyes are always on the target, and you’re spending as much time as possible fishing effectively, and as little time as possible fumbling for your line.
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 tendinitis in your forearm and elbow.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. When you make short casts, a parallel stance is all you need but for maximum efficiency through the course of the day you should have one foot forward and one foot back like a quarterback or a pitcher. (Left foot forward for right-handed casters.)
To begin, thread the line off the reel and up through all the line guides and out the tip-top of the rod. 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 the loop through the guides, pulling the leader and tippet behind the doubled line. The line is easier to see and hold onto, and if you drop it, the shape of the loop prevents the line from sliding down through the rod guides. Use a clinch knot to tie a piece of yarn to the end of the tippet. This is your practice “fly.” 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. [See Lefty’s principle #1 (previous page), “You must get the end of the fly line moving before you can make a back or forward cast.” If the line has slack in it, you will be partially through your stroke before the end of the line begins to move. The Editor.]
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. 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.
By casting low and sidearm, you can watch both the forward and backcasts as they unroll, and learn how to load the rod to form a loop. Because you are only casting a short length of line, you’ll be bending or loading just the tip of the rod, but you’ll be able to feel the rod bend, and watch how the line moves.
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 also learn 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, move the rod at a 45- degree angle and repeat the exercise. Then repeat the same drill with a vertical rod position. You’ll use all these casting positions when you are actually 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. If you bow hunt, you cannot be proficient unless you spend adequate time hitting a target.
Fly fishing is no different. To improve, you must practice outside of a real fishing situation. Frequent fishing also improves your casting, but not as quickly or dramatically as practicing on a pond or in your backyard 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) up 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.