The art of the cast is simple but not always easy. The best way to learn is from a skillful fly fisher. If a friend got you interested in fly-fishing, perhaps he or she can help you with casting. The risk, however, is that you pick up their bad habits. Your friend may be an excellent caster but not an excellent teacher. Perhaps the best teacher is a fly-fishing school. In a short time you can go from rank novice to a respectable fly fisher. Another way to learn casting is to rent or buy instructional videotapes that you can view over and over again, for instance, Fly Fishing Success with Joe Humphreys.
Get your hands wet, so to speak, by practicing under the watchful eye of a seasoned fly fisherman. Believe me, it will accelerate the learning process as will fishing alongside someone familiar with the water and its resident population. Casting is important to learn correctly, then practice to build muscle memory. One thing about muscle memory: I've played basketball for the past thirty years. I've shot a lot of free throws. If I stand at the free throw line and close my eyes, I can still sink baskets. Why? Muscle memory.
First, with spinning tackle, the weight of the lure sends the line out. In fly casting, the weight is distributed all along the line so you're actually casting the line, not the fly. The best way to practice is to stand in the middle of an open space about 70 feet long. Lay the rod down, reel handle up, and, line in hand, walk out about 30 feet of line, leader attached.
Return to the rod and pick it up, being careful to keep the rod tip pointing down. Grasp the grip like you would shake someone's hand. Keep your thumb on top, pointing forward. Make sure the snake guides and reel are facing down.
Assuming you cast with your right hand, hold the line firmly in your left hand just as the line comes off the reel. Begin to lift the line off the ground, smoothly but gradually accelerating the line up. Clutching the line comfortably with your left hand, don't let any of the line slip through the guides as you bring the rod back. By the time the rod reaches the 11 o'clock position, the line will be coming toward you in the air. Bring the rod back no farther than 1 o'clock, tense your forearm to lock the line, pause while the line straightens out behind you, then start your forward cast.
As in tennis, you don't want to break your wrist when you cast. Use your forearm and elbow, but remember the pivot point is really your shoulder. The entire cast is smooth but brisk. As you bring the line back, it takes on the shape of a candy cane loop as it first circles above your head and then behind you. When the line nearly straightens out, you're ready to begin your forward cast. Make sure the line doesn't fall any lower than the top of your head. This back cast prepares you for accelerating the line forward. Without a good back cast, a good forward cast is nearly impossible. This takes practice.
Casting has to do with line speed (how fast the line moves through the snake guides). Line speed has to do with technique, not strength. For the forward cast, accelerate the line forward smoothly and rapidly until your wrist reaches the 11 o'clock position, no farther. Then stop. You need to abruptly stop the movement of the rod forward. Do this by tensing your forearm at 11 o'clock, and the line should start to lay gently on the ground in front of you. Slowly let your rod lower forward until it is horizontal with the ground. Use the rod tip to follow the fly to the water. Don't drop the rod tip down too quickly.
Remember that your forward cast is like using a hammer to nail a picture to the wall. Cast backward like you're throwing nails over your shoulder. Others liken it to throwing a chunk of potato off the tines of a dinner fork. Whatever image works for you and is easier to remember is fine. Critical to good casting is abruptly stopping the movement of the line during the back cast when you reach 1 o'clock and during the forward cast when you reach 11 o'clock. When you stop the rod suddenly, energy is released into the fly line and it surges forward with the leader and fly. You don't have to heave the rod for a forward cast like bait rods. The release of energy through the fly rod builds line speed.
If the line doesn't straighten out or falls coil-like onto the ground, it may be because you're so used to bait casting. The first time I learned to cast, the line crashed into my face, but with time and practice (not on a lake or stream at first), I got the hang of it. If you've used a spinning reel for any length of time, you know that you don't have to jerk the line backward or forward because the weight of the lure does this for you. In fly casting, on the other hand, you need to use power to accelerate the line back to 1 o'clock. Stop. Then cast forward to 11 o'clock and stop. You don't want to whip the line because you'll lose your fly, but you do need some snap.
Note that the 11 and 1 o'clock positions are good to begin, but this concept is limiting and causes big loops. Wind and stiff breezes will have a field day with large loops, so you need to keep them small on the back and forward casts. A good rule of thumb is the longer the line you're casting, the longer your arc needs to be, say, 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock. Shorter lines requires less arc.
Loop control is simply being able to adjust the width of your casting loop to fit specific situations. You may need to cast your fly underneath an overhanging bush; a tight loop will get you there with the least chance of hanging up the fly. You determine the size of the loop by rod movement and the length of your power stroke. A tight loop gives you better control over accuracy and distance. You encounter less resistance and more line speed in the air. Learning to create shallow loops on your casts will give you the edge on that pesky wind.
Another way to ensure your casts are successful is to keep your rod tip in a straight plane. You don't want to arc your rod like it's a windshield wiper. It's not. Another way to ensure a good back cast (which makes for a good forward cast) starts with picking the line up off the water. Do so evenly, smoothly, yet with steady acceleration. Both of these techniques will help prevent tailing loops that can double back and create knots in your leader. Tailing loops are also caused by stopping the forward cast too abruptly, which can cause the tippet to tie itself into a knot. Two easy solutions: one, open the 11- and-1 o'clock arcs on your back and forward casts to 10-and-2 o'clock. (How much depends on how much fly line you're casting.) Two, let the rod tip follow the fly to the water. There, easy! Well, maybe not easy, but simple. It's really not complicated, especially with practice and as you learn the feel of your rod. Remember, it's worth spending the time to learn. If you can't cast, fly-fishing isn't fun.
Once you've learned basic casting, you can move to false casting. False casting is a continuous forward and backward movement without the line touching the ground (or water). This type of casting is necessary for getting more line out, accurately presenting your fly and drying a water-logged fly. If you want to change directions on the water, the false cast is an excellent way to, slowly, by degrees, rotate yourself so you can cast to a rising fish.
Here's how to false cast: cast your line forward and backward without letting the line fall lower than your head. Until you do it by feel, watch behind you to make sure the line falls at the right height. Another way is to say your name—“My name is Jeff”—as the rod reloads the line on the back cast. Then you're ready to begin the forward movement. Eventually you'll know what your back cast looks like just by the feel of the rod.
The forward cast doesn't require any more energy than the back cast. Many men tend to throw too much power into the forward cast, creating an uneven, loopy result as well as a jarring presentation that can easily spook the fish in clear water. You're working for what's called delicate presentation.
Presentation refers both to the completion of a well-executed cast and to the gentle deposit of the fly on the surface of the water. When the fly and the line land on the water, they should create the least possible disturbance to avoid spooking wary fish. A dry fly must land very softly or it will break the surface and begin sinking. A nymph can hit the water with a little more force, providing it doesn't scare the fish.
After a while of false casting, pull out line (3 feet for starters) with your left hand and let it dangle below the reel. Holding the line firmly on the back cast, let go and let it run through the snake guides on the forward cast. This is how you make longer and longer casts, but don't worry about distance casts: most fish you'll catch will be within 30 feet of you and accuracy is much more important than distance. Then practice, practice, practice until you can direct the fly to nearly any point forward on the grass.
Practice false casting while you slowly turn—90 degrees one way, then 90 degrees the other way. Being able to face all sections of the water, fly in the air, will enable you to navigate the water and present to rising trout.
But what if you're out fishing one day and the spot you desire is crowded with brush? If you can't reach the hole from the other side of the stream or river, you can still cast without having to bring the line behind you. What you need is a roll cast.
This type of cast must be practiced on the water because the water's surface tension makes the roll cast work. Start by false casting about 20 feet of line out and removing any slack in the line. Then slowly but with steady acceleration pull the line toward you by raising the rod tip until it is behind you at 1 o'clock. Stop the backward movement, hold it for a second, then briskly bring down the rod tip to move the line back out to the water. Let the rod drop to a horizontal position.
One fly caster at LL Bean noted that the most common enemy of the roll cast was in not stopping long enough after raising the rod tip to 1 o'clock. For the roll cast to work, a belly of line must form—and form completely—behind the rod before the rod is brought forward. The easiest way to ensure this will happen is to stop the rod completely at 1 o'clock and wait, keeping the rod completely still. The rod must be completely still for at least half a heartbeat—or long enough to allow the line to catch up to the rod, pass it, and then form a belly behind it. Trying to execute a roll cast in one complete, seamless motion often has the novice bringing the rod forward too soon, before the belly of line has formed behind it. The result is a pileup of line at the caster's feet. Once the caster is adept, the pause between stopping on the back cast and then applying the forward stroke can be minimized to the point where the cast appears to be made in one smooth motion, but that only comes with time and practice. Bottom line: Slow down on the roll cast.
Another time to use the roll cast is when you're float tubing. Then you don't have to “strip in” (that is, take up) all the line before your next cast. These types of casting are essential to learn, and best under the tutelage of a seasoned instructor. Otherwise, you'll end up watching others fish. That's no fun. Finally, after your cast is done, extend your forefinger and bring in the line under it. This ensures that anytime a fish hits, you can control the line and won't have any unwanted slack in it. Your other hand is free to pull in line (stripping).
A few techniques will help assure that your casting and presentation land you fish. Accuracy is probably the most fundamental component of good fly presentation. During times of heavy hatching activity and insect swarming, when the fish seem to be feeding almost recklessly, it's easy to begin firing cast after cast almost at random. But untargeted casting usually doesn't work.
When huge amounts of food are available on the surface, most of the fish are unlikely to move any distance to feed—they don't have to. Remember, fish are efficient and will expend the least energy for the greatest gain. Some fish will focus all their rises to an area about the size of your coffee cup. Such a restricted feeding zone requires an angler to deliver his fly with precision.
Bigger fish, especially, have a habit of setting up to feed in a small, specific spot. This will usually be a place where a seam in the current or some object funnels an above average amount of food items over their position.
Once a fish has targeted a steady flow of nourishment, it will rarely deviate from that optimum feeding line. To catch fish in heavy hatches, then, the fly must be presented accurately. Learning better casting accuracy should be a priority for those wishing to hone their presentation skills.
To practice, set up a target on your lawn and practice hitting within 3 feet of it. Then set up several targets at various distances. Make a single cast to any one of them and then cast to the next. When you can rotate through the whole batch, hitting all or most of the targets in turn on the first cast, you should be amply prepared for most on-stream situations.
Of course, delivering the fly to the target is only the first step of dry fly presentation. In most cases, the fly must float naturally and drag-free over the fish's position to have any chance of being taken. Insects caught in the surface tension drift naturally with the currents. Fish are suspicious of anything that doesn't float or move naturally.
Artificial flies tend to drag or move unnaturally across the surface because they are attached to a leader and heavy fly line. Even on a short cast, the fly, leader, and line are likely to be affected by several bands of current traveling at different velocities and angles. Sooner or later one or more of these current tongues will begin to dominate the drift of the whole process and cause the fly to drag or move at a different speed than the current.
The easiest method of overcoming unwanted drag is to ensure there's slack in the leader or line. This slack should take the form of a series of gentle S curves. Because it takes longer for the current to straighten out an amount of slack, you are buying a few more precious seconds for the fly to pass over the fish in a natural manner.
The simplest way to throw slack is to keep the rod tip high or pull back slightly on the forward casting stroke, then quickly lower the rod tip. This causes the line and leader to spring back slightly and settle gently on the water.
There are many other casts and casting tricks that can be an asset to presentation for those willing to master them. The value of good presentation can be summed up like this: it's better to cast the “wrong” fly and fish it properly than to have the “right” fly and fish it wrong.
Remember, casting is one of the most important ingredients in successful fly-fishing. Continue to practice as much as possible both on the water and on the grass. You won't regret time spent perfecting your timing and training your casting muscles. Now it's time to be a part of the action! You're ready for the water. C'mon, the fish are waiting!