#1 - The majority of fly fishers are mediocre casters because of their back casts. Every cast will be determined, more than anything else, by what is behind you when you start forward. If it is not perfect, you will have to somehow compensate going forward. Study your back cast. Look at it on every practice cast, and if needed, while fishing. As it unrolls, it should not have any angles, dips, or curves in it, nor be wide open. Until you can get it tight, straight, fast and, most of all, symmetrical, you can never be a proficient caster. Yes, it calls for concentration and p-r-a-c-t-i-c-e. Sorry about that.
#2 - When first learning to cast, you may have been told something like, “Wait until your line completely unrolls on the back cast and you feel a tug, before coming forward”. Well, generally speaking, it’s bad advice. In fact, I’ve identified seven casting problems, from minor to critical, that this can cause. Practice beginning your forward stroke while the end of your line is still unrolling, resembling a fishhook, a candy cane, or the letter “J”. You will maintain pressure on the rod tip, get instant load, can accelerate more smoothly, and use less effort. It’s more efficient, because you utilize the energy of the unrolling line to load the rod, rather than squandering it.
#3 - Fly rods are rated arbitrarily, and all rods can cast a wide range of line sizes. The rating system assumes that you are casting 30’ of line. For example, a 5-weight rod supposedly works fine when loaded with 30’ of 5-weight line, which ideally weighs approximately 140 grains. However, if you are casting only 20’, which weighs perhaps less than 100 grains, you in reality are casting only a 3-weight. Conversely, if you pick up and cast 35’, you are loading your rod with about 160 grains, equivalent to 30’ of 6-weight line. In the course of a typical day, you probably call upon your 5-weight to cast the equivalent of four or five line sizes. Conclusion: if you will be casting only a short length of line repeatedly, don’t hesitate to use a line one size---even two sizes---heavier than designated by the maker. Don't worry, you won’t overload the rod, and your casting will be much easier.
#4 - Is it true that a double taper line presents a fly more delicately than a weight forward line? As the kids say, NOT!, at least in most cases. What determines delicacy of turnover is the front tapering of the line, and most modern WF lines have the same, or even longer and more gradual, tapers than their DT counterparts. This means that those WF’s deliver the fly with no less, and often with more, delicacy. Furthermore, with slightly longer bellies than in the past, today’s WF’s are ideal for roll casting and mending, and still superior for distance, which was their original purpose. That’s why 40 years ago, over 90% of fly lines sold were DT’s. Today the reverse is true. In fact, some top line makers don’t even make DT versions of their most popular lines.
#5 - Common roll cast instruction directs us to “Bring the rod back to 1:00, then strike downward as if using a meat cleaver or chopping wood.” This inefficient technique generally causes the line to pile up, or splash down with excess disturbance, forces you to cast harder, and makes longer casts difficult. If you want the line to go forward, then the rod must unload going forward, not down. The line should roll out in the air, not on the water---and require very little effort. Simply bring your hand, arm, and rod back farther, with the rod tip lower. Then, and with no more than 1½ rod lengths of line on the water in front of you, stroke forward, stopping your hand quickly when it is in front of you, just as if making a regular forward cast. If you want to make a longer roll cast, start with the same amount of line in front of you on the water but, with a gentle flip of the tip, make the “D loop” (or “V” loop) behind you longer, starting forward before it falls to the water.
#6 - If you are thinking about a two-handed rod for salmon, steelhead, or surf fishing, don’t overlook “switch rods”. A switch rod is a short two-hander, commonly 11-12’, that takes its name from the fact that it can be used one-or two-handed, and for “overhead” or Spey casting. It’s a versatile, crossover tool, that facilitates the transition to two-handed casting, since it is not much longer than many single-handed rods, and weighs considerably less than typical 13-15’ two-handers used for Spey casting. With minimal instruction, you can learn the basic Spey maneuvers in short order with a switch rod. To add distance, use a switch rod for overhead casting, i.e. using a backcast similar to that with a single-handed rod.
#7 - Trajectory is all-important when casting. Here’s how to determine and establish casting trajectory. Remember that the line must continue unrolling in the same direction that the tip-top of the rod was traveling when it straightened. So, take note of where the tip was when the rod started to load. Think of that point as the back of a gun barrel. Now mark the exact spot where the tip-top was when the rod straightened after unloading. That’s the muzzle end. If the tip was higher at the start of the cast than when it finished, you are casting downward, which is fine for short casts. If you want to cast farther, get the tip back farther and lower, so that it ends at the same height as, or even higher than, the point at which it started. It’s the same way you shoot or throw a ball. To insist on always casting downward is nonsense, yet that’s what some preach.
#8 - “Don’t take your rod back beyond one o’clock on your back cast”. In the minds of many anglers, that seemingly is the first commandment of fly casting. However, how far you bring your rod and arm back depends on several things, like the distance of the cast, the fly you are casting, the wind, and a few other things. Just as you would bring your arm back farther to throw a ball farther, or bring your golf club back farther for different situations, be prepared to bring your arm and rod back, well beyond 1:00 if necessary, for a given cast, simply because it makes casting easier. I have noted as many as 12 casting problems that can occur from blindly adhering to the 1:00 rule, some minor, some serious. So, a particular cast may call for stopping the rod nearly vertical, while another may be easier if you come back more to the side, until your arm and rod are pointing straight back.
#9 - Every rod must perform a variety of functions. When selecting a rod, consider the primary function you will require from it, whether delicate presentation, distance, or fighting and lifting. A broad but useful rule of thumb: 2-5 weights for delicate presentation and accuracy; 6-9 weights for distance and delivery; 10-weight and higher for fighting and lifting. Naturally, most rods have to perform some of each. Generally speaking, presentation rods are longer than fighting rods. A 10’ 5-weight might be ideal for some situations, but fighting/lifting rods should never be that long. All rules have exceptions, and you may have to compromise. In tight casting quarters, you may need a rod of say 7 ½’, but require a 7 or 8-weight to transport large flies. Or, a 9’ 6-wt. might be comfortable for smallmouth fishing, but to cast large and heavy flies, bump to a 7- or 8-weight of the same length. My message: analyze your needs, and select your weapon based upon that, not simply on someone else’s preference.
#10 - Don’t obsess about distance. “Distance isn’t something you do, it’s what happens when you do it right” was a favorite maxim of the late Hugh Falkus, legendary British Spey casting instructor. That’s a hard but important lesson. Most casters want to put as much into the cast as they can. Using as little effort as possible for any cast should be every fly caster’s goal. That means refining technique, honing skills. Perfection resides in attention to details, like eliminating as much slack as possible, making your hand acceleration as smooth as possible, and the stop as crisp as possible. The basics. No magic bullets. Work on things like that and distance will happen. At a recent flyfishing show, someone remarked to me, “Wow, did you see how far that guy cast?” Unimpressed, I said, “No, I was distracted. I was taking note of how hard he had to cast.”
#11 - Leader configuration can greatly affect your presentation. Cut off a #12 dry fly, attach a #16 or 18 to the same tippet, and your odds of taking a fish may well diminish, even if the replacement is a better pattern, more realistic, and floats better. Before you dismiss this advice, think about it. Let’s say your 24” tippet allowed you to make a nice presentation with some slack in front of the fly to prevent drag. When you shorten the tippet and add a smaller fly, it will turn over more aggressively and may even slap down the fly, and drag can result. Going to a smaller fly calls for lengthening the tippet. Up size and you should consider shortening your tippet, simply because a tippet that presents a size 18 dry perfectly will have difficulty turning an air resistant 12, so casting accuracy suffers. Get into the habit of adjusting your tippet regularly when fishing different size dries. It’s an essential part of your cast and presentation.
#12 - “It’s the stop that makes it go.” I stress this maxim to my casting students. Many anglers instinctively want to push the rod at the end of the stroke, apparently feeling subconsciously that this will straighten the line or cause it to go farther. Unfortunately, that final motion produces exactly the opposite results. One, continuous acceleration to an abrupt stop is the essence of the casting stroke. No follow through or further emphasis is required. Lowering the rod to fishing position after the stop is not really a follow through or part of the casting stroke. Various images, like trying to throw an apple from the end of a stick, or flicking paint from a brush, or trying to hit the tip of the rod with the line, can help casters to get the sense. They will also tighten your loops. Watch any good caster, and note the instant hand stop, or line release when shooting line.
#13 - No one would shoot a gun without first selecting a target. That’s pretty much the same with all sports. Jim Furyk, 2010 PGA Player of the Year, insists upon always selecting a target for each golf shot, even when driving balls on the driving range. Hall of Fame pitching immortal Warren Spahn’s father coached him to learn control by never throwing a baseball without a specific target in mind. When practicing casting without water, use hoops, pieces of cardboard, leaves, flowers---anything, so long as every cast has a target. When fishing on the stream, cast your dry fly at a specific foam bubble. On the bonefish flats, when fishing is slow, make an occasional cast at a dark spot on the bottom, imagining it’s a fish. When bass bugging, try to land your lure on a specific lily pad. Even out on the open ocean, don’t just cast at the water. Let your eye select a specific spot where you expect to land your fly. Each cast you make is a practice opportunity that can teach you about direction, effort, speed, stroke length, as well as how and when to check the line and gauge your trajectory.
#14 - Heavy flies with cone heads, large beads, lead eyes, or lead wire around the shank affect casting aerodynamics. Difficulty arises when the weighted fly must change direction. If you pause too long on the back cast, when the leader straightens, the fly will tug against the rod tip and bounce back, releasing the pressure on the rod tip. This creates slack, causes loss of control, and makes loading for the forward cast difficult. Here's how to eliminate the bounce and smooth the transition between rear and forward movement. With your rod off the vertical, perhaps at 45 degrees, make a long, smooth, back cast and, without stopping, come forward before the line straightens with the rod more overhead, tracing a long, smooth, elliptical path. This will eliminate the fly’s abrupt change of direction.
#15 - We all get “shock waves” in our line at times when casting. Instead of unrolling smoothly, your fly line loop may have waves or undulations in it. These represent wasted energy, and affect accuracy, control, and distance. Understanding the cause is the key to correcting this problem. Shock waves indicate that you began your forward stroke while there was slack in the line, meaning you have no pressure against the rod tip. The slack may be the result of a weak, wide open, or misshapen back cast loop, or letting your line straighten completely before coming forward. Tighten the back cast and start the forward stroke just before the line completely straightens behind you, and the shock waves will go away.
#16 - Sometimes slight waves develop in the outgoing line for a different reason than that described in my previous tip. When you shoot line, it comes off the water, ground, boat deck, or out of a stripping basket traveling vertically, then turns from 90 to as much as 270 degrees before feeding roughly horizontally through the guides. This interrupts the smooth flow of the line, as it momentarily hangs up and hesitates on the shoot. To correct this, make an “O” ring with the index or mid finger and thumb of your line hand to dramatically lessen that angle, and guide the line toward the stripping guide. This little maneuver will smooth out the line flow when you shoot line. It also gives you the ability to precisely stop the line when the fly is over the target for better accuracy.
#17 - Here’s a third tip having to do with smoothing out your unrolling line. (See the two previous tips.) If you still get slight waves in your line on the forward cast when making very long casts, they may be caused by line coming up from your basket, the deck, or the ground hitting the rod blank before turning 90 degrees and going through the butt guide. It helps to turn your hand 90 degrees to the side (counter clockwise for a right-hander) the instant the hand stops on the cast. This puts the guides off to the side, eliminates line slap against the rod, and smoothes out your cast. I find this particularly helpful if I’m making long casts when surf fishing, where distance can be especially important.
#18 - There are NO fixed rules for casting, such as where to start and stop a cast, where to keep your elbow, which direction and how far to move the hand, arm, and rod, and so on. Don’t blindly adhere to such casting instructions. Your stance, the direction you face, where you start and finish a casting stroke, as well as how far, how fast, and the direction you move your hand, arm, and rod may change cast after cast, depending on the result sought. Moving a rod from 10:00 to 2:00, to cite a common instruction, may be perfectly fine for one cast, but totally wrong for a dozen others. Likewise, casting with the rod in a vertical position may be ideal for short casts, but you will make longer casts with much less effort by tilting the rod to the side whenever possible.
#19 - Unquestionably, the most perplexing and controversial casting problem is the “tailing loop”, in which the line, leader, or fly collides or tangles as the line unrolls. This occurs most often when making longer casts. I’ve collected and tested 15 explanations for this problem, and found that all could lead to the tangle….or not, which tells us that something else is at play here. In summary, regardless of whether you shock the rod, drop or raise your elbow, apply the ”power stroke” too soon or too late, make the tip travel in a concave path, etc., your line will tangle if the rod tip’s final travel was in a straight line. Perhaps the most common cause of this is finishing the cast by pushing the rod handle ahead at the last instant. Rotating the tip even slightly will avoid the problem. Starting the forward cast with your arm and rod tip back farther and lower---and just before the line completely straightens---will help immensely to banish the problem.
#20 - I use sinking lines for perhaps 90% of my east coast saltwater fishing. The biggest problem with casting sinking shooting heads, like the SA Streamer Express, Teeny T and TS series, Rio Striped Bass Sink Tip, and similar lines, is making a clean pickup. If you try to pull the sunken line from the water, you will tremendously overload the rod, due to the added resistance of the water. If you do manage to pull the line free, the rod will recoil sharply, since the water drag is suddenly gone. You will lose pressure on the rod tip and the line will be out of control. Instead, strip the line in until the start of the weighted head (normally about 30’ long) is about halfway down the rod. Now, bring the rod well back and make a roll cast, stroking forward, not down, and let about six or seven feet of line slip from your fingers, so that when the line turns over, the end of the shooting head is about two to three feet outside the rod tip. The instant the line turns over and touches the water, make a normal back cast. Practice this drill until you can make the pick-up and cast smoothly. Eighty-foot plus casts are easy to make with a single back cast.
#21 - Spey casting maneuvers are not limited to two-handed rods. Nearly all are just as valuable for those using single-handed rods. The "snap T" is one such. It has several uses, however, as an example, suppose you are facing across the stream and want to roll cast that direction, but the line is hanging downstream, 90 degrees from where you want it to go. One simple, easy motion will reposition the line so that you can roll cast directly across stream. No back casts, no false casting. Just raise the rod tip smoothly well up in the air, and stroke the rod back down with a continuous and uninterrupted motion, with hardly any acceleration. The motion should be fluid, like stroking a paintbrush up a wall and right back down, with no jerk or snap. When executed properly, the line will rise off the water and jump to your upstream side. Immediately swing the rod back to the rear and, without pausing, finish with a roll cast across the stream. Practice until you can get the end of the line facing right toward your target before making the final roll cast stroke.
#22 - A cast consists of one continuous motion. There is no "load stroke" followed by a "power stroke". It's the same with throwing a ball, or swinging a club or bat. You don't perform one motion, then suddenly shift gears and do something different. Don't attempt to snap or punch your hand. Make a smooth, constant, and progressive speed up of the hand to an instant stop, on both back and forward casts. Naturally, the hand simultaneously rotates through this motion. And, there is no "follow through" in casting, unlike baseball, golf, or most other sports, in which the ball is no longer attached to the club, bat, or racquet. Practice your forward stroke by laying line on ground behind you, with the rod pointing to the rear, low and to the side. Start slowly, bringing your hand forward with increasing speed to a quick stop. Let the line fall to the ground. Don't shoot any line, simply practice this stroke over and over until you develop one smooth movement. Practice the back cast separately, trying to mimic the same movement going the opposite direction. Once you have a smooth speed-up and stop, put the back and forward casts together and gradually work toward a more vertical plane.
#23 - Fishing a dry fly on a stream calls for (1) accuracy---the fly should land in a feeding lane that will carry it to the fish, and (2) slack in the leader and/or line, to delay drag. However, one requirement may take precedence over the other. For example, accuracy may be less important when fishing the water, as opposed to fishing to a rising fish. On a broad run, where the fish could be in many different places, an “S-cast”, or “serpentine cast” can serve you well. The instant you stop your forward stroke and the line starts to unroll, wiggle the rod back and forth gently. This will cause the line and leader to fall to the water with a series of waves, which can forestall drag. You can even control where you want the slack line. If you stop the cast, quickly shake the rod a couple of times, then hold it steady, the s-curves will show at the far end. If you wait to shake the rod until the end of the line is well out, the curves will fall close to the angler.
#24 - There are no industry standards for rod action. One maker’s “fast” action is another’s “medium fast”. To complicate things, anglers use the terms differently from the way rod makers do. Fishermen generally call a rod that feels stiff, and recoils quickly, a “fast action” rod. To rod builders, terms like fast, medium, slow refer to where the bend takes place. They achieve these by altering the tapers of the rod blanks. If a rod bends mainly in the tip, it’s called fast. If the bend comes further into the shaft with the same line weight, it might be designated medium. A slow action rod flexes well down toward the butt. So, you may have a 4-weight that feels stiff and straightens quickly, or a 12-weight that also feels stiff and straightens quickly, but if the 12-weight bends farther down into the rod, it may well be marketed as medium action, while the 4-weight might be called fast. Because anglers have different personal preferences, manufacturers make various models with different actions; all can give satisfactory performance, depending on the intended use and the caster.