How To Cast A Fly Rod
Casting a fly rod is not nearly as difficult as some people make it out to be. Anglers of all ages can be reluctant to try fly fishing because they mistakenly believe that it is a tremendously difficult sport to learn. Practice is necessary just like any other learned skill. No fly angler ever picked up a fly rod for the first time and instinctively knew how to cast very well. But with a little bit of patience anyone can learn to fly cast.
There are some parallels between conventional spin casting and fly fishing that are important to understand. In conventional spin-casting it is the weight of the lure that loads the rod with stored energy. Conventional casting lures are much heavier than flies and can carry momentum when they are cast, unlike a fly. In fly fishing it is the weight of the fly line that flexes and loads the rod with stored energy. The fly line carries the momentum and propels the fly through the air.
Fly casting is very similar in nature to a number of other physical skills. A good parallel would be learning to swing on a swing set. Once an angler has put in some practice time their muscle memory will take over, and the sport becomes much more enjoyable. At that point the concentration shifts away from simply learning to cast and shifts toward catching fish.
There are a few tips that we have found to be tremendously beneficial over the years. Doing a few simple exercises before hitting the water will go a long way towards minimizing frustration and building the muscle memory that we mentioned earlier. If you are not yet sure how to set up your fly rod before you start practicing, we suggest you take a read though our guide on how to set up your fly rod. Understanding how to cast before you try to catch fish will add to your sense of enjoyment once you do hit the water.
1.) Don’t start on the water
Initially it will be very helpful for you to learn the basics of casting a fly rod on a big lawn, or a soccer or baseball field. The open space provided by casting on a large grassy area will help you to avoid snagging trees and bushes. Make sure you steer clear of power lines as well.
Lawn casting also removes the expectation of catching any fish, which can be double-frustrating if you are trying to learn how to cast while getting skunked at the same time.
Most folks don’t live near water that provides great fishing. Finding good fishing usually means packing up a bunch of gear and driving to get into worthwhile fishing. You really don’t want to make the trip to a great fishing spot just to be frustrated with learning, and no catching. Lawn casting helps you learn before you go, and raises the possibility of catching some good fish when you get there.
2.) Practice Casting With Yarn
When you initially start learning to cast, your fly line can tend to get a little out of control. Out of control and fishing hooks is not a good combination, so we strongly recommend that you learn how we did.
A small section of brightly colored yarn or cloth makes for the perfect imitation fly. The piece of yarn should be around 1/2 inch so it can behave somewhat like a real fly in the way it passes through the air and lands on the ground.
A big piece of yarn will create too much air resistance and won’t properly cast like a fly pattern does. Yarn will prevent you from hooking yourself when the yarn slaps off the back of your head. And you’ll be able to see right exactly where your “fly” is landing while you practice.
3.) Make a target
Adding a target into the casting practice will bring another small goal to your casting practice. A hula-hoop makes for a particularly nice target. But any highly visible target will work so long as it doesn’t tangle with your leader, or blow away.
Don’t worry about landing your yarn-fly on the target initially. You’ll need to get a sense for how it feels to cast first. Casting a fly is rarely ever about just tossing the fly in any old random place. On the water you will find that you intend to drift your fly through a very particular area. Giving yourself a target to aim for will help you to learn how to do that task once you are on the water.
The Fly Casting Basics
There are different styles of casting, but regardless of the style the same goals need to be accomplished. The act of casting a fly to a particular destination is dependent on your ability to produce line speed with the proper form. If the line is not traveling quickly enough, then it will fall to the ground before it reaches the desired target. With that in mind, making your fly line travel through the air quickly is important.
But equally important is to maintain a form that will allow the fly to travel to that desired landing point without interference. The farther you try to cast your line, the harder it will become to maintain line speed and form. Long casts take practice, so you should begin by trying to cast shorter distances. New anglers will get a good sense for casting by initially casting around 30 feet.
What is Line Speed?
A somewhat similar parallel with fly casting would be the act of snapping a whip. The whip doesn’t crack if you simply swing it around in a open semi-circle. It cracks when it is imparted with energy that produces a great deal of speed.
I want you to imagine that act of cracking a whip in your mind. First, the persons arm moves forward and gathers great speed. Secondly, the person brings their arm to an abrupt stop, which sends the whip hurtling forward with great speed. Without that very deliberate and abrupt stop, the whip would receive very little energy and would not travel with any speed.
That is not the case in this example. In this case, the whip unrolls rapidly due to the energy that was imparted into he whip by the abrupt stop. The stop propels the whip forward, rolls out toward the tip, and ends with a loud snap.
The Importance of the Stop
The two primary parts of our previous example are the persons arm, and the whip. We are simply going to replace those two parts with a fly rod and fly line.
The fly rod will then be moved forward with great speed and brought to an abrupt stop. The abrupt stop then imparts a great deal of energy into the fly line, which continues forward, unrolls and delivers the fly to wherever the angler directed the cast.
This analogy clearly emphasizes the importance of producing line speed by making the fly rod abruptly stop. But this example doesn’t really explain how to cast. There is a particular form that produces the needed line speed while also avoiding bad habits that cause a variety of issues. It goes without saying that we practice our cast to develop correct muscle memory, as opposed to incorrect muscle memory.
How to Grip Your Fly Rod
There are different styles of gripping the fly rod, just as there are different styles of casting. Most anglers use the thumb-on-top style. We aren’t going to make a big debate about how you prefer to hold the fly rod. The goal doesn’t change regardless of your grip preference.
Use a grip that is comfortable for you and that helps you minimize wrist movement. Imagine your forearm as an extension of the rod and try to keep your wrist fairly rigid. There will likely be some slight movement of your wrist, but you want to keep it minimal. Instead, try to cast by rotating your casting shoulder and upper body.
Flipping your wrist back and forth makes the rod sweep like a windshield wiper blade. Going back to our whip analogy, you cannot generate line speed if you swing the rod in an open semi-circle.
Be careful not to over-grip the rod as to avoid fatigue. Obviously you don’t want to drop the fly rod. But if your cast is producing fatigue in your hand then you might be over doing it. Fly casting shouldn’t be debilitating.
The Casting Stroke
If you have watched the movie A River Runs Through It, then you may have noticed the Father’s casting methods. He instructed his boys to fly cast by passing the rod back and forth between the clock positions 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock. To get started, the basic 0verhead cast will be somewhere around 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock. That method should give you a decent rough idea of how to begin a basic cast, but it will stretch a bit. Shorter casts require a slightly shorter stroke, and longer casts will require a longer stroke.
In combination with that basic form the angler must wait until the fly line full extends before starting the forward cast or back cast. Both the forward cast and back cast require the same amount of time for the fly line to fully extend. Think about the swings on a swing set. They will essentially be mirror images of each other.
A very common mistake beginners make is not allowing enough time for the back cast to unroll. The forward cast provides visual cues as to when the line is fully extended. But the error occurs because the back cast is often out of sight. This frequently leads to new anglers initiating the forward cast before the back cast has extended. This error will eventually cause the fly to snap off the end of the leader as a consequence. The result is a tell tale cracking sound as the leader cracks like a whip.
The solution to this problem is to turn your head and watch your back cast unroll before you start the forward cast. Watching your back cast isn’t a rookie move by the way. Seasoned fly anglers and casting instructors routinely watch their back cast to see how things are going.
To get a visual sense for what you will be going for, closely watch the video below before you start your practice session:
Now that you understand some of those rough ideas we can get started with some practice. A windless day would be the ideal learning environment. But at some point you’ll need to learn how to deal with wind as well. We want to set up our target on the grassy area we chose for our casting practice. Be sure to choose grass and not dirt or pavement. Any abrasive surfaces will destroy your fly line, so grass is the answer.
- Tie the brightly colored yarn or cloth on your leader.
- Measure out 30 feet of fly line (You can mark this spot with a marker for future reference.)
- Set up your target with a generous stretch of casting space behind you.
- lay out the fly line in a relatively straight line that extends in front of you and ends near your casting target.
Step One: Remove Slack
Slack in your line isn’t your friend. You want to keep your rod tip low, and strip back some line to remove slack. Beginning your cast with a bunch of slack in your line isn’t really beginning your cast at all. If you start with slack then the first part of your cast will be removing the slack because the fly will not move. So you’ve really only started your cast with a raised rod tip. Essentially you’ve removed part of the casting stroke which is asking for problems before you’ve even started. When you raise the rod to cast you want to see the fly move. Not just the line.
Step Two: Begin Your Stroke
This is where you will begin the stroke by raising your rod. You want to be intentional, but avoid raising your rod too aggressively. Remember, you don’t want that windshield wiper effect. Overly aggressive back casting will cause issues. By trying to put too much force into your back stroke you are very likely to inadvertently involve your wrist. You want to minimize wrist movement by picturing our forearm as an extension of the fly rod. Otherwise you can send your back cast well past 10 o’clock. You want your casting stroke to progressively accelerate all the way back to 10 o’clock. Watch through the practice video above if you are wondering what that progressive acceleration looks like.
Step Three: Accelerate Through 12 o’clock
Along with progressive acceleration as your stroke passes toward 10 o’clock you also want your casting hand to travel in a straight line. A big benefit of using the thumb-on-top grip is that you can picture the tip of your thumb running along that straight line. Casting instructors will often instruct students to picture that line in their mind’s eye. With the non-casting hand, the student can hold their fly rod along that same line where they imagined it. The student then places the tip of the casting thumb on the rod and mimics the casting stroke. As the tip of the thumb passes forward and back the thumb never breaks contact with the rod. It’s a wax-on/wax-off kind of exercise. And for those who’ve missed the Karate Kid reference, it builds correct muscle memory.
Step Four: Abrupt Stop & Wait
At his point you should have progressively accelerated through your back cast while keeping your wrist movement minimal, and your casting thumb tracking a straight line. Now comes a very abrupt stop at the 10 o’clock position and a pause . We strongly suggest you turn your head during the pause and watch the back cast roll out to its full extension. Pay particular attention to how your fly rod feels when the line fully extends. You should feel a distinct tug on the fly rod. This is the initial loading of the rod as well as your cue to begin your forward cast. Eventually you will not need to look at the back cast because you will develop muscle memory to feel this sensation and reaction appropriately. The image to the right was captured at this exact moment. If you look at the image closely you will notice a very slight rearward bend in the fly rod because the full extension of the back cast is slightly loading the fly rod. Initially it will be very helpful if you still turn and look for full extension of the fly line.
The forward cast is a mirror image of the back cast. Again, you want to be intentional but avoid forcing the rod tip forward aggressively. Steady and progressive acceleration toward 2 o’clock is the goal. As the rod moves forward remember to keep your wrist rigid. Imagine the the tip of your casting thumb following that straight line just as you did on the rearward stroke. Avoid too much force during the forward stroke so you don’t swing your wrist.
Over-powering your cast can cause tangles like wind knots that will occur mid-air. For new fly anglers, most often over-powering the cast comes from trying to cast longer distances that are well beyond their ability. Long distance casting is a difficult task to perform with consistency even for very seasoned anglers. Attempting long casts when you are only beginning can also establish very bad habits in your muscle memory. If you are becoming bored with short range casting we would recommend working on more accurate casting rather than longer casting.
Keep in mind that you will be presenting you fly to the fish as you continue the forward cast. Small insects do no usually slap onto the surface of the water, they will land gently. If you notice your fly is slapping on the surface of the grass you may need too keep your rod tip a bit higher. Continue to focus on smooth acceleration and tracking your thumb along a straight line. Don’t be afraid to make slight adjustments if you notice errors.
You can also take a short video of yourself practicing your casting stroke. In fact, a video can be very helpful to critique small errors that you are very unlikely to notice while casting. A video also helps you to better diagnose any needed changes that you might make while practicing your casting stroke. Instead of guessing and possibly making unnecessary changes, you can make changes based on what you see happening in your stroke. While you might only be practice casting over grass, the goal is to translate what you have learned to the water and hopefully fool some fish.
At this point you have progressively accelerated the fly rod through your cast to approximately the 2 o’clock position. Just as you did on the back cast, it is essential that you also bring the fly rod to an abrupt stop on the forward cast. This is a crucial element of your cast and cannot be over-emphasized. During the forward cast the abrupt stop is going to be a deciding factor in how your fly is presented to the fish.
Look at the example image of the forward cast. Though this cast may very well get the job done, there are a few possible improvements that stand out.
Look at the distance between the tip of the fly rod and the upper loop of the fly line. The loop from top to bottom measures approximately 3 feet, which is by no means terrible. But it does leave room for improvement. The larger this loop is the more prone it will be to losing forward momentum as the fly line advances forward. For shorter casts you won’t notice an error like this. But as you begin to learn longer casts these large open loops will cripple your cast, and limit your distance. The solution isn’t to cast harder or more aggressively to force the line forward.
Look at the image again and notice how low the tip of the rod is. There are a few things to take away from this. One being that the rod is a fair amount below the 2 o’clock position. If this was a longer cast that might not present a tremendous issue. The second point is that shorter casts require a shorter stroke. So its the combination of a shorter cast with a low rod tip that opens the loop. Simply stopping the tip of the rod a slight bit higher will go a long way to clean up this forward cast.
Just as you did with the back cast, you have abruptly stopped and paused during the forward cast. As you watch your forward cast roll out to its full extension there are some important particulars of your cast to make note of.
Most new fly anglers will struggle with the timing of their back cast more than the forward cast. For the sake of building your sense of timing, watch how long it takes for your forward cast to roll out. The timing of the forward cast provides you with very valuable information. Remember that the forward and back cast are essentially mirror images of each other. With that being the case, you can copy and paste the pause from your forward cast into your back cast. You will quickly notice that timing varies depending how far you are casting, so pay attention to those changes. Longer casts will require a longer pause to allow the loop to unroll to full extension.
Another question to ask yourself is, “does my cast end at a good height?” You will find that there is no standard height that your cast should be. Depending on the circumstances, you might want to keep your cast fairly low. Your leader is very lightweight and any breeze will blow a small dry fly off target. A high cast might have your fly drifting 6-8 feet off target before it lands on the surface of the water. But if you allow your cast to get too low you run the risk of pounding the fly onto the surface of the water as the leader unrolls. If you are fishing over selective fish that are easily spooked the fish are unlikely to rise with that sort of error, and might disappear from sight entirely. This is another element of fly casting that you will need to develop a sense for.
The last point you should make note of is how the rod feels as the forward cast comes to full extension. Remember that the sensation of the rod slightly loading will feel like a minor tug or heaviness. This is the same sensation you were looking to hone in on during the back cast. During the back cast that tug, or heaviness was the cue to begin your forward cast. Now that we have completed the forward cast the full extension of the line provides obvious visual cues that you should again initiate the back cast. But developing a sense for the fly rod loading will go a long way toward reducing timing problems with your back cast as well.