Casting with a fly rod is an art form that can be both challenging and incredibly rewarding. It takes patience and practice to achieve mastery, but learning doesn’t have to be difficult. With an understanding of a few basic principles and some open space to practice, even a beginner can quickly become a confident caster.
When casting with a regular fishing outfit, the angler typically uses a weighted lure or sinker tied to the end of a thin, supple fishing line, which is wound tightly around the reel. During a cast the weight of the lure or sinker, combined with the forward momentum generated by the cast, pulls the line off the reel. Fly fishing is different because instead of weighted lures and heavy sinkers, fly fishers use lightweight flies made of fur and feathers. Imagine how far you could throw a stone versus a feather and you’ll have a good idea of the challenge presented here.
This is where fly line comes into play. Unlike regular fishing line, which is thin and level, fly fishing line is made with a thick PVC or urethane coating that adds heft. Energy from the casting stroke travels through the line almost like a whip, carrying the fly with it. In essence, the line is what casts the fly.
During any casting stroke, the fly line trails behind the rod tip. When the casting stroke is stopped, the energy is transferred into the line, which continues to unroll in the direction the rod tip was traveling, forming what is called a loop.
There are a few things to look for when you are practicing that will tell you if you are casting correctly:
1. The top of the loop should unroll parallel to the bottom. The entire cast should unroll parallel to the ground.
2. The loop should be narrow, with approximately two or three feet between the top and bottom.
3. The loop should unroll smooth and straight from beginning to end, with the entire line and leader stretching out before falling to the water.
Loading the Rod
In order to create a cast, the fly rod must be “loaded” with energy, which is then released into the line. The concept is similar to shooting a bow and arrow: the bow must be bent, which stores energy that’s released when the bow unbends suddenly. The same is true for casting with a fly rod, but the energy load is accomplished by using a smooth accelerating motion in the casting stroke.
The energy stored in a loaded fly rod must be transferred smoothly into the line to create a good cast. Every casting stroke involves a smooth, building acceleration followed by an abrupt, deliberate stop. The abrupt stop allows the rod to return to a straight position, transferring the stored energy into the line and sending it out towards the target.
The Overhead Cast
The overhead cast is the technique you will use 90 percent of the time while fishing, and it is the base upon which almost every other casting variation is built. To practice this cast you will need a complete fly fishing outfit and a large open space such as a field or parking lot.
The cast can be divided into two separate parts: the back cast and the forward cast. The back cast is necessary to load the rod with energy to then make the forward cast.
The Back Cast
1. Stand with your shoulders square and grip the rod with four fingers wrapped around the handle, thumb on top and reel facing down. Pull about 25 feet of line off the reel and feed it out the tip of the rod. Lay the line completely straight and stand square to your target with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
2. Starting with the rod tip low, accelerate the rod up and backwards in one smooth motion.
3. Stop your acceleration just when the rod passes a vertical position. Your stop should be abrupt and deliberate. Pause for a moment as the line unrolls and rises into the air behind you. When the line is extended completely, the back cast is complete.
The Forward Cast
4. With the line extended in the air behind you, bring the rod forward in a smooth, accelerating stroke.
5. Stop with the rod tip high to allow the energy to transfer into the line and send it forward.
6. As the line unrolls, lower the rod tip. The line should roll out straight all the way to the fly.
- Study the diagrams and pay attention to where your rod tip is pointing during the cast. Both “stops” should be made with the rod tip high, just past a vertical position.
- Keep your wrist straight and your elbow close to your body, using your bicep and shoulder to generate the cast. Using your wrist is tiring and adds unnecessary motion to the cast.
- Make sure to pause during the back cast long enough for the line to unroll completely behind you. It is okay to look backwards during practice and watch the line extend.
- Begin and end the cast with the rod tip low and the line straight. When practicing, it is best to complete one cast before attempting another. Try not to rush it!
The overhead cast is great in many situations, but it can be limiting if you want to make a cast with little or no room behind you. For these situations anglers use a specialized technique called the roll cast.
The Roll Cast
During the roll cast there is no aerial back cast. Instead, the line is drawn slowly backwards and hung in a slack loop (called the D-loop) off the tip of the rod, which creates the weight needed to load the rod for the forward cast. Done correctly it will appear as if the line is unrolling over the water’s surface, which is where the name comes from.
1. To practice this cast it is important to have water, as the line must be anchored in the water to form a D-loop and unroll properly. Start with about 25 feet of line laid out in front of you and the rod tip pointed at the water’s surface.
2. Slowly and smoothly draw the rod up and back with just enough force to drag the end of the line and leader across the surface of the water. Stop your stroke with the rod tip high, just past vertical. At this point the line should be slack and drooping behind the rod tip, creating a D-loop.
3. With the D-loop formed, accelerate the rod forward. End the acceleration with an abrupt stop and the cast should unroll smoothly over the surface of the water.
- Draw the line back slowly, taking care not to pull it out of the water. The friction of the line on the surface of the water allows the rod to load in the forward cast.
- Pay attention to your D-loop. Look over your shoulder during the backward portion of the cast and make sure you are creating a slack loop. The more “D” you have, the better your cast will be.
At first, the steps to these casting techniques may seem disjointed. Building the muscle memory to bring everything together takes time. Go through the steps slowly and focus on using good technique. With a bit of dedication and practice you will be able to perform both of these casts automatically while fishing and you will have a solid base from which you can build and learn all kinds of fun and useful casts.