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Fly Casting 101 (or some other title for learning to fly cast)

This post will come out much later than the reason I thought to write it, but that is the case with most of these posts as editing is a huge part of the writing process. I "guided", which I really wish they would change that to "mentored" or some other word that does not connotate us getting paid for our volunteering, for the women's on the water skills/intermediate clinics held in the Avalanche area. I have volunteered to mentor at the women's intermediate clinics for a number of years (have I mentioned that I do NOT guide?) now and it is one of the best things I do all year.

It is a post I did not think I would ever write for a number of reasons. "How to" posts are not really "my thing" and while I am a reasonably good caster, many are much better casters. I don't know how qualified I am to write this post. I don't teach casting, I am not a certified casting instructor, and it is something I have never been interested in doing as I have zero interest in guiding. I did write a post about more advanced casts for the Driftless Area - that is a bit more inline with what I generally try to accomplish with this blog.

Mike Kuhr photo of my cast
Me casting a loop (Mike Kuhr photo)

It seems that every year at the women's clinic is a reminder of just fly casting is the simplest, yet most difficult task. There are so many moving parts in a fly cast. Mess one of them up and you have problems with your cast. Get it all (somewhat) right and it is one of the most simple and beautiful of things.

While you do not need to be a great caster to be a successful fly angler, you need to be fairly proficient. I often hear anglers say how you don't have to be a good caster to catch fish - and it is generally true - but at the same time, the cast is the heart of fly fishing. And while you generally don't have to be a very good caster to catch fish, there are many times where being a better caster would come in quite handy and be less limiting to your fishing success. Better fly casting is not just about distance but also accuracy, the ability to cast in windy conditions, and making those advanced casts that catch trout.

AI generated image of a woman casting a fly rod
An AI generated image of a woman casting a fly rod on a Driftless Area stream. Yes, it is not very good...

Before getting into the specifics of the cast, let's start with what a cast should look like. Fly casting uses a long rod (typically) to cast a (relatively) heavy line and an almost weightless fly (usually). It is basic physics and it is not about muscle but timing and momentum. Most casters get to where they cast by feel because it is all about loading the rod and making the rod do most of the work. For your standard 20 to 40 foot cast, there should be very little effort required to make a good cast.

Generally we break the cast into the backcast and the forward cast. While the forward cast is the one that gets the fly on the water, the backcast is just as important. On the backcast, I am feeling for the rod to load (begin to bend), telling me I can use the energy in the rod to make the forward cast. As I make both casts, I want a tight loop that will cut through the air and I don't want it to be too tight or I risk catching my fly line or rod with the back or forward casts. I also don't want that loop to be too large or I am not efficiently using the rod to transfer energy to the fly line. Lastly, I want my cast to fall gently on the water with the fly, leader, and line all hitting the water at nearly the same time (most of the time...).

This is my attempt at a beginners level introduction to the basic fly cast based on general principles that most every casting instruction uses to teach the fly cast. There are a ton of fly casting "how to" videos out there, from a few minutes in length to much more comprehensive and longer videos. I'll use a number of shorter videos here to illustrate parts of the basic cast. I am a fan of the Bill Gammels' approach to fly casting and will use those videos when possible. There are many different approaches to teaching the fly cast but they all share some basic principles.

Slack is evil - the first key to a good fly cast is that you remove the slack before you go to backcast. If you try to backcast when there is a lot of slack in the line, you have to move all that slack line before the line starts moving in the right direction. This is a waste of energy that makes casting much more effort. Taking up that slack makes your backcast more efficient which improves the rest of our cast. If you don't eliminate slack, you will have issues until you "catch up" to your fly line which is much more work than a cast needs to be.

It's about timing, not muscle. My favorite story to tell the women I "guide" at the women's clinic is about Maxine McCormick, one of the best fly casters in the world that has been one of the best fly casters in the world since she was about 12 years old. Casting is not about muscle, in fact, to make a 30 foot cast - a very typical Driftless fly cast - my rod moves maybe 4 inches. Over-muscling the cast tends to lead to problems.

Accelerate to a stop. Both the forward and the back casts are about the stop - this is what give the rod and thus the line momentum. Failing to make a stop is probably the casting error I talk about more than any other at the clinics. There are any number of ways people talk about this error - my "go to" is flicking paint off a paint brush. Paint will fly off the brush if I accelerate to a stop and will lazily come off the brush if I fail to make that stop. In this analogy, your line is the paint and your rod is the brush.

Keep the rod tip in a straight line. I see a lot of casts where the rod tip's path looks like a windshield wiper's path. This sucks the energy and momentum out of a cast. That acceleration to a stop needs to be in a straight line. Again, we go back to that paint brush analogy and can think about how a straight line movement is so much more efficient and effective in creating energy and momentum.

Let the rod do the work. Fly rods tend to be long - 9 feet is probably the most common length of fly rods. This is because a longer rod more efficiently transfers energy to the fly line. One of the most common beginner mistakes is using much more movement and effort than is required. Eventually an angler should start to recognize when a cast feels right and when it does not. On my backcast, I am waiting for the pressure against my thumb to tell me that the rod is loaded and on the forward cast, after I stop, I feel the cork move away from my thumb, telling me that that energy has been transferred to the line.

Fish live in the water, not the air. Many people backcast WAY too much. The backcast serves a couple of purposes and is an important part of the cast. One purpose of the backcast is to dry a fly which I only want to happen when fishing a dry fly. I will rarely false cast if I am fishing a nymph or a streamer. The main purpose of the backcast is to load the rod for the forward cast. After watching inexperienced anglers fish, I realized that one of the reason more experienced anglers catch more fish is that their fly is in or on the water for a much larger portion of the time they spend fishing. There is rarely much reason for more than two backcasts if you are only casting 20 to 40 feet. More backcasting means more opportunities for things to go wrong, besides that, the fish are in the water, not the air.

That off-hand matters. There are two things I see inexperienced anglers do improperly with their off-hand. First is it should be an anchor, there is no need for it to be moving. Many beginners move it with their casting hand which is wasted movement that can create problems. My off-hand stays at my side and transfers the line to my casting hand as the cast is made. This is the second important role of the off-hand. You need to be ready once the fly hits the water which means being able to set the hook as soon as a fish hits. On the forward cast, transfer the line from your off-hand to your casting hand and your off-hand becomes the hand you strip the line with.

Learn a roll cast. I am quite fine with anglers not being able or willing to roll cast because it keeps people off water that has canopy coverage or steep banks which means I always know of places that are unlikely to see other anglers. The other important reason to learn a roll cast is that it is a useful transition to your basic fly cast. Hooked up on a rock? Roll cast it off and then go into your backcast. Have a little bit of slack you can't get out easily? A roll cast will take it out and get your line in the air so you can go into your cast. Have a fly down deep or are you fishing a sinking line that makes it hard to make an effective backcast? A roll cast will move the fly into a better place to make a backcast.

A roll cast eliminates your backcast. The two main components are establishing the D-loop which serves to load the rod - it takes the place of the backcast - and the stop on the forward roll cast. Having an effective roll cast will make you a better angler and allow you to access water others can't/won't fish. Some of my favorite fishing is in those places where you have to get a little creative to be able to present a fly to the fishes.

There are a lot of moving parts to your basic fly cast and they are all connected. You probably noticed in the descriptions above that they were dependent upon previous parts of the cast. First principles thinking is an approach to breaking down the cast which is the approach taken in the videos above.

I have no idea how many different ways there are to teach or learn fly casting but in essence, it is basic physics so all effective methods share similarities. They may change a thing or two, highlight different components, or call the parts of the cast by different terms but it is all about using the rod to transfer energy to the fly line. You may decide, like me, you like your thumb on top of the rod or like some friends, you may prefer your pointer finger on top. But essentially, all good fly casters do it by feel.

Lastly, while Allen Iverson may disagree, you need to practice. In developing any skill, you need to practice and get to the point where you are not consciously thinking about what you are doing but instead you are doing it by memory and feel. Keep a rod strung up and take it out for 10 to 15 minutes as often as you can. Put out something to aim at which not only helps you with your aim but it also works on your distance. Fly casting is what makes fly fishing unique and getting better at it should be every fly angler's goal.

There are literally thousands of videos, websites, and blogs that have information about fly casting. I used the Casts that Catch Fish approach because it is what I like best and what works for me. You may prefer a different approach so I list a number of links to YouTube playlists below.

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