Some Advanced Casts for the Driftless Area (and elsewhere)

There is nothing "sexier" in the fishing world than fly casting. There is a reason that A River Runs Through It centered around fly fishing and not noodling, trolling, or bass fishing. And Paul Maclean shadow casted with a dry fly - Bunyan Bug, stone fly #2 - and was not Euronymphing, center pinning, or water loading musky streamers. Let's face it, what makes fly fishing, fly fishing, is that a nearly weightless fly is being cast by a weighted line. Fly fishing is largely about casting. And casting effectively is important.

A River Runs Through it cover
The poster for A River Runs Through It with Paul Maclean - Brad Pitt or maybe more accurately, Jason Borger - shadow casting.

I fairly often hear anglers say that you do not have to be a great caster to be successful. And, yes, it is true but there is no question that becoming a more proficient caster will make you a better fly angler. I mean, unless you are "Euronymphing" or one of those other methods that are marginally fly casting. But it is often an excuse, an explanation, for not being a proficient caster. Being an effective angler can often be quite different from being a great caster. I am sure some great competition casters are not great anglers. It might be a bit like the long drive contestants not being great golfers - but they sure can hit the ball a long way with a driver off a tee. We should all thrive to be better, more proficient casters.

Small, Drittless stream
It doesn't take a great caster to hit a three foot wide stream - or does it?

I am not a great fly caster. I think I am being honest, not overly humble. I know many anglers that are much better casters, can cast further and faster than I do. What I am pretty good at is getting in an effective position to cast and making the casts that catch fish.

A relatively large Driftless stream
Even on a relatively large Driftless stream - this one is about 30 feet wide - most of your casts should be 20 to 30 feet. Longer casts too often hit other current seams which cause issues with the drift.

I suppose it depends upon how one defines what being a great caster means. For the Driftless, a great caster is the one that effectively makes casts that catch fish. Myself and others probably more commonly think of great casters as those that are able to bang out 60, 80, 100 foot casts with only a backcast or two and do it with great accuracy. We typically associate great casting with saltwater fishing but great casters in other situations are those that can make a variety of different casts to solve problems that streams throw at them.

Typical Driftless stream with many difficult currents.
A rather typical Driftless situation - there are a number of small current seams and some slow water above a riffle - that riffle is just waiting to drag your fly.

You do not have to be a great distance caster to be a very effective angler, particularly here in the Driftless. But what you do have to be able to do is make short, accurate casts that read the water so that you can use current seams to your advantage. I see many anglers - myself included at times - making casts that are too long and difficult to control. Shorter casts allow you to manage your line better. But those short casts need to be accurate and you need to put your line on the water so you can minimize drag.

A number of years ago I came across a video, Casts that Catch Fish, filmed in New Zealand that really put it all together. I was doing nearly all these things but maybe did not know exactly the how's and why's behind what I was doing. There is no fishing in this video - the only fish is in the outtakes. But it is the perfect video for the Drifltess angler - and certainly for many other places.


To begin, they lay out Bill Gammel's 5 essentials:

  1. Eliminate slack line

  2. Timing

  3. Vary the casting arc

  4. Power application

  5. Straight line path of the rod tip

Slack is evil! This is a classic beginners mistake that takes the power out of the backcast which effects the rest of the cast. If your backcast is a mess, your forward cast is almost certain to be a mess too. This is one I learned early on from, I believe, a Mel Krieger video (link to YouTube video).

Pause! And be sure you can feel your rod loading. "Long line, long pause, short line, short pause" is great advice. A loaded rod is a powerful rod - let the rod do the work! I see too many anglers doing what I call a "continuous motion cast" - there need to be stops and pauses on the forward and back casts or you will never build energy in your cast.

Again, a simple saying helps explain the variable casting stroke "short line, short stroke; long line, long stroke". And then put that together with the pause from tip two. For your standard cast of 20 to 40 feet, your stroke does not have to be very long at all. My casting stroke is a few inches for those casts - accelerate to a stop and let the rod do the work.

Start slow, finish fast - and do it smoothly. He mentions most casters put too much power into their casts - I know I am often guilty of this. Timing is generally more important than power. Maxine McCormick, whom the New York Times called "the Mozart of fly casting" when she was 14 (!), is now 18 years old and just won another fly casting world championship, including the first ever perfect score for accuracy. Timing not muscle!

Lastly, keep that rod tip in a straight line. I find that I this is something I struggle with at times - particularly when I am putting too much power into a cast. But knowing what you are doing wrong allows you to be able to fix your cast.


These five essentials become the foundation for the more complex casts I will talk about below. Carl McNeil ends the essentials by saying we are going to break them which is only partially true. But before we get there, the roll cast is the one cast every trout angler needs to have down. Too many anglers pass up a lot of water and fishes because they are unable or unwilling to cast in tight cover. Just the other day, I caught my biggest fish of the day on a bow and arrow cast which was the only way to get a fly into that spot.

The roll cast is maybe the most important cast you can learn - and there are a ton of applications of this cast. The two parts are the set up and line positioning and the second is the loading and delivery. Spey casts are essentially fancy roll casts and the D-loop, water surface tension, and the rod do all the work.

Roll casting water.
Fishy places like this are why you need an effective roll cast.

I am rather happy that many anglers do not have an effective roll cast or are not confident in using it. There are a number of public stream reaches I know are going to be open, even on the busiest of weekends, because they are "roll casting waters" that almost all anglers avoid.

The line is going to follow the path of the rod tip and once the stop has been made at the end of the forward cast, the line's direction is set. To me, this is the cast that most quickly moves Driftless casters from decent anglers to really good anglers. It is essentially an aerial mend. I am fairly rarely mending on the water on Driftless streams, more often than not, I have done my mend before the fly hit the water. On Driftless streams, my aerial mends are not as pronounced as in the video.

I am fairly routinely using curve casts on Drifltess streams, mostly through overpowering my casts. The overpowered curve is easier, I think. I use these a lot when I want just a bit more - but not too much more - slack in the line on the water. And I use it when I want the fly to be presented before the line and leader. As he mentions, a cross-shoulder overpowered cast is probably easier than underpowering a dominant shoulder cast.

This is a more minor cast but I use it at times, particularly if there is a reason I can not get into a better position to make a simpler cast that intersects fewer current seams. Again, in the shorter casts I am making on the smaller streams of the Driftless, my wiggles are less pronounced.

If you fish nymphs often, this is a great cast to learn. I try to use it to get streamers down quickly next to rocks and logs.

This is not a cast that I use very often but it does come in handy when trying to fish an eddy. Those that fish downstream more often have probably figured this one out and use it more than I do.

Wolf River, WI
Even on larger rivers - this is the Wolf River - accuracy generally trumps distance. A 50 or 60 foot cast across all those little currents will be a disaster. Get in position and make a short, accurate cast instead.

The last cast I want to talk about is the bucket mend and a much more subtle version of it.

As with most of the casts, they use the idea that once the stop is made on the forward cast, the direction that the fly is going to travel has been set. However, you can do things to mend the line in the air and put slack into the line (which also shortens the cast). I fairly regularly make a short pull on the line after the stop to put just a bit of slack in the line to help me get a little longer drag free drift. It is essentially another way to make a small wiggle cast. Playing with the timing will alter where the slack is along the line. The longer and faster you make that pull, the more slack you put in the line. The "bucket mend" is a the more exaggerated version in the video above. I generally do this at a much smaller scale for our streams which occur on a much smaller scale.


Wrap-Up


Casting is the essence of fly fishing and you should work on and think about your casts if you want to be a better angler. These are a number of casts that advanced anglers have or should mastered to help them catch more trout. As will all fly casts, the foundations need to be in place before the more specialized casts will work for you.


Casts that Catch Fish is a video I highly recommend (look around the internet for prices much lower than what Amazon is offering it for...). I know it has made me think more purposefully about my casting and how to solve tough on-stream challenges. And that has made me a better angler.


For more clips: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLAFFE1BA2E6932540

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