To me, fly casting has always been instinctual. Maybe not from the beginning, because I’m sure I struggled like everyone else when I first picked up the fly rod. But by now, I hardly remember those early errors and difficulties. Most everything I do with a line and the long stick seems like an ingrained, intuitive habit. And I never went through much of a thought process about fly casting. The line, leader and fly just kind of ended up where I wanted them to go. It wasn’t until I already had the casting skills that I actually went back and analyzed what was going on.
Teachers of such things like to tell students that they’re overthinking it. And new learners hate that phrase.
“I don’t have time to learn it through instinct, Dom.”
My client and friend, Carson, told me this on our first morning together, and it stuck with me. Carson is retired and is now following through with his bucket list. I warned him that the enjoyment of digging into fly fishing could easily overtake all the other desires on his list.
“So be it. That’s fine,” Carson said. “It’ll probably be cheaper, anyway.” Carson chuckled as he continued drawing lines in the air with the fly rod. “The point is, I want you to tell me exactly how to cast. And don’t take it easy on me.”
Carson stared back at me sternly.
For the record, everyone tells me to be hard on them, but only half of my guests actually want the necessary criticism. However, I quickly learned that Carson could handle whatever I threw his way.
“I might not be able to convert your instruction into results right away,” he said. “But at least I’ll learn enough to round off a big slice of the learning curve.”
That’s a great point.
So here’s a tip for beginners and experienced anglers alike. Because I’ve seen some of the most seasoned veterans with a fly rod miss this simple adjustment:
If you’re shooting line, shoot some of it on the back cast. And if you plan on aerial mends, a reach cast or a tuck cast, it’s often better not to shoot any line on the forward stroke.
Let’s talk about that . . .
What are you shooting for?
Most of us recover some slack with the line hand on each drift of the fly. If you are tight lining at very close range, you can do all the line retrieval with the rod tip alone. But on most casts, whether we’re fishing dries, streamers or nymphs, some line is recovered with our line hand. And to get the line back out for the next cast, we shoot it.
Minimal Effort | Maximum Return
This is the mantra of good fly casting.
Minimal effort means not working too hard. I often tell people that if you can hear the rod whipping through the air, you’re probably going way beyond ten and two-o-clock — so tighten up the stroke. By keeping the casting motion short and swift, we cast with minimal effort.
Maximum return means getting a lot of power out of that minimal effort — with short, crisp motions.
Good casting is efficient. And I’ll argue that ninety percent of casts need nothing more than a single backcast followed by the forward cast for delivery. A single, swift backcast gets the job done, unless you’re casting more than, let’s say, forty feet or you’re radically changing casting direction. Really, the elimination of all unnecessary false casts should be a persistent goal.
Now how does that relate to shooting line?
Do it on the Back Cast
Most anglers fire the line out only on their forward cast. But I suggest doing the opposite whenever possible.
By using both the back and forward cast for shooting line, you can accomplish twice as much. (It’s math, man.) And by adding in the backcast for shooting line, you have more chances to achieve the goal of a single backcast and single forward cast. Then, at short to moderate casting lengths (where most successful fishing happens anyway) whatever line you retrieve through the drift is easily fed back through the rod guides and into the air with minimal effort.
Once that seems comfortable, the next step is learning to shoot all of the recovered line into the backcast. Start the line pickup with speed, fire the rod tip back high and swift, and shoot the extra line backward. Then come forward with a solid stop (the power stroke) to cast the line.
Oftentimes, I let the extra line slide through my trigger finger as I pick up the rod for the backcast. Once it’s out, I lock down my trigger finger again and complete a swift, tight backcast and forward cast — no shooting necessary. ** Read that last tip again — It’s a tight liner’s cure-all. **
That’s what I told Carson on our first morning, and it changed everything for him.
Why does it make such a difference? Here’s the big payoff . . .
All the Possibilities
With a solid stop on the forward cast at ten-o-clock — after the power stroke and with no shooting of line — all of your options are open. That’s the key to good aerial mending and tuck casting.
The standard fly cast is fairly simple. And it’s often learned in the grass behind a local fly shop. Hell, that’s where I learned. (Thanks, Woody.) But it’s imperative to get off the grass and into the water. Grass doesn’t move like a river. And mixed currents quickly teach us there’s a lot more to fly casting than the basics learned on the grass. The river asks us to mend and change presentation angles, to cast under or around logs and trees, and to work extra s-curves into the tippet for a #20 Klinkhammer. All of that is easier to achieve by not shooting line on the forward cast — sometimes.
Most advanced casting motions (aerial mending, tuck casting, etc.) happen after the power stroke. But shooting line also happens after the power stroke. And shooting takes away some of the accuracy and effectiveness of the advanced motions we have available.
Let’s use tuck casting with nymphs as an example, because the motion for a good tuck is simple:
On the forward cast, stop at the power stroke, at ten-o-clock, and keep the rod tip there. Do not drop the rod. The line is propelled forward. The weight of the nymph reaches the end of the line, but there’s still energy in the fly and the line. That energy has to go somewhere, so the fly dives straight down into the water. That’s a good tuck cast.
But understand this . . .
By shooting line after the power stroke, much of the energy that could be directed to the tuck motion is now used up by shooting the line. That makes the tuck cast less forceful and less effective.
Basically, it’s hard to tuck when you shoot. Likewise, aerial mends and most other advanced casting strokes are also less effective when shooting line at the power stroke.
For the tuck, it’s best to choose one or the other. Shoot line, or choose a tuck cast. But don’t do both.
Back to the Backcast
And so we circle back to the beginning. For better casting, for more options after the power stroke, for more adjustments regarding where the line will end up, shoot most or all of the necessary line on the backcast. And if you’re really good, do it with no extra false casting.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N