Fly Casting — Acquire Your Target Before the Pickup

by | Oct 19, 2020 | 2 comments

Accuracy. It’s an elementary casting principle, but it’s the hardest thing to deliver. Wild trout are unforgiving. So the errant cast that lands ten inches to the right of a shade line passes without interest. As river anglers, our task is a complicated one, because we must be accurate, not only with the fly to the target, but also with the tippet. Wherever the leader lands, the fly follows. Accuracy is complex. So if you want things easy, find another sport.

There are, of course, countless skills needed for dropping your fly on a dime. Leader design, casting principles and the ability to read currents are all intricate topics requiring seasons of experimentation, error and adaptation to understand.

As a guide who teaches these casting principles and breaks down river currents with my guests, I’ve learned that it takes time to process these specific skills. But I’ve also found one tip that improves accuracy immediately. And it’s a quick, easy adjustment.

— — — — — —

Mark waded a few feet upstream as he performed a perfect backhand tuck cast with a single #16 France Fly. The elegance of his tight line style was something we were both proud of. Because just a few hours earlier, Mark’s nymphing delivery was a mess.

He’d warned me on the walk in:

“Dom, I’m here for you to break my bad habits.” Mark said. “I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, but I can tell you — nothing feels right. I know that casting these long leaders is supposed to be intuitive, but it isn’t for me.”

“Oh, I’ll break you down, Mark,” I chuckled.

I climbed over the exposed hemlock roots of a washed out bank and slid down into the river. Turning to see Mark follow my entry, I could see he was pleased with my response.

“That’s good,” Mark assured me. “You can’t hurt my feelings. Just tell me why my casting sucks and how to fix it.”

So, about an hour after lunch, we’d nearly fixed it. Mark had tightened up his casting V, doubled his speed between two points and added crisp stops at each end. He’d ditched all semblance of lobbing, widened the oval a touch and learned to finish his cast perpendicular to the water. Every bit of it — every adjustment — added to his overall accuracy. And about seven out of ten times, Mark landed the fly within a foot of his target. While the early morning hours had left Mark telling me that he couldn’t find the sighter or see the entry of the fly, he now saw both — because the fly landed where he was looking.

But still, something was missing. I assumed it was time. Surely, I thought, all Mark needed was the repetition of ten thousand hours to be an expert. Right, Malcolm?

Contentedly, I leaned on a broken oak stump and spit sunflower seeds. And while watching Mark, I scanned the water. Then my friend asked something I’d never thought of.

“So, Dom, when should I look at the target?” Mark said.

He stopped casting and turned toward me.

I tilted my head a bit and paused to think about what he was asking..

“You mean . . .” I started. “When should you look for the next place to cast?”

“Yeah.” Mark nodded. “Well, not the next piece of water. But if I want to cast right back to the same place, in the same seam, when do I look away from my fly and back upstream?”

“I don’t know,” I told Mark flatly. “I never thought about that.”

I stood there dumbfounded for a moment, staring at the water upstream.

“How do you  do it?” I asked him.

Mark began casting again, and I immediately understood. At the end of every drift, my friend watched the fly lift out of the water before looking upstream to acquire his next target. Sometimes Mark even followed the fly toward the backcast. And most times he didn’t find the target with his eyes until the start of his forward cast.

“Mark,” I said about a dozen repetitions later, “that was a great question. And I guarantee this answer is going to radically improve your accuracy.”

— — — — — —

Now or Never

The backcast sets up the forward cast. This is one of the most unique things about fly casting, compared to other forms of fishing. Backcast and forward cast: they’re two sides of a coin — the yin and yang. The weight of a fly line permits a multitude of adjustments through the forward cast. With enough momentum, many alterations and mends can be thrown to land the fly and leader just right, but it all begins at the back cast. And on a tight line, long leader system, the backcast angle is even more critical.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing the Mono Rig — It’s Casting, Not Lobbing

As we look at the next target, a thousand mental calculations are performed, informing our hands and arms about how much speed and pressure to apply to the cork. How should the rod tilt? Where does the rod stop? It’s all calculated ahead of time. And just like a pitcher sees the catcher’s mitt before his windup, we must see the target before the backcast.

If you find the target late, there’s no time for these mental calculations. That’s like asking a pitcher to close his eyes until the ball is almost released from his fingers. It’s too late to calculate.

When, then?

The best anglers pick up the fly, fling it into a backcast and deliver the forward cast, with no false casting necessary — just out and back in the water in a single second. Most often, that’s the goal. So our next target should be acquired just before the pickup.

Right before the start of the backcast (as in, fractions of a second), find your next mark. Focus on it. Then fire the backcast and feel it flex. Finally, deliver your forward cast with precision.

READ: Troutbitten | Hook Set at the End of Every Drift

All Good

One small but powerful casting tip solidified Mark’s accuracy that day on the water. Almost immediately, he gained a new level of comfort, with excellent control over where his fly would land.

And on so many days since, I’ve watched my guests and offered the same advice. Because about half of the anglers that I see don’t find the target early enough. They watch the fly too long as it exits the water. And without the next target firmly in their vision, their brain can’t start making the right calculations for the backcast or the forward cast.

Until you are fixed on the target ahead, you’re just going through the motions.

Acquire your target before the pickup.

Fish hard, friends.

READ: Troutbitten | Category | Fly Casting

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky


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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. A good tip about picking the target before commencing the cast. One of the rewards of guiding are the questions asked by clients. Very often they refer to things we take for granted, or haven’t thought through. I sometimes give a stock answer that on reflection realize is something I have taken for granted for years without thinking it through. For example, this year a client asked “Why do we cast upstream?” I should explain that here in the UK we normally cast dry flies and nymphs upstream. It’s rare to see anglers cast wet flies across and down. But I appreciate that American anglers swing wet flies downstream. Our upstream casting probably has roots in accepted chalkstream tactics championed by Halford, and, I suspect, adopted by Skues to gain acceptance on chalkstreams against the charge of ‘raking’ the water with a wet fly.

    • Hi Paul,

      Good point. Teaching certainly helps us all analyze and learn more about what we’re doing in the first place.

      And upstream angling is a necessity around here. I routinely meet anglers who struggle to catch trout because they can’t get the necessary drag free drift. In some areas, like yours, I suspect, trout are unforgiving. But selective trout are also predictable. And if we get that true drag free look, we are on to something.



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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