It’s a word thrown around in fly fishing circles a lot — turnover. But the concept is commonly misunderstood. No matter what type of fly we’re casting, and no matter the type of leader, we need our rig to turn over. It’s the best way to accurately place the fly in the target water. But the deeper value of good turnover is more complex — it’s all about what happens further up the leader.
In short, turnover gives us freedom to choose what happens with the line that’s tethered to the fly. How does the tippet and leader land? With contact or with slack? And where does it land? In the seam and partnered with the fly, or in an adjacent current? By having mastery of turnover, we dictate the positioning of not just the fly, but the leader itself. And nothing could be more important.
Because the fly is tethered to the tippet, how the leader lays on — and lays in — the water affects everything about how the fly drifts next. Our flies have to follow the attached line. So we control leader positioning and the resulting fly direction with a good cast — one that turns over.
Turnover should happen in the air and not on the water. The casting loop unfolds above the river. It should not unroll on the surface.
There are two basic ways to practice fly casting — with weight and without. Although the casting stroke for each can be similar, the result of the line turning over is quite different. Regardless, turnover remains critically important for each.
Dry Fly Fishing
I taught myself to cast a dry fly by copying some guy’s casting motions from a VHS tape in the early nineties. The instructor talked a lot about turnover, and it made pretty good sense from the beginning. If I didn’t have enough power coming forward in the cast, the line collapsed on itself, landing in a pile and a squiggly line just beyond my rod tip. But when I got the timing right, feeling the flex of the backcast and then pushing forward, my yellow fly line launched to the target — what a feeling.
Those first few practices in the yard were performed without a fly attached to the leader. And I was simply trying to land my line and leader as straight as I could toward the target.
Once I was on the river, I quickly understood the inherent problems of a line and leader laying out straight on the water. With any current at all, there was instant drag.
Fortunately, I was directed to George Harvey’s book early on. And so, right from the beginning, I grasped the concept of using extra turnover-power to the dry fly — enough so that my Adams reached the end of the line, and the reserve power recoiled into the leader, causing waves in the line that dry fly anglers called s-curves. Years later, I would learn to use this to even greater effect by employing what I now call a Stop and Drop, so I had s-curves and drag free drifts for days. Well . . . a few extra feet, anyway.
When casting dry flies, turnover should happen in the air. The fly line often falls to the surface before the dry fly, because the unweighted fly has air resistance and the line falls faster. For the water and the angles we usually fish with dry flies, this is fine. But sometimes, in rolling or mixed currents, it’s important to force the line onto the water faster, then allow the turnover to unroll on the water. I call this the Crash Cast, and it’s one of the only times when turnover happens on the surface instead.
Like good dry fly fishing, excellent nymphing begins with turnover. And with just a little more juice pushed into that turnover, the result is a tuck cast.
When I mention the tuck cast to my nymphing students, they often argue that they’re already getting deep enough. If the fly is touching the riverbed, why would we need to employ a tuck cast?
My answer is to think of the tuck cast as more than a way to get the fly to depth quickly. Think of it as a way to more accurately control the positioning of the tippet and the leader. Because, just like the dry, the nymph or streamer must follow the tethered line, so nothing is more important than that line’s placement.
When casting weight, we have a tangible indicator of turnover — we can feel the weight of the fly reaching the end of the line. Even a small #16 beadhead nymph tugs at the leader, flexing the rod tip, which translates to our hands. More weight tugs more deliberately, and it’s easier to feel the result of a good tuck cast with a #14 beadhead or a #1 split shot.
Turnover happens when our casting loop unfolds in the air. The weight in the fly or split shot reaches the end of the line, and the excess energy must go somewhere. Momentum and gravity both take it downward. The fly hits first, then the tippet follows. And what happens with that tippet sets up the whole drift.
The tuck cast is most often thought to enter vertically, with variable degrees of acceleration. But the advanced angler uses a tuck to enter the fly at an angle that best sets up the drift. That might mean a little left or right, to accommodate water pushing around a midstream boulder. And it might mean feeding a touch more slack into the tippet, allowing the fly a more effective free fall before the drift.
With a good turnover and tuck, the angler gains control over the placement of the whole leader — not just the tippet. If the sighter and butt section is to remain off the water, it is still critical to keep the line angle to the rod tip leading in the same seam as the fly itself. Likewise, if the sighter is floated on longer casts, it’s the turnover and tuck cast that allows us to choose the angle and position of the sighter.
Finally, if a suspender is attached, the only way to reliably place the indy in the same seam as the fly is with good turnover. The fly lands first, and with enough momentum, the indy can be kicked into place, even at cross-stream angles — but only with good leader turnover.
The Future is Wide Open
Turnover. Nothing is more useful or critical to the casting stroke. Options for fly and leader placement are laid wide open and accessible with the flick of a wrist. Good turnover opens up a range of tactics to the skilled angler.
Fish hard, friends.
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