False Casting is a Waste of Time

by | Oct 31, 2021 | 15 comments

There are no flying fish in Montana, not in Pennsylvania, and not anywhere. Norman Maclean’s line in A River Runs Through It sums this up:

One reason Paul caught more fish than anyone else was that he had his flies in the water more than anyone else. “Brother,” he would say, “there are no flying fish in Montana. Out here, you can’t catch fish with your flies in the air.”

And yet, anglers everywhere looooove the false cast. I daresay most fly fishers spend more time setting up their fly for the next drift than actually drifting it — exactly Paul’s point.

The most effective anglers are the most efficient. So they spend double, triple or a lot more time with their fly fishing the water instead of casting in the air above it. Inevitably, these anglers catch more trout — a lot more trout.

To complicate this inefficiency, once their fly is on the water, most anglers continue drifting the fly long past the effective part of the drift (drag-free, for a dry fly or nymph). So the average fly fisher spends a fraction of his river time actually drifting flies to the fish. That’s a good break for the trout but bad for catching them.

Dries | Nymphs

Take out all unnecessary false casting. It matters little what style of fly fishing you choose. In every discipline, this tenet applies. The objective should be to pick up the line into the backcast and make a forward delivery. That’s right — zero false casting.

Watch the dry fly for any sign of drag. And once that drag sets in, pick up the line quickly, shoot any recovered line on the backcast and come forward with the next delivery.

Likewise, read the sighter or indicator to determine when the nymph begins dragging across seams or stops on the bottom. Set the hook into the backcast, feel the rod flex with the weight of the leader, flies or split shot, then fire forward and right back into the lane.

By fishing dead drifts like this, on a dry fly or a nymph, the flies are constantly fishing — not just in the water, but dead drifting. The pickup and backcast is super quick, and the fly is out of the water for perhaps a second before it’s back to the river and ready to fool a trout.

If you’re a details guy, put a stopwatch on this. Calculate actual river time vs air time, and you’ll see that for about ninety-five percent of the clock, the fly is in the river. Compare that to the average angler’s approach, with multiple false casts and long drifts that go well past the dead drift mark, and their effective river time is maybe twenty percent. No wonder they catch so few trout.

Photo by Bill Dell

Streamers | Wets

The same approach applies when the flies are not to be dead drifted but stripped or swung through the currents.

At the conclusion of the drift or swing, pick up the line into the backcast, and shoot forward to the next target.

A streamer angler laboring to push a large, heavy fly to the riverbank is one of the hardest things to watch. With false cast after false cast, he loses momentum and tries to recover with more effort, larger arm motions and body lean. The mistake here is often not in the timing or power of the cast, but in the inability to shoot longer lengths of line at once. Many anglers try shooting a bit at a time, letting more line out with each false cast. But that’s the worst way. Instead, learn all three ways to shoot line: on the pickup, on the backcast and on the forward cast. And if the rig has any weight at the terminal end, e.g., a streamer, then use that weight to help load the rod and sail the cast to the target.

READ: Troutbitten | Fly Casting — Shoot Line on the Pickup
READ: Troutbitten | Fly Casting — Shoot Line on the Backcast

Is all of this easy? Surely not at first, but it becomes intuitive with some determination and attention to detail.

What About Drying the Fly?

My clients and friends often tell me they are false casting their dry fly over and over to dry it. But if such a thing is necessary, then something else is wrong. These days, tying materials and techniques are so good that almost any fly can be picked up and placed back on the water with nothing more than a single, crisp backcast. If not, consider that a few other things may be the real culprit:

  • Is there speed and a crisp stop in the backcast?
  • Is the fly designed to shed water, and is it tied well?
  • Is the dry fly dressed with the proper floatant?

One more thing on this topic: Most dry flies become waterlogged when the leader sinks. When the caster begins the next cast, the leader drags the fly under the water before it pops back out and into the air for the backcast. And yes, ejecting that much water on the backcast can be a little tough. (Likewise with a Dorsey yarn indicator, by the way.) Instead, try a pre-cast pickup to essentially lift the fly straight up and off the water before the backcast. It’ll change your life.

Photo by Bill Dell

What About Shooting Line?

As I mentioned above, regarding streamer fishing, we do not need multiple false casts to work the line back out. Learn the efficiency of shooting line in all three ways: on the pickup, on the back cast and on the forward cast. Use the power of the fly rod and speed in the cast, and you simply do not need false casting to shoot out the recovered line.

What About Gauging for Distance?

I like this one. If you need a half dozen false casts to determine how far the cast will go and land the fly accurately, you’re doing it wrong.

Here’s a great tip: When my cast lands, part of me is thinking about where the next cast should be. And if I want the next cast three feet further to the shade line on the left, I strip off three more feet from the reel, trapping that line behind my trigger finger. I finish the current drift, then I add in the extra three feet to the next cast. Just like that, now I’m three feet further to the left. Hey now!

What Is False Casting Good For?

False casting is a wonderful tool for learning the necessary stroke. Each time we modify rigs, adapt leaders, change the fly or add weight, the casting stroke needs adjustment. Weight, line and leader length all change the amount of rod flex and the necessary timing. So a bit of false casting teaches what adjustments need to be made.

But this too should be kept to a minimum. And once the timing is picked up, then catalog it in your brain and stop false casting.

READ: Troutbitten | How to Be a More Accurate Fly Caster

Put More Juice in the Cast

None of this is possible without great casting form. And none of this works without speed in between two points with crisp stops that allow the rod to flex, build power and then release it going the other way. A good fly caster working twenty to fifty feet of line appears effortless. And in fact, it is effortless. The rod does the work, not the arm of the angler.

Put more juice in the cast. You need more speed and better stops to eventually take out the false casting.

Learn | Persist

Excellent angling is a mindset. It’s a stubborn determination to do what is best. Not what comes most naturally or what is easiest, but to learn what works best. It is absolutely more comfortable for most fly fishers to throw in a false cast or two before the next delivery. But while short to medium range casting (where we should all be fishing) it is largely unnecessary.

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. Dom, you nailed this! This one simple tip will easily double any anglers catch rate.

    I also think avoiding false casts is super effective because it spooks less fish by eliminating overhead movement from the fly line and eliminating any light reflections from the moving rod (I’m a big believer in matte finishes of the rod for this very reason).

  2. “Take out all unnecessary false casting. It matters little what style of fly fishing you choose. In every discipline, this tenet applies. The objective should be to pick up the line into the backcast and make a forward delivery. That’s right — zero false casting.” This is pure gold, Dom. As usual, you are on target!

  3. Another great article Dom! I tell this to all my beginner and long time fishing friends and they look at me like I’m crazy and say that’s how they see other people fly fishing and it looks cool. I ask them if they ever saw those people catching fish. I end up taking them on a guide trip to help reinforce it. I forwarded the article to them. Thanks again!

    • I think another part of the calculation on how much time is spent fishing vs airing out the fly should factor in the increased probability that you will send your fly into a tree, rhododendron, willow etc with each additional false cast!
      Honestly, I’m not 100% convinced about no false casts with a dry but will test it out the next time out.

  4. Normally, you hit the nail squarely on the head. But, you’re way off base this time. If a person doesn’t false cast endlessly, eventually holding a lot of line off the water, how is he going to show everyone around him how great a fisherman he is? By catching a lot of fish? Please!

  5. You make an excellent point, as usual. As you pointed out about the new and improved materials you also have all the different floatants out there. This is why I enjoy your website, always learning. Tight lines, Jim.

  6. can’t catch flying fish? need flies in the water. Makes sense, as usual.

    Question, do you use an oval cast? I find that works where it’s a continuous flow that ends in a firm stop at 2 o’clock for the tuck. I don’t use the stop at 10 o’clock as its more continuous.

    Once I get in a groove, the flow keeps the flies in the water. Just wondering if you adjust the cast to include an oval?

    Make sense?

  7. I’m going to respectfully disagree, and I’ll make my point with a question. Why do we fly fish?

    As Thoreau pointed out a couple hundred years ago, many of us go through life without ever realizing that it’s not really fish that we’re fishing for.

    It’s far easier to catch fish with gear or bait. If that’s our sole criteria for success, we should stick with bait or gear. The only real reason to fly fish is because we enjoy it more. And getting the most enjoyment from our fishing requires a certain degree of introspection.

    If an angler finds that catching more fish, or bigger fish, makes them happier, then they might want to minimize their false casting.

    But if an angler finds that the act of casting — including the act of false casting — brings them joy, then they should false cast as much as they want. Hell, false cast all day long.

    We shouldn’t assume that the pinnacle of fly fishing revolves around catching fish. It doesn’t. Fly fishing is all about putting a smile on our faces … and different people are going to prioritize different aspects of the sport.

    One final point. Most anglers can’t cast worth a damn. Their casting falls somewhere between poor and terrible. Which means that their false casting can’t bring them much in the way of joy. But if those same anglers put in the time and effort to becomes solid casters, they might find that their priorities shift and their casting becomes as important, or more important, than their fishing.

    Food for thought …

    • Hi Todd,

      Good to hear from you. I always enjoy your articles and stories on Hatch and elsewhere.

      I appreciate your comment.

      A couple things, if I may reply, respectfully . . .

      Drawing artful lines in the sky is surely something special. But the only way it means anything, after a while, is by fooling a fish.

      The joy of fly casting for its own sake is not my niche. And that’s not Troutbitten. It’s not the point of this article. It’s not my audience. And I can’t imagine my fly casting ever becoming more important than the fishing, as you say. So I don’t write for fly casters. I write for fishermen.

      Lastly, you asked this question, and I’d like to answer it.

      “Why do we fly fish?”

      Your own answer is from the perspective that most people seem to take:

      “It’s far easier to catch fish with gear or bait. . . . The only real reason to fly fish is because we enjoy it more.”

      I disagree with this. In fact, I believe the fly rod is a much more effective tool. And that’s why I fly fish. If I thought my fishing would improve by fishing bait, I would use it. Likewise, I would use a spinning rod if it suited the presentation more. But it doesn’t. And this is coming from someone who grew up fishing bait and lures. I still do, on occasion. And flies are more effective.

      I know that my opinion is different than most, and I’ve laid it out with much greater detail in the following article:


      Thanks for reading, Todd. I’m always glad for the discussion.


  8. Dom:
    Great article.
    As a flyfisher in both salt and freshwater, I have been taught (and yelled at by guides) to keep the false casts to one.
    If you practice and fish, you can pretty much judge your distance to minimize your back casts.
    Saltwater fishing is very demanding on minimizing false casts. Saltwater fish don’t stage in holding areas, the mive and mive quickly. Being able to pickup and get your cast off quickly is paramount to success.
    In wild trout streams, false casting over fish hilding areas spooks the hell put of them and your success rate drops exponentially with each false cast over the stream.
    My take, practice and fish to improve your casting and accuracy.


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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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