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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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Enjoy the day.
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