The Setup Cast — Fly Fishing Strategies

by | May 9, 2024 | 5 comments

Nothing turns a good fishing day into a great one like efficient casting. Consistent accuracy puts the fly, leader and line just where we plan. Over and over, great presentations start with a cast full of intention, a cast with purpose, that leads to an effective drift. Then it’s onto the next lane, riffle or undercut with the satisfaction of knowing that we followed through with a plan. We fished it well. That’s a fun day on the water, regardless of the fish that might come to the net.

Casting efficiency keeps us out of the trees and our fly in the water. Making the right casts keeps us in rhythm and inspires confidence to make the next change.

The heart of the game is casting.

But you don’t have to do it all in the air. Since I was a teenager, stalking native brook trout in brushy mountain streams, I’ve been using the surface of the water as a resting point to either plan my next move, help me change direction or load the fly rod. Instead of trying to do all of this in the air, I use the water to hold the line for a split second or even a few more.

As a teenager, I didn’t think much of it. But as an author or a fisherman who just wants to swap ideas with like minded friends around a campfire, I’ve started calling this move a setup cast.

Here are a few times when I use this setup cast the most . . .

As a False Cast

Mistakes can happen easily, with your leader and line in the air. You can blame the unintended knots on wind, or you can accept the fault for too many swirls and circles that somehow tangled and tightened into a snarl. Wind knots are a daily occurrence while fishing the simplest rig of a single dry. But knots, tangles and general messiness happens even more frequently with multiple flies, split shot, indicators or whatever else you might think to attach to your leader.

The casting variables of shooting a single fly to a target are complicated. Those variables increase exponentially with a second fly. And with three of anything attached to the leader, the situation stands a good chance of getting seriously out of hand.

Of course, false casting is sometimes necessary. But it doesn’t have to be in the air. This is where I use a setup cast.

Anytime I lose confidence in where my backcast might go, I simply allow it to fall to the water behind or beside me. It’s safer there (assuming there are no midstream obstructions like limbs and logs). Then I can regroup for a moment, make a quick plan and shoot the line forward, often using the water to load the rod tip. (More on that below.)

Likewise, if my forward cast isn’t headed in the direction I’d like, I might allow it to fall to the surface anyway. Then I use the surface tension to load the rod. I make my backcast and finish with the intended delivery forward. Essentially, I use the water surface for my false cast. I call it a setup cast.

One specific scenario stands out to provide the perfect example. Imagine I’m using a two nymph rig with an indicator. I’m casting forty five degrees upstream and across, then allowing the rig to drift past my position until it’s forty five degrees downstream of where I’m standing — or even further if I can keep the tension off the indy. At the end of that long drift, I’d love to pick up and make a smooth cast that sends the full rig back to the upstream-and-across position, landing perfectly for the next drift. But in many situations, that’s a tough task. It’s a tricky cast. And if I don’t get it just right, I would like to correct the cast while my rig is in the air and headed shy of the target, But instead of false casting backward and making another cast in the air, I simply allow the first forward cast to land on the water, probably to the side of my intended lane. That’s the setup cast. A moment’s pause, and I pick up, shoot the backcast and fire the correct forward cast for the next great drift.

In this way, the setup cast keeps me safe. It keeps me in rhythm. It saves me from possible tangles, gives me a chance to regroup and provides the perfect authority over my line, leader and fly.

The setup cast keeps me in charge. I use it upstream or downstream for dry flies, nymphs, streamers and wets. In this way I use it as a false cast — often frequently, sometimes not.

Releasing a Snag

I’ve guided enough to tell you what causes more lost fishing time than anything else. By a wide margin it is the snags on a riverbed. Snagging a nymph or a streamer is a problem, but it’s reliably solved with the 180 degree concept and some authority. It almost always pulls out this way. So when it does, it’s crucial to have a plan for where the rig will go next. Don’t put it in the tree above the snag and do not try to make it into a backcast.

READ: Troutbitten | Unbutton Snags from the Backside

Simply keep the momentum of the released snag going in your planned-for direction, and lay it on the water somewhere. Most often, that’s behind you or two the side.

Then, use the tension of the surface on the leader to sling the next cast.

Let’s get to that . . .

The Water Haul

I’m not a fan of the water haul for nymphing or any other tactical approach. By that I simply mean I don’t want to use it as my baseline, standard, most frequent cast out there.

Many proponents of Micro Mono Rigs and ultralite nymphing are using the water haul almost constantly these days. This isn’t for me, and I’ve detailed these preferences in another article.

READ: Troutbitten | Why I Hate the Water Haul Cast

But I’ll use the water haul as a problem solver. I’ll use it on the occasions when it makes the most sense, when it keeps me out of the trees or allows me to make a presentation that can’t be made another way.

The water haul — using the river currents and surface tension to load the fly rod — lies at the heart of the setup cast. I lay line on the water in all the ways I’ve described . . . then I use the surface tension (a water haul) to load the rod and make the next cast. It’s a perfect time for the water haul.

Do It

That’s the setup cast. It keeps you safe and in control on the river. It allows for repositioning and redirecting the line, leader and fly to the next target. The setup cast gives you a chance to regroup and rethink, too. It keeps you in rhythm by keeping you out of trouble and lending new options to an active angler.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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5 Comments

  1. Dom,

    This article reminds me of that great day last December out with you in the snow. I was reminded of the time you spent teaching me to ‘work my way’ over to the best water. This concept of dialing in my cast on the way to the best lane has stuck with me (along with casting better over my left shoulder).

    Reply
  2. Can you describe the setup cast in more detail on that scenario where you are going 45 upstream to 45 down….that leaves essentially a 90 degree cast…. How does the geometry work even with the setup cast.? How much change of direction can you execute per false cast? When I have a change of direction required generally i take several false casts and maybe get 10-20 degrees change in each one…… I’ve never seen a casting video that addresses this…… Thanks, jon

    Reply
    • Hi Jon. Thanks for your question. The 45 to 45 is just a description of a common approach that many anglers have to a river. (This is not my favorite choice, but I used it as an example.) I only mean that we cast up and across and let the fly drift until it is down and across. At that point, we’d love to be able to pick up and shoot a perfect cast back to the up and across position. That can certainly be done, but sometimes I miss it. So instead of immediately throwing a backcast in the air to correct for the forward cast that missed, I simply lay the “bad” cast on the water for a moment. That’s my setup cast. Often, I do it on purpose, with a plan to do it, so it’s not really a mistake, but part of the process This all happens pretty fast.

      To the other part of your question . . .

      When I have a change of direction required generally i take several false casts and maybe get 10-20 degrees change in each one…… I’ve never seen a casting video that addresses this…… Thanks, jon

      Check out the Corner Cast (with Video). You do NOT need to make several false casts just to change direction.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Interesting. I’ll have to work on that. It seems your rod tip is doing a little cutting the corner and a little rounding the corner that probably takes some practice. Thanks

        Reply

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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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