Fly fishing is one of those pursuits that’s easy to pick up but incredibly difficult to master. There are plenty of people who pick up a rod, learn the basic casts, and stop their journey at simply being able to get a fly in the water. And that’s fine, but too many anglers are missing out on the benefits that come with honing their fly cast.
Much like shooting a shotgun, just about anyone can cast a fly rod and get away with poor technique. But, if you put the time and effort into learning the more advanced techniques, you’ll truly find an appreciation for the sport and reap the benefits so many don’t discover, like fewer tangles, sore arms, and missed fish.
Over the years, I’ve learned that there are difficult techniques to learn to improve your fly cast, and then there’s the low-hanging fruit. Today, I’m going to tackle the latter. These are simple things you can do right now to improve your cast, improve your fishing, and ultimately put more fish in the net.
A fundamental of any fly cast is the hard stop on the forward and backcast. But, too many anglers let that “hard-stop mentality” creep into the beginning of the cast, ripping the line off of the water and letting every fish within 100 yards know that you want to catch them. By ripping the line off of the water, you’re causing a ruckus, tiring your arm out, and probably going to over-power your backcast as well (more on that later).
So, one thing you can start doing is peeling instead of pulling. As you lift the line off of the water, think about peeling a banana instead of whipping your line into the air. Not only will it be more gentle and less tiresome, but you’ll actually be using the surface tension of the water to help load your fly rod, using friction to your advantage. Plus, it just looks and feels better, which is a great indicator of how well your cast is performing. Less ripping, more peeling.
Even before you think about peeling the line off of the water, you need to think about how much slack is in your line. It doesn’t even matter how gentle you are with your lift if you need to straighten out six feet of slack to get there. If you have too much loose line on the water, you’re most likely going to lose initial power and potentially end up with a tangle at the start.
Now, some anglers would tell you to start with less line and false cast a few times to get the line out, but I think there’s a better solution. Start out with a decent amount of slack and use that slack to deliver one solid roll cast. As soon as the line hits the water, use the aforementioned “peeling” technique to lift your line off of the water. This does two things. First, it takes every bit of slack out of the line so you can put all of your casting power into your first backcast. Second, it maximizes the amount of line in the water straight out ahead for maximum tension.
If you've been fly casting for any length of time, you’ve probably heard the old “10 and 2” technique for your forward and back casts. Now, this is a great starting point for many anglers (I’d even tighten it up to “11 and 1” but that’s just me) and it helps to visualize a solid start and end to your motion. But there’s a little extra power you can give yourself on the backcast, too.
As you move your arm toward the backcast, give it a hard stop in the two o’clock position, but then “follow through” and drift back a little bit farther, almost like you’re reaching out to grab something. By giving this slight one-two technique, you’re giving the line a little bit more time to load your rod, which will give you even more power on your forward cast. This does take a little bit of timing in practice, though, and you want to be sure you’re not stopping too hard and letting your line go slack. Think of it as one motion, just with a little bit of a fading continuation at the end.
We’re all guilty of strong-arming our fly line. I think it has something to do with the anticipation of getting your fly in the water or some kind of macho mentality where anglers think that muscle equals power. Well, it generally doesn’t in fly fishing. In fact, the whole reason we have these fly rods is because they’re designed to do the hard work for us—in other words, if your arm is getting tired, then something is going wrong. Take it easy.
One easy way to tell if you’re overpowering your fly cast is if your tailing loop is starting to look more like a full circle. It should be parallel. Another way to tell is if your fly isn’t unfurling at the full extension of the line. If it’s ricocheting backward or landing back and to the side, you’re probably giving it too much gas. This is one of the most common mistakes I see. Let up on the muscle a little bit and let the rod do the work.
Speaking of rods, I wrote an entire article about how too many people are fishing ultra-fast fly rods. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a fast-action rod in certain situations, but for the most part, anglers need a medium-action or even slow-action rod to put a fly in the right place with a delicate presentation. But there’s another benefit.
Back to the shotgun analogy for a minute. To me, a fast-action rod is equivalent to shooting a 12 gauge. It’s simply easier to hit your target with a less-than-perfect technique because you have a wider spread at longer distances. The same is true with fly rods.
With a fast-action rod, you can whip the line as hard as you want, break your wrist backward and forward, and you can probably get away with it. But, with slower-action rods, it’s simply not true. You have to use the natural responsiveness of the rod, load it properly, and give the line plenty of time to unfurl on forward and backcasts. In other words, if you’re fishing only fast action, you can get away with poor technique. So, if you want to improve your cast, try fishing with a slow- to medium-action rod, even a fiberglass rod or bamboo rod. Then, once you’re ready to pick up your fishing Ferrari again, you’ll have a cast to match.
There are obviously a million ways to improve your fly cast. I’ve skipped over the beginner stuff for the most part—not breaking your wrist, keeping a straight line, rhythm, and timing—but there are things that experienced anglers can work on now. With a few small tweaks, you’ll go from functional to finessed in no time flat.