I’m a self-taught fly caster, and there’s a certain amount of pride baked into that statement, me being the “self-made man” and all. Other than about 15 minutes of instruction when I bought my first rod, I learned my way through feel and research, which got me up and running in short order. That “feel” actually helped me quite a bit. I bypassed a lot of the nuts and bolts, getting to a point where a cast was a subconscious act.
And that served me well for nearly a decade. If we’re being honest, you can get away with a “homemade” cast when it comes to trout and bass in many instances, which were my primary targets. I was accurate most of the time. The distance was there. I was happy.
That is, until I waded into saltwater fishing. My fly-fishing and photography career both began to pick up, and I was finding myself chasing redfish in Louisiana and Texas, bonefish and tarpon in Belize, and, most recently, on the flats of Andros, a small island in the Bahamas.
If you haven’t heard of Andros—located west of Nassau—you wouldn’t be alone. However, you’ve probably felt its impact in the fly-fishing industry. In fact, Charlie Smith (you may know him and his namesake fly as “Crazy Charlie”) and Rupert Leadon, both regarded as forefathers of bonefishing in the Bahamas, were natives of Andros. The island is surrounded by seemingly endless flats, pristine and filled with some of the biggest bones you’ve seen in your life.
In early 2023, I had the chance to see it all in person. Capt. Gabrielle Barnes, her husband John, filmmaker Harrison Hughes, and I were heading to the Bahamas to capture the beauty of this place and experience its legendary habitat first-hand. What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a tidal shift in how I approached fly-casting. Rupert’s son, Shawn, and Charlie’s son, Prescott, each own fishing lodges on the island and, along with their guides, make up some of the best fly casters on the planet, bar none.
That’s not hyperbole, either. If you’ve ever targeted bonefish before, you know they’re fast, spooky, and tend to exist in places with high winds. You need to take a shot with very few (or zero) false casts, oftentimes at 60–80 feet, and it needs to be hyper-accurate. It’s great practice and these guides get to hone their skills nearly every day. It shows.
This is all a lengthy setup to say that I was a lazy, but content fly caster until Shawn and his Bahamian guides showed me the light. I’m nowhere near their level—and never will be—but I have a goal to aim for and it’s to sling a fly like a Bahamian. Here are a few things I learned.
Now, this isn’t a revolutionary idea but it helps to see it in person. As a fan of bamboo fly rods, I’m used to taking the slow approach when it comes to casting. Something I hadn’t considered, though, is how much that approach applies to lightning-fast graphite rods as well. It’s always seemed to me that modern rods need to be casted fast because they are fast but, chances are, your tempo is too fast, particularly at long distances.
During my time on Andros, I learned that nothing happens quickly, and that includes casting a fly rod. In watching their tempo, it looked like it was unfolding in half time—a slow peel off the water, slow backstroke with a haul…wait…wait…wait…and haul forward. The line takes off like a rocket.
In fly fishing, it’s easy to get worked up when there’s a 10-pound bonefish cruising at 60 feet off the bow. Stop and slow things down. I constantly remind myself of this. When I get amped and start false-casting like Indiana Jones, I take a deep breath and remember that a cast should be smooth like butter. It may sound counterintuitive, but the slow approach is the fastest way to get the fly to its target in an efficient way.
The previous point dovetails nicely into my next point. While a slow tempo is key, it’s not the only thing I learned about keeping things under control. During an impromptu lesson with Shawn, he pointed out how my posture made me look like Quasimoto. I tend to arch my back and lean forward, moving my shoulders back and forth as if it’s going to help add a few inches to my cast. Particularly when casting into a headwind, it’s easy to try and “power through” the wind by leaning forward, head down.
In reality, every body movement you add to your cast takes a little bit of power away from it. Every time I’d draw my arm or shoulders forward, I was taking away a little bit of the power I’d been building in my backcast. I still do it, but I’m getting better. By watching Shawn cast, he looked almost as if he didn’t care about casting at all—head still, back straight, and arm at his side like he was waving a sparkler on the Fourth of July. As for his hand movement? “10 and 2” is generous at best—I’d say his cast was more like “11:30 to 12:30.”
As fly anglers, we love to talk about our gear. The latest rod is going to add length to our game and we’re convinced it’s true. But, it’s simply not the case. During our time on Andros, we were using rods that ranged from $200 to $1,200 and, whenever our guides decided to pick up a rod and do some fishing, they didn’t even bother to check which rod they were picking up. In fact, I remember asking one of the guides what his favorite rod was and he bluntly answered, “It doesn't matter, they’re all the same.”
While all of my fellow fly purists are guffawing at this statement, I can speak from first-hand experience. The best casters in the world truly don’t care what brand they’re casting. I saw them throw a pretty damn good cast without a rod at all, in fact, just a line in their hands. Now I should be making some obligatory statement about how your fancy fly rod has nuance and style but I’ll save my breath—I’m a sucker who owns a $900 fly rod, too.
Probably the most impressive thing I saw during my time on Andros was our guides’ ability to adapt to just about any scenario, regardless of the “proper” casting technique. For example, I’ve used a backhand cast in cross-wind conditions, to varying success, but Shawn pointed out that I could simply keep my same casting hand, but move it across my chest to the opposite shoulder, and cast with the inside of my forearm facing out. While it takes some practice, this allows you to cast more effectively without needing to do the awkward reverse cast—or without slapping yourself in the head with your fly.
Another thing? That straight line between backcast and forward cast is a little overrated. By rotating your hand outward in your backcast and moving it up and over your arm on the forward cast (imagine swinging a sledgehammer, but horizontally), you can avoid tangles and build more power in your delivery.
I could probably list a half-dozen other things, but the point is this: don’t focus so much on your technique. Focus more on what needs to happen in the real world in front of you. Is the water calm? Stop your cast high to drop your fly more gently and avoid spooking fish. Need to change directions on a dime? Practice rotating mid-cast to turn your forward cast into a backcast—it’s easier said than done, trust me, but worth practicing.
Lastly, I learned how important it is to practice in the real world. You can read articles like this over and over, and practice in your lawn, but the real learning happens when you blow your shot at the fish of a lifetime. Or, in my case, when you’re flailing trying to get your fly 70 feet to a school of bonefish with a headwind, only to have your guide show you how on the first try. It’s humbling, especially for someone who’s an “experienced” angler, but it’s a tough lesson I’ll never forget.
Also, you may be reading this and thinking, “I do pretty well as-is.” And that may be true. Before I decided to take a second look at my fly cast, I could hit a stationary target the size of a cup from 80 feet out with confidence—a product of bass fishing on big, Texas reservoirs. But, it wasn’t until I had a moving target at 80 feet that I realized I had some work to do. That lilypad doesn’t move but a bonefish does, quickly.
More than technique and efficiency, though, it’s been rewarding to get better for the sake of getting better. I love fly fishing, and once I realized how imperfect my cast was, I had the motivation I needed to get better at the sport I love. I may never make it back to Andros but I can take the lessons I learned and apply them to any water, anywhere. But, if I do make it back, I’ll hopefully be one step closer to casting like the best. Like a Bahamian.
For a more entry-level article on fly casting, check out my previous article, 5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Fly Cast.