Fly Fishing for Beginners – Part 8 – Fly Casting Basics

Welcome to episode #6 in the Fly Fishing for Beginners blog and video series. To quickly recap what we’ve covered so far, in episode #1, I answered the question, “What is fly fishing,” as there are many misconceptions. In episode #2 we explored the fascinating history of fly fishing. In episode #3 we looked at the wide variety of fish that you can catch with fly fishing. In episode #4 we covered how to find places to go fly fishing in your local area. Episode #5 was about essential fly fishing gear. Episode #6 was how to set up some of that gear…more specifically,  your backing, fly line, leader, and tippet. Episode #7 was about the types of flies used for fly fishing and fly categories, including dry flies, wet flies, streamer flies, poppers, and saltwater flies. And in this 8th and final installment, I’ll share with you the basics of how to fly cast. Before we get going here, please note that the accompanying video way at the bottom of this article will visually demonstrate many of the topics I cover in this blog, so if you’re more of a visual person, you can cut to the chase and simply watch the video here.

Casting a fly rod is quite a bit different from casting other types of fishing rods and it is perhaps the greatest barrier that keeps people from getting into fly fishing. Many folks see experienced fly fishermen gracefully casting their rods with tremendous beauty and perfection and they say, “Forget it! I can’t do that!” Well my friends, I’m here to tell you that you can do that! You simply need to learn the fundamentals, and then patiently practice them. During my time working as a fishing guide in Alaska I’ve had many clients who thought there was no way they could ever learn to fly fish, yet within just a few short hours, they were casting like a pro and catching lots of fish.

If you’ve ever seen the famous movie A River Runs Through It, which I highly recommend and which has inspired many people to take up fly fishing, you may recall the scenes in the movie in which the Rev. Maclean is teaching his sons to properly cast a fly rod. The methods featured in the movie were indeed based on decades of traditional fly-casting instruction, such as imitating a metronome and casting from 10 o clock to 2 o clock. Other time-honored fly-casting models include the hammer analogy as well as the apple on the stick method. Both these classic teaching models ultimately focus on the proper grip, acceleration, momentum, and the abrupt stop in motion that are all utilized in casting a fly rod.

Keep in mind, when you cast a spinning or a baitcasting rod, you essentially fling the rod with as much force as possible to get the lure or bait moving, and then the weight of the lure or bait keeps the line coming off the reel and moving to its target until at last the momentum is gone. With fly fishing, you’re often using tiny little flies that weigh next to nothing, so what you’re actually doing with a fly rod is not casting the fly, but rather you’re casting the fly line, of which your fly is at the end of. Thus, the different mechanics of fly fishing tackle requires a different method of casting. And this is often the first place that many folks run into trouble: they try to cast a fly rod in the same manner that they would a spinning or baitcasting rod, which only leads to great frustration.

Fly Casting Basics – What NOT to do!

Casting a fly rod is all about the right combination of timing and momentum and learning to execute that timing and momentum properly in a variety of fishing scenarios. Let me start things off here by addressing what not to do when casting a fly rod, as these are the most common mistakes that people make which lead to frustration and ultimately failure.

The Buggy Whip – First of all, don’t try to cast your fly rod as if it were a buggy whip. A common mistake people fall into when starting out is to make a nice slow backcast…which is essentially correct…but then they whip the rod forward with an exaggerated snapping motion, which results in the fly line piling up right in front of you and not going anywhere. The only time you might use this buggy whip motion is to get some line off your reel or your leader through the guides when preparing to make your first true cast.

The Windshield Washer – Another common mistake people make is to cast in a motion similar to a windshield washer – making long, sweeping casts all the way back…almost to the point of their rod touching the ground behind them…and then casting all the way forward, until their rod tip touches the ground or the water. This too will result in your fly line, and ultimately your fly, going nowhere fast, except maybe in your hat or stuck in your ear!

Slow Down! When folks get stuck in these two primary bad habits, the tendency is to cast faster and harder, as one would do with a spinning or baitcasting rod, but which also only makes things worse and more frustrating with a fly rod. With fly casting, you have to learn to do the opposite of what you think you should do in order to overcome a lot of those bad habits and develop the proper technique. You have to learn to cast slower and softer to make those long, beautiful casts with a fly rod.

Loading and Unloading the Rod

Casting a fly rod properly is all about what’s referred to as loading and unloading your rod. When you make a backcast and the rod bends backward, you are loading energy into the rod, which is then released when you make a forward cast and the rod bends forward, resulting in launching the fly line, leader, and fly forward to your target.

Again, the key to basic casting is learning how to load and unload your rod by properly timing the acceleration, momentum, and the abrupt stop of your cast. And while you don’t want to fall into the bad habit of doing the aggerated windshield washer cast, you do want your backcasting motion (when properly executed) to mirror your forward casting motion. A good way to do this is to simply watch what you’re doing when casting. Keep your eye on your rod tip and your fly line during the entire duration of your cast so you can clearly see how long it takes for your fly line to completely level out during your backcast, so you’ll then know exactly how much acceleration, momentum, and time you’ll need for executing your forward cast.

Along with learning how much acceleration, momentum, and time you’ll need to both load and unload your rod, you’ll also need to know when to make the abrupt stop that’s needed in both your backcast as well as your forward cast, as this quick stopping motion is what unleashes the energy you’ve loaded in your rod. While the classic metronome or clock face model is not used all that extensively by many fly casting instructors these days, I find that it does give people at least an idea of where they should make that abrupt stop during both the back cast and forward casting motion, although it will vary slightly from person to person based on their body structure as well as the particular fly rod and fly line that they’re using.


The Basic Forward Cast

With everything I just shared as an introduction, let’s now put it all together and learn how to do the basic forward cast, which is what you’ll probably be using the majority of the time you’ll be fly fishing. To begin, find a place where you have lots of room to practice such as your backyard, an open field at a park, or even a small pond where the water is calm and there’s nothing behind you that you’ll easily snag with your fly line when practicing. Tie a small piece of yarn or cloth to the end of your fly line or your leader as a practice fly and grip your fly rod handle as if you were firmly shaking someone’s hand, with your thumb toward the top of the handle…not completely wrapped around it like a baseball bat.

For practice purposes, you’ll only want ten to fifteen feet of fly line out to start casting with. This is where a little of that buggy whip motion may be needed to get some line off your reel. So after you have ten feet or so of fly line out in front of you in a relatively straight line, hold on to the fly line near the reel with your opposite hand in a comfortable position and then begin your back cast. With your wrist locked as if holding a hammer and using primarily your elbow and forearm, start your backcasting motion soft and slow but with increasing speed and force until it climaxes in that abrupt stop when your rod is somewhere in that 10 0 clock range. Again, especially when you’re just starting out, keep an eye on your fly line and your rod tip and watch everything you do throughout the entire duration of your cast.

After you make that abrupt stop and your fly line completely levels out behind you overhead, it’s then time to start your forward cast by essentially doing everything you just did in reverse. Again, keep an eye on what you’re doing and start your forward cast soft and slow while increasing your speed and force until stopping your cast in that 2 O clock area. After that abrupt stop, let your line trail out in front of you and gently fall to the ground or on the water. For practice purposes, you can either continue holding on to your fly line with your opposite hand, or you can let it go while your forward cast comes to completion. If your fly line levels out nicely and does indeed land in a relatively straight line in front of you, congratulations! You just made your first successful cast! If things didn’t quite work out so well, it’s simply a matter of patiently practicing until you get the right combination of timing, acceleration, momentum, and that abrupt stop of your cast.

No matter what happens when you’re first learning this basic cast, don’t get frustrated or make that critical mistake of trying to cast faster or harder. Remember, if things are not going so well, you probably need to do the opposite of what your inclination is and cast slower and softer until you get it right. And don’t forget to keep watching what you’re doing at every moment of both your back cast and your forward cast. Much like learning to throw a baseball, with continued practice your hand, eye, and body coordination will eventually all match up and adjust so that you’ll start to consistently hit your target. But go slow, stay patient, and don’t overdo things! Start out with only 10 to 15 feet of line and don’t use anymore until you mastered that short distance cast.

Making Longer Casts

Once you’ve mastered making those short forward casts, it’s time to start making longer casts. The only major difference between a short cast and a long cast is the appropriate increase in all the elements of your cast. You’ll need a more forceful acceleration, a stronger momentum, a longer duration of time, and an even more abrupt stop in your casting motion on both the back cast and forward cast. You’ll also need to get more fly line out, which will be the job of your opposite hand. To do so, first make sure that the drag is set properly on your fly reel so you don’t get a backlash when pulling out more line. Then, in conjunction with your backcasting motion, pull an arm’s length of line off your reel and let it go during your forward cast in sort of a “shooting” motion as it’s called.

False Casting

If you need to get more than just an arm’s length or two of line off your reel in order to get your fly to the intended target, then you’ll need to implement what’s known as “false casting.” With false casting, you’re increasing the amount of fly line you’re casting with by feeding line off the reel with your opposite hand until you have the amount needed to get your fly to the target. When you see a fly fisherman making several casting motions before releasing the line, this is what he or she is doing.

To practice your false casting, start with a repetitive back and forward cast motion…without letting the line touch down…then pull one arm’s length of line off your reel, work it into your cast motion, and then let the line touch down on your target area. Once you’ve got the basic technique down, you can then start practicing with more and more line until you can shoot out many more feet of line and cast longer and longer distances…which all comes back to making the necessary adjustments to the acceleration, momentum, the duration of time, and the abrupt stop of your cast. And again, don’t forget to carefully watch everything you’re doing throughout the entire duration of your cast when starting out.

An important point to remember when false casting is not to let your line hit the water until you’re ready to deliver your fly exactly where you want it. This will take time to develop, but don’t get in the habit of hitting the water with your false casts as a way to measure how much more line you need to get out to reach your intended target…unless you’re simply practicing to get a better idea of your range. If you beat the water to death with your false casting, the fish you’re after very well may get spooked and leave before you have a chance to make a cast that counts.

Roll Casting

Along with the basic forward cast, the roll cast is another one that you’ll most likely use often. The roll cast is very effective in situations where you have don’t have much room behind you for making a regular forward cast…which requires adequate room for your backcast, it’s ideal for situations where you need a fairly short cast, and it’s is also great for rapid-fire casting when you want to repeatedly present your fly to a fish over and over again. To make a roll cast, slowly bring your rod straight up, and after a short pause, initiate a forward cast but with much greater acceleration and a much more forceful stop in order to send your fly line rolling over itself, like an outgoing wave. Now you don’t want to do a buggy whip here, but rather, the idea is to still perform your forward cast with that increasing acceleration and momentum, but in a much shorter duration of time and with a more prominent stopping motion. If you perform the roll cast correctly, your line should roll out completely, ending in a straight line, with your fly right on your target area. Once you master the basic technique you’ll be able to make longer and longer roll casts and a weight forward or triangle taper fly line will also be a big help in making great roll casts.

Line Control

 So, you’ve made a beautiful cast right in the strike zone of the fish you’re after. Now what? Well, this will all depend on what kind of fly you’re fishing and the body of water you’re fishing on. You may want to let that fly slowly dead drift through the area with little to no movement at all, you might want to do a slow enticing retrieve to get the fish’s attention, or you may want to strip that fly in quickly to provoke a savage predatory attack! Whatever the case, the key is to properly control your line. No matter what kind of presentation or retrieve you utilize for any given fishing situation, you want that fly to look and behave as natural as possible. For example, if you’re allowing your fly to dead drift downstream through an area where fish are holding, then you’ll want that drift to be as drag-free as possible. If there’s a big wake behind your fly, or your strike indicator, or even the end of your fly line, that’s a sure sign that your presentation is off and you’ll need to make some adjustments.

With fly fishing, you generally make those adjustments to your fly presentation by manipulating or “controlling” the fly line with your hands and/or by moving the rod. You may need to do what’s called “mending” your fly line during a drift, which means to continually flip and roll the line back over in order to maintain a drag-free drift, you may need to slowly let out a little more line while your fly is getting in position, or retrieve a little line to make micro-adjustments to your presentation. All this is a matter of practice that you’ll get a feel for with more experience.

When it comes to adding motion to your fly by doing what’s known as “stripping,” this is a method of retrieving your fly at varying speeds to make it look like it’s casually swimming, injured, or trying to frantically get away. Stripping is common for streamer fly patterns and again is quite effective for more aggressive, predatory fish. To strip your fly, simply pinch the fly line between your thumb and finger of choice to add tension and then pull the line in with your opposite hand with the desired speed and duration. You’ll have a pile of excess line at your feet when stripping, so it’s important to keep an eye on things so it doesn’t get tangled or in the way when you get a strike, set the hook, and start fighting the fish, which is what we’ll take about next.

Setting the Hook and Fighting the Fish

No matter your style or method of fly presentation in any given fly fishing scenario, you’ll need to be able to set the hook fast and effectively when you get a strike, which means to keep a close eye on how much slack line you have out. To set the hook, as soon as you detect a strike either by sight or by feel, give a fast upward or sidewise (depending on the situation) motion with your rod while at the same time pulling the fly line tight with your opposite hand, as seen here. Those two motions working in unison can pick up a lot of slack line and get the hook set fast. And if they can’t, then that’s a sure sign that you have too much line out. Finding the proper balance between having enough line off the reel to manipulate your fly presentation and quickly setting the hook is something that you’ll have to experiment with. But like everything else we covered, you’ll quickly get the hang of it with the more experience you get.

Once the hook is set, it’s time to fight the fish! How you fight and land the fish will depend on the size of the fish as well as the situation. If it’s a small fish, you might be able to simply pull in the fly line and land the fish without even using the reel. If it’s a big, strong fish, it’ll no doubt make some runs and pull out some extra line. Like all fish fights, its a careful tug of war in which you don’t want to put too much pressure on the fish which may result in breaking your tippet or leader and losing the fish, and you don’t want to put too little pressure on the fish and needlessly prolong the fight. Doing so may result in totally exhausting and ultimately killing the fish, which is not good if you’re catch and release fishing. As I mentioned in a previous episode, be sure that you’re using the appropriate rod weight for the fish you’re pursuing, as your rod is what essentially does the fighting by absorbing the shock of the fish on the end. The drag system on your reel also plays a major roll in applying the right amount of pressure to tire the fish. So keep your rod tip up, make sure the drag on your reel is set appropriately while battling your fish, and hold on. Once more, this is all something you’ll get the hang of with more experience.

When your fish is ready to land you can scoop it up in a landing net, or just gently bring it to the bank. If you’re catch and release fishing, it’s good to use a net with soft rubber mesh to not damage the fish’s skin as well as barbless hooks, which make getting the hook out much easier and won’t damage the fish’s mouth. If the flies you buy or use don’t come tied on barbless hooks, you can easily flatten the barbs with a hemostat or small pliers. If you’re going to keep your fish to eat, you don’t need to be so gentle. But you do need to ethically kill and then bleed out your catch as soon as possible. I did a recent video on this topic if you’d like to learn more.

Wrapping Up

 There is obviously a lot more to fly fishing than what I’ve covered in this blog and video series and in this particular installment, but I hope I’ve given you enough information to get started. As I mentioned serval times throughout this series, fly fishing is a lifelong journey and it is truly an “art.” Like all great artists, as you learn more, get more experience on the water, and refine your technique, you’ll develop your own unique fly fishing style as well as your own philosophy and approach to fly fishing. In time, your fly rod will become an expression of who you are and a catalyst for gaining knowledge, learning new skills, exploring new places, having a heck of a lot of fun, and making memories that will last a lifetime!

Check out the video below to see and learn more…