This is a piece I wrote for Sierra Fisherman a few years ago about fly casting. I would have folks read it before they came to fish with me in New Zealand. I think it is quite relevant to anyone who picks up a fly rod.
How to be a better Fly Caster:
This easy ½ hour practice drill will have you throwing darts!
By Dax Messett
I love technical angling situations that require accurate casts, whether it be head hunting on a spring creek dry fly fishing for rising trout, or sight fishing a saltwater flat for spooky permit. Every fly angler aspires to develop the ability to consistently throw those beautiful, tight candy cane shaped loops on their overhead cast. When it comes to the art of fly fishing, I think many of us were initially attracted to the artistic nature of fly casting, not necessarily the fishing part of the discipline. Casting a fly is the “essence" of our sport, as superb instructor and mentor Mel Kreiger frequently pointed out. These days, many anglers simply never practice their overhead casting because they are “too busy fishing”. Whatever. If all you aspire to do in fly fishing is lobbing a bobber from one side of a drift boat to another while the person rowing does all the fishing, then you don’t need to continue reading…in fact, perhaps you should just use conventional gear, as it looks way less stupid and is much more effective to catch fish. But if you want to throw tight loops on demand, apply mends in the air to achieve a desired presentation before the line hits the water, and just get the most enjoyment out of the sport, then you need to spend some time on the lawn practicing your craft. The key way to understand the fundamental concepts of flycasting and to actually practice your stroke is to spend some time on the lawn or pond, without the distraction of actual fishing. A half hour on the lawn or casting pond a few times a week is all it takes to turn even a beginner into a keen fly caster.
Loops. The first and foremost fundamental concept regarding overhead casting, is to understand that the shape of the loop is determined by the path of the rod tip. Read that again, real slow, and let it sink in. Now read it one more time, seriously. When trying to identify any issue you may be having with your loop, just refer back to this first fundamental concept, which is the premise of all fly casting. There are different styles of casting, but this foundation does not change.
Two primary things to focus on in this practice session are your “casting arc” and casting “stroke”. Timing, the third crucial element to a good cast, will come after doing this practice drill regularly.
The path of the rod tip during an overhead cast has two stops in it. The distance between the back cast stopping point and the forward cast stopping point is called the arc. The size of your loop is determined by the size of this arc. The wider the arc, the wider the loop…not a good thing. A wide loop does not turn the leader over completely, therefore lacks accuracy, power, and distance. The narrower the arc, the narrower the loop. A narrow loop will turn over a leader accurately, penetrate the wind, and maximize distance. A good loop basically looks like a candy cane. Think how a Ferrari is shaped, then how a VW bus is shaped…which one would you chose in a race?
This is where the old clock face analogy comes into play. The distance between your back and forward stops should be between 11 and 2, resulting in a tight arc and narrow loop…good! 9 to 3 has a very wide arc, therefore results in a wide loop that lands into a pile just in front of your rod tip….not good.
There are many casting strokes that work, but for non salt water situations I personally favor a compact, vertical casting stroke. You rotate your shoulder with this stroke, and your elbow goes up and down during this rotation, while keeping everything compact and your wrist fairly stiff. A compact stroke generates a compact arc which leads to a tight loop…good! A stroke that has a lot of wrist movement and arm extension generally leads to wide, open loops…bad, unless you are lobbing bobbers, lead, and beads from a moving driftboat, which isn’t flyfishing anyway.
The basic stroke starts with the rod tip down, your elbow at your side, and your forearm inline with the rod. Avoid starting your cast with the rod tip pointed up high…you lose all the power that would go into loading the rod on your backcast. There should be a 90degree angle between your bicep and forearm.
Next, distinctly rotate your shoulder up as if you were touching the brim of your hat, which lifts your forearm to a vertical position. Maintain that 90 degree angle and keep compact. Stop the rod, with your hand in the neutral position with a firm wrist, and the rod will magically stop at 11 o’clock. Even if you bend your wrist an inch, the rod will stop too far back, and lose the load. When stopped in the correct position, the weight of the line behind the rod tip will cause the rod to bend, or load. This is the sweet spot. Now rotate your shoulder back down again and stop (unload)the rod at about 2. Avoid reaching out and extending, which will widen your arc and open your loop. Keep compact, and your forearm and bicep at that 90 degree angle, and the line will sling out there in a straight tight loop.
In the words of Allen Iverson, we are talking about Practice…
Use an old 7 to 9 foot 3x leader with a small piece of yarn or visible dry fly with the point clipped off.
1. Pick up and lay down: Strip off 15 feet of line off of your reel. Don’t use your line hand yet, just place the line in your control finger of your casting hand, and relax your other arm. This is just to warm up, get into a rhythm, and really focus on your vertical lift and stop during the backcast. Rotate the shoulder up, and distinctly stop the rod with your hand in its neutral position and tip up high, around 11 on a clock face. When the line straightens out behind you and the rod loads, rotate your shoulder back down and stop the rod at 2. Don’t reach out and open your arm, just keep your forearm and bicep at the compact 90 angle, almost as if a tennis ball can be held between them. Relax, if you are all stiff this won’t work. If you have to, put the hand you aren’t using in your pocket, or hold a glass of wine and chill out. Then lay the line on the ground nice and straight. If it isn’t straight, it isn’t right. Pause after every lay down to observe the straightness of the line. No false casting yet, just pick up and lay down, and develop this nice and easy stroke. 5 minutes of doing it right until you move on.
2. False casting: With the same 15-18 feet of line, start to make some false casts, and focus on the feel of the rod, loading and unloading. To establish timing, make 2 or 3 false casts, then a presentation cast by laying the line down. Rotate up, rotate down. Try not to make 27 false casts before the presentation cast, as this develops a very bad habit in an angling situation. Don’t use the line hand yet, just keep the line between your control finger. 5 minutes
3. False cast/presentation: Strip out 10 more feet of line, and introduce your line hand by just holding the line in between your index finger and thumb. Don’t hold the line in your control finger anymore on your rod hand. Make three false casts, then a presentation cast. Do not change your stroke or try to double hall, or try to cast 75 feet of line now. 5 minutes of doing it right.
4. Shoot line: Strip out another 10 feet of line. You should now have about 50 feet. . For this drill, always start with just 15-18 feet of line, instead of trying to aerialize 50 feet all at once. Do 3 false casts and shoot a few feet of line each time, then try to shoot the rest on the last (presentation) cast. It is very important to try and do it in just 3 false casts…the more false casting you do, the more likely you are to lose your timing and really piss of a guide in an angling situation. Keep your stoke compact! You can easily shoot 50 feet of line while maintaining a compact stroke. 5 minutes.
5. Accuracy: This is fun. Throw a hat, plate, hula hoop or anything that will make a target at 15 feet. Try to hit it! Then move it to 20, 30, 40, & 50 feet away. Take the time to get proficient at the close range targets. 10 minutes.
I promise if you practice these steps in the manner in which they are described, you will be throwing controlled, tight, and accurate casts in no time on the water once muscle memory and rhythm is developed. Remember, don’t get sucked into distance, short range accuracy is more critical for most technical angling situations, and distance is an eventual product of having controlled, tight loops. Good casting is fun!