The Expert Guide to Essential Fly Casting Techniques
Fly fishing expert Andrew Pryor weighs in on the most essential casting techniques for beginners to learn.
Prone, squinting, and calculating his next move, he pushes aside the next patch of grass to get a closer look at the stream ahead. Hearing the surface of the water break every ten seconds adds to the suspense, even though the calculated and miniscule sips from the “big one” can’t be heard. Slow and steady is the ticket when approaching a spring creek such as this one, so this can’t be rushed. The blue-winged olive mayflies continue to flurry above the stream like snowflakes caught in an upwelling eddy of wind. He lifts a 3wt. rod in a pseudo side-arm position, carefully making each false cast count, as to not make a presence above the stream. Every back cast drives his shoulder back to as far as it can go without completely lifting his chest off the ground. By the third false cast, he sends his hackle-laced hook to the water’s surface, and hopes for the best.
I grew up in the Driftless area of Wisconsin. This region is known for its numerous spring-fed creeks with consistent temperatures throughout the year. You don’t have to cast at a stream from a prone position in the grass. But if you feel like chasing that one kyped-up brown that always seems to hang out in the slack water, it helps. It’s hard to say definitively that you can learn one cast and cover every type of situation, even for just one stream. However, you can hone your skills and do your best from there, adapting to what each situation may bring.
Even beyond the situation, some fly rods require an entirely different cast, such as two-handed or spey rods. I’ve spent a fair amount of time swinging a two-handed rod for the salmon and steelhead/lake run rainbows around the Great Lakes tributaries, and then constructing those rods myself. I found a passion for this style of fishing and decided to make the move to the Pacific Northwest where I could pursue more two-handed styles of fishing.
I’ve spent my fair share of time guiding independently and struggling to make it economically worth it. I haven't been registered as a casting instructor, and I am definitely no Chris Korich, though I've lost count of the people I've taught to fly fish long ago. I feel as though I’ve been doomed to be a real trout bum and give casting lessons for beers… though after years of that practice, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love to appreciate all different kinds of casts, whether I am halfway-meditating while working a spey rod through a river hoping for my next steelhead, or making each move as a life-sized game of chess hoping that I am smarter than the trout I am after. I want to be able to give my two cents on these casting styles I have grown to love. And anyway, even if one style of fly fishing is enough to keep a fisherperson hooked for life, why not switch it up?
Note: There are great video tutorials out there that are incredibly useful. I want to be able to give my take on a few tips that you can use in combination with other videos and articles to really take your cast to the next level. I am writing this with the emphasis on tips I have really driven home to the beginner and intermediate casters I have taught.
Fly Casting (Overhead), the Classic
“It’s all in the wrist.”
What? Get out of here with that. I’m guessing I have probably taught five or six dozen people to fly cast from a brand-completely-new start, and about three quarters of them say they have heard it is “all in the wrist.” I don’t know who is saying this out there, or how you have such a following, but cut it out! If I could duct tape a splint across anyone’s wrist who I have been teaching to cast, I would, and I really should have. It would have saved me a lot of time and breath repeating myself to “lock that wrist.” If you’re focusing on wrist movement, you might as well just cast from your hips. I’ve told a couple people to try that, and I don’t regret it.
Focus on keeping your casting stroke coming from your shoulder. Keep the rod pointed to the sky. You want that tip hitting 11:00 and 1:00 on an invisible clock above you. Watch your back cast all the way to the roll-out at each end. Give your neck some whiplash while assuring yourself that the line is not falling behind you, and most importantly, it is looping all the way back. Come to a complete stop at 11:00 and 1:00. I even like to tell people to imagine teleporting your rod tip between these two places, as this is where your rod should spend its time during the cast.
Hit the sweet spot: just enough false casts. Work your line out efficiently, measure your casts, dry your fly out if you really feel like you have to, but your fly will catch more fish if it’s spending more time in or on the water.
A fly cast should be symmetrical. Your back cast is just as important as your forward cast, if not more so. You should be able to see a trout behind you and drop that back cast in the same way you would a cast to your front. I frequently see beginners who do not give their back cast enough credit or time. Again, allow the line to roll all the way out on the back. I get it, I am eager too, but the same amount of time on the back cast is as critical as in the front. Mastering your back cast is a great way to keep a versatile cast, and cast incredibly well from both sides of the stream.
Keep your line on your false casts flat. Will your line travel perfectly forward and back on one plane? No. But, if you think of it this way, it helps.
Your left hand (right hand if you are a lefty) will manage the stripped out line hanging from your reel, pinching it and slowly letting out more line on each false cast. Your pause between false casts will be longer the more line you are false casting. The line being casted needs to have enough time to roll all the way out. Once you have that part down, you can use your non-dominant hand to give the fly line a bit of momentum to drive it through the cast - a double haul. Focusing on double hauling is a great way to get your casting distance to improve quickly. The energy transfer from the pump of your non-dominant hand in combination with the projection of the rod will really drive your fly to its destination, resulting in longer casts every time.
P.S. Ever tried casting into strong winds? Ever wanted to snap your rod in half? It's not like hucking a weighted lure with a spinning rod. Try a powerful and definitive back cast. You’ll be happy with the results.
Roll Casting, the Nymph Fisher’s Patron
Roll casting is a relatively simple tactic that is promoted by most fly fisher guiding companies to get day-one beginners on fish right away. I have been told trout feed on subsurface flies for well over 90% of their diet, so why not present them with subsurface nymphs? This tactic is also an essential for those that want to throw two, maybe even 3 flies with split-shots between them and an indicator on top. You could overhead cast that rig if you really want to, though I am not sure why you would.
A good roll cast will allow your line to flow all the way out without bunching up. The rod can be cocked back to about a 45-degree angle, dragging the line (from the front of the rod) towards it. Once the line has a little bit of a D-shaped loop working behind the rod, that's when you want to push the line out towards the water, moving the rod to the frontside 45-degree counterpart. The line will finish its intended roll, finishing with a straight line out as your end product.
The Bow-and-Arrow Cast, Impress Your Date
I don’t know about you, but just about every girl I’ve ever ended up dating, I’ve taken fly fishing first. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I always did. Maybe it was a test to see how much they actually liked fishing like they said they did, or maybe it was just that I fished that much. Either way, I am currently single.
I will tell you this, though… Seeing a clean bow-and-arrow cast is pretty impressive, and who doesn’t love showing off a little? As cool as this cast looks, it truly isn’t too hard, though it can go wrong quickly.
The main part of this cast is to grab your hook behind the point. Right where the shaft bends entirely around is where you want to pinch. This is easiest to do on a hook larger than a size 16 depending on who you ask. As the bend of the hook is pinched, point your rod at where you want the fly to be. This cast will only go as long as the rod plus the length of line extending to your hand, likely two rod lengths. This cast is for placing a fly in incredibly tight overgrowth and under vegetation, so as nice as distance is to have in a cast, that won’t be the goal here. Once the rod is pointed at where you want your fly to land, pull the fly back with the intention of bending the rod upwards with a tight line. Once you feel that you have enough power stored in the rod to send your fly to that pesky, sipping trout, simply let go. I have a fiberglass 2wt that is my bow and arrow rod for really tight alpine streams, and it’ll still throw a decent loop.
Euro Nymphing, Fancier Than Your Friends
Czech, French, Polish, Spanish…Do you need to know more types? Maybe, it depends how impressed you want your friends to be. All jokes aside, Euro nymphing can be an incredibly efficient and successful form of nymphing in the right situation. Can a Euro setup out-fish a traditional American nymphing setup? Definitely. I am done asking myself questions.
This tactic isn't widely used among fly fishers in the states, though it should be. This can be an incredibly productive technique for the experienced fly fisher or even a first-day beginner with a little bit of practice. If you’re teaching someone to fly fish and the trout are only working subsurface (which nine times out of 10 is a better way to get on fish initially), set them up with a Euro rig instead of untangling their “American” nymph setup after they roll into a branch or try to overhead cast it.
The most important thing here are tight lines! Not just when a fish hits, but through every drift. Heavy nymphs and unique "indicators" (not technically indicators in the Euro world) offer a swift and efficient way to cover a lot of water, especially in freestone rivers. A heavy nymph is important to get down fast and keep your line tight. The rods are typically longer, maybe around 10 or 11 feet. The leaders are also longer featuring a section of colored line to see if your fly is at depth, or maybe a coiled line to indicate the strike.
Czech seems to be the most popular of all Euro tactics. These tight line Euro tactics feature short casts, or "lobs" to get the fly to the trout, likely upstream at a diagonal. The rod is kept high and follows the fly back downstream at the precise speed it would drift naturally. Once a hit is felt, simply set the hook.
Streams will actually move faster at the top, meaning your typical American indicator will speed up your subsurface fly, making it look abnormal to the trout. With tightline nymphing such as Euro tactics, you can actually choose your speed of drift. Some trout will just take little tastes of a fly, or swipes. It is much easier to distinguish these via feel than a conventional indicator, that may not even show these actions.
The United States Fly Fishing Team and most international world champion teams choose European nymphing as a primary way of catching their fish. Let that sink in.
Spey, King of the Kings (and Steelhead)
I feel very fortunate to live a short drive away from the namesake river for a style of spey: the Skagit. Though, as of last year, this fishery had opened for the first time in maybe 10 years, and then come this steelhead season of 2020, it had closed down again.
Steelhead fishing is tough, ask anyone, and current-day situations don’t make it any easier. Since I’ve started pursuing steelhead and salmon more consistently, I have found a burning passion for conservation. I just want to throw it out there that anyone who wants their children to enjoy a spey cast for steelhead should really be just as passionate for conservation of wild species as they are for the sport that they love.
Skagit fishing features a larger “shooting head” (front of the fly line) than its counterpart, Scandinavian spey, or “scandi.” Skagit typically features an interchangeable tip with various levels of sinking capability. Skagit also typically features the ability to launch larger flies than Scandi. Scandi, though, can provide some absolute bomber casts with such distance and looping shapes that will impress just about anyone. I am convinced that if Michelangelo fly fished, he would have a Scandi setup.
There are too many anchoring and spey shapes for me to write down here, but we still can get your fly out there in front of that fish with the basics.
You will want to be fishing downstream, and facing down or across the river. The downstream action of the cast will set you up well after each swing to get your cast initiated again. From this position, the most simple of spey casts just requires you to lift your rod tip up, drag your line back upstream, and proceed to roll out your line. This roll out would have a starting point for your rod tip at around 1:00 behind you, and a finishing point of 10:00 in front of you. Your bottom hand should move downwards, powering the rod through, while the forward motion of your top hand directs the rod. Finish the process by swinging the fly through the stream and keeping a tight line to feel each hit.
This simple cast is essentially two parts: dragging your line to your anchor point, and sending your line outwards.
Personally, I like to have a three-part spey cast: finding an anchor point, setting your “D loop,” and sending out the cast. The only difference in the 3 part cast, is that setting an anchor that you don’t have to immediately send your line out from allows for a more versatile cast and an angle change to any new spot around you. I’m not a super traditional guy and I’ve found that some really unconventional ways of setting an anchor can have useful applications.
For the three-part spey cast, I like to have the anchor set in front of me. If I am facing directly across the river and an imaginary line is being drawn across, I like to have the anchored shooting head lay down in a straight line in front of me, being perpendicularly bisected by the line across the river. At the end of the anchor stroke, my rod will be at my left side and the fly will be on my right. For the second part, the “D loop,” I like to pick up the shooting head by drawing upwards and to the right at a 45 degree angle coming across my body so only the fly and a bit of line to it is left in the water. The line will bow out behind me, shaping up like the back end of a capital “D.” Once the bow has reached its climax and has not fallen, that’s the time to send out your fly.
Now that you’ve learned all about the different types, I challenge you to go out and find your favorite cast.