An Expert Guide to Fly Fishing Casts

When it comes to fly fishing there are a lot of different styles of casting. Fly Fishing Expert Joseph Smith goes over the main ones you'll need to land some fish this season!

A fly fisher standing in a river casts his rod.

Photo by Gavin Van Wagon

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Spin fishing and fly fishing may share many similarities, but casting is not one of them! Unlike spin fishing, which relies on the weight of the lure to cast the line out, in fly fishing, it is the weight of the line that takes the seemingly weightless fly out.

To the untrained eye, it may appear as a delicate dance of line movement coupled with the metronomic movements of the fly fisherman’s arm. This steady tick-tock movement effortlessly propels the fly to its final destination. It is not that hard, though, and you can become a fly caster with some practice.

This article will detail how to start with the basics and then introduce you to some more advanced fly casts for special situations. By and large, these advanced casts all use the same fundamental principles as the basic cast. Break out your new fly rod and reel, and let us begin:

The Grip

A hand holds a fishing rod.

Photo by Joseph Smith

Before we start swinging the fly line around, we need to discuss the grip. Often overlooked, this may be the vital piece that makes it all look easy.

To properly grip a fly rod, securely hold the rod with your thumb extending along the spine of the rod, opposite of the reel. Do not hold too tightly, as you will tire your arm out and overpower your casts. Hold it like the fish you caught—tight enough to control it but not so tight you kill it. Your thumb will impart the power of the cast, so placing it along the spine of the rod will keep the power where it needs to be. The thumb points where the rod tip will go, and where the rod tip goes is where the line will shoot.

With the other hand, hold the fly line. The non-dominant hand controls the amount of line that is being cast. The other control point is under the pointer finger of the dominant hand. This serves as a pinch point for the line against the rod. You will always need to control the rod and line to cast well.

The Basic Cast

Breaking Down the Basics

Before we get into the mechanics of the cast, there are a few items we need to discuss. First, you need to bend the rod or load the rod to shoot the line. The monofilament leader will not do this; the weight of the fly line will do this. Therefore, you need to have the fly line out of the guides first to load the rod.

The other key point is that when casting, you will be making a loop of the fly line to achieve the best aerodynamics and hence distance and accuracy. As you move the fly rod, the energy of the cast is transferred to the fly line, and the loop of the line will unfurl and delicately present your fly on the water. The line must unfurl for best results with both the back cast and the forward cast. For this reason, when starting out, position yourself so you can watch your back cast as well.

Another essential point is that to create the tightest loops and the most efficient energy transfer, the rod tip must move straight, not an arc. To do this, the tip should move from roughly 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock. These are the standard positions for the basic overhead cast. Because the physics of casting is energy transfer, the casting stroke should be an acceleration followed by a crisp stop. This stop helps load the rod and transfer energy to the line. To make this movement, both the forearm and wrist are used. The traditional way is to use your forearm and lock the wrist, just like a hammer to drive a nail. The new approach is all about flicking the wrist. Many people prefer a wrist snap at the end of the motion for that smooth acceleration and quick stop. Which method you use is not important, just as long as you are not straining, and it is comfortable. Ultimately you may find a combination of these techniques works best for you. The main point is keeping a smooth acceleration followed by a crip stop.

Getting into the Cast

Ready to cast? Here it is! For the overhead casting stroke, start one step at a time. Stand sideways and watch it in both directions. It is just a three-count movement. On count one, snap the line back. Watch it unfurl. Count two, bring it forward and watch it unfurl. Remember to pause in between the back and forward cast. If you hear a snap, you are not pausing, and you will snap off flies when fishing. Once you are comfortable with moving from count one to count two and back and forth, it is time for count three. As you bring your rod forward, for count three, drop the rod tip to 9 o’clock. This will lay the unfurled line down on the water.

With practice, you should be able to cast up to 30 feet consistently and accurately with this. This distance is sufficient to catch most fish. Practice this and practice this. Do not worry about these advanced casts until you can master this. This will be the basis for all the others.

Double Haul

This cast is designed to increase line speed and shoot line, and it’s great for windy conditions. Although it is much like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, it too can be mastered with some practice.

For this cast, start with your basic fly overhead cast. Just as you feel the rod load, right before you move forward, pull quickly down on the line with your non-dominant hand. This will increase the line speed and further load the rod. Bring the non-dominant hand back to meet your casting hand as the line comes forward. This is a single haul.

For the double haul, just repeat this on the back cast with a quick pull at the start and let the hands drift back together as the line unfurls behind you. When you get into the groove, your non-dominant hand will be making a small circle during the cast to control the line tension and make the hauls at the appropriate time. With practice, this will become second nature, and you will find yourself doing it not just on the salt flats but also on the trout stream.

Reach Cast

This is not a cast, it is more of aerial mend of the line. Rather than wait for the line to land on the water to mend the line, this cast will provide the slack in the line for a drift-free float. This cast is important for fishing on streams. To make this cast, start with the basic cast. Before you lower your rod, allow the rod to shoot a little more line out. As the extra line is coming out, reach the rod out to the desired side. If done properly, the terminal end will be accurate with the fly landing where the rod tip was originally pointed, and just the last 10 feet or so will have extra slack that will allow for a drift-free float.

Tuck Cast

The tuck cast is great for nymph fishing or any other time you want to have the fly hit the water first. By having the fly land first, there will be less monofilament to cause drag, and the fly will sink faster and get to the desired depth quicker. To make a tuck cast, start again with your basic cast. Make a quick little lift with the rod tip at the end of the forward cast. This will hinge the line and allow the fly to land first and get down in the water column.

Parachute and Pile Cast

These two similar casts are used in rare circumstances when fishing downstream to rising fish. Ideally, you would reposition yourself and fish upstream to these fish, but sometimes that is not possible. With the parachute or pile cast, you can create enough slack in the line to drift your fly to the rising downstream fish.

To make the parachute cast, use the basic cast but end the forward cast high. Once the fly has landed, lower the rod tip at the current water speed to give the line slack for a drag-free drift. To make the pile cast, start with the basic cast. End slightly higher than average on the forward cast and quickly lower the rod tip. If done properly, a pile of the slack line will be in front of you, allowing the dry fly to drift downstream. This is not an accurate cast, and it is difficult to do in windy conditions.

Steeple Cast

The steeple cast is great to know if there is an obstruction behind you. This is a basic cast but on a different plane. Make the back cast in an upward motion stopping at noon. Once the line unfurls, bring the cast forward, stop at eye level, and lower the rod.

Roll Cast

Not every cast can be made in an open area. The roll cast is highly versatile and can help make casts when in tight quarters.

To make this cast, start with the line in front of you on the water. Lift the rod tip smoothly, stopping at about ear level or 11 o’clock. Let the fly line fall behind the rod and make a “D.” It is ok to have a pause here. For the success of this cast, the line must be behind the rod. Once this D has been made, with the rod tip pointing in the direction you want to make the cast, make a powerful forward cast, and use the water surface tension to load the rod and cast your fly.

A man gets ready to do a roll cast with a fly rod near a body of water.

Getting ready for a roll cast. Photo by Joseph Smith

As a tip, if you get snagged, an overpowered roll cast can often help you become dislodged. Simply strip out some extra line, then make a dominated roll cast in the direction of the snag. Often this will pop the fly out of the snag and let you keep fishing.

Snake Cast

The snake cast is like the roll cast. To make this cast, start with the line downstream of you and make a roll with the rod, making a lowercase “c” in the direction of the river. At this point, the line should be in front of you. Now transitioning into a roll cast, the fly should land where you want it to go.

Curved Cast

Occasionally, you will want a curve in your line to cast around an obstacle or perhaps work a fly along a bank before retrieving it back toward you.

To make a curve cast, simply make your basic cast but do it from a side arm position. The line will hook by overpowering the forward cast, and you will have a curve to your left. You will slice your cast and have a curve to your right by underpowering the cast. Often, by underpowering your cast, accuracy is sacrificed. Bring your basic cast over your non-dominant shoulder and then overpower the forward cast to get a more accurate curve to your right. This will create the curve to the right.

Bow and Arrow Cast

So, this cast is the exception to the rule all these casts are based. This cast is unlike any other. This is a great cast for small streams where any other cast would be impossible due to bushy overgrowth and other obstacles.

Hold the line with your non-dominant hand just above your cork grip to make this cast. Point the rod where you want the fly to go. Pull the line back to your ear and load the rod, much like a bow. Make sure your casting hand holds the line tightly under the index finger against the rod. Then let go of your line in the non-dominant hand (keep the line pinched with the dominant hand), and the rod fling the fly where you want it to go. With this cast, you will not be shooting line. The distance will be dictated by where the line is being pinched against the rod with your index finger.

A man is doing a bow and arrow cast with a fly rod near a body of water.

Doing a bow and arrow cast. Photo by Joseph Smith

Practice

So as tempting as it may be just to do these casts while fishing, you will be a better angler and much more successful if you practice casting before you go. You can always purchase a practice caster for use around the office between Zoom calls, but also practice casting on your lawn.

As a word of caution, please attach a leader to your fly line as you will destroy the tip of your fly line casting on grass or the parking lot. Likewise, tie a tuff of yarn or a strike indicator to the end to protect your leader. This will give you a visualization of where your cast is going, and it simulates the weight of a fly.

Remember, do not become discouraged. Casting on the water is always easier than casting in your backyard. The water surface tension helps load rods. You do not need to be an experienced fly fisher to master these casts. The more you practice, the better you will become and the more fish you will catch. If you need any help, please reach out to a Fly Fishing Expert here on Curated. Tight Lines!

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Written By
I am an avid fly fisherman. Luckily, I have a pond in my backyard exactly two minutes from my fly tying bench. If there is open water, I will fish just about every day. Although I grew up fishing the fabled streams of Pennsylvania, I love to travel and fly fish for diverse species both fresh and sa...

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