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Basic Fly Casts

by Schmidt Outfitters

Basic Fly Casting
For a number of reasons, such as movies, commercials, and general unfamiliarity with fly fishing, many non-participants think that fly casting is fly fishing. While fly casting is only one of many ways to present a fly, most fly fishers do feel that casting a dry fly well is the most challenging and most satisfying of all fly fishing endeavors. In many cases fly casting is used to present a dry fly. A similar cast is used for casting sinking or sink-tip lines and streamers. Like the well-hit driver in golfing, a well-made fly cast probably requires the most practice of all fly fishing activities.

Learning to cast well requires knowledge of the casting process and individual practice. Like many activities that require a combination of mental conceptualization and physical activity, the technical aspects of the cast are simple and fairly easy to understand. Teaching one’s muscles to retain the memory of the cast can sometimes require hours of practice and occasional practices to “stay sharp” even after the cast is under control.

The Casting Grip
The casting grip is a modified “hand shake” grip, which some fly anglers call the key-turn grip. The caster raises a hand as though intending to shake hands, but instead grabs the handle of the fly rod. The thumb is placed on top of the rod and is used as a pointer during casting. While holding the rod firmly, but comfortably, the caster faces the target with feet shoulder width apart and the body pointing in the direction of the cast.
Using the Clock Face in Casting
Though it’s difficult to think of the technical details while casting, many fly anglers learn the fundamentals of a good cast by imagining a giant clock face in relation to the casting stroke. With the thumb on top of the handle, begin the cast at about the 9 o’clock position. The back cast is completed and the rod brought to a stop at the 1 o’clock position with the thumb pointing straight up, or about 12 o’clock. To complete the forward cast, the caster brings the rod sharply forward and stops both the rod and thumb as they point to 10 o’clock. For other casts, and for instructional clarity, clock face positions will be used to describe the casts we learn.
The Roll Cast
Roll casting is a very specific cast, most often used when obstructions behind an angler prevent a complete back cast. A virtue of the roll cast is that preparation and setup for the cast can be done at the angler’s most comfortable speed. A back cast and forward cast together must be ‘timed’ for success. But unique to roll casting, it must be done with the line lying on the water. Because no back cast is involved, the resistance of the line on the water ‘loads’ the rod and makes the cast possible.
Making the Roll Cast
Stand facing the water, as close to the water as possible. Strip about 30 feet of line off the reel and lay it out on the water. This is a more difficult exercise if you’re not capable of casting this much line onto the water. You may have to wait until you can cast the line with a pickup-and-laydown technique before completing the roll cast exercise. With the rod gripped normally and extended to 9 o’clock, slowly raise the rod until your thumb points to noon. The rod tip should point to 1 o’clock. As you hold the rod in this position, the line will slide back toward you and hang from the tip of the rod. If you need to, tilt the rod slightly away from yourself so that it hangs clear of the rod and your casting shoulder. The line should hang just behind your shoulder and curve out onto the water’s surface. You can hold this position for as long as needed. Use the time to examine the position of your hand, arm, rod, and line before making the roll cast.

Once the line and rod are in proper position, you’re ready to make the roll cast. Driving your thumb down onto the top of the rod’s handle makes the cast. With a rapid movement, bring the rod in an arc down to 10 o’clock. As you firmly stop the rod at 10 o’clock, the line will roll forward and out across the water. The keys to a successful roll cast are proper position at the beginning of the cast, a firm start of the rod, and firm stop of the rod. Even if you seldom use the cast for fishing, it’s a great cast for teaching your muscles how to firmly start and stop a forward cast. In utility and effectiveness, it is a ‘forward cast’ only.

The Opposite Shoulder Roll Cast
On occasions, because of wind or other obstructions, the normal roll cast cannot be executed. For example, if the wind is blowing from right to left for a right hand caster, the line does not want to hang properly off the rod tip. The line blows toward or even across the caster’s body, and a good roll cast cannot be executed. A caster can still successfully make a roll cast in these conditions. Here’s how: instead of hanging the line off the rod tip at the casting shoulder, hang it off the opposite shoulder. This is achieved by tilting, for a right-hander, the lower arm and rod so that the forearm is across the body, and the rod tip over and outside the left shoulder. By moving the arm and rod across the chest, the line hangs off the left shoulder in the same way it would have off the right. Any stray gust of wind will blow the line away from the body and rod, and a good roll cast technique can still be successfully used.
The Roll Cast “Power Stroke”

A great trick with a roll cast is to move the power stroke around. The power stroke is the firm, quick movement of the rod from the 1 o’clock position to the 10 o’clock position. Depending on how firmly you start and stop that movement, the ‘loop’ of the roll cast will be larger or smaller, and will be just above the surface of the water. If your amount of muscular effort and speed of execution remain the same, you can alter the height of the rolling loop above the water simply by moving your starting and stopping points in relation to the clock. For example, instead of 1 and 10 o’clock, start and stop the roll cast at 2 and 11 o’clock. The loop of your roll cast will lift off the water and roll out above its surface. Conversely, if you start and stop the cast at noon and 9 o’clock, the loop will drive across the water more closely to its surface, which is a valuable cast to use on windy days. In any case, practicing this exercise by moving your power stroke around is a great way for learning to ‘feel’ the rod and becoming more in control of what it is capable of doing.
Pickup and Laydown Cast Technique
The pickup and laydown cast is a basic fly fishing cast. It uses the fly casting fundamentals of back cast, pause, and forward cast. Every cast that’s possible with a fly rod is built on all or part of this set of fundamentals. Building a good foundation with the pickup and laydown technique will make your growth as a good fly caster much easier.
Back Cast
The back cast is critical to the pickup and laydown technique, and to all fly casting. A quality back cast does not guarantee that the entire cast is going to be good, but without a good back cast the entire cast will certainly not be good. A good back cast begins with the line extended in front of the caster. It’s best to begin on grass rather than water. The rod should be parallel with the grass, in the 9 o’clock position. Hold the line under the index finger of the rod hand, with the line pinched against the rod handle. Remember that the thumb is held on top of the rod handle. Sharply bring the lower arm, hand, and rod to the 1 o’clock position. The thumb will be at 12 o’clock. Stop smoothly but abruptly at this position. The line will be picked up off the grass and be thrown above and behind you. The back cast is completed.
One of the most difficult to learn aspects of the fly cast is the pause as the back cast completes. In order to load the rod and make most efficient use of its casting capability, the pause between the back cast and forward cast must be emphatic. After stopping the rod at 1 o’clock, the thumb at 12 o’clock, the caster waits. The difficulty apparently lies in learning to do nothing as the back cast completes. The amount of pause required before beginning the forward cast depends on the length of line being cast. The longer the line, the longer the pause while it straightens out behind you. A good starting point for the amount of pause while learning is about a second for a 30-foot pickup and laydown of line. That’s enough time to say ‘one thousand and one’ while pausing between the back cast and the forward cast. With practice, you can feel the line load the rod as it straightens. As it begins to load, begin the forward cast.
Forward Cast

The forward cast is the delivery of the line toward the casting target. In this exercise, it’s the laydown part of the cast. Make the forward cast by pressing your thumb against the top of the rod handle and pushing your lower arm and the rod from the 1 o’clock position. Do this smoothly but abruptly. Stop the rod quickly at the 10 o’clock position and as the line rolls out smoothly in front of you, gradually lower the rod and line so both are parallel to the ground as the line drops onto the grass. In a good forward cast, everything should fall to the water—the grass in the case of practice—at the same time.
False Casting
False casting is a cast that has both a back cast and a forward cast, but the line and fly are not to fall onto the water. That is, a back cast and a forward cast followed by a back cast and a forward cast, with no delivery of the fly to the water, is a false cast. The false cast can be used for several reasons:

  •  To change the direction of the cast. As you make false casts, you can turn and deliver the fly to a different point on the water.
  • To measure the approximate distance to a target before delivering the fly. With a false cast just above the target, you can assess if you need more or less line to accurately present the fly on target.
  • To build up line speed for a longer cast. By false casting and allowing line to feed out, you can deliver more line and make a longer cast.
  • To dry a fly that is becoming wet and no longer floats well. With a few sharp false casts, you can shake water from a fly that is no longer floating well enough to imitate the naturals.

Making a False Cast
Making a false cast is no more difficult than making a single cast. Begin with a back cast, and make the same pause before starting the forward cast. As you make the forward cast, stop the rod at 11 o’clock, rather than the normal 10 o’clock of the forward cast. Watch the line as it rolls out in front of you, because you’ll be making the same pause you made between the back and forward cast. In the case of the forward part of a false cast, you have the advantage of seeing the line roll out in front of you while you pause. Just before the line unrolls and flattens, make another back cast by moving the rod—which you’re holding at 11 o’clock—back to the 1 o’clock position. Pause and make another forward cast, this time all the way to 10 o’clock, and lay the line down. If you restrict your false casting to this single false cast and then a delivery of the line and fly, you’ll be amazed at its efficiency. When you begin to make more false casts than necessary, you can quickly lose the timing and rhythm of your casting. If this happens, stop false casting and begin the process again.
Sidearm Casting

A sidearm cast is kind of a “trick” cast that can be very helpful in certain situations. By turning the casting stroke on its side, more or less, you can present the line and fly horizontally and parallel to the water, rather than vertically and coming from above to the surface of the water as in a normal cast. This kind of delivery helps you handle obstructions behind you, especially taller trees that might prevent a normal overhead back cast. A sidearm cast is also helpful on windy days, since wind is often much less of a problem when you keep the fly line closer to the water’s surface. One other reason for a sidearm cast is to impress your friends: the cast appears more difficult to do than it is, and is sure to set your reputation as a casting gunslinger.
Making a Sidearm Cast
The sidearm cast is nothing more than an overhead cast laid on its side. The back cast, pause, and forward cast are exactly the same, but everything is done on a horizontal plane rather than a vertical plane. So, turn the clock on its side; that is, make 12 o’clock be straight out to the side of your casting arm rather than straight overhead. With that in mind, begin your cast at 9 o’clock (which is 9 o’clock for a normal cast, too.) Bring your lower arm and rod to the side, parallel to the ground or water, until it’s at 1 o’clock. Because the rod is moving horizontally, your elbow and arm movement will be slightly different from the overhead cast, but your rod and line should move the same. After the same pause as for the overhead cast, move your rod and arm back abruptly to 10 o’clock. You do not need to let the rod gradually move after the quickly stop at 10 o’clock, since the line is on the same plane as the rod.
Steeple Cast

The steeple cast is another kind of “trick” cast, but very useful in certain situations. Just as it sounds, the steeple cast is a very high, almost straight up cast on the back cast. Then the line is brought forward and down sharply. The result is a successful cast that needs almost no room for a back cast. The steeple cast is handy when some obstruction does not allow a normal overhead back cast. A steeple cast cannot be used for distances as long as in an overhead cast, but it is still quite useful in streams with brush and trees that grow to the edge of the water.
Making a Steeple Cast
To make a steeple cast, you must bring the rod and line sharply off the water and upwards, rather than back. The rod and lower arm are brought from the 9 o’clock starting point to 12 o’clock, rather than the normal 1 o’clock. Additionally, instead of making an arc movement with the rod and arm, you should extend the arm from the shoulder, straightening the elbow, and flip the rod tip and line upward. The energy should be thrown from your shoulder, arm, wrist, and rod into the line in an upward and only slightly backward motion. As the pause is made, with the elbow and lower arm almost straight up alongside your ear, you will feel less load on the rod. The angle of pull of the line on the back cast is lessened, the line is not straight back at a right angle to the rod, and you must be more sensitive to the timing of the forward cast. Complete the forward cast to about 9 o’clock. This cast becomes increasingly more difficult with the line lengths of more than 30 feet.