Long Distance Fly Casting Techniques
To be able to fly cast 80 feet or not.
Does it matter?
No, argue many dry fly anglers. After all, since we fight drag by having slack line on the water, we can’t mend or set the hook with 80 feet of line out.
But wait, insist streamer anglers. Since we feel strikes by having tight line on the water, we can set the hook with 80 feet of line out.
Well, like they say: there are two sides to every argument.
And sometimes a third or fourth.
Consider this scenario: You’re fishing a fast, rocky river, so instead of wading you’re making long casts. But you keep missing your targets. And even though it’s the first day of your fishing trip, you’re already exhausted.
Is there any way around these problems?
I’ll answer the question this way: you show me an angler who can cast 80 or 90 feet, and I’ll show you an angler who can accurately and almost effortlessly cast 50 or 60 feet.
And so for many frustrating and often discouraging years I experimented with long-distance, fly-casting techniques. Now that I have dramatically increased my casting distance, I’d like to share those techniques with you.
But before I begin let me say I’m well aware of the “Open-Stance” method or way of long-distance fly casting. My purpose is not to compete with that way, but simply to describe another. In the end, I believe each caster should experiment with as many techniques as possible and see what works for him or her.
GETTING STARTED. Use a short piece of string or yarn for a fly. A long, 9-foot leader will help reveal some of your casting defects. During each practice, try to focus on one technique. Don’t worry about putting all the techniques together until you feel good at each one.
POWER STANCE AND GRIP. (I’ll assume you’re right-handed.) Start with your feet about shoulder-width apart, a little closer for more power, a little wider for better balance. If you’re casting vertically put your left foot forward about eight inches and point it at the target. Point your right foot about 30 degrees to the right of the target. If you’re casting off to the side, point both feet a little more outward. With your shoulders facing the target, bend your knees and put your weight on the ball of your front foot. To make a long-line pickup, bend forward and hold the line just behind the stripping guide. Point the rod at the water, with the rod tip about an inch above the surface. Grip the rod lightly with a slightly bent thumb on the side or on the top of the handle.
LONG-CAST SEQUENCE. As a general rule, casting slightly upward will help keep your loops tight; so, if there is no head or tail wind, aim your first back cast upward about 30 degrees. Aim your next false casts and your presentation cast at a slightly lower angle or parallel to the water. (Aiming your presentation cast too high, especially if you are casting a long-belly line, will cause the belly to pull your cast down and kill it.)
For maximum distance, your back and forward cast must form a straight line (180 degrees).
If you’re casting weighted flies or sinking lines, aim your false casts upward about 20 degrees.
And remember: apply maximum force only at the end of your presentation cast.
However, at least four basic casting defects will cause your cast to lose power, and therefore change your intended trajectory: 1. Starting your cast after, or well before, your cast has unrolled and, in effect, shortening your casting stroke. 2. Accelerating your back cast haul too slowly. (Because there is no back-cast wrist snap, your hauling acceleration should be faster on your backcasts than on your forward casts.) 3. False casting, especially a weighted fly, too hard for the length of the line you have out. (When the line unrolls it will snap like a rubber band and create slack) 4. Shooting line without increasing the acceleration of your casting stroke and your haul. 5. Your back and forward cast form an angle greater than 180 degrees, and you therefore lowered the rod tip from the target line. As a result, your fly rod unloaded too early.
ANGLE OF THE ROD. Some casters argue the vertical cast is the most efficient. Others disagree and cast with the rod tip pointed outward. Besides, they say, this is a safer way to fish that makes it easier—especially for us older guys—to turn our heads and watch the back cast unroll without turning our shoulders, and inadvertently moving the rod.
Maybe so, but the important point is that if your cast is not under powered, and if you do not move your rod hand in a convex motion and lower the rod tip from the target line, the fly will not hit you or the rod. The following casting defects will cause you to move your hand in a convex motion: 1. Pulling your elbow back. (Your elbow should move back because of your rearward body rotation. To me, making a back cast is more of a lifting or a flexing up motion than a pulling back.) 2. Beginning your forward cast with your elbow behind your rod hand, and therefore being unable to lead with your elbow during your loading move. 3. Breaking your wrist more than halfway during your forward-cast power snap. (To prevent this, try to pretend you’re hammering a nail.) 4. Lowering, instead of just rotating, your shoulders. 5. Stopping the rod too late. (This sometimes happens because of starting your weight shift before your casting stroke, or because of quickly accelerating your back cast, but not abruptly stopping the rod with a short, upward motion.) 6. Beginning your cast with your rod hand too low for your intended trajectory. (For example: if you want to execute a cast parallel to the surface, you must finish your back and forward casts with your rod hand at the same level.) 7. Casting with your elbow too far out from your body. 8. Having your right foot too far back or pointing too far outward.
But in the real world of fishing, even the best casters make imperfect casts, so I recommend wearing sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat, using shorter leaders, and casting heavy flies and sinking lines with the rod tip pointing out to the side.
To simplify my descriptions I’ll assume you’re casting vertically. (If you’re casting to the side, adjust your rod-hand position more outward and less upward.)
BACK CAST. First, remove all slack from line. Aiming upward, slowly start your cast by slightly lifting your elbow, and moving the rod in sync with your rearward body rotation. Slowly tighten your grip. When the rod butt reaches 12 o’clock to the target line, quickly increase your acceleration—I call this my power acceleration—and execute your haul. (More about hauling later.) For maximum power, keep looking straight ahead. When the fly comes off the water, abruptly stop the butt at about 1 o’clock. Your weight should be on your right heel if your rod position was vertical, on the outside of your right foot if your rod position was out to the side.
Ease up on your grip. If you stopped the rod by moving it upward, lower your rod hand to casting-level. Turn your head and watch the cast unroll.
(Some casters feel they increase their power by rotating their forearm and palm outward during their back cast so that they can then execute their forward power snap with a sharp, twisting motion.)
Because you probably won’t be able to accelerate your back cast as fast as your forward cast, begin your next back cast when your forward loop is about three feet long. Experiment to see exactly how long. Rotate the imaginary clock face, and again stop the rod butt at about 1 o’clock to the target line and your forearm at about 12 o’clock. If you’re casting vertically your right elbow should be a few inches behind your left shoulder, and point outward at an angle of about 60 degrees to the target. Your wrist should be at about eye-level.
If your loop turns sideways or swings open, you moved the rod in a curving motion or pulled your elbow out and back on your back cast.
HAULS AND DRIFTS. The more line you are false casting the faster and longer you’ll have to haul. To keep your line from tangling, pull about three feet off the reel. (If you’re casting on a weight-forward line, you’ll begin hauling when most of the belly of the line is outside the rod tip.) During your back-cast loading move, keep your hands at the same level. When the rod butt points to about 12 o’clock, begin your power acceleration and your downward, back-cast haul. Haul at an angle of about 60 degrees to the water so that at the end of the haul your line hand is at about 8 o’clock. (At the end of your forward, false cast haul, your hand will point to about 7 o’clock.) To lengthen your haul, execute it at a steeper angle. Haul hard enough to keep your loop tight. (You’ll accelerate your haul faster than your cast.) Breaking your wrist as much as possible, snap your haul hand down. Stop the rod and haul at the same time. Immediately begin your upward haul, giving back line at the same speed it is unrolling. (If you still add slack, you stopped your downward haul too late, or your cast was under powered.) Do not prematurely move the rod tip back! When the fly passes you, turn your head, but not your shoulders, and watch the line unroll. Move your line hand up to, but not past your rod hand.
Not moving your line hand up far enough may cause you to then begin your forward cast by moving your rod hand before or faster than you move your line hand. Because this will add slack between your hands, you won’t be able to fully load the rod, and your cast might collapse.
And remember: the stronger the wind you are casting into, the shorter, later, but faster you might have to haul.
To make a long, presentation cast you must add a drift move after your last back cast. So, keeping your wrist stiff, your elbow in place, and your shoulders level, wait for your back cast to unroll about three-quarters of the way, then move your rod hand back, but not past your rear shoulder. Slightly break your wrist back, and point the rod lower, to about 2 o’clock.
At least three defects will cause you to add slack: 1. Drifting too fast or too far. 2. Not hauling fast or far enough. 3. Beginning your forward false cast too late.
On false casts, unless you’re trying to change trajectories, shorten or eliminate your drift, and therefore reduce the risk of adding slack.
On your presentation cast, haul as hard as possible, and concentrate on stopping the rod and letting go of the line at the same time. (Momentum should force your hauling hand well behind your front thigh.)
To make an effective back cast haul, I find it helpful to visualize a loose rope connecting my rod and line hands. When I stop my rod, I imagine the rope snapping tight and stopping my hands.
Finally, to become a really good hauler, practice throwing a ball left-handed.
FORWARD AND PRESENTATION CASTS. We should start them before the back cast loop opens. (The heavier my fly or the faster my line is unrolling, the earlier I begin my cast.) To start your forward false cast, keep looking over your rear shoulder and push off your back foot. With your wrist locked, begin your forward cast in sync with your body rotation. (Watching your rod hand during the cast will help prevent your casting arm move ahead of your rotating body.) Move the rod butt perpendicular to the target line. When your casting arm is extended at about halfway, begin your power snap and haul. Abruptly stop the rod and haul when the rod butt reaches about 10:30. Ease up on your grip. Your right shoulder should be slightly ahead of your left. Your weight should be on the ball of your front foot.
If you want to finish your forward false cast in position to increase the length and power of your back cast you can: 1. Speed up your forward false cast (if you get a tailing loop slow down your haul) and end your cast with your weight on your toes and with your right shoulder well ahead of your left. 2. Execute your cast parallel to the water so that you’ll begin your back cast with your rod in a lower position. 3. Add a drift move by slightly lowering the rod tip.
As soon as you finish the cast shoot up to eight feet of line. (As the line slides through your curled fingers keep moving your line hand up so you’ll be able to reach your rod hand before the cast unrolls.)
To make a long presentation cast, begin with the rod drifted back, then push off your back foot. Again move rod butt perpendicular to the target line. When your arm is extended about three-quarters, execute your power snap and haul. Fully rotate your body, extend your casting arm and stop the rod. (Again, the butt will point to about 10:30)
Your front leg should now be straight, and all your weight on your front toes.
To reduce friction between the line and the guides, immediately raise the rod butt, so that the rod points to the target line. Do not lower the rod tip from the target line!
Finally, if you do everything right but you still can’t get the fly to turn over, add line tension just before your loop unrolls by raising the rod tip, or by beginning the cast with a little less line off the reel than you want to cast.
To make a long roll cast, start the cast just before the line stops moving.
OVERHANG. Overhang is the amount of running line between the rod tip and the belly of the line. As you increase your overhang you must also increase the acceleration of your casting stroke and haul.
If you use too long an overhang your loop will not turn over. If you use too short an overhang the belly will pull your line down and cause the head to land in a ball. Experiment to find the longest overhang you can handle, but keep in mind: the more long, false casts you make the more you risk adding slack, so once the belly of your line is outside the rod tip, try to make your presentation cast after your second back cast.
To increase your overhang try: 1. A heavier, stiffer rod. 2. A shooting-head line. 3. A line one weight lighter than your rod. 4. Practicing shooting line as your last back cast unrolls.
HOW MUCH LINE DID I SHOOT? I use the counting method. For example, if I fully accelerate my casting stroke, then shoot line for as long as it takes me to say 1,000 I know I shot almost 10 feet of line.
TAILING LOOPS. Some common causes are: 1. The rod tip is moved in a concave path because too much force is used early in the casting stroke. 2. The casting stroke is too narrow for the action (bend) of the rod. 3. Executing a presentation cast with too short of an overhang.
WEIGHTED FLIES. Will cause your casting loops to widen, so increase your acceleration on your casting stroke and haul and stop your rod butt earlier on the imaginary clock face. If that doesn’t work, shorten your overhang.
Remember: At high speeds, weighted flies, if they hit your rod tip, can break it. To fish below the surface, therefore, I like to use lighter flies and sinking lines.
IF YOU DECIDE. Whether it is necessary to learn to cast 80 or even 90 feet and endure hours and hours of casting trials and tribulations is up to you.
But if you decide it is, try not to get discouraged. Long-distance fly casting, like hitting a good tee shot, is a lot harder than it looks. Luckily, however, studies have shown that frequently visualizing proper athletic techniques is often more effective than practicing them.
For us older guys, isn’t that something to be grateful about!?
I’m a native New Yorker. My writing has appeared in many publications, including The Flyfisher, Flyfishing & Tying Journal and Fishing And Hunting News. I’m also the author of the historical novel, The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make Peace With the World.
Much of my writing is about the techniques of spin and fly casting and about the spirituality/recovery of fly fishing. I often fish the streams of Westchester, the piers of New York City and the lakes of Central Park.