5 things you need to know to improve your casting
by Todd Tanner
I watched a fly fishing film the other day and I was struck less by the size of the trout, and by the gorgeous scenery, and by the anglers — who were young, attractive and flashing great big toothy smiles — than I was by something that seems to fly under the radar on a pretty regular basis nowadays.
The people in front of the camera were poor casters.
Does that seem weird to you? Because it sure did to me. I honestly don’t know why anyone would make a fly fishing film with anglers who have not yet mastered the most basic element of our sport. It’s like shooting a basketball documentary with players who can’t dribble, or making a cooking show with a chef who doesn’t know how to handle a kitchen knife. Maybe the times have changed, but I just can’t imagine an icon like Warren Miller producing a great ski film with skiers who struggle to make decent turns.
Yet there they were … two folks decked out in the latest gear, and smiling into the camera, and casting like they had absolutely no clue. Watching them flail away made me wonder if the reason we see so little casting in fly fishing films and videos is because the anglers simply aren’t up to it. (Watching them also made my shoulder ache.)
Now I wouldn’t bring this up if there wasn’t a rock-solid correlation between our ability to throw a nice line and our ability to get it done on the water. But we do need to cast well if we want to maximize our angling success. That’s just the way it works.
Back when I was guiding on the Henry’s Fork and the Madison, I spent a ton of time talking to my clients about casting. Twenty five years later nothing much has changed. We teach our School of Trout students great fly casting form right from the start, and we also teach them how to identify and correct their mistakes. After all, solid casting is the foundation of fly fishing success.
So what can you, as a beginning or intermediate angler, take away from this particular story?
1. You should take the time to learn good form. Casting a fly rod isn’t quite as difficult as swinging a golf club or hitting a baseball, but it does require that you understand the basic mechanics. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether you learned those mechanics from a book, a video, a friend, a guide, or an actual fly fishing icon like John Juracek or Andy Puyans. You still need to understand how to hold, and move, the rod.
I’m not going to go into all the details of good casting — you can learn more here — but you should keep in mind that the line tends to follow the rod tip, and that good casts typically start at the shoulder rather than the elbow or the wrist.
2. Remember to focus on your line handling skills. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen over the years who don’t have a clue how to hold the line, or control the line, or lengthen or shorten the line while they’re casting. Good casting requires good line management, and that means your hands have to work together, in concert.
Is that a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time? Yes, it is. So concentrate on perfecting your line handling skills until muscle memory eventually takes over and it all becomes second nature.
3. Fly rods need to bend in order to work correctly. (Don’t believe me? Try to cast with a pool cue.) Why is that ‘bending’ aspect important? Because lots of “experts” will tell you that stiff fly rods are better than not-so-stiff rods … and that’s simply not true.
The more effort you have to put into bending your rod, the more effort you have to put into your casting. And believe it or not, we’re trying to make things easier on the water, rather than harder. Long story short, it helps to fish rods that actually flex and bend.
4. Here’s a little-known secret. Men tend to be at a serious disadvantage when it comes to casting. So if you’re a man … well, bummer. You have a built-in handicap. Let’s talk about it.
It turns out that most women have a rare and wondrous skill. Somewhere along the line, they learn to listen. And they don’t just go through the motions, with the requisite nodding of the head and occasional eye contact, but somehow, and for some strange reason, they actually do hear what other people have to say. I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but it’s true nonetheless.
Men, however … nope, we don’t listen. Almost never. So when things go wrong — for example, when our form falls apart — we don’t turn to people who know how to cast. Instead, we rely on Manly Rule #6. I’m going to paraphrase here, but the essence of Manly Rule #6 is that when something doesn’t work out, we do it harder and faster. That may actually be solid advice when it comes to fighting off cave bears, or when we’re breaking big rocks into smaller rocks, but it’s not typically good advice for fly casting. So even though a fair number of you will find this tip to be counter-intuitive — and perhaps illegal — if you’re a man and you have problems with your casting, do not automatically respond by casting harder and faster. And no, I’m not kidding.
5. Practice your casting. I can’t say that enough, but I’ll try. Practice. Practice. Practice. Practice. Oh, and practice. But please don’t try to practice when you’re out fishing. Fishing and practice are two different things, and they both require so much of your attention that you should never, ever try to do them simultaneously.
Some of you may be wondering why you can’t skip practice entirely and go straight to fishing. Just off the top of my head, I can tell you that your casting will improve if you practice, and your fishing will also improve, and you’ll likely catch more, and bigger, trout. (Or bass, or pike, or steelhead, or salmon, or bonefish, or tarpon, or whatever else it is that you fish for.) And if that’s not enough of a reason, just think how disappointed you’d be if you were forced to participate in a fly fishing movie and all your mistakes were immortalized on YouTube and Vimeo. Don’t take that chance. Practice.
I’m going to wrap things up with a simple observation birthed from more than 30 years of fly fishing experience and thousands of hours on the water. There will always be slow days. That’s just the way life works. But good casting is its own reward. In fact, really good fly casting is akin to poetry in motion. It’s a treat to watch a great caster like John Juracek, or Pete Kutzer, or Pat McCabe throw those perfect, effortless loops, and there’s also a tremendous amount of satisfaction in heading to the river and holding up your end regardless of whether the fish decide to bite.
Please don’t try to cut corners. Learn to cast effectively. It takes a little time, and it requires a bit of effort, but it’s an investment in your angling that will literally pay dividends for the rest of your life.
The emotion of sheer adrenaline that follows hooking a Tarpon on the fly is unparalleled by anything in fly fishing. It is no wonder they are one of the world’s most sought-after saltwater gamefish, with shiny scales the size of a grapefruit and dramatic aerial displays. Tarpon fishing is also far from a walk in the park, your mental approach plays as big of a part as any in the equation.
TIP 1: Just Breathe.
This is first on the list, as being in control of your nerves is the foundation for successful saltwater fly fishing. When the window of opportunity strikes without warning, as it often does chasing Tarpon, you must be able to react (or not) to the situation at hand. A great exercise is to focus solely on your breath before you make a cast. If you’re lucky, there is a time buffer between when your guide will see the fish and when you have a logical shot to take. Use this time to relax your mind and body, and your chances of making a well-executed cast are drastically improved.
TIP 2: DON’T LIFT THE ROD!
For a trout fisherman it can be a difficult urge to fight, but lifting the rod when the fish eats the fly can be detrimental in making a proper hook set. Keeping the rod low and strip-setting with the fly line will drive the hook in with the pressure it needs to penetrate their bony mouths.
TIP 3: Study the Fishery Beforehand
What is the primary feed where you’re fishing? Will you be fishing brackish, off-coloured water in which the flies must hold a large profile and push water? Will you be fishing primarily juvenile or giant, migratory Tarpon? Preparing for your trip is not something to be taken lightly. Talk to people who have invested time in the fishery, or consider booking a trip through a booking agent.
TIP 4: Clear Your Line at all Costs
When a Tarpon eats boat-side, the angler is often left with a heap of line on the ground and a beast on the other end of it that is now in full control. There are few things more deflating than watching the line wrap around the reel seat and feeling the leader break your class tippet, if you have a friend in the skiff it never hurts to ask for help with ensuring the line clears smoothly.
TIP 5: Choose the Right Leader
Leaders for Tarpon fishing are often not very long, but ensuring you are using heavy or light enough material for the situation is imperative. Tarpon leaders consist of a butt section, a class section, and bite tippet. The class tippet is lighter in diameter than both the butt and the bite tippet, providing a breakable link in the leader should it be needed. A few factors that come into play when building a leader such as the size of fish, water clarity and angling pressure. Lighter bite tippets constructed of fluorocarbon can be effective in periods of high sun, flat water, or fish that receive ample amounts of pressure. I use Scientific Anglers tippet material to make my tarpon leaders, you can check out their full line here.
Lastly, have fun with it! Tarpon fishing is difficult, but the rewards always outweigh the effort when the line comes tight. There will be days when not one fish seems to want to commit, and days where you just flat out cannot find the fish. Regardless, find as much time to bask in the opportunity to chase this magnificent gamefish. Tarpon fishing is electric, humbling, and downright addicting.
Sometimes, you can’t catch what you can’t see
by Chris Hunt
I worked my way under a logjam and tried like hell to keep the rainforest stream’s water line below the lip of my chest waders. It was tough going—a younger man’s wading, to be sure.
The shiny and slippery raw wood of an ancient cedar that had fallen during a storm some years back was not something I could confidently walk across, and that meant I had to go under the giant tree in water that was a good four feet deep. The footing beneath me was solid—young karst with jagged edges gripped the rubber soles of my wading boots nicely. But it was deep, and a 40-something isn’t built to bend like that. But I tried anyway, and only once did I feel the chilly, tannin-stained water drip over waders and sneak down my back into my nether regions.
The things we do for fish, right?
But, from the bear trail above me along the stream, I’d found what I believed to be the perfect run for hungry Dollies, and the only way to get to the upstream side of it was to get past the log jam. It wasn’t optional—if I wanted to run a streamer through the sexiest water I’d seen all day, a little water in my crack wasn’t going to stop me.
I made it under the log and bounced along the creek bottom for a few steps until I was able to wade out of the depths and onto the sweet little gravel bar that marked the beginning of the run. As I waded, dozens of pre-spawn pink salmon darted between my legs. In the riffles below me, a few females were clearly scouting potential spawning redds, and I took care to not to disturb much gravel, just in case.
Below the riffle, the stream bottomed out, and got deep in a hurry. The current of the creek kept pushing against an impermeable rock bank that took a hard left and steered the water downstream at just the right speed. Through the tannic water, I could occasionally see the creamy fin-tips of hungry dollies—dozens of them. They were there. They were waiting for the salmon to spawn. And they were hungry.
I tied on a weighted purple ‘bugger, and cast the fly down and across. The tungsten bead got the fly down quickly, and I lost sight of it after just a few feet. Almost immediately, I felt the strike of a hungry char, but my set was late, and I missed the fish. Undeterred, I let it keep swinging. Another strike. Another miss. And another and another. Finally, on the strip back to the bank, I saw the fly swimming nicely in the dark water, and when a 15-inch Dolly hit it, I was able to strip-set and connect.
Fishing blind with traditional searching patterns can be really productive—traditional streamers, like Woolly Buggers, Slumpbusters and the like are staples in waters where predatory fish will strike at almost anything that looks like food under the right circumstances.
But, there in the rainforest of Southeast Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, the Dollies, while eager and aggressive, are also pretty texture-driven. If the “food” they put in their mouths doesn’t feel right, they’ll spit the fly before you get the chance to set the hook.
So, after releasing the fish I caught on the strip, I switched the purple bugger to a very similar Egg-sucking Leech with a bright, UV-sensitive pink head. While I’m sure this improved the visibility of the fly for the fish, the real goal was to give me something to see as the fly cruised through the run on the swing.
I performed the same cast, let the fly drop a bit and then tightened the line on the swing—the bright pink head was visible to me, even through the dark water, and I saw the strike happen almost immediately (and well before I felt it). I stip-set and connected with a beefy 20-inch Dolly that didn’t have the chance to spit the fly.
The lesson was simple. I needed to see the fly as much as the fish did in this instance. Hungry Dollies hate to let food go by unmolested, but they’re into food that feels right. If you can’t set the hook before they realize the fly isn’t really food, your chances of landing one drop significantly. If you can see the strike on the streamer, you can set the hook before the strike makes its way up the line to your rod tip.
A year or two later, while fishing the Bitterroot on a cloudy, blustery spring day just before the sqwala hatch in late March, I waded up to a great run, where I was sure a fat brown was lying in wait. I switched over to a streamer and, just before I made the cast, I remembered my little lesson from the Tongass. I took off the leech pattern I was using and put on a bright, chartreuse ‘bugger with a bit of weight. I made the compulsory cast just above the targeted run and watched the fly start to swing. Within a second or two, I saw the fly simply disappear.
Not waiting for the “strike,” I set the hook and was immediately connected to a really nice 18-inch brown that was staking out the current for anything that looked like food. Had I not seen the fish inhale the fly, there’s a really good chance that I would have missed the fish altogether. And, unlike those feisty Alaska Dollies, the chances of this Montana brown trout hitting the fly a second time were pretty slim.
That’s not to say that every time you fish streamers, it’s important that you see the fly. But, on dark days in dark water, I’ve found that my chances of hooking up with hungry trout—or rainforest char—are greater when I can at least see a portion of the fly. This might fly in the face of the “dark day, dark fly” mantra that I’d have a hard time arguing with, but I’ve had success too many times by simply being able to see what’s happening with my fly as it makes a swing through likely runs.
And you don’t have to go totally bright with the fly—as was the case in Alaska, just the pink head on the ESL was all I needed to let me know when the fish hit the streamer.
The next time you’re swinging big flies for trout, and you’re having hard time hooking up, consider going with something that you’ll be able to see when it’s in the water. It might make the difference between a strike and a miss and a solid hookup with the fish of the day.