5 fly casting tips

Fighting tailing loops, lazy loops, finding your stroke length and more
fly fishing on Nez Perce Creek in Yellowstone National Park
Casting on Nez Perce Creek in Yellowstone National Park (photo: John Juracek).

In the process of teaching fly casting, certain faults of technique show up regularly among my students. In the notes I send to each student after a lesson, I find myself frequently reiterating certain basic principles. Here are a few of the most common. I hope they’ll stimulate you to think about your own casting.

The length of the casting stroke varies with the length of the line.

The rule is this: “Short line, short stroke. Longer line, longer stroke”. Most anglers are unaware of this concept, and try to use the same length stroke for all line lengths. As a consequence, their fly and leaders rarely turn over with authority. But adjusting your stroke length to the line length is absolutely essential to good casting. It’s what allows you to maintain complete control of your line, leader and fly at all times.

In a mechanically sound casting stroke, the elbow moves up on the backcast and down on the forward cast.

There should be no pushing-and-pulling, parallel-to-the-ground motion with your arm or elbow. Ever. The elbow moves up and down—always. It may be a short up and down motion (as in a short cast), but it’s always present. See video of this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oEtfIV1pOqk

If you find yourself tailing your loops (getting wind knots) or your fly ticks your rod as you cast, your first corrective thought should be to raise and lower your elbow during the stroke.

Most people think tailing loops are caused by uneven power application (shocking the rod). While that is one cause, in my experience it’s not anywhere near the most common. Most loops are tailed because of a failure to raise and lower the elbow during the casting stroke. Raising and lowering the elbow (which raises and lowers your rod) creates a clear path along which the line can unroll without hitting the rod or colliding with itself.

If your leader and fly turn over in a wide, lazy loop and pile up on themselves, shorten your stroke.

Authoritative turnover of leader and fly is almost never about equipment, and only rarely about using more effort. Rather, it’s about using the proper length stroke. Most folks need to shorten their stroke as the first step towards a powerful turnover of their fly. In almost all cases, shortening the stroke means not taking the rod so far back on the backcast.

To cast into the wind, find the right stroke length first and then speed up the stroke as necessary.

No amount of effort or speed will offset a stroke that is too long to begin with. I don’t care if you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1975, if your stroke is too long your line and leader will simply never straighten out. But by combining the right length stroke with a little more speed, most people can cast adequately even in fairly strong winds. (Your elbow better be moving up and down when you increase your speed, or you will tail your loops.)