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.

Stroke length

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.

The elbow

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 the video below.

Tailing Loops

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.

Lazy Loops

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.

Casting into the wind

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.)


Lefty Kreh says to keep the elbow on the shelf. Lefty made excellent casts without tailing loops. Your article says not raising and lowering the elbow is one cause of tailing loops. Why did Lefty’s casts did not have tailing loops?

Hi Mark,

Thanks for your question; it's one I receive often. When observed from the side, Lefty's elbow frequently did appear to move parallel to the ground, hence his advice to "keep your elbow on the shelf". But if you looked at his stroke from above, you'd see his elbow was also simultaneously moving away from his body on his backcast, and toward his body on the forward stroke. This elbow movement—which is exactly the same thing I'm talking about, simply done in a close-to-horizontal plane—kept his loops from tailing, and his fly from ticking or catching his rod. In other words, he used the same stroke I'm using, but mostly in a different plane. I was never certain as to why Lefty so seldom elaborated on this distinction, because it's important for avoiding tailing loops. String up a rod and try it for yourself. With fundamentally sound elbow movement, it's extremely difficult to tail your loops.

Hope this helps. Thanks again for your question.

John Juracek

We frequently move our elbows when casting large pike, musky and bass flies.

You don't explain why you want to move your elbow. Conversely, Lefty explains in great detail the physics for his steps. Narrow loops are a primary goal. The rod tip path and LENGTH determine loop size and distance. Your videos show no change in the angle between the forearm and the upper arm; ie the elbow is frozen but moves up and down. The up/down movement introduces a very small change in the rod tip elevation, thus avoiding tailing. But longer casts need longer rod movement or stroke; both you and lefty agree. That's where ar, on a shelf comes into play. That is achieved via turning at waist and shoulder and extending the hand (changing the angle of the elbow) both behind and in front of the body. If your timing is perfect and the forward path exactly duplicates the backcast, you indeed get a fly hitting the rod tip. So some "elbow up and down " helps give minute rod tip elevation differences. The use of minute, short wrist movements does the same thing.

I have a simpler question, John. When you, and other fly fishing authors, are talking about a 20 foot cast does that mean 20 feet of line plus a 9 foot leader, or, do you mean 11 feet of line and a 9 foot leader? Thx -- David

Hi David,
It means line and leader combined. (We measure distance from our feet to where the fly lands.)