Don't blame your fly rod for your lousy casting

It's not the stick in your hands, it's you
Fly casting
A skilled caster can make it happen with any rod (photo: Chad Shmukler).

We write a lot about fly rods. We write about which ones we like, ones we sort of like and sometimes about ones we don't like at all. We discuss their action, recovery speed, accuracy and so on, all in an effort to help anglers determine which rod is right for them. The driving force behind this practice is the idea that certain rods are better suited to certain casting styles and skill levels and are thus better suited to certain anglers than others. And while this is no doubt true, it is important for all fly fishers -- especially beginners -- to remember that the truth of the matter is that any rod will do.

Is this to say that one rod won't be better than another at delivering dry flies with grace? Of course not. And another rod will be better at hucking a heavy nymph rig. But if you're having fundamental casting issues, it's not the rod. Not ever. It's you.

The fly rod in your hands isn't responsible for your backcast slapping the water every time you've got more than 30 feet of line off your reel. It isn't preventing you from learning to double haul (or single haul, for that matter). It's not making you throw tailing loops. It's not why you have trouble shooting line.

I have a number of friends I've introduced to fly fishing over the years. Being only a slightly above average caster myself, I'm a half-assed casting instructor at best, but simply by being an experienced angler it is easy to break down first-time casters into two groups: those that intuitively understand the basic physics of a fly cast and those that don't.

Those that "get it" right out of the gate typically become competent fly casters very quickly. For some, this can mean developing a respectable, fishable fly cast within as little as their first 15-20 minutes. But almost all anglers that instinctively understand the dynamics of a fly cast are competent fly casters by the end of their first day on the water.

The folks that don't have that instinctive understanding are the ones that flail and feverishly wave the rod back and forth in an effort to cast the fly with the rod, and these are usually the anglers that take the longest time to learn to become adequate casters. This isn't because they're less dexterous or physically equipped, it is because they lack a fundamental understanding about what they are supposed to be doing.

For some, after a few days, weeks or months, it eventually clicks and off they go. Others simply give up and quit.

But many anglers never seem to intuitively understand the basic premise of the fly cast. They eventually come up with a fishable cast, but it takes ages longer than it needs to, and their casting ability is forever limited and constrained by their fundamental lack of understanding. Instead of developing understanding, they develop crutches that help them cast just well enough, but are forever stuck on them, unable to run.

This fundamental premise is one we're repeatedly taught as beginning anglers -- that you're not casting the fly, you're casting the line.

Again, for the newcomers that "get it", this makes intuitive sense and barriers to developing an advanced fly cast don't exist. The line is something these anglers can play with, manipulate and make do what they want. The rod is simply a tool that makes doing so easier.

But how do you help the guys that don't? I fish with anglers that to this day, despite saying it till I'm blue in the face and trying my best to demonstrate it, simply can't make their brains latch onto this reality. How do you convince them that they really are casting the fly line and not the rod or the fly? How do you kick out their crutches and force them to learn?

It's a question that vexed me for years, but one that has since been answered by another angler that introduced me to Braide Sessions. Sessions is a fly casting instructor from Ashton, Idaho and the creator of the now defunct All Cast Fly Casting Championship. According to Braide, these folks -- and perhaps all anglers -- are taught to cast the wrong way by people like me and many others. So what should we do?

Take away the rod.

That's right. Take away the rod. Give them the line and tell them to cast it with their bare hands.

A fly line can't be cast without a fly rod, you say? Of course it can, unless you don't believe the old adage that you're casting the line and not the rod. The fact is that you can cast a fly line (or any type of line for that matter) without a rod and the fundamental understanding that results from doing so will provide a platform on which to build a better and better cast. But don't take it from me, take it from Braide, in the video below.


Woh! I watched Lefty talk about how important the line was as he broke down his rod and used. The bottom half of it to cast with but Braide takes it to a whole nother level. Thanks for sharing, and letting east Idaho represent!!!

To put it simpler Chad. The newcomer that "gets" it and us experienced fly casters we "FEEL" the rod load
Our sport is one of feel. Until that newcomer can "feel" it, they'll struggle!

I agree Marc, it quickly turns into "feel", but I think that for beginners, wrapping your head around what is supposed to happen with the line comes before feel does.

Even when beginners that don't have the proper expectations of how the line is supposed to behave accidentally put together a forward and backcast that lay out and roll forward properly, there's not an immediate "ahah" moment. Not right away. Because there's no instinctive understanding of why it is working, there's no positive feedback that tells them "yep, that was correct."

I think the key to Braide's method is that by removing the rod, you literally force the caster to understand the dynamics of the line. Then, when they graduate to the rod, they're just extending their arm and making it much easier to manipulate the line. The ability to get positive and negative feedback from their efforts and their understanding of how to manipulate the line with the rod is built in -- because they're doing it much in the same way they did without the rod.

Jamie Lyle the Sage rep used to do this a bunch back in the day, maybe 15-20 years ago. Even had the same special gloves setup for it. He could bomb casts that way. I've heard Lefty Kreh would do it now and then too. I can cast it that way too, but maybe only 50 feet or so, no where near these guys.

I like that you hit on the fact that the rod does not make a great angler. It is an absolute truth.
The use of "casting" a piece of yarn is a great exercise that many instructors (including Joan Wulff and Mel Krieger) have used for many years to demonstrate and show the importance of using good mechanics/technique to fly-cast. Casting practice with yarn is also a great way to work on your casting when you don't have a yard, or pond at your disposal to practice on.

There are some things that I felt should of been discussed about how to improve ones casting other than using yarn and hand-casting a fly-line. Mainly, that you cannot beat getting instruction from a competent casting instructor who can effectively communicate, demonstrate, and get their students to diagnose and fix their casts on their own time. Period.

This has to happen before someone starts trying to cast yarn, and especially before hand-casting fly-line. Also, Braides technique is great for him, but it is NOT the most efficient way to hand cast a fly-line. Is it cool? Yes. Is it a great way to demonstrate the three most essential principles of fly-casting? Sure. Could it be done more efficiently? Definitely. You will throw out your shoulder trying to hand cast the way he does it. His hand-casting technique flies in the face of another absolute truth about fly-casting: If you find that fly-casting is hard work, your are doing it wrong.

Perhaps I will have to post a little movie of my own ;) I am a self-taught caster, a guide, and a certified (via the Federation of Fly-Fishers) casting instructor, I understand the frustrations and pitfalls from trying to learn fly-casting from books, and trial-and-error. In this day and age, there are many qualified instructors located around the country, and tons of media and information available. However, without a good first-step, and someone competent to guide you, it is a bear to learn how to become a more efficient caster on your own.

The rod should be blended with accurate fly casting technique too! Choice in every fishing step with technicality sought must be perfect ever. One must understand the fundamental casting abilities!

As a guide Norman, I see people day in and day out that "understand the fundamentals of the cast" in other words, they know what they SHOULD BE doing but still can't get their fly to go further than 5 ft in front of them. It's NOT until they FEEL "it" that it then clicks and they can make a decent cast! Just my 2 cents and almost 20 years of guiding.

Great article, spot on !
I've been casting with my hands to demonstrate to my classes that the skills are independent from the tools.
The problematic posed by Fly-Casting learning is about the mental representation of the factual biomecanics to acquire the skills.
On the other hand, it requires teaching competences to give the learner the best imagery to understand the process at early stage beginners level. Terminology must keep simple yet pertinent. The challenge relies also in contradictory principles such as : to reach far distance, one need to PULL strong.
Usually to throw something further, we naturally PUSH it. One of the possible images of a similar principle and tool could be the bow. For the arrow to go further, archer PULLS the bow back while the target is forward.
Yet it is only by a performant tangible analysis therefore understanding of all physics rules and anatomical biomecanical aspects of Fly-Casting that a successful instructor can genuinely bring his learners to reach their quest.
As for judo doesn't start with black belt, Fly-Casting doesn't begin with double hauling.
Objectives must keep simple and adapted to the level of the student. Before reaching a target, before reaching even a distance, the very first objective should be to align the flyline.
Asking what the eyes see or think they have seen after demonstrating a cast is the opportunity to deconstruct a false mental representation spread by the most inaccurate yet popular imagery that have been spread out unjustly in the domain of Fly-Casting : the 10 o'clock 1 o'clock rotative movement. Far from complete if not totally false, this urban legend is misleading even advanced anglers even today.
Sawing a log is certainly a way more accurate analogy to the biomecanics involved since the evolution of fly rods from bamboo to modern composites such as kevlar, graphite, boron or carbon, occasionally fiberglass.
In France, the vision to bring more of the public to fly-fishing lead to think about a universal academic teaching to grant an easier access to the sport.
The performance in casting is not relevant but being a skilled teacher is an Art.
And we keep learning a lot from our students...