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In this article, we’re going to break down the step-by-step process for casing a fly rod. Here, we will lay out a process and formula for anyone who wants to start casting a fly rod or who wants to hone their technique.
Fly casting, and fly fishing in general, utilizes very specialized equipment with techniques specific to that equipment. For example, there are single-hand casting and two-handed casting techniques. Within both, there’s even more specialized equipment and techniques!
Table of Contents
For this article, we’re going to zero in on the “basic” fly cast. This cast may also be referred to as the “single-hand cast/technique” or even “ten-and-two casting.”
Fly Fishing Info, Tips & Tricks:
Why Trust Me and This Article to Learn to Cast?
I’ve been fly fishing for 35 years now. This isn’t to brag in the slightest. I’ve simply been able to practice, hone, refine, re-refine, and continue this process for years and years.
I’ve also been a professional guide in Southwest Montana for the last 15 years. I’ve taught many, many folks to cast who had never touched a fly rod before. I’ve helped folks who already knew how to cast refine techniques. I’ve also helped them/myself to develop adapted casting modifications for specific situations.
Such adaptations should, however, only come after the solid foundation of the basic skill has been practiced so long that muscle memory has taken over. So, let’s get that foundation set!
Watch the Video How to Cast a Fly Rod
The Single-Hand Cast
Why such a silly, obvious name for the basic fly cast? I remember a time when one would say “fly casting” and the meaning was known.
However, there are a few different casting techniques out there. Some have actually been in practice for a long time, along with the single-hand cast.
In the last decade or so, other forms of fly casting, especially two-haded techniques (using long spey rods) have also become globally popular. Therefore, it’s become necessary to distinguish.
The name(s) comes from the fact that you only use one hand (your dominant) to cast the rod and the other (non-dominant) to control the line. The casting motion is made by two strokes…the backward stroke followed by the forward stroke. This back-and-forth motion takes place between the caster’s “10 o’clock” and “2 o’clock” overhead positions.
Therefore we have the “single-hand,” “basic,” or “ten-and-two” cast.
The traditional, single-hand, ten-and-two cast employs what would be referred to as a standard rod, usually 8-9ft in length. However, 9.5′ and 10′ have become popular and situationally useful as well.
These rods also come in designated “weights” which indicate what weight line the rod is made to handle. Said weights are a standard of measurement set forth by the AFTMA (American Fishing Tackle Manufacturers Association).
Contrast that with a 12wt rod that uses a 12wt line which is much more heavy and powerful for casting big, heavy flies and battling big, mean tarpon in the saltwater.
There’s one handle, usually made of cork (but sometimes padded felt or rubber) near the butt/lower end just above the reel. As stated above, the caster’s dominant hand grasps this handle (one hand) to make the cast.
A good, middle-of-the-road setup to begin with is going to be a 9-foot rod in a 5wt rating. You’ll want to find a line that matches that 5-wt rating, usually a floating line. Also, get a 5wt rated reel to hold the 5wt line to attach to the 5wt 9ft rod and you’re good to go!
General Rod Setups/Use Examples
- 3wt, 8ft rod: small brook trout on small, heavily treed/brush-lined Eastern creeks and rivers
- 5wt, 9ft rod: great general trout rod for most of the US
- 7wt, 9.5 or 10′ rod: heavier rod for streamer fishing to big trout, bass, or even pike or steelhead nymphing
- 10wt, 9′: large permit on the saltwater flats
Now that you have some understanding of what you’re using and why, let’s get to the cast itself. Hopefully, you have now bought or borrowed a rod that you’re comfortable casting and maybe are waiting patiently to learn this technique so that you can get out on the water already!
There’s one thing you MUST know before we get started. Patience. Patience is going to be more than a virtue here. Patience to learn, patience for things to start clicking and making sense, patience to get to the point that you’re not rushing your casts and that the equipment is working for you, not you working hard on equipment.
YOU WILL MESS UP. Over and over. You may get frustrated. Some will pick it up faster than others but NO ONE does this without mistakes…even 30 years later! So let’s set that expectation right away.
It’s not easy. It is an art. It takes time to develop the skill. It’s very, very pretty when it works correctly. It’s incredibly therapeutic. But if it were easy, it wouldn’t be nearly as rewarding as it truly is.
The best place to start is in your backyard, a grassy common area, or maybe even a pond or pool with no obstructions behind you for quite some distance. No buildings, trees, bushes, bikes, dogs, or people.
The natural surface tension of water does help with the cast and it also gives you a more realistic fly fishing feel. However, grassy opens are easier to access and work perfectly well too.
At first, I recommend not attaching a fly! Pick up an inexpensive nylon tapered leader in a 7.5ft length (They usually come in 9′ and 7.5′ but shorter is easier to start). A 0, 1, or 2x leader is stronger/better for beginning practice.
If you need to mark the end of your leader so you can see it better, grab some brightly colored yarn and make a small ball or bow. Tie this to the end of your leader. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just visible.
When you’re first getting started, and even from time to time down the road, it’s a great idea to turn your head and watch your back cast. Follow the yarn from back to forward to back to forward. This will help you understand your timing and lock in the muscle memory.
All this buildup and now we’re finally here….the moment where it all begins! Be excited but relaxed and let go of your expectations.
Begin with a relaxed stance facing forward toward your chosen open area. Again, make sure there is nothing at all behind you, even up high like a power line or roof overhang.
Some may find placing one foot slightly in front of the other more natural. If so, this should be the foot opposite your dominant hand. I’m right-handed so my left foot would be slightly forward if I wanted.
The rod is then held in the dominant hand, for me that’s the right. The rod will want to sit with the reel down (and fly rod eyelets down then as well) because of the weight of the reel. This is the correct positioning. The reel is never pointed upward or sideways.
Point the rod out in front of you and you’re about ready to begin.
As mentioned, to grip the rod, use your dominant hand to grab the rod on the handle. This is called your “rod hand.” The reel and eyelets on the rod should be pointed downward with the rod tip out in front of you.
There’s usually a natural curve shape to the handle. This ergonomic curve helps place your hand correctly. The hand will angle up the cork (or other handle material) grip slightly or up to 45 degrees with the bottom/outside edge of the palm just above the bottom edge of the handle (right above the reel).
Your fingers will wrap around the handle fairly parallel to one another. The pointer finger may be extended up away from the other fingers slightly to help counterbalance the thumb.
The thumb itself is placed straight up the back of the handle, much like a golf grip. This is where power and control comes from.
I’ve seen folks try to place the forefinger up the back of the handle instead but this is incorrect. You won’t get the same power/drive as you will with the thumb.
If your dominant hand determines which is your rod hand, so too does it determine your line control hand. Your non-dominant hand is going to control line tension. This is your “line” hand.
Before you start to cast, you’ll need to strip some length of line off the reel and let it set at your feet. Fly reels are manually operated, with no fancy line-off, line-on tricks (although some vintage models had spring-loaded auto retrieve, ha!).
You’ll need about 5 ft to 7ft of line OUTSIDE (beyond) the rod tip to start as well. This is because the line has weight to it and you need that line weight outside (beyond) the rod to make a cast.
**Tip: Rods don’t like when the thick fly line is pulled into the rod (inside the last eyelet). That fly line connection/loop catches easily and the weighted line slides back down the rod toward the reel which can be quite frustrating. Leaving 3 feet or more of line beyond the tip is usually sufficient. You’ll need more for casting as stated.
You’ll then pinch the line with your line control hand with little to no slack from your fingers through the rod and to the yarn at the end of your line. You CAN have plenty of slack/extra line at your feet (slack between your pinched fingers and the reel itself) as this is the line you’ll later use to add distance to your cast.
You won’t be able to cast any line off the reel when in the casting mention, hence the extra line lying at your feet. You can only cast as far as that extra line you have lying there.
Now that you have your stance down, you have your rod pointed out in front of you, there is some extra line at your feet from the reel to the pinch on your line control fingers, about 5-7ft of line beyond your rod tip/last eyelet, and no slack in the line from your pinched line fingers to the end of your line where the yarn is, you’re ready to begin the casting motion.
Visualize the Motion First
First, before you try a cast, let’s understand the motion and physics involved:
The goal is to pull back THROUGH the rod/rod handle to flex the rod which moves the line which moves the fly. Then we push forward THROUGH the rod/rod handle to flex the rod which moves the line which moves the fly.
The casting motion should NOT be an arc (think about watching your casting motion from a side view). The tip of the rod needs to travel as straight a line as possible both backward and forward, no arcing, no dipping.
The backward motion stops at your “2 o’clock” (above and slightly behind you). The forward push motion stops at “10 o’clock” (above and slightly in front of you). This small angle from 10 to 2 o’clock is all that’s needed to make a cast.
Anything more means creating an arcing motion with the rod tip. You’d be surprised at how much line you can cast with this small movement without needing to “open up” more (say casting from 9 to 3 o’clock).
With your proper grip on the handle, to begin the back cast, gently lift the rod tip (creating and maintaining no slack in the line from your pinched line control hand to the end of the line/yarn ball) to the 2 o’clock position…up and even just slightly off to the side.
Don’t pause on your initial lift or you’ll create slack and lose tension on the line. No bueno.
From the 2 o’clock position, pull back through the handle with a quick, fairly firm, but smooth motion. Pull through your fingers into/through the handle, drawing back, keeping your wrist firm. Smoothly draw back into your forearm, elbow, and shoulder.
The elbow and shoulder both smoothly retract in sync with the casting stroke.
Picture 12 o’clock in your mind to stop the rod’s back cast. As you hit that 12 o’clock mark, stop the rod abruptly with a slight backward bend of the wrist. Just a SLIGHT bend aids in that abrupt stop. This should, in reality, have your rod pointed at 10 o’clock behind you now.
Then, reverse everything…
Start the forward stroke by pushing your thumb/thumb pad THROUGH the cork handle, wrist straight, driving from your shoulder into your elbow, forearm, and forward with your hand. Your shoulder and elbow now begin to slightly extend in unison with the forward motion.
Just before the 2 o’clock spot in front of you, begin to stop the cast abruptly. Allow your wrist to cock forward just a touch to aid in the abrupt stop. Now, your rod tip should be at/near the 2 o’clock position.
There…You’ve just completed two strokes and one cast! (Backstroke + forward stroke = 1 cast).
String a few of these together in good timing and you’re false casting!
False Casting = multiple casts in the air without stopping/hitting the water. This is how you aim and gain more distance in fly casting (discussed below). It also helps dry off your dry (floating, top-water) fly.
NOTICE… There is no “chopping” motion with the arm or rod. It’s a “pull-push” motion. Picture that rod tip and draw a straight line in the air above your head.
The goal is to flex the rod which shoots the line that moves the fly.
Think of a bow and arrow. You pull back on a bowstring to create tension on the bow. This tension released is what shoots the arrow.
It’s quite similar to a fly rod. The casting motion creates flex (called “load”) in the rod. The abrupt stop at the end of the casting motion allows the load to release like a bow to shoot the line
Picture yourself (or another caster) from right the side: the initial back cast will make the rod flex forward like a letter “C.” The casting motion comes to an abrupt stop above and slightly behind the caster. The energy/flex of the rod continues backward reversing the rod flex to resemble a backward “C” or a “D” without the downstroke. This reverse in flex/transfer of energy is what shoots the line backward.
Then the process is repeated on the push forward. The rod is already flexed backward by stopping/briefly pausing the back cast. Pushing forward through the rod and abruptly stopping the forward cast at 2 o’clock takes that backward “C” (or D without the downstroke) and reverses it again into a “C” which shoots the line forward.
This smooth transfer of load (flex/energy) is what fly casting is all about.
**If you’re using a chopping motion, or your rod tip is arcing and you’re not using the built-in flex of the rod to aid your casting.
**You don’t want to break the wrist (twisting the wrist to get the casting motion) as this will arc the tip as well.
If you do, you’re likely “forcing” your cast and using the motion of your arm to move the line around. This makes things difficult and taxing!
The simple pull-push of the arm should flex the rod to move the line which moves the fly! After all, fly rods aren’t cheap. You might as well use the equipment you paid for to do the work for you.
Let’s Do This!
Now you’re ready to string a few casts together!
Let’s lay out the steps:
- Stand facing forward, feet even, or the foot opposite your dominant hand can be slightly in front. Make sure there is nothing but clearing in front of/behind you.
- Pull 5-7ft of line outside the tip of the rod and lay it out in front of you.
- Grip the handle as stated above with your rod hand and point the rod tip out in front of you from a low, relaxed position.
- Pull a bit of line (probably more than you think) off the reel and lay it at your feet.
- Pinch the line with your line control hand with little to no slack between your pinch and the end of your line (yarn). There will be plenty of slack between your pinch and the fly reel.
- Raise the rod tip slowly and smoothly to about your 10 o’clock to create tension on the line
- Swiftly “pop” into your back cast without hesitation, rod tip high above and just slightly off t o the side.
- Abruptly stop the back cast behind you at your 2 o’clock with a slight backward cock of the wrist (think 12 o’clock overhead and you’ll most likely end up at the 2 o’clock position).
- Pause for a brief moment to allow the line overhead to travel backward and stretch out behind you.
- Push forward into your forward cast and stop abruptly with a slight forward cock of the wrist again at your 10 o’clock.
- Pause for a brief moment to allow the line overhead to travel forward and stretch out in front of you.
- Repeat the process …now you’re false casting!
- To stop casting or to land your fly on the water and begin fishing, simply follow through on your last forward cast and bring your rod tip down toward the water at the same time as the line.
Don’t worry about the line at your feet yet! We’ll talk about that next. You can also practice your false casting with no line at your feet. This means the line comes straight from the reel through the rod and out the tip.
Your line control hand will be out of the equation then but it’s simpler to begin this way. I prefer to practice with the extra line at the feet and practice that pinch with the line control hand.
Gaining Distance with the Cast
Now that you’re getting comfortable with the casting motion itself, it’s time to add some variables.
- How do you gain distance with the line?
- What is the timing regarding casting and line control?
Regarding the fly line, there are two timing issues to be aware of. The first is regarding the pause between the casting strokes. The second is regarding gaining distance/letting more line out for a longer cast.
In fly casting, you cannot be in a rush. You have to allow. The pauses are key!
There is a definite pause after the abrupt stop on each casting stroke. Pull back…abrupt stop…pause…push forward…abrupt stop…pause. The timing of this is called the cadence.
The cadence is determined by how much line is beyond the tip of your rod.
When you pull into a back cast the line flies overhead traveling backward. As the rod stops at 2 o’clock behind you, the line is curled in a “c” shape just as the rod was. The curled line is called the loop.
The pause on the backstroke needs to be as long as it takes for the loop to travel backward and open up (meaning your line straightens out behind you). When the loop opens behind you, it’s time to push forward into the forward cast.
With the forward cast abruptly stopped at your 2 o’clock, it’s again time to pause. The loop will now be reversed, traveling forward…the closed end of the loop in front with the fly/yarn trailing behind.
The pause on the forward cast is the same…long enough for the loop to travel forward and open up (meaning the line has begun to straighten out in front of you). Now you can begin another back cast.
Less line out of the rod tip means a faster cadence. More line means it takes longer for the loop to travel and open up which means the pause is longer. A slower cadence is then necessary.
Casting more line doesn’t mean you open up the stroke any wider! 10 and 2 is sufficient. Crisp strokes and a slower cadence (longer pauses) are all that’s needed!
Don’t rush your cast or you’ll lose the load (energy/momentum) you’ve built up and tangles will ensue. Don’t pause too long or your line will drop down too far and you’ll snag something, you’ll lose the load, and yes…tangles may ensue.
Tangles will happen. It’s a part of the game. But the better you get with casting and timing, the fewer tangles you’ll have to deal with.
Timing is key. This is why I always say to watch your cast, back and forth, to see and understand this timing until it’s seared into your muscle memory.
**One of my favorite techniques is to cast side to side in front of you, waist high so you can easily watch your loops opening and understand the timing of the thing.
The second timing issue is regarding gaining distance. I don’t have my clients/students mess with distance until a decent feeling of the casting motion has already been achieved.
To gain distance, you’ll let just a little line slide through your line control (non-dominant) hand while casting. This is the reason for the extra line off the reel at your feet.
Timing here is crucial as well or you’ll mess up the load/energy transfer.
To make the cast work, you have to pinch the line FIRMLY, letting nothing slide while making the stroke. Immediately after the stroke has been made and the line is already traveling overhead, then and only then can you let the momentum of the traveling line pull a few inches (to a few feet for experienced casters) through your now un-pinched fingers.
BUT…you must pinch firmly again BEFORE you make your next stroke.
This timing can be more troublesome for beginners. If you misstime this one, you’ll lose the stretch/energy in the line and ruin your cast.
You CANNOT let any line slide through your fingers at the same time you make a casting stroke. No line should be traveling through your fingers/rod at the moment you make a stroke. If you do, line stretch/energy will be lost.
For new casters, I always instruct to only let some line out on the forward cast. You can see the line/timing better and it’s easier to control than on the back cast.
Watch the Video How to Cast a Fly Rod
Practice Practice Practice
I know this seems like a lot when you’re reading it. It is. But making a good fly cast is one of the most rewarding things I can think of.
Remember the key elements and get out and practice often. The more you practice before actually fishing the more enjoyable your time fishing will be.
This is an art, it’s poetry, it’s a rhythmic dance. It’s not easy but anyone can learn. And once you commit these movements to memory you’ll rarely think about them again.
So get out there and get some casting in!
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