Fly Casting for Beginners

Everything you need to know to get started in the challenging world of fly fishing.

If you fish, you know how intense the sport can become. We watch thousands of anglers talk, fish, shoot video, fail to catch fish, and have epic experiences with fish. Fishing as a sport has grown steadily over the years, and the advent of the internet has allowed us to see fish we would only have seen on television shows only ten years ago. So fishing is growing in popularity and with good reason. Since we are anglers in the business of providing information, education, and entertainment to the angling community, we watch the numbers and trends closely. Of all ways to catch a fish, fly fishing is the fastest growing subcategory of the sport. It is challenging while being gentle, but the toughest way to catch a fish short of noodling (with your hands). Let's work to teach you how to cast a fly.

There are thousands of YouTube videos showing you how to fly cast, or you can learn from a friend or buy a book or three dozen like we have over the years. However, nothing is going to teach you better than experience. For that reason, we have put together a combination of stories–like this one–illustrations, audio, and video that you can use on a tablet or a smart phone outside in a big, open, and hopefully grassy spot to learn how to cast a fly rod and the incredible weightless lures they are able to deliver like a practiced angler.

A Beginner’s Guide to Casting a Fly

It is likely that unless you are the son or daughter of an angler, you are learning fly fishing as an add-on to an existing passion. To learn fly fishing, you really have to learn motion and energy transfer to a much greater degree than if you were using a spinning rod. A spinning rod basically grabs energy from your arm and wrist and transfers it to a ballistic missile; the lure. The bend (action) of the rod determines how well or not so well the energy transfers to cast the weighted lure. Although an experienced angler can teach a person to cast a spinning rod fairly easily, teaching somebody how to cast a fly rod is more challenging and requires a good deal more dedication and practice to master even after the student learns the basics.

Weight and Energy Transfer

When you cast a lure–be it a jig, a swimming lure, or a topwater–the weight of the lure being thrown towards the target takes the line along for the ride. The energy transfer from a spinning rod or bait casting rod is to the lure. It is flying and pulling the line behind it. The exact opposite happens when you learn to cast a fly. Flyline is heavy and it’s the line you learn to cast. The lure is weightless (any serious weight causes friction in the air and pulls energy from the line where it belongs). You learn to cast the line, and the lure comes along for the ride. Tough? You bet. But if you watch the trends, adding the challenge and beauty of a fly rod is something a lot of anglers want to do. We hope this helps.

fly castingOne of the volunteers at a recent Mote Marine event, where we helped teach children (and an adult or two) how to cast a fly rod. The skill is a bit challenging to master, but well worth the effort. It is among the fastest growing and most rewarding of all the many popular techniques.

The Overhead Cast

Fly fishing, like we said, is a challenge. But it is far from impossible, and if you watch an experienced fly fisherman do it, they can make it look like a dance; a planned and silent dance of line and water and fish and air and lure. There are as many tricks to the sport as there are colors of lures for trolling in saltwater, but there is one basic fundamental cast you have to learn first–the Overhead Cast. We will talk about this and the second cast you should learn, the Roll Cast. From there, all the variations talked about or whispered among fly fisherman are variations of one of these two.

Forward and Back Casts

When you cast a lure that has weight to it and brings the lure along for the ride, you do not have to worry so much about a back cast. You can gain extra distance if you do start the forward cast with a back snap, because it can add additional energy to the rod fibers. But you can just as easily throw out the lure behind you and snap forward to shoot it toward the target. When you are casting the weight of the line, however, you have to be just as accurate with the back cast as you do with the forward, or landing cast. It is a forward cast that gets the lure to the target, but the one move that gently drops the fly near the hungry fish is a series of back and forward casts in harmony and rhythms. There is a rhythm; a dance; a cadence.

The back cast is the beginning of the cast. Done correctly, it transfers muscle energy to the fly rod and, in turn, to the heavy line. Think of it (the line) as a long heavy weight you are laying down in the back cast and pushing forward on the forward cast. But it is muscle power and fly rod transference of energy that lays out the line. They are called loops among experienced fly fishermen. Until the end of the cast when the angler lets the fly settle to where they wanted it to go, the forward and back casts are very much alike.

fb castsAssuming you are casting to the left, the green lines show the rod gathering energy on the back cast, and the red lines show the forward cast bringing energy into the rod before it is released near the target.

The Back Cast

As we mentioned, there are two different parts of the cast: the back cast and the forward cast. Together and in rhythm they create the overhead cast. Both the back and forward cast could not be accomplished if the fly rod was stiff and had no bend because the rod itself acts like a spring, transferring power to the line gradually. The line begins to accelerate, getting faster until it pauses at the end of the back cast, at which point it becomes the beginning point of the forward cast. Being smooth and gentle will help you feel what we are talking about better than any description.

Back Cast A: Position and Load

Start with room behind you and strip off about 30 feet of line. Hold it in your right hand in large loops (if you are a lefty, swap hands). Study the illustration below of the hand holding the rod. We strongly suggest that when you start to learn, you hold your thumb directly on the top of the rod handle. It will serve to aim the line, and the line will follow its direction, making it easier to feel the line. More experienced anglers might have a different opinion, but try it our way for starters. Another thing to consider is how you position your feet. Point your left foot towards the target and angle your right foot at a forty-five degree angle pointing outward. These might seem like small details, and you will no doubt eventually develop your own style and feel, but that is the nature of Fly fishing. It’s all about touch and feel–for you and the fish.

backcastAThe best way to hold the rod is with your thumb directly on the top.

Positioning your feet properly is important. If you are right-handed, assume the spot you want to lay that fly on is 12:00 when looking down on yourself from above. Then, stand with your left foot slightly in front of you pointing at that spot, and your right foot slightly to the right of that and pointing towards 2:00. Never forget that your job is to transfer energy from yourself to the rod and then to the line. Your right shoulder holding the line should be above that.

Back Cast B: Lifting, Not Jerking

The secret to a good back cast and forward cast is in the timing. You start the cast with the rod pointing slightly forward, and lift it to transfer the power to the rod, and hence the line. Starting with the rod in the forward position, lift it in such a way as to increase the power. Start softly and pull harder at the top. This is not done with give wrist. If you look at the position of the angler in this illustration, the shoulder arm, elbow, and wrist are all involved. The motion of your body will eventually be as smooth as the line. They are one thing, really. Lift the line and feel the rod act as a spring. The line will lift and shoot toward the back.

backcastbBeginning the lift to transfer energy to the rod.

Back Cast C: Letting the Line Roll

At this moment, if you did it correctly, the line will begin to unroll behind you. As you started to lift it and steadily increased the force of the pull, it loaded into the fly rod. Pause the rod at about 1:00 and that loaded spring will transfer. You can see the loop in the image below. The better you get at handling the rod and the fly line, the tighter the loop.

backcastcThe rod becomes fully "loaded." The line begins to unfold over and behind you.

Back Cast D: The Pause

There is a moment of perfection you can witness if you look back over your shoulder, as you can see our little figure doing in this illustration. It is that moment when the fly line accepts all the energy you loaded into the rod and it extends to its maximum reach. Regardless of how experienced you become with the long rod (as we call them), you might still find yourself among those of us who love to watch the line unfold. You will also notice that the angler’s left hand–the one holding the rod–has moved up closer to the rod and is in full control. Once you get really good, there’s a trick you can apply here to increase your casting distance, but for now, stick with the simple back cast we are illustrating here. The use of double-hauling is something we will cover in a more advanced story and video.

backcastDThis is the full extension of the line on the back cast. You will continue to let the rod drop slightly before you begin the action for the forward cast.

The Forward Cast

When you push the line forward, you are loading the rod exactly the same way you did it for the back cast. And the timing is every bit as, if not more, critical. You’re going to make more than one back cast and one forward cast. The process of reaching the target is normally two, three, or more combinations of the two. The last forward cast is where you let the fly settle to the water. The distance you need to reach determines how many casts you need to make, although under saltwater conditions, distance often requires addition of a shooting line and the ability to add additional power. Regardless of how good you get, though, you are not going to reach the fish with one back cast and one forward cast. You’re going to load that rod in a series of both until the end.

Another point we should discuss here is whether or not you should keep your wrist stiff. A lot of teachers tell you that you should always keep your wrist stiff and apply motion through your shoulder and elbow. We’re mixed on this and believe that a little wrist at the right time adds feel and distance to the cast. Whether you hold your wrist stiff or use it a little bit, make sure you don’t overuse it and that the transfer of energy from your body to your shoulder to your elbow to your rod is correct.

Forward Cast E: The Line Moves Forward

The moment the line reaches its full extension, push the rod forward while changing its position from 1:00. The handle and core of the fly rod begins to move as if you are hitting a nail hard with a heavy hammer. Remember, it is more important that you begin the movement and increase force smoothly, increasing power as the line begins to move forward. You do not change the position of your hand at this point. Your thumb is on top of the handle and you’re starting to put pressure on it to begin pushing the handle to its new 10:00 position. You haven’t changed the position of the rod, and you’re still holding onto the line with your left hand. You can really feel it at this point once you do it a few thousand times.

forwardEPause, feel the weight and begin the forward cast.

At this moment, you’re beginning to push the line forward, pushing energy into the rod so it loads like a spring. Each of these critical moments can be seen as individual frames, but they come together to create the cast. Remember, it’s the line you’re casting; the fly is simply coming along for the ride.

Forward Cast Position F: Full Power

This is where the power comes in. You push forward with your shoulder, arm, elbow, and a little bit of wrist if you can feel the line at this point. If you can’t feel it, you keep your wrist stiff and the line falls too soon. This is where you load the rod with energy, and the line shoots forward. There is only so much power you can push into that rod. A common mistake many newbies make when learning to use a fly rod is pushing too hard or using their wrist too much. If the line falls on the back cast or forward cast, pull it in and start again.

fowardFYou will feel the energy transfer and "load" the rod.
It is here you will begin to haul the line.

You want to transfer the energy smoothly with increasing force as the loop forms and opens in front of you. If you try to push the rod too hard, or (worse) try to add too much addition power with a flick of your wrist, the loop will collapse as the load in the rod releases too fast. You want this entire process to be smooth. Smooth is good, pushing too hard is bad. As you get better and learn how to add more power to the rod without pulling or pushing it, your distance will improve. Trust us. Get good at reaching fish 40 or 50 feet in front of you and you’ll be fine for now.

Body, shoulder, arm, elbow, and, eventually, wrist come into play and push power, or load, into the rod. Try not to push too hard or over use your wrist. Smooth and flowing energy transfer is what you’re looking for, not sheer power and distance. Fly fishing is a very touch-critical fishing challenge. You’ll eventually learn to cast further, but first you have to learn how to cast correctly and with grace. In some ways, it’s a form of dance.

Forward Cast Position G: Maximum Load

It is at this moment, when the hand is down in the 2:00 position, the rod becomes loaded with as much energy as it’s going to get on its own. Don’t try this until you are pretty good at just laying down the line, but it is here that experienced fly folks add additional load into the rod and the line by hauling it. The line is already moving and the rod is letting energy move into the line. This double haul adds power and can result in further casts. You don’t have to lap haul the line to learn how to smoothly perform back casts and forward casts, though. It’s a lifetime learning experience. Fly fishing is a process rather than a single event.


Forward Cast Position H: Add Distance or Let the Fly Settle

As the line reaches its full extension, let some of the line out. For starters, just let out 10 or 15 feet. It will lengthen the line. At this point, you can let the fly settle down or you can begin the back cast again. The rod should be nearly horizontal before you start again or at the end of a cast.

forwardHThe forward cast is complete. You drop that fly or begin a backcast for more distance.

A Final Comment

Fly fishing–just casting a fly–obviously takes practice and is not something you’re going to learn overnight or on one fishing trip. As you practice, use a fly with the barbs bent down and no point. Use one you expect to use for the fish you’re going to target. And as soon as you can, get near and on the water and start practicing for real. Wind, the lures you use, how much space you have, and other factors all come into play. If you’re new to fly fishing, you’re about to change your fishing, and maybe your entire life. Of that we are certain.

Tight lines and tight loops.

The Online Fisherman

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