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Fly Fishing - Practical Casts

[Fly Fishing Tackle]  [Fly Fishing Tackle II]  [Fly Fishing Tackle III]  [Practical Casts]  [Practical Casts II]  [Practical Casts III]  [Classification Of Fly Patterns]  [More Fly Fishing Articles] 

It was on a beautiful day 30 years ago that I first realized what a lousy fly caster I was. I had fished trout streams in New York and Maryland and Pennsylvania since I was a kid. I knew most of the bass waters of those states, too, and I'd taken a fair share of fish. So, like any 20-year-old, I thought I was plenty good.

Then I went bass fishing with Tom Loving of Baltimore. Tom was the first man to tie a fly for shad, he was one of the first to take striped bass on flies, and he was a pioneer in fly fishing for brackish-water largemouths. Those last were what we were after on this particular day. We were on Frog Mortar, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay.

"Big bass lie under those duck blind frameworks," Tom said. "You have to drop the popper right beside the blind, and then work it slow and easy."He took his turn first, while I manned the oars. Following his instructions, I held the skiff out about 70 feet from the blind, so I thought he must be going to cast to some other spot first. But after a couple of false casts he heaved that big;, wind-resistant bug out 70 feet and dropped it right against the blind. My eyes rolled back in my head but I finally got them focused and saw Tom give the bug a pop, then let it sit still a few seconds -and water flew a foot high as a five-pound black bass socked that cork-bodied fooler.

"Nice, eh?" said Tom as he put the fish on a stringer. "Nice is right," I said. "Gee, what a cast!"

Tom took a lunker bass from each of the next three blinds. Then it was my turn.

"We're too far out," I protested, as he held the boat 6o feet away from my target.

"They'll see us if we go any closer," he said. "Try it from here."

I never got the big bug close, and in the end Tom had to row me in to 35 feet. I finished up with a couple of puny Ioinchers-and resolved to learn to cast a fly the way Tom could. I soon found that you have to work at it, as in any other sport.

But you don't have to wait until you are over water to practice. You can practice in a gymnasium, or on a lawn, or even on the street. Practice may not make perfect but it goes a long way toward perfection and the enjoyment of a well-executed delivery, plus the undoubted dividend of more and bigger fish when you do get on the water, will well repay the time spent on it.

Probably the best practice outfit is an 8-foot rod and an HDH fly line. This rod and line will be light enough for lots of practice and will have the fineness necessary for making good casts. Once proficient with such an outfit, an angler should be able to cast with any fly rod and matching line. And that outfit will almost certainly prove useful in later fishing for practically any trout or pan fish likely to be encountered, up to and including those the angler may go for with light bucktails and streamers.

Once the prospective fly caster has his outfit, the next step is to pick up the rod. As in golf, there are devotees of various plain and fancy grips and most beginners have been made so nervous by all the talk that when they first pick up a rod they try to squeeze the cork right off the grip. Naturally, you can't get a smooth delivery with your muscles bunched into knots.

The rod should be grasped lightly, with the fingers held comfortably around it, the thumb placed either on top of the rod or down a bit on the side of the grip-whichever seems more natural. Either hold is satisfactory and many casters use both, at one time or another. Some casters recommend putting the index finger along the top of the rod handle, but this hold interferes with free action and power. I use the grip with the thumb down on the inside of the rod handle because I feel that this makes for easier delivery and is less fatiguing during a whole day of fishing. But there is little difference between the two suggested grips.

The fastest way to good casting is to perfect the basic straightaway forward throw. Every other cast stems from. this and I know plenty of fly fishermen who have never gone beyond it, yet take their share of fish.

There are three parts to the forward cast-pick-up, backcast, and forward throw-and each depends on the other. A good pick-up means a good backcast and a good backcast means a good forward cast.

"But how can I get out enough line to make a cast?" asked one young lad I was teaching. He pointed to the flimsy leader and two feet of line hanging from his rod tip. He'd been false casting that back and forth for several minutes, getting nowhere.

So I explained: when starting from scratch, like that, pull a couple of feet of line off the reel with the left hand, start working the rod back and forth, false casting. The moving rod will pick up the line and pull it through the guides. Then, still false casting, pull several more feet from the reel and work that out, and soon you'll have enough line in the air to make the forward cast.

Another way to get initial line out is to strip line from the reel and let it drop on the water or the ground, or on the bottom of the skiff, as the case may be, and then start false casting. On each false cast, then, shoot several feet of line out, until you have enough to cast.

For the pick-up, bring the end of the line in on the water to about 35 feet from the rod tip, so the line will not be too long to control and the weight of it won't overload, or even snap the rod tip. Now extend the arm out toward the fly, then raise the rod to a 4o-degree angle. This will lift most of the line from the water, and as you keep it coming slowly toward you, lift the rod tip slowly until only a foot or two of leader and the fly remain to be raised.

From this point a backward and upward flip of the wrist will lift the fly with scarcely any water disturbance. The line will shoot smartly back, high up, the leader and fly following it, and then roll over and straighten out. Stop the wrist and rod at about the 2 o'clock position and-while the line is still rolling over-drop the arm about five inches, keeping the elbow bent, then start the forward throw.

To do this, bring the wrist forward (not downward) with a slow snap, as if you would hammer a nail on the wall in front of you and at about the level of the top of your head. Aim the cast slightly above the parallel to the water, not down at it. Follow through with the rod and stop the rod when it is in front of you at about 45 degrees above the horizontal. The line will keep shooting on out until the leader and fly at its end will roll over, straighten out, and drop lightly to the water.

When I was telling this to Edwin Nelson one time on the Yellowstone River in Montana, he pointed out that most fly casters say that the backcast should be stopped at one o'clock. "How come you say two o'clock?" he asked.

"They may say `one'," I replied. "But they do `two.' Or more."

Even so, I went on to explain, most casters don't start their forward throw from back there. They bring their arm forward, then snap the wrist and make their cast at the 12 -o'clock position, or even forward of that, thus getting only the tip of the rod into it. When you start the forward cast from back at 2 o'clock, you get the whole rod into the cast.

"Watch me," said Edwin. "Tell me what's wrong."

He threw his line into the water, hard, about 40 feet out. Line and leader were a mixed-up bird's nest.

"Just what I've been saying," I told him. "You stopped your backcast at 1 o'clock, but you didn't cast from there. You let your arm and rod drift forward to 1 1 o'clock and then snapped your wrist. There was no place for your line to go but right down into the water. If you start the cast farther back and aim for a point slightly above the parallel to the water, the line will have plenty of time to go out, and turn over and drop, instead of banging the surface."

He did better the next time but he didn't let his forward cast go until his rod was at 12 o'clock. Again the line hit with a bang.

Like many others, Edwin was having trouble knowing just what the rod and line were doing in back of him. They believe they've stopped at one or two o'clock, when actually they have drifted forward. They imagine the line is high up in the air, when actually it is almost slapping the water behind them.

"Watch your backcast," I suggested to Edwin. "Turn your head and look back each time, to see what the line is doing. And just as you see the leader begin to drop, back there, start the forward cast. Keep doing this and before you know it your timing will become automatic, so that you know exactly what's going on behind you without having to look."

Hurrying the backcast is one reason so many anglers snap flies off. While the line and leader are still turning over near the end of the backcast, everything has slowed down. If the wrist is snapped at this point, as you would crack a whip, then the end of the leader flips around with a jerk and pops the fly off. Start the forward cast slowly and smoothly, and roll the wrist-don't snap it.

The best way to get the feel of all this is to put line in the air and keep it there. Put out 35 or 40 feet and begin false casting and keep it going back and forth, back and forth, without letting the line drop fore or aft. Do this for five minutes, rest, and then do it again. Nothing will improve timing more quickly.

The next time I saw Edwin he was ready with another question.

"Which should hit the water first?" he asked. "The line or the fly?"

Now that may not seem too important when you are using a long, thin leader because the line will fall too far back to be seen or heard by the fish you're working. But in a small, smoothsurfaced pool a line that slaps down hard is dynamite.

"How do you make the fly hit first?" was the next thing that Edwin wanted to know, so I explained that, too, pretty much as follows:

With the rod held straight up, or at most at only a very slight angle out from the perpendicular, make the usual forward castbut make it harder than necessary for the distance and aim about five feet above the surface. When the line gets out where you want the fly to drop, stop the rod tip up high, at I I o'clock. The line shooting out will come up hard against the reel core and the force of it will hold the line straight out, momentarily, while leader and fly snap down to the surface, just like a drop in baseball. Then the line comes softly down after it.

Len Kinkie was with us that day, and he spoke up. "You're always talking about shooting the line," he said. "What do you mean?"

To shoot a line, I told him, means getting extra distance without having to do a lot of false casting. Most beginners, and many experienced anglers, too, false cast far too much. You wonder if they're ever going to let the line go, and by the time they do, their timing has begun to fall off and they end with a sloppy cast. Two or three false casts should be sufficient to handle almost any cast from 15 to 100 feet. And the fewer the false casts, the less chance of frightening fish.

I showed Len how to make his retrieve from the previous cast, in strips two or three feet long, looping each one in his left hand as he did so.

"Now," I said, "as you make the forward cast, release the looped line, raising your left hand a little. The forward impulse of the cast line will pull the looped, or shooting, line out after it. You can pick up 35 feet of line, make your cast, and get 25 feet more on the shoot."

"Makes a 60-foot cast easy, eh?" said Len with a grin that meant he didn't believe it. But within ten minutes he was shooting that extra 25 feet for some very nice 60-foot throws.

A modification of shooting the line will get an angler into some tricky spots under bushes and rocks, which he could never hope to reach in any other way. Ordinarily, a cast to such a spot falls short, or the line, in making the usual wide l oop at the finish, hooks up on a branch or on the bank. This can be overcome by shooting the line as described above, but this time holding the rod "side arm," at an angle of about 45 degrees above the water. Simply make the forward cast in this position, and shoot the line, then bring the rod tip down hard in a follow through, down to only a foot from the surface. The line will go into the opening "flat" rather than in the usual wide loop, and the fly will light neatly in the pocket.

The same technique is a world-beater for casting into the wind, for it actually takes the fly under the wind.

More advanced, but easy enough to learn once the forward shoot has been mastered, is the shooting of the backcast. To do this, merely release some of the shooting line that is held in the left hand, as the backcast is made. The line will shoot out through the guides, back of you, until you stop it by clamping down with the fingers of the left hand. In this way it is possible to shoot 6 to 10 feet in back, and still maintain good control, and then shoot the rest of the looped line on the forward cast, without any false casting at all. This is much the fastest way to reach an oncoming fish.

Many difficult-looking casts are merely variations of the basic forward throw. I remember fishing a pool on Fishing Creek in Maryland, one time, and meeting a friend as I left the stream.

"I wish I could cast both right- and left-handed,"he said in an envious tone. "It sure helped you in that pool."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

Then it dawned on me. From where he had been watching, at the top of the pool, standing well back so as not to spoil it for me, he had seen only my cast as I proceeded up the right side of the pool-the same side he was on. He had been able to see the rod working, but not to see me.

"I was fishing backhanded, not left-handed," I laughed. "I was pressed close in against the bushes because it was too deep for wading farther out. And the fish were rising right against my bank. I had to fish backhanded to them."

To make the backhand cast, simply grip the rod as usual, then extend the right arm across in front of you, elbow slightly bent, so that wrist and hand are at shoulder height and the rod slants upward at an angle of about 4o degrees. Then turn the wrist so that the back of the hand is to the left side of the face. From such a position it is easy to proceed with false cast, then cast, just as in the basic throw.

Another important variation on the basic forward throw, which looks difficult, but is really quite easy, is that old favorite of dry fly men, the S-cast, or Serpentine cast. The angler strips extra line from the reel-say four or five feet more than is needed for the distance to be cast. He makes his throw, and at the end of the forward cast he stops the rod high and even pulls back with it. The line will "hit" the reel as it shoots out and will jump back and fall to the surface in a serpentine manner. Before these curves of line straighten out in the current, the fly will get at least a couple of feet of free float.

Once these casts have been mastered it is easy to move on to the more difficult throws which not only add fun and satisfaction to fly fishing, but many times put a fish in the creel which otherwise would not have been there.

The change of direction cast is a big league throw. It goes out and gets fish which ordinarily could not be reached. And although it looks difficult it is really a fairly simple throw as long as the angler will take his time and let the rod and line do the work. First, line is stripped off the reel and several false casts are made, keeping the line going just fast enough to prevent it from dropping, fore or aft. Then the caster allows the backcast to drift out behind him and pivots from the waist to the right. As he does so, he turns his wrist to the right and powers the line forward with a slow but positive snap of the wrist. The slowmoving line will go straight out to the right and fall on the water in the desired spot.

The same thing can be done to the left, in the same way: false casts are made up and down, then, when the line is behind him, the caster pivots from the waist to the left, brings the wrist around to the left, and delivers the forward throw, producing a straight-line cast to the left.

Once when I was demonstrating the cast in a gymnasium in Richmond, Virginia, a number of men came out of the crowd to ask questions after the session was over.

"Those trick casts look pretty," said one man. "And they're fine for exhibitions. But when would I ever use them?" "These aren't trick casts," I said. "They're practical ways of catching fish."

"How would that change of direction cast to the right ever pay off?" he asked, unconvinced.

"Suppose you're fishing slow water where drag is not a problem," I said. "You're in the midst of false casting when you see a riser or a cruising fish out to your right. A fish you want to get to fast. So you use the change of direction cast and you're there."

"You say that's for slow water," he said. "What about fast rivers, then?"

"Use a variation of the change of direction," I answered. "Just add a curve to it. I'll give you an example. I remember one time on the Laramie River in Colorado, I was facing upstream, close against the brushy shore on my left, while directly across the current a good fish was coming up. I couldn't face him and backcast because of the trees. Deep water ruled out wading to another position. A roll cast wouldn't have a chance for a free float because of the speed of the current. I needed to toss a curve of line upstream and across, one that would bend around to land the fly and leader a few feet downstream from the line. That would give me a couple of feet of drag-free float before the current grabbed the line and began to drag the fly. And I could mend the line to get a little more, too.

"So I turned my back to the shore, held the rod horizontally in front of me, and started to false cast up and down the river, parallel to the shore. I kept the line going back and forth slowly, just fast enough so it wouldn't hit the water. When I had enough line out, I let the backcast roll slowly downstream behind me and started the forward cast. As I brought the line forward, I turned my wrist slowly to the right, until the rod pointed four feet above where I'd seen the fish. The line turned to the right and the end of the line and leader turned over and dropped the fly right on the spot. It floated down, without drag, to the fish, and he took it hard."

"What about the change of direction to the left?" asked another fellow. "Do you use it very often?"

"Sure I do," I said. "And it really pays off. Once on the Yellowstone River near Livingston, it saved the day for me. "It was early October. The big browns were moving and I was after a lunker. I put on a No. 4 muddler and started casting straight across the stream, working the fly back through the fast current in foot-long strips. As I moved downstream I came to a bank on my right, so near and so high that I couldn't get a backcast above it. And with a horizontal backhand cast I couldn't get out to the fish. On top of all that, it was almost impossible to get that big fly out with a roll cast.

"So I thought of the change of direction cast to the left. Facing downstream and standing at the edge of the water, I started to false cast downstream and up, down and up, parallel with the shore. Then I started a downstream forward throw, but turned left from the waist and rolled my wrist : slowly to the left. The line followed wrist and rod, curving across the current to land 40 feet out, far enough to get hits from fish."

Like those men from Richmond, many anglers think these unusual casts are merely for exhibition. But they're part and parcel of a good fly caster's craft. They'll take fish he would never get otherwise. And besides that, there is considlerable fun and satisfaction in being able to toss a curve, an aerial roll, or any of the more intricate casts.

The main thing to remember is that the cast must never be rushed. Timing is of the essence and it's surprising what you can do with a fly line once you get it into the air. T hat famous fly caster, Herb Welch of Mooselookmeguntic, Maine, could actually spell out his name in the air above him (b ut not the name of his home town!), without ever stopping his line or letting it touch the ground. Welch did this to F lease show crowds, but many a good fly caster can put his line in the air and, with a circular motion of the rod tip and a well-timed roll of the wrist, make the line perform a complete circle overhead. And from any part of that circle he can deliver a fairly accurate and lengthy cast. And that is merely the ultimate in the change of direction cast.

In all casts special attention must be paid to timing. Slow and easy does it. Too abrupt a change of direction at any time in the process of a cast from pick-up right on through, can end with the angler tied in knots in his own line.

Timing is also the essence of the curve casts-the curve to the left and the curve to the right. The curve to the left comes in handy time and again and is the easiest to learn. It is done by holding the rod so that it points to the caster's right, a bit above the horizontal position. The false cast is made and then the line is shot harder than necessary for the distance to be reached. When the speeding line has run all the way out, the angler pulls back on the rod tip. The jerk of the stop kicks the end of the line and leader around to the left. With one important difference this is exactly the same technique used to cause the fly to light on the surface ahead of the line. The difference is in rod position. In order to have the fly hit the water ahead of the line, the rod is held at a very slight angle from the perpendicular; while for the curve to the left, in order to land the fly downstream from the line, the closer to the horizontal that the rod is held, the wider will be the curve. And for most purposes, the wider the curve, the better.

Not long ago an angler asked me what I considered to be the most useful of the curve casts. "The curve to the right," I answered without hesitation. "Aside from the straight-away cast it is the one most often needed."

The curve to the right is probably used more than any of the other advanced casts because most right-handed casters like to fish with the near bank on their left in order to have the casting arm as free from brush interference as possible. The curve to the right is used to drop the fly so that it will float down the current ahead of line and leader, and will be free of drag. Thus the fish will take the fake for a natural and grab it without hesitation. There are also many times when an angler wants to get around some natural obstacle or into a hole under brush where only a curve shot could take him.

The easiest curve to the right is a modification of the change of direction cast. The usual up and downstream false cast is made and then, as the forward cast is begun, the wrist is turned to the right. When wrist and rod are turned, the line will follow, gradually curving around, and leader and fly will fall on the water in an arc to the right.

I remember watching a friend take a fish from a tough spot with this cast while fishing on Rattlesnake Creek in Pennsylvania. A branch stuck out three feet beyond the other tree limbs on the right bank, to which he was casting. About four feet upstream from that branch and only a foot out from the shore, a nice fish was rising.

My friend studied the situation carefully, then swung into action. He false cast up and down the river a couple of times, shot the line out a foot from the end of the branch-and turned his wrist slightly to the right. The line went straight out past the branch but gradually the end of the line and leader curved in, and when the leader turned over it dropped the fly seven feet beyond the branch and three feet beyond the fish. The lunker slurped it in as it came over him, and the fight was on.

When my friend finally landed that fish, he turned and looked at me. His grin was wider than the curve he had thrown.

"I've been practicing that cast for a week," he said. "This was the first chance I've had to try it. It sure takes them out of the tough spots."

Where water is racing out of the tail of a pool, a loose, sloppy curve to the right is a useful variation. This curve is done from the left-hand side of the drop off, and is executed by throwing a short line, aiming 10 or 12 feet above where the fly is supposed to hit, and powering the throw only with the middle section of the rod. No tip is put into it at all. The line will go out sloppily, with no force, and will fall in a curve to the right. The extra ten feet of line cast in this casual way allows enough slack for a good float before drag sets in. In such a spot it is just about the only cast that will consistently take fish. An upstream S-cast would fall over the fish and scare him. A straight line would be whisked out of there by the fast current. And if the fisherman were to creep upstream and make a straight-across cast, the fish would see him.

Yes, curves get the fish-not only a leery trout in thin water but a buster of a bass lurking under a dock, or a flashy bonefish tailing on the far side of a mangrove shoot in salt water. It's surprising how many times a curve cast is needed in the course of a day of fly fishing.

One of the prettiest casts of all is the roll cast, and it has as much practicality as beauty. This cast is invaluable when brush or trees close behind the caster prevents a backcast. To execute the roll cast, 25 or 30 feet of line and leader are allowed to rest on the surface. Then the rod is raised to the one o'clock position so the line forms an arc from the rod tip to the water Then, when the rod is brought forward with the same slow wrist action used in the regular forward cast, the line will follow the rod, come in beside you, and roll on up and out, whereupon the fly will flip over and land gently on the surface.

A roll cast made with a backhand snap of the rod often gets into a difficult spot on the fisherman's own side of the river. And on certain angles of retrieve you can use it for a backhand pick-up, returning to the regular wrist position on the false cast. A version of the roll cast can be utilized to great advantage when the angler is casting with a strong wind behind him. The wind, in such circumstances, will usually knock the backcast down and as the fly comes forward low, it will sock him on the back of the neck or dig into his ear. But he can make the wind work for him if he uses a roll cast. That way, the line never goes in back of him to blow forward and snag him, and he can still get pretty good distance and accuracy, sometimes with a mere flip of the wrist. This was brought home to me very recently during a pack trip to the Hillgard country with Jim Goodrich of the 320 Ranch at Gallatin Gateway, Montana. Jim and I were fishing Gnome Lake when an extremely hard wind started to blow. It came roaring down over the bank behind us so it was impossible to throw a line back into that gale. The roll cast looked like the deal, but when I started to bring the line slowly back along the surface of the lake, preparatory to making the roll, the wind hit the line and held it 30 feet in the air so, with only 10 feet of line and the I2-foot leader on the surface, I made a quick forward flip with my wrist and the line in the air went on out, pulled the rest of it from the water and placed it gently down 50 feet away from me.

It is even possible to shoot a roll cast and I have seen good fly men roll out a line a distance of 8 to 90 feet to take fish they never would have reached with a regulation cast, while such a gale was howling at their shoulders. When shooting a roll cast, especially with a heavy, forward-tapered line, there should not be more than 25 feet of line resting on the water when the cast is made. If a lot of line, say 40 to 60 feet, of such weight as a GBF or GAF is left lying on the water it will be almost impossible to do a roll because of that heavy weight so far out.

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