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Studying Fly Casting Theory and Practice

posted October 17, 2020

Coeur d'Alene river


Earlier this year I had a chance to fish the Coeur d'Alene river with an excellent guide named Greg from Northwest Outfitters. I caught my first ever cutthroat trout on that outing, but it took a lot of coaching to get my casting to the point where a strike was even minimally feasible.

Among other things I was given some very useful feedback about mending, but I am certain my inability to achieve any significant distance, accuracy and delicacy in my casts prevented further success in getting trout to strike. At one point, my guide pointed to what he described as a massive trout along the far bank, and did his best to coach me into casting and mending sufficiently to get my fly into the strike zone, but I just wasn't able to perform. The trip was excellent, the river was beautiful and having only caught a few rainbows as trout are concerned, I was very happy to have landed my first cutthroat. But it became exceedingly clear I would need to go out of the way to study fly casting, the theory and practice, if I want to see any serious improvement in my angling.

Coeur d'Alene River

Practice: Back on the Boise River

It feels good to be back on the lower Boise River after a year of abstinence. Generally I am not one to take much pleasure in the aesthetics of cityscapes, but I do love the Greenbelt and walking along an expansive urban fishery, which in various places runs directly adjacent to additional urban fisheries (ponds, mostly). Other than the day trip earlier this year, my "practice sessions" over the past few weeks represent the first time this year I have dealt with a fly rod and tackle.

Walking to and from my truck on the way to the spot I have been frequenting, I have had many passerbys, in jest and in earnest, inquire about "where the fish are at?", or "what they were biting on?". My reply has been to say I am mostly practicing my casting form. This is generally true, but let it not be mistaken: I have not stepped into the water without a fly on the line.

Even still, I was not observing much activity in the way of feeding fish and certainly no strikes, so in the absence of such "distractions" I found it easy to focus on trying to apply the theory I have been studying in regard to fly casting.

Studying the Theory

After getting back into the motions a bit, I had a renewed sense of how little I understand fly casting and how many variables are in play in terms of timing, muscle memory and all the rest of what goes into delivering a fly delicately and elegantly on a consistent basis all while maintaining balance in the river (wading is something I am not richly experienced with) and minding the complexities of the current and the demands it places on casting precision. In order to tighten up my areas of weakness, I tried to recollect the key elements of coaching I have received, and also turned to some of the following resources:

The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide by Tom Rosenbauer

The Orvis Fly Fishing Guide book cover The Orvis Fly Fishing Guide (Amazon)

Back in December (2019) I purchased Tom Rosenbaur's The Orvis Fly-Fishing Guide, which I read partially over the course of the year. Recently I skipped ahead to the chapter on "Fly Casting" to make sure I really understood the theory, and to try and develop a very clear visualization of what I ought to be working to achieve in form isolated from the chaos and complexities of actually being on the water.

The chapter features descriptive paragraphs and associated graphical depictions to facilitate a functional and kinesthetic-provoking visualization of the proper movements and timing involved in a basic cast. Reading through the initial section of this chapter a few different times definitely supplemented my appreciation and experience with other resources, and helped me call some key points to mind on the water when I perceived I was slipping in one area or another.

Mad River Outfitters

Fly Casting 101 | Getting Started In Fly Fishing - Episode 14 Mad River Outfitters, an excellent educational resource for people in my wading boots

Another resource I heard many good things about is Mad River Outfitters. Although I had watched one or two of their videos briefly in the past, I had never paid any significant attention to their content up to very recently. I quickly discovered one of their introductory videos on fly casting and watched it through. I found it lifted some of the fog from my understanding of terms, phrases and concepts referenced frequently in discussions I had heard about fly casting.

Most notably, I have heard "clock" references all over the place, from the Meat Eater podcast to a casting instructor who gave me a free lesson right when I was getting started last Summer. There was even a case where one afternoon on the river, trying to introduce fly casting to an equally inexperienced ex-coworker who happened to be in town, we had someone pass by on an inter-tube call out "10-2, 10-2!". The coworker knew full well I was new to this, so expectations were low, but the point I want to get across is, I only sort of understood how these clock-hand positions were supposed to help me orient my casting, until I watched this Mad River Outfitters video and followed up with the Orvis Guide reading.

Focus Points that Have Helped Me Improve My Fly Casting

I do not know exactly how embarrassed I should be about not having fully understood the "clock model", because I find it difficult to say what it was I was failing to articulate. But it became clear exactly how to utilize it. Picture a profile of a human standing up, holding a fly rod and directly facing towards the 9 O'clock position, with arm and rod unified and extended from this center as a clock-hand.

Everything else sort of falls into place from here, as it becomes obvious the 7 O'clock position indicates a rod pointed down towards the water, the 9 O'clock position indicates a rod held parallel to the water surface, and a 1 O'clock position indicates a rod lifted just past a perfectly vertical orientation.

With this understanding in place, I was able to consolidate the advice from the coaching I have received and the resources mentioned above into some of the following focus points which have helped me achieve some noticeable improvements in form over the past few weeks:

  1. Stand with a stance oriented such that the act of looking over the shoulder on casting-arm side is quick comfortable and convenient movement; then, actually look and observe what the line is doing on back cast
    • This was a major point of struggle pointed out by both professionals instructors who have offered me coaching; I had (and to some extent continue to have) a strong mental resistance to observing what goes on with the line once it leaves my field of vision; this is in part driven by an obsessive feeling that taking my eyes off of where I want the fly to land ultimately would disorient the whole casting effort. It has taken some conscious effort and acceptance of a few consecutive lousy back-casts to adapt to the initial disorientation of shifting my visual focus over the duration of the cast, but the new feedback of seeing the line behavior in full gives greater form to the theory and leaves you with so much more to work with when making micro-adjustments to form
  2. When initiating a back cast, begin the primary acceleration of the cast when the point where fly-line-meets-leader leaves the water
    • Before having read this, there was an awkward uncertainty about initiating each of my casts, and the lack of confidence this inspired probably contributed to a certain amount of inadequacy in my casting; having this visual 'anchor point' to stimulate my muscle memory provided a vital boundary to my mental model of acting out the casting process
  3. Initiate forward cast when the line has straightened out
    • Similarly, the straightening out of the line on the back-cast forms the opposite boundary, and together these anchor points really helped me develop my sense of timing by reducing uncertainty and increasing confidence
  4. Make sure the line-hand "moves in keeping with the cast"
    • I had and continue to have a bad habit of keeping my line hand stationary while my casting side (right arm) does all the work; conscious movement and dexterity in my casting hand have improved my ability to achieve greater distance in my casts, by reducing resistance on the line during the forward cast, and actively releasing and stripping line as seems appropriate
  5. The elbow is the fulcrum point of the cast, and should NOT shift
    • This was another key point of struggle for me, and one which focusing on brought noticeable improvement to the consistency and stability of my casts; it takes a very conscious effort at first to make sure, with everything else to focus on in the process of a cast, that the elbow remains relatively fixed in position; the advice that really helped me work on this point was to spend a series of casts with eyes focused exclusively on the orientation of the casting elbow throughout the casts; I find having no physical anchor point has kept this somewhat difficult to achieve consistently, but this is one of the first areas I direct my attention to if I notice my casts getting wildly disordered
  6. "Paint the Roof of the House"
    • The Orvis Guide does a good job of elaborating on this point, which I also had some trouble processing at first; essentially, the idea is the rod tip should move along the same vertically oriented plane throughout the course of a cast (nothing should probably be made of this, but this visualization was genuinely giving me flashbacks to studying multi-variable calculus); this is as opposed to "painting the roof of an igloo", alluding to motion that would move through multiple vertically oriented planes in your casting space; I do not currently spend quite as much time focusing on this one because it seems to come naturally from keeping the other points in check, but it does serve as a useful tool for making minor adjustments once I am confidence my elbow is not shifting inappropriately
  7. Make a conscious effort to achieve the "elegant wrist snap"
    • I was able to pick up on this by drawing from my experience with disc golf, where I have learned a certain smooth "wrist pop" motion is inherent in a clean backhand drive. Where as above I described certain anchor points I use to guide casting rhythm, the focus of this point is more like the "melody" (behavior) to act out in the course of a cast; the 'jerk' of beginning and ending acceleration at the 9 O'clock and 1 O'clock positions, as far as I can tell, has to be deliberate at first; focusing on this sensation also sort of forces attention on where the rod is starting and stopping throughout the motion, because it forces you to think about when you need to apply that quick and smooth 'jerk' motion;
  8. Pay close attention to the leader
    • This one seemed less relevant at first maybe, but adding some length to my leader, which was down a few feet in length from where it started, affected a noteworthy improvement on the elegance of my casts made with otherwise the same average proficiency of form
  9. Adjust to timing queues
    • The Orvis Guide really helped me with this one, as Rosenbauer elaborates the implications of a bad cast on whether your back-cast was too prolonged, or cut short; rather than try to give a poor elaboration here, I recommend exploring this point in one of the sources I referenced
  10. Follow-through on forward cast
    • I think this one is fairly self explanatory
  11. Overcome the temptation to false cast repeatedly
    • Part of this might just be not wanting to look quite as stupid to onlooking experienced fly anglers, but I had to really attend to cutting back on the temptation to false cast 10 times in order to obsess over my form; making adjustments over numerous complete casts improved my consistency, I feel
  12. Release enough line to work with
    • At a certain point I realized I was not getting any distance because I had hardly any line in my line hand, compared to where I was trying to position my fly
  13. Trying switching "rudder" from thumb to index finger
    • Although The Orvis Guide suggests holding the rod with thumb in-line with the handle should be most comfortable for most anglers, I found, at the recommendation of my fishing guide earlier this year, it seems easier psychologically to maintain a straightened form when placing my index finger over the rod handle; it seems more intuitive to point to where I want my fly to land with my index finger than my thumb; I will continue to pay attention to this to see if any averse consequences are resulting that I am not yet aware of

I definitely want to emphasize I do not think I am some sort of fly casting guru after 4 weeks (really, 8 or so sessions of 2-4 hours) of practice. I would not be surprised in the least if a stranger observing my casting approaches to offer some advice for correction. I just want to share and elaborate on the areas of focus which as far as I can tell are helping a novice achieve noticeable improvements in the quality of my basic casting, in a matter of weekends.

Once I am generally satisfied with the performance of my average cast, I want to focus on mending line properly, as I identify this as the next most significant improvement I can drive at to increase the duration my flies achieve in the strike zone. I have certainly not ruled out seeking additional professional instruction, and will continue to study the sources addressed here and likely seek out others as well. I will be sure to follow up about any notable improvement as I continue to work on my form.