By Steve Hollensed, FFF MCI

Fly fishing, like the natural world around us, has many variables. These variables make fly fishing interesting, rewarding, and challenging. No two days ever seem to be alike when we are on the lake or the stream with fly rod in hand. To me, that is one of fly fishing’s greatest attractions.

Just the simple mechanics of making an effective presentation seemingly has an infinite number of variables. For example, things like distance to the fish, depth of the fish, wind conditions, back cast room, overhanging limbs, obstructions, current speed, current direction, the presence or absence of surface waves…the list goes on and on. In the real world of fly fishing, it is truly a never-ending list of variables that the angler must deal with.

Let’s discuss just one variable for now—the distance variable. Sometimes the fish are close and require pinpoint accuracy. At other times, and more often than we would like, the fish are at our maximum casting range or beyond.

One of the most common concerns with intermediate to advanced casters is their inability to make the needed adjustments for short, medium, and long casts (for clarity’s sake, let’s say a short cast is about 20 ft., a medium cast is about 30–40 ft., and a long cast is about 50–60 ft. or beyond).

All other things being equal, to produce a tight loop that will deliver a fly efficiently to a target at various distances, the caster must change the casting stroke. Many casters have a median distance at which they cast perfect loops. But if they need to increase or decrease that distance by even moderate amounts, their loops seem to degrade and their casts lose efficiency. They are not making the required changes in their casting stroke. They are applying the “one size fits all” concept. It just doesn’t work in fly casting.

Let’s look at the properties of the casting stroke that must change as our target distances change.

Casting arc is the change in rod angle during the stroke. (if you simply move the rod back and forth with nothing but your wrist, you clearly see this casting arc. It is similar to the movement of windshield wipers.) The more the rod bends during the casting stroke, the more arc required. Since longer casts puts more bend in the rod (due to the greater mass of the longer line), longer casts generally require more casting arc. Think in these general terms: short cast—narrow arc; long cast—wide arc. How do you do this? Simply rotate your wrist during the stroke in a controlled, measured, manner. Less wrist rotation for short casts, slightly more wrist rotation for longer casts. Practice develops a controlled wrist.

Stroke length is the distance your hand moves during the casting stroke. For most casters, increased arc is easier with increased stroke length. Think in these general terms: short cast—short stroke; long cast—long stroke. Again, practice is the key.

Power in casting refers to the human force applied to the rod butt to generate the desired final tip speed. As the length of the cast increases, so should the power. One caveat here—all casts require smooth, even application of power. This additional power should be applied late in the casting stroke and very, very smoothly. Pause duration, between strokes, is the length of time required for the line to straighten after the rod has stopped. Two factors come into play here: line speed and line length. With everything else being equal, increased line speed decreases pause duration. In general terms, think slow cast—long pause; fast cast—short pause. And with everything else being equal, longer line length increasespause duration. So…in general terms, think short line—short pause; long line—long pause. 

These changes in the casting stroke are, for the most part, very subtle at common fishing distances. For example, the changes observed while an expert caster is going from 30 to 45 ft., may appear small, but if he or she maintains loops quality, they are there. When you observe the difference in the casting stroke of an expert caster’s 30 ft. cast and 90 ft. cast, the difference is clear and substantial.

When practicing, keep in mind that loop quality is the major indicator of the caster’s performance. If the loops are not as desired, then some of these variables may not be in balance.

Remember that all casts are not created equal. A short cast is very different than a long cast. Learn to change these variables in your casting stroke, and you will be able to cast tight loops over a wide variety of distances.