The secret to better casting is to let the rod do most of the work. Fly rods are flexible, and by moving the rod so as to bend it, you store energy in it. If the rod changes direction or stops, that energy will be transferred to the fly line, sending it through the air (hopefully towards your target).
A quick word on fly rods
Today’s fly rods range from stiff (fast action or tip action) to flexible (slow action). Stiffer action means faster movement of the rod is possible, whereas slower action means that casts must be slow and leisurely to avoid tangles and other problems. Beginners usually perform quick, jerky casts, and will usually find they have less difficulty with a faster action rod.
How to Hold the Rod
Grip the rod gently, with your thumb on top of the handle and pointing towards the rod tip. Your thumb will be used to control the angle of the rod and the direction it points, and therefore where your fly will end up.
Getting started: half a cast
Take up comfortable stance, with either one or both feet facing forward, with your arm raised and hand holding the rod over and slightly behind your head. An additional two rod-lengths of fly line should be lying behind you on the ground.
Bring the rod tip over your head (rather like a ‘serve’ in tennis, but a little slower). Do not bend or flick your wrist but keep it locked so that the butt of the fly rod handle remains close to your forearm.
Making a Loop
You need to move the rod at the right speed so that the line will form a loop. Too fast and there will be no loop at all: too slow and the loop will be too big. Start the forward movement fairly slowly and then gently accelerate to a stop. The rod will bend away from the direction you are moving it in, then straighten as you stop the forward motion. This bend is what sends the line traveling with little effort from you.
Stopping the rod at eye level
Do not follow all the way through, but stop your ‘serve’ once the rod tip is in a forward position at about eye level. Then, as the loop travels down the line, gently lower your rod tip back to the ground. You want to see your line stretching out straight in front of you. If you do, congratulations on your first cast! If you do not, keep trying until you can see a loop moving down the line and until the line stretches out straight in front of you.
Tighten the loop
Practice until you begin get a feel for when to stop the forward casting action so that you form a loop in your fly line. Then work on making a smaller loop.
As you become familiar with the casting motion and what you need to do with your arm, you’ll find you have more and more control over what happens, and you’ll gradually be able to narrow the loop in the line. This is the basis of casting a fly. The narrower the loop, the further you’ll be able to cast your fly.
Your first cast
Start with your fly rod in a forward position, rod tip pointing down, line laid out flat on the ground. Begin your cast by bringing the rod up and back into the starting position for your half cast (again, using the same smooth acceleration). As a beginnner you definitely want to look at your line to see how it moves while you do this: you should see it stretch out behind you with a loop (just as on your forward cast).
Between the back cast and the forward cast there must be a very brief pause. This pause is equivalent to your ‘stop’ from the forward cast, and it allows the rod to straighten and transfer its energy to the line. Then, just before the line completely straightens out, perform your forward cast. Again, remember to keep your wrist locked. Flicking the wrist is the most common mistake people make.
There’s much debate over whether overhead or side casting is ‘best’. Whilst you’re still learning, side casting allows you to have an idea of what your overhead casting action looks like, and this is invaluable. We’d advise you to learn both, and then make up your own mind when to use one or the other.
How to cast? Rather than raising your arm over your head, keep your forearm parallel to the ground. To go back to our tennis analogy, if an overhead fly cast is a serve, then the side cast is a little like a forehand slice. Other than that, the same rules apply: keep your wrist locked, and create a tight loop in the line.
Vary your casting length
When actually fishing, sometimes you will need to send the line over shorter or longer distances, so practice both longer and shorter strokes so that you can use whatever is called for. Stay focused on a narrow loop as this is the key to a straight cast over distance when correctly executed.
Casting in the field
Whether you put your new skills to the test at your nearest fishing hole, stream, lake or river, you will need to learn how to adjust for the wind, distance and the types of flies used. Different rods and different lines will also require slightly different actions. However, the basics never change, and with regular practice you will find that the casting motion becomes effortless.
Do remember that practice makes perfect. There is great satisfaction when everything falls into place: indeed, the joy of perfecting one’s cast often equates to the joy of catching a fish!
With thanks to Harry Salmgren