April 13, 2020 9 min read

advanced fly fishing casting ultimate guide

Fly fishing, a type of angling, has been around since 200 CE. The grace and serenity of the sport have spawned poetry, books and films. Aficionados range the globe, and fly fishing is both intensely personal – it is a quiet and contemplative activity – and capable of inspiring fierce loyalty. 

Much like the ancient sport of golf, fly fishing offers the best of leisure and recreation. Fly fishing provides both the rush of adrenalin when a trout hits your line and the hypnotic effects of rippling rivers. It doesn't hurt that trout, and other fish, generally are most comfortable in remote and stunning vistas.

Out of respect to the art and technique of fly fishing, we’ve gathered a collection of basics, history and gear descriptions unique to the sport. Below is our step-by-step guide for specific casts and a refresher on advanced fly fishing casting techniques.  

The Basics of Fly Fishing

Fly fishing consists of a long, flexible rod (7 to 11 feet, 2 to 3.5 meters) made of fiberglass, bamboo or carbon fiber, with an arbor reel at the butt end. The reel holds a heavy line attached to a light leader, which is attached to the fly. 

Flies are made of natural or synthetic materials and mimic insects or other fish prey. Fly fishing is used to catch mainly trout and salmon but also is used for grayling, bass and other fish.  

Most of the time, anglers are fishing in lakes and especially in rivers, where trout enjoy the fast-moving currents. To ensure you are comfortable and dry so that you can concentrate on fishing, invest in a pair of quality fishing boots.

fly fisherman using rod

An angler snaps the rod back and forth, and the heavy line propels the nearly weightless fly through the air in a graceful curve. On the back cast, the angler flings the tip of the rod behind them, arching overhead and the weighted line follows. Then the angler brings the tip of the rod forward, again arching overhead and the line whizzes out, depositing the leader and fly at a predetermined spot.

Among its enthusiasts, fly fishing is considered the most challenging fishing-related sport. There is a lot of literature written about fly fishing. While some books are purely technical, others weave the sport lyrically into broader themes, like in A River Runs Through It, by Norman MacLean. MacLean is a highly regarded novelist and angler in his own right.

History of Fly Fishing

Fly fishing is an old method of angling, going back to Macedonia in 200 CE. The sport comes up again in English texts dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and historians agree that it probably predates these occurrences by 200 years.

When Europeans arrived on the northeastern portion of the North American continent, they found fast waters tumbling over rocky crags teeming with fish. These rivers were very different from the languid rivers that the settlers were used to. Over the years, especially in places like Cumberland Valley in Pennsylvania, Newfoundland and Cape Cod, America became the new hotbed for fly fishing. 

fly fishing taking line

With the advent of the steam train, the railroad connected the Catskills, with its many superb trout rivers, to the eastern seaboard. By the 1850s, these mountains in New York state became the new home of fly fishing, developing an original method of fly fishing specific to America. 

The sport's popularity grew, especially in places with lots of water teeming with browns, brooks and rainbows. Additionally, distinctive schools of fly fishing developed in Northern Michigan, the Pacific Northwest and the Rocky Mountains. Each region has its own particular take on fly fishing techniques.

Modern Fly Fishing 

Since the end of the 19th century, enthusiasm for fly fishing has grown exponentially. Many devotees are women, especially in America, where three notable women stood out. 

Mary Orvis Marbury was the earliest, putting together a book on fly patterns in 1892. Joan Wulf and Helen Shaw were of the same era – Shaw in the '40s and '50s and Wulf in '50s and '60s. Helen Shaw innovated fly-tying techniques in the '40s and '50s, whereas Joan Wulf was an expert caster, setting records and writing on fly-fishing.

In the past, fly-fishing was a technique used mainly to catch salmon and trout. These days, there are fresh-water anglers who cast for pike, panfish, perch and bass, and salt-water anglers who fish for bonefish, bluefish and tarpon.

fly fishing rod reel

Fly Fishing Gear

At your most basic level, all you need to fly fish is a reel, a rod and a few flies. Nowadays, anglers use a lot more gear than that, and they have different names for the technical aspects of their sport. There have been many innovations to fly fishing gear over the years, from equipment to clothes, like men's fishing shirts  Here's a straightforward rundown of some of the necessary fly fishing equipment.

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Reels

Most reels used for fly fishing are arbor reels. The arbor of the reel refers to its middle or core, which looks like a spool. 

There's a reel with a catch-and-pawl action, which is a specific type of drag design. The pawl refers to a little metal clicker that pivots, engaging the teeth of a gear on the spool's interior. This engagement causes the reel to stop, and a small spring on the back of the pawl provides resistance. 

The line and its accouterment are relatively simple: the line threads alongside the blank through the guides and then out the tiptop. The line is reasonably substantial. It's what propels the fly through the air. 

The line connects to the leader, which keeps the heavy line from slapping the surface of the water, scaring the fish and it is also nearly invisible to the fish. The leader, a tapered monofilament, leads from its thickest end at the line, to its thinnest at the fly.

Rod, reel, line and tippet make up the fly line, all leading to the essential ingredient – the fly.

Types of Flies

Flies look like fish food, specifically trout food. Most anglers match their fly to the hatch or the insect larval stage. Flies are made of synthetic materials or natural ones, and there are three main types: nymphs, streamers and dry flies.

Dry flies are the most common and look like flying insects that land on the surface of the water, floating on top. Nymphs resemble aquatic creatures and are used in wet fly fishing.Streamers are also called lures and they are larger than nymphs, more the size of leeches or bigger.

To match your bait to your prey, consult the local fly fishing shops or touring outfits to see what's currently hatching. 

Rod Action

There are four types of rods, each with different rod actions, which refers to how the rod moves. It takes practice and experience to figure out which rod action works best for you. 

  • Fast Action: This rod, with minimal flex, can be difficult for beginners to use. If handled with skill, it can cast a long way, bring in larger fish and is useful on windy days.
  • Moderate-Fast Action: A great mix of versatility and stability, these rods have more flex to their blanks than the fast-action, which makes it easier to change techniques. This rod suits anglers of every level of expertise.
  • Moderate Action: Also called medium action, this rod will bend halfway down its blank while the lower portion remains stiff, offering line control and accuracy.
  • Slow Action: For the accurate and gentle casts that work best on small lakes or rivers, a slow action or traditional rod allows for more line control and flexibility than any other type of rod action. These are ideally suited for dry flies or nymphs.

Casting When Fly Fishing

One of the most graceful motions known to nature is the fly fisherman's cast. The sweep of the line through the air and the plip of a dry fly touching down, hopefully right above a trout, is downright cinematic. 

There are a few types of casts. The one you use depends on four aspects – location, type of fish, cast distance and personal preference. Improving your casting skills can enhance your fly fishing experience. Begin with the basic overhead cast before attempting advanced fly fishing casting.   

overhead cast graphic

Overhead Cast

The most basic cast is the overhead cast, and it's also the foundation that other casts are built upon. The overhead cast aims to flick the fly behind you and then in front of you to the desired spot. Even with the most complicated casts, the goal is the same – to use the weighted line to propel the fly to a spot on the river. 

Casts mostly begin the same as well – a backcast with a smooth accelerated forward cast, ending with the fly touching down on the water. The vagaries of each cast cause the fly and line to do different actions, like float freely or create slack.

Here are the necessary steps to the overhead cast:

  • Stand in the river with your rod as if you're going to shake hands with someone. You'll want 10 feet of line pulled out of the reel. Step back so the line is in front of you, not dropping straight down. 
  • From here, pull the rod back over your head. It will bend, and the line will follow it. This is called loading the rod. 
  • Pause when your rod is pointing at 2 o'clock. Make sure to pause, as your line is looping behind you. 
  • When your line has looped behind you, bring the rod over your head again to the 10 o'clock mark so that you're pointing the tip of your rod where the lure will go. How hard you cast will determine how far it will go.
  • When the fly hits the water, gently point the tip down to lay the line on the surface. If you let the line slap the water, it will scare the fish away. 

But the river is also moving so care must be taken that, when you've cast, different currents don't push your line and your fly to a different spot on the river, where there aren't any trout. 

To combat the drag, anglers mend their line, usually on the water. What this means is that they flick their wrist so that a small portion of the line, floating on the water, flips further upstream, avoiding the dreaded drag.

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To correct this problem before your line reaches the surface of the water, you can use a reach cast.

reach cast graphic

Reach Cast

Mostly, the reach cast corrects drag in the air with a well-placed flick in the forward cast. If done correctly, it can make your casting even more accurate. Here are the steps to accomplish the reach cast:

  • Start as you would a standard overhead cast, with about 25 feet of line in front of you.
  • Begin the back cast with average, smooth acceleration, stopping at a 1 o'clock position. When the rod starts to load, unfurl the line in front of you in a fluid forward cast and stop at the 10 o'clock position.
  • Make a small arching movement with your wrist in the direction you want the mend to go. It looks mostly like flipping your hand over, either palm-up or palm down, with the rod in it. You have to time the movement precisely so that, by the time the line unfurls, the mend is made.
  • When the line is on the surface, lower your rod tip so that the lure can turn over.

puddle cast graphic

Puddle Cast

This cast involves a low back cast with average acceleration in a forward cast. The rod stops and drops towards the surface, creating slack loops. 

This cast is great for casting at trout that are downriver, beyond deadfall. The loops of slack in the puddle cast allow the fly to drift freely past the deadfall to the waiting trout. Here are the steps to a puddle cast:

  • Use a basic backcast and pause when your rod is loading. On the forward cast, stop at 12 o'clock, waiting for the line to unfurl high and in front. 
  • As it's unfurling at a high angle, drop the tip of your rod abruptly towards the surface.
  • The line will accelerate, with a bit of a bounce-back, creating some slack to let your leader and fly drop onto the water.

This cast works best with wary trout that are upstream from you, to make sure they sense your fly first, not your line or leader.

steeple cast graphic

Steeple Cast

This cast also uses a plane change, meaning that the level at which the line is unfurling is abruptly changed mid-cast. Instead of the puddle cast, with a low backcast and high forward one, the steeple cast is a short, high back cast ending with a low front cast. 

Here are the steps for the steeple cast:

  • For your back cast, pull back to 12 o'clock and stop. This motion makes your line arc out at a high angle, instead of horizontally behind you.
  • Then, pull through your forward cast until 7 or 8 o'clock, which is quite low. This causes the line to unfurl at a lower angle. 
  • If all goes as it should, the fly should dimple the water before the line or leader.

The Steeple Cast is a perfect cast for rocky, brushy areas with lots of deadfalls or casting into a minimal space.

Final Thoughts

Fly fishing blends the poetic with the practical and the technical with adeptness. It is an ancient sport that should more rightfully be called an art. If you're drawn to the art of fly fishing, you can expect many moments of crystallized beauty to the soundtrack of splashing water.

When you're headed to a fishing expedition on the water, make sure you outfit yourself from a company you trust. Huk Gear is made for anglers, by anglers.