First Cast to First Fish: Part 2 - The Cast Explained

A First Cast

The information below is intended not as a replacement for basic one-on-one instruction, but as background information so you will know what to expect. It will help you prepare for a lesson and may also help with practicing on your own after you have taken a lesson or two. Casting books, instructional videos and the internet are other great sources of information.

Find a clear area where you can practice, such as a well-manicured park, a golf course, or a baseball diamond. Water is not necessary and can even be a hindrance when you are first learning.

Start by putting together your rod. The most efficient way to put a rod together is to begin with the tip and work your way towards the rod butt. Put the sections together with the guides for the sections you are joining offset by about 90 degrees. Twist them so they are straight as you apply pressure to push the sections together. This will help the rod to hold more securely. The fit should be snug but don’t push the sections together so tightly that they can’t be taken apart later. 

How to correctly string your fly rod.
Double your fly line before pushing it through the guides.
When the rod is put together, attach your reel and peel off the leader as well as 12 to 15 feet of fly line. Rest the butt of your rod in your vehicle or on a patch of soft ground. Pick up the fly line just down from where it attaches to your leader, fold it in half, and run the loop formed by the doubled over fly line through guides up to the Tip-Top, the final guide at the thin end of the rod. Some rods have a hook keeper, a small metal ring near the reel that you can hook your fly to when traveling from place to place. Do NOT run the fly line through the hook keeper.


When you get to the tip of the rod, pull the line through so a few feet of fly line and the leader are extending from the tip, ready to cast. Make sure you pull straight through the tip top, away from the reel. Pulling line out at an extreme angle, back towards the butt of the rod, can put enough stress on the delicate tip to break it.

Pulling line through the rod tip.
Pull line through like this.
How to correctly string your fly rod.
Not like this!


Attach a doubled over 1” to 2” length of yarn, or a fly without a hook, to the end of your leader. An improved clinch knot works well here. Strip off another few additional feet of fly line and move the tip of the rod from side to side with enough force to to pull the extra line out through the tip. Now you are ready for a cast.

The cast is the foundation of fly fishing.  While it can be a little intimidating when starting out, fly casting is fun to learn and to practice.  There is a real art to holding several yards of line in the air in a perfect loop and then delivering it with great accuracy to the intended target.

The finger pinch - anchoring y our line against the rod grip.Hold the rod in your “rod hand,” the hand you will use to cast, with the reel hanging underneath. Your thumb should be on top of the rod grip, opposite the reel, with your fingers loosely grasping the handle and your wrist straight. Later on, you will use your other hand, your “line hand,” to hold and control the fly line. For now, just hold the end of the fly line closest to the reel between your pointer and middle finger and the rod grip. 

 Casting angles are often explained based on the direction a fly rod is pointing in relation to an imaginary clock. 12:00 is directly overhead, 9:00 is straight out in front, and 3:00 is directly behind you. Graphic of fly rod superimposed on clock face to show proper stopping points.A cast, which uses a casting arc between 10:30 and a little after 1:00, is a good starting point. Note that this will angle the cast slightly up in back and down in front, towards the water. Start your cast with the line stretched out in front (on the water) with no slack and the rod tip pointed directly at the fly. Raise the rod relatively slowly and continuously to just past the 10:00 position. Begin a back cast with a gradual acceleration to 12:30, at which point you will cock your wrist back very slightly with a quick snapping motion (which is described by expert caster Joan Wulff as a “Power Snap”).  Immediately after the power snap, which brings the rod tip to its maximum speed, stop the rod.

As soon as the rod stops, the potential energy of the loaded (bent) rod will transfer into the line and the line will continue on its path, unrolling in a loop out behind you.  Stopping angles for a forward cast and backcast with a fly rod.Start your forward cast just before the line straightens out behind you. You will be starting from the stopping position for your backcast, around 1:00.  You will begin the forward cast with your wrist cocked back slightly.  At about 11:00, the power snap comes into play again as you snap your wrist slightly forward to a full stop at around 10:30. Establish a smooth tempo without “jerking” the line.

Don't get too caught up in the exact angle. This is just a starting point to get you going and so that you understand what an instructor means when they tell you to "stop at 1:00". These angles work well with a relatively short cast. You will learn to adjust the angles depending on environmental conditions, how much line you are casting, where you want your fly to go and other factors. You will quickly move away from the stationary pivot point of the clock analogy and put more energy into your cast by moving your whole casting arm forward and back with each stroke.

If you wish to make a presentation cast (lay the line down on the water or, in this case, grass), allow the line to unroll in front and follow the fly to the surface of the water with the tip of your rod.  At the end of the cast the line should end up straight in front, with no slack, and the rod tip should be pointed straight down the line at the fly.  If you wish to make a false cast, keeping the line in the air, then another back cast is begun just before the line straightens out in front.

When it’s time to put your rod and reel away, just reverse the process. Always leave a few inches of your leader sticking out of the reel when you wind your line up. If you wind it all the way in, it is likely that at some point the end of your leader will find its way underneath a loop in the leader or fly line. This will create an underwrap, which you may not discover until much later when you are fighting a big fish. 

Element of a Fly Cast

Casting a fly rod.The information above is a good starting point. In order to improve, you will want to understand more about what is going on. While different instructors will use different terminology, we all teach more or less the same thing. Every good cast includes the same elements. These are:

  1. A gradual acceleration to a stop
  2. A straight line rod tip path
  3. A solid stop
  4. Good timing

Now for more detail on those 4 elements:

  1. A gradual acceleration to a stop. 
    Power should be applied in a gradual acceleration throughout the cast with a final “power snap” just before the stop.  Think of it as flicking paint off the end of a paintbrush.  If you start too fast you will get paint all over yourself.  To get the paint to fly off the end of the brush you must start slowly, speed the brush up gradually, and give it a little flick at the end to send the paint on its way.
  2. A straight line path
    Your line will follow the path of your rod tip.  In order for the cast to unroll in a straight line your rod tip must travel in a straight line.  This is accomplished by a gradual application of power (acceleration) as well as an appropriate casting arc.  An unbending pole moved in an arc will draw an arc in the air. It is the fly rods flexibility that allows you to draw a straight line.  As power is applied, the rod tip gradually bends, flattening the arc into a straight line.  The final power snap comes when the rod is almost at its maximum bend and serves to “tip” the cast over and start the loop unrolling off of the rod tip. As the length of your cast increases, you will need to use a wider casting arc and more power. Moving your whole casting arm forward, with the forward stroke, and back, with the back cast, will allow you to put more energy into the cast while keeping the path of the rod tip flat. While an arc from 10:30 to 1:00 with a stationary pivot point may work with a 30’ cast, it will not be enough for a 70’ cast.
  3. A solid stop
    The gradual acceleration (1), resulting in a straight line rod tip path (2) must end in a solid stop. An effective stop transfers energy of the rod into the line.  If you’re riding your bike down the sidewalk and run into a post the bike will stop suddenly and you will continue over the handlebars.  This is the kind of stop you want.  A good stop also anchors the rod so it can be loaded for a cast in the opposite direction.
  4. Timing
    Getting the timing right will take a lot of concentration at first. Once you develop a feel for casting, it will become second nature.  It is important to anticipate the next stage of the cast and prepare for it before it comes.  As your line is rolling out behind, you should be ready for the forward cast and begin the cast just as the line unrolls.  This will allow the backwards momentum and the full weight of your line to start to load your rod for the forward cast. Start too early and you will sap energy from your cast as the line traveling back collides with the line you have already started moving forward.  Start too late and your line has already lost energy and picked up some slack and may hit the water or ground behind you.

    The timing will change with the amount of line you are casting.  The more line you have out the longer you will have to wait for it to unroll.  The amount of energy you put into your cast will also affect the timing, as the more energy you apply (the faster you accelerate) the faster the line will go and the sooner you will have to start the next stage of your cast.

Practicing your Cast

Start your cast with your feet about shoulder width apart with your left foot slightly forward (if you are right handed).  Your feet will be in a position similar to where they would be if you were going to throw a ball at the target.  With a sidearm cast this position will allow you to watch both the forward cast and the back cast.  The rod handle should be gently grasped in your casting hand with the reel down.  Your thumb should be on top, pointing down the rod, with your fingers wrapped around underneath. 

You should start with 25-30’ of line out of the rod tip.  Remember to anchor the line under the index finger or index and middle fingers of your rod hand (the hand with which you hold the rod) when starting out.  Once you are comfortable with this, you will want to grasp the line instead between the index finger or middle finger and thumb of your other hand – your line hand.  Just make sure you move your line hand with your rod hand to keep from introducing slack.

Once your casts are laying out nicely with a good loop size and shape it’s time to think about shooting line.  Shooting line involves allowing line to be pulled through the rod guides by the extra energy of the line.  After you have finished one segment of your cast (after the Stop), allow some line to slip through your line hand.  In this way you can lengthen a cast while false casting and/or shoot extra line on the delivery. 

Learning to cast a fly rod has a lot to do with developing muscle memory.  It’s sort of like brushing your teeth.  Once your hand knows what to do, you don’t have to think about it anymore. If you’re doing the wrong thing, however, your muscles will learn the incorrect motion.  For this reason it is very important to (1) practice the correct stroke and (2) stop practicing when you’re tired – because if you continue you will soon be violating rule #1.

While the rod tip must move in a straight path towards the target, that path doesn’t need to be directly overhead. The mechanics are the same with a more sidearm cast, with the casting arc moved off of vertical, and the arc can still be described in relation to a clock face. What changes is the angle of the imaginary clock face, which follows the angle of the rod tip. If you are right handed and casting with the rod tip tilted to a 45 degree angle, the imaginary clock face will also be at 45 degrees.

The Roll Cast

While difficult to practice on land, the roll cast is essential for on-the-water casting. In a standard overhead cast, described above, the weight of the line “loads” the rod for both the back and forward casts. The roll cast differs from an overhead cast in that it is a forward cast only, and the rod is loaded primarily by the extra resistance water places on the line.

The cast starts with the fly line in the water in front of you. Think of the cast as the forward portion of a standard cast. Raise the rod tip slowly to the same position where you would want it for a regular forward cast, which should be close to 1:00. If the line lifts off the water and ends up behind you, you are moving much too quickly. Pause, letting the loop of line you just created settle to the water’s surface. Complete the cast with a regular forward casting motion, with a smooth acceleration to a stop. Try shifting the angle down in front and a little higher in back than with a standard cast.

You will quickly find that the angles are important.  Assuming you are a right handed caster, if the line and fly are to the left side of the rod when starting your cast, the line will likely end up hitting either you or your fly rod. This isn’t a big deal when you’ve got a piece of yarn attached to the end of the leader but can cause problems when using a fly with a hook. The solution is to either change the casting angle or change the position of the line so it is on your right side. As you gain experience this will become second nature and you will be able to roll cast at a variety of angles.

The roll cast is used in many situations. When starting out, it is most useful for making very short casts, straightening your line out on the water, bringing a sinking fly to the surface, or changing the angle so you can make an off-the-water back cast.

The Ground Cast

An excellent way to learn to cast and to solve casting problems is to dissect your cast into separate forward and backward movements in the “ground cast.”  The idea here is to cast sidearm and to stop after each part of the cast.  For example, you start with the line stretched out in front of you with no slack in the system and your rod at the 10:00 position.  Do a sidearm back cast and let the line lie on the ground just as it unrolled.  Now do the same going forward. You may have to give the rod tip a slight upward motion just before the stop to keep from hitting the rod tip with the line. Otherwise the cast mechanics will be just like a vertical cast. This method will help you to learn new techniques and to identify and fix problems.

Some Casting Tips from Experience:

  1. Watch your back cast
    Your forward cast and back cast (with the exception of the delivery) should be mirror images of each other.  You are doing the same thing in both directions, which can take a little getting used to. Most of us are not used to working behind us and controlling your back cast can feel awkward at first.  It often helps to watch your back cast while practicing.  You can’t really look behind yourself with a vertical cast but by casting sidearm, a little off of vertical, you should be able to easily see your back cast.  A partially sidearm cast is useful in many fishing situations. It keeps the fly a little farther from your body, helps you keep the line out of the wind, and allows you to more easily throw under docks, mangroves and other obstructions.
  2. Slack is the enemy 
    Each cast should be started with no slack anywhere in the system.  If your rod tip is raised a couple feet above the ground when you start a cast, with the line bowing down to the ground there is slack.  Your rod tip should be pointed straight down the line at the fly. 
    If the stop at the end of your cast is sloppy or if you allow your hand to drift after your stop you will introduce slack, which will seriously hamper your cast.
  3. Use your wrist minimally but effectively
    A power snap, in which the wrist snaps forward at the end of the forward cast and back at the end of the back cast, is an important part of the cast.  At this stage your wrist should not be used for any other part of the cast.  Your shoulder and elbow should move in unison as your arm moves forward, to just in front of your hip to back behind your hip as you cast.  Used effectively, a wrist snap will give you excellent control over your cast. If done incorrectly, however, you will end up with a tangled line or a gigantic loop.
  4. Remember it is important to move the rod tip in a straight line – which is easy to do with a full arm movement. If you try to use your wrist throughout the cast you will almost always mess up your straight line path and either throw a very nice tailing loop (where the fly actually drops below the path of the line)  that is likely to tie all kinds of knots in your leader and smack you in the back of the head, or a huge wide open loop that a 747 could fly right through.

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