Getting Started with Fly Fishing for Trout (2024)

Getting Started with Fly Fishing for Trout

by Dusty Wissmath

Fly Fishing... Where to Begin?

So you've finally decided to take the plunge! Maybe you've been a spin fisherman for years and want to broaden your horizons. Or maybe you've never held any type of fly rod in your hand, and you're just intrigued by the beauty of a good cast and the prospect of landing a big fish with a small stick. Whatever your motivations, step off the bank and come on in...the water's fine!

I've been a fly fishing guide for over 35 years, and I've often been in a situation where a client needed some help with their casting. A little advice on rod positioning or tweaking a client's timing is something that a guide expects to do, but teaching someone to cast while fishing is a recipe for shared frustration.

If you want to learn to cast, do it in your backyard or on that pond in the local park. If you're learning on water, use a piece of yarn tied to your leader instead of a fly. You're going to want to concentrate on the mechanics of the cast and not be bothered by any unnecessary distractions, like fish. When I started my fly fishing school 29 years ago, I decided that my major goal was to give my students a good foundation of fly fishing knowledge in 2 days that they could build on for the rest of their lives.

Fly casting differs from spin, bait, or plug casting in one basic way. When we cast a plug or spinner bait, it's like tying a rock to a string and throwing the rock; the weight of the lure pulls the line off of the reel. The rod just acts as a catapult, increasing your mechanical advantage and allowing you to cast the lure even further. Our lure, the fly, is constructively weightless, and since it is weightless (for our purposes), we must find another way to get it out to the fish.

How to Cast with a Fly Rod

Fly casting is actually a misnomer. We're not casting the fly; we're really casting the fly line, and the fly just goes along for the ride. The delivery system, the weight that carries our fly to the target, is supplied by the fly line. The fly line is a long, flexible weight, and our goal in casting is to unroll this line in a controlled loop off the tip of the rod. This concept leads to another important point: since our fly is weightless, it will not pull line off of the reel during the casting motion.

We must strip the amount of line that we want to cast off of the reel before we make the casting motion. Start with about 25 feet of line on the ground in front of you. It will help if you pull the slack out of the line so that it lies on the ground straight off the tip of the rod. Now, let's look at how you hold the fly rod.

The Proper Way to Grip a Fly Rod

As in any stick sport, whether it is golf, tennis, baseball, or fly fishing, the grip is the foundation that we build the structure of our cast. Your hand is the steering wheel and controls what the rod does, which, in turn, controls the line.

Place the cork grip across your fingers so that when you pull it up into your hand, your thumb is on top of the cork with the whole muscle of your thumb in line with it along the grip. The end of your thumb should be close to the end of the grip, and there should be a little space between the cork and the first joint of your thumb.

Hold the rod firmly, but relax the muscles in your arm so that you will have a greater range of motion. Remember, casting is not a function of strength; it is a function of timing.

Learning How to Back Cast

As mentioned previously, we're casting the fly line, which we can think of as a flexible weight. This means that our fly rod is a lever, a flexible lever that we are going to lift the line with. The tip of the rod should start just a couple of inches off the ground so that our lever is close to the weight that we're going to lift.

The basic cast has two parts:

  1. The back cast
  2. The forward cast

We'll start with the back cast. With the butt section of the rod against the bottom of your forearm, lift the line off the ground by lifting your arm at the shoulder as if you were answering the telephone with your hand moving up and back towards your ear. Your elbow should be comfortably bent, and you should not be using much energy in this portion of the back cast. Do it relatively slowly, and imagine that you're peeling the line off the ground with the rod tip. You'll be doing this on the water soon, and you want to use only enough energy to break the surface tension of the water against the line. This is the "lift and load" portion of the backcast; as you peel the line off the ground or water, you are storing energy in the rod.

When you've lifted the line off the ground, accelerate the rod to a quick stop by opening the angle between the butt section of the rod and your forearm to 45 degrees. This is the critical part of the back cast. Think of this as an "open or clutch stop" - if you lift the rod with a relaxed hand and then clutch it tightly, the angle at your wrist will open to 45 degrees. When you make this acceleration-to-a-stop, you will form a loop of line that rolls off the tip of the rod. We also can combine those terms as we describe that motion as a "peel to an open stop.”The direction that the rod tip is traveling when you stop this acceleration determines the direction in which the loop will unroll.

When done correctly, the loop will unroll behind you parallel to the ground in a slightly upward trajectory. That's why during the acceleration-to-a-stop (open or clutch stop) on the back cast, the angle that we open between our forearm and the butt of the rod doesn't exceed 45 degrees. If you open that angle any further, you'll drop the rod tip behind you, and your loop will unroll towards the ground. The rod tip is going to end up just a little past vertical when you complete your back cast. As the loop of the fly line unrolls behind you, the rod will bend under its weight. This is called "loading the rod," and it is how we store enough energy in the rod to make the forward portion of our two-part basic cast.

...And Now for the Forward Cast

When you've completed the stop, your hand should be at about eye level and even with your ear. Your thumb should be pointing just about straight up, and you should have an angle of 45 degrees between the rod butt and the bottom of your forearm. Now, we've come to another critical stage in the cast. Don't be in too much of a hurry to start the forward portion of the cast! The fly line should almost straighten out in the air behind you before you bring the rod forward and down. If you rush your forward cast, you'll snap your fly line like a whip. If it sounds like Indiana Jones is behind you, you may want to hesitate a bit longer on your back cast.

The best way to learn this is to glance over your casting shoulder and watch the loop straighten. Make sure that you've taken a half step back with the foot on your casting side. This will make it easier to look over your shoulder, and it actually puts you in a more athletic position to cast from.

Now, as you begin to move the fly rod forward, imagine that there is a brick tied to your elbow, and you're going to allow that weight to pull your hand down. This portion of the cast is the "lower and load" portion of the cast and stores energy for delivering the fly to your target. Just as your hand is coming down, accelerate the rod to a stop by closing that 45-degree angle between the rod butt and your forearm. We call this the "close stop".

The tip of the rod is going to be moving forward in a plane just about parallel to the ground, and when you come to that quick stop as that rod butt-forearm angle closes, a loop will start to unroll off the tip of the rod, and the line will begin to straighten out in front of you. Keep the tip of the rod in place until your loop unrolls completely, then follow the line down to the ground with your rod tip. If you make that stop at the right time, the acceleration-to-a-stop on the forward cast will end where the acceleration-to-a-stop began on the back cast. You must stop that rod tip while it is traveling in a path that will unroll your loop completely before it settles on the water.

If you accelerate the tip of the rod to a stop too late on the forward cast, you'll pile the line up in front of you because the lop will not have a chance to unroll before its trajectory forces it into the ground. As you stop the rod, you'll see that loop start to form out of the corner of your eye, and you'll be amazed at how physics can be translated into a thing of such simple beauty.

Congratulations! Now that we've put together the back and the forward cast, you've just completed the basic cast.

A Few Helpful Tips to Keep in Mind

  • Relax the muscles in your arm. Tense muscles restrict your range of movement. As you practice casting, you will build muscle memory in that arm, and keeping those muscles relaxed will make it easier.
  • Your arm is going to be bent at the elbow throughout the cast. The angle will change slightly along the way, but you will never straighten the arm out above you, behind you, or in front of you in normal casting.
  • Keep your thumb behind the rod from your target at all times. This helps you move your hand through the same plane on the back cast and the forward cast.
  • Think of fly casting as lifting and pulling the line to a stop with the rod. Remember, you can't throw a cast any more than you can push a rope.

I hope that this short explanation of the basic cast just whets your appetite to learn more. Fly fishing is a lifelong sport and provides, for me, a reason to spend memorable days on beautiful water with some of the best folks I know.

See you on the water!

Getting Started with Fly Fishing for Trout (2024)
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