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Fly Fishing with Doug Macnair:
Excerpts from The Fly Cast: Concepts & Comments

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Fly Fishing with Doug Macnair:
Excerpts from The Fly Cast: Concepts & Comments
By Doug Macnair

Basic Fly Casting Tips, Tricks & Techniques©

Here is a truth-regardless of how much you learn, or what level of expertise you attain, all fly fishers experience good, bad, and mediocre days fly casting. It is a phenomenon fly fishers share with golfers. The difference is few fly fishers admit it while golfers do … The point to be made is this-the bad cast is usually the result of an error somewhere in the basic mechanics of the fly cast. Return to the fundamentals, find the error, and fix it.

The Grip. Not surprisingly, gripping the fly rod is about like gripping a golf club. Most skilled casters place the thumb of the rod hand on top of the rod with the index finger immediately below the thumb under the grip. The remaining fingers simply grasp the rod, securing it in the palm of the hand. The thumb and index finger control the rod; the remaining fingers are relegated to a supporting role. Don't bother listening to arguments favoring other styles of the grip such as putting the index finger on top. They are wrong!

The Wrist. Little doubt that you use the wrist in making the cast. But having said this, be warned that the movement of the wrist must be tightly controlled. To illustrate what the wrist does and when it does it, do this: take a pencil and hold it in the rod hand as if it was the slender grip of a fly rod. Point the forearm and wrist away from the body in a straight line. The top line of the forearm is at the same height as the thumb, forming a straight line with the wrist. I call this the wrist's DE-COCKED position.

Now, without moving the forearm, flex the wrist raising the pencil about 10°. The thumb is now angled slightly above the line of the forearm. This is called the wrist's COCKED position. Now, hinge and move the wrist between the de-cocked & cocked positions, and hold this thought-the movement between the two positions must be tightly controlled. There can be no sloppy flapping side-to-side, flopping up and down, or any other wiggle of the wrist! Failure to heed this warning will result in a poor cast!

To begin educating your wrist, I want you to learn a new word -FLICKSTOP! Think FLICKSTOP when "flicking" between the de-cocked and cocked position. FLICKSTOP is a controlled "flick" of the wrist followed by the immediate and abrupt halt to all movement. The two movements, the flick and the stop constitute the power stroke of the fly cast. To understand the dynamics of the "flick & stop," think about these examples of other flicks most of us are familiar with:

  • The flick of the wrist when launching a Frisbee.
  • The flick of the wrist when popping a towel.
  • The flick of the wrist when tossing a dart.
The ability to associate with one or more of these examples of flicking the wrist, helps in understanding two very important points: (1) how little distance the "flick" physically travels, and (2) the micro-second in time it takes for the "flick" to cover that distance. The "flick" is short and very, very quick! One last point of amplification-with fly rod in hand, flick the wrist between the cocked and de-cocked positions. Watch the rod's tip. Note that it takes very little wrist action in the "flick" to move the rod tip several feet. If the "flick" of the wrist moves the tip three feet or more, that is too much. Try again.

My Casting Drill. I teach casting a bit differently from others. I think it is very important for you to feel the rhythm of the cast, the flex of the rod, and see the impact of your arm and hand on the rod's actions as quickly as possible. The drill I've developed has helped others learn "the knack," of seeing and feeling the fly cast almost immediately.

  • With rod assembled, strip out about 15 to 20 feet of line from the rod tip. Then grip the rod, just as you would in preparing to cast. Trap the fly line running between the reel and stripper guide by placing it beneath the second or third finger of the rod hand. This freezes the line allowing focused attention on the DRILL. For now, the other hand plays no role.
  • Position the rod to the front or side, elbow close to the body, with the rod hand turned palm up so that the fingers can be seen, but not the thumbnail. The tip of the rod should be angled upward slightly to about eye level. Being relaxed and comfortable is important.
  • Now, put the rod into motion using the forearm to move it swiftly back and forth from left to right. Use enough speed to aerialize the line so that it smoothly follows the rod's motions. Concentrate! Watch the rod tip! Use peripheral vision to observe the fly line. As the rod moves from side to side, observe how the rod tip bends, and then straightens when stopped. Forcing the tip to bend is called "loading the rod." Loading the rod gathers and stores the energy that will be released when the rod's motion is abruptly stopped. The tip springs forward releasing the stored energy, in turn, launching the line. This process is otherwise known as making the cast.
  • Now, add to the slower rhythmic movement of the arm by "flicking" the wrist between the de-cocked and cocked positions at the end of each back and forth movement. Focus on the rod tip and remember-FLICKSTOP! By "flicking" the rod tip, the aerodynamics of the line will change. The FLICK will cause a bigger deflection in the tip and the STOP will instantly release the tip's energy. It is the tip of the rod that casts the line. If you develop a rhythm to the movement of your forearm complimenting FLICKSTOP, the line that probably had been traveling in a sweeping oval, will now take on the appearance of the fly cast-the line will form a loop - a tight oval - as it flies back and forth. Should you lose your timing or rhythm, stop and begin again.
  • As your confidence grows, gradually extend the amount of line in the air. You will, of course, need to adjust your timing and rhythm as the rod is paused to allow the line to unroll at the end of each stroke. Keep the line in the air. Begin each back and forth motion at the moment the line begins to straighten. Remember-watch the rod's tip throughout the drill.
  • Practice the DRILL until it becomes second nature. Why? For three reasons: First, the DRILL is a "miniature" fly cast. To complete the cast, merely FLICKSTOP the rod and, as the line unrolls and settles to the ground, follow-through by dropping the rod tip toward the ground. Second, by extending the amount of line in the air, the distance of the cast is being increased. Third, the sidearm casting motion taught by the CASTING DRILL becomes a necessity when mastering advanced casting techniques. More on this later.
By practicing and mastering the CASTING DRILL, effective and efficient fly casting is not far away. It is, after all, timing and rhythm that make the fly cast. Once the "feeling" of the fly cast becomes etched in your mind, the other fine points of the fundamentals are easy to add beginning with the stance.

The Stance. The proper stance for fly casting is relaxed and open. Face the target at an angle - about 45° - with the open side favoring the rod hand and arm. If you are right handed, this means the right side is angled to the rear with the left foot advanced, loosely in line with the target. For those of you who cast with your left hand, as I do, reverse the setup as in the photo: right foot advanced and parallel to the target line, left foot to the rear and angled about 45° to the side.

The stance, like the grip, has a relationship to golf, especially in the hips and legs-be certain the knees are bent slightly and the hips swivel on command. A stiff position that prevents the body from being freely in motion will ruin any chance of making the cast. Being well balanced is important. The feet should be a comfortable distance apart enabling a weight shift as the rhythm of the cast demands.

Here is a very important point: a long cast requires the use of the entire body, to include shifting weight and turning, just as striking a long iron on the golf course or driving a baseball into deep left field. Short casts, on the other hand, require little more than the motion of the hand and forearm. In other words, the longer the cast, the more the body comes into play to help make the cast. For now however, that distance is short. Begin all casts with the rod tip low, close to, or barely touching, the water. This means low! If your tip is pointing toward 8, 9 or 10 o'clock, you are wrong! Learn now to PUT THE ROD TIP DOWN!

Quick Summary. Thus far I've covered the grip, the wrist, the casting drill, and the stance and made other general observations regarding the cast. This FIGURE illustrates several of these points. Don't forget, I'll be demonstrating with my left hand. If you cast with the right hand, simply reverse the procedures. First, the rod tip is down-that's always the starting point for making the cast. Next, note the stance. It's relaxed. The feet are placed comfortably apart for balance, and my weight has already shifted forward as I prepare to make the cast. Also note that my hands are close together. The hands should never become widely separated during the cast.

The Backcast. Emphasizing the critical importance of controlling wrist movement, this is how the wrist plays out during the cast: with the rod tip down almost touching the surface, and with the line straight ahead from the tip, take up the proper stance. Now, turn the wrist to the open position-this means turned, out or away from the body, about 45°, thumb out. It is the same position used in the DRILL.

Now, begin the backcast by lifting the line and, at the same time, sweeping the rod up and to the rear. The sweeping action should travel along an ever-increasing sidearm arc. The open stance allows you to look to the rear and to pivot almost 90 degrees in the direction of the backcast to watch what is happening. Do it! Look to the rear. Watch the backcast! Apply power progressively. This means begin slowly, but steadily, accelerating the speed of the cast. Be sure as you make the backcast your upper body pivots to the left (left-handed) or to the right (right-handed). If the line were straight at the beginning of the cast, the fly moved immediately as you began the backcast. (I suggest a piece of yarn in practice.)

Watch the tip of your rod. As the sweep to the rear increases, you can see the rod tip is loading (bending). The arm and body are using the rod as a long lever to drive the line up and to the rear. Neither the elbow of the rod arm nor the rod hand pass above the level of the shoulder, except at the very end of a long backcast. Stop the backcast at about 1 o'clock. Just how the backcast is stopped is critical to the success of the cast. The time of maximum acceleration - maximum power - occurs at the very end of the backcast. How? It's done by "flicking" the wrist from the DE-COCKED to the COCKED position-and immediately locking the wrist and stopping the rod abruptly. FLICKSTOP! Once cocked and locked, the wrist remains in this position until the very end of the forward cast. Locking the wrist into a firm position is extremely important. Do not fail to heed this point!

Once the backcast has been stopped, allow the casting arm to extend, or drift to the rear, without power applied. This is a very important point: The "drift" will help you prevent a tailing loop as well as extending the arc through which the rod passes. The greater the arc the better it helps the cast.

In this FIGURE, I have completed a very long backcast; in fact, as this image was captured and sketched, I am in the act of "shooting" line to the rear. There are several things you should note in viewing this sketch. Since I am making a long backcast, my entire body comes into play during the cast. You can see my weight has shifted to the rear and is on my left foot. My stance is open. My body has pivoted in the direction of the cast. Because it is a long backcast, I have fully allowed my casting arm to drift to the rear, and, as you can see my rod hand is turned palm up-I can see my fingernails but not the thumbnail. When practicing the backcast, if the thumbnail is visible, try again. Seeing the thumbnail at the end of the backcast is a sure way to know your technique is wrong. Among the most important points to be noted in this sketch is the fact that I am looking back at the cast. The result of not watching the backcast is usually a faulty cast. In effect, it becomes a blind cast. Considering the ramifications of wind, casting blind is stupid.

One other point-on a long backcast, where the entire casting arm should be allowed to drift to the rear after the stop, stab up as you execute FLICKSTOP. This simple act, slightly stabbing up with your rod hand, will help prevent the wrist from "going over the top," or cocking 45° or more. This is what I've done as evidenced by the short piece of visible fly line just off the rod tip: it's going up and out. Stop the cast with a stab up and out and the line will go up and out. The line always goes where the rod tip stops. Do not let your wrist go over the top!

The Forward Cast. At the end of the backcast the line should be up and rolling out as the loop straightens - now is the time to begin the forward cast. That's exactly what I am doing in this photo. Importantly, the wrist is still locked in the cocked position. Begin the forward stroke body just before the line fully straightens by pulling your elbow back to the side of your body. Important: the elbow leads the rod in the forward cast until power is applied (FLICKSTOP) at the end of the cast. Sweep the cast forward on a more vertical plain than the sidearm arc used during the backcast. In sum, the path of the back and forward casts inscribe an oval when viewed from either above or the front.

You can see that I've begun to retract my arm and that my elbow is still leading the cast. Already my rod hand is turning to the vertical position, the overhead plane the forward cast will follow. Note, too, my weight has shifted to a balance point between the left and right foot as I begin to put my entire body into making the forward cast. It is quite evident that my rod and line hands remain in relatively close contact. Like a very good artisan at work on the putting green who keeps the head down on the putt, I am still watching to the rear.

In the foregoing photo, I have started forward following an overhead or vertical plane driving the rod and line forward. The moment of greatest acceleration will be at the very end of the forward cast. You can see my hands are still close together, and my arm is retracted from the extended position. At this point in the cast, my forearm is almost vertical. The wrist remains locked in the cocked position. My weight is shifting forward. Importantly, I am still watching my line, just as you should do. As I continue the cast and begin my acceleration, the rod begins to load.

In this photo, I have driven the rod forward along a near vertical plane. My hand has turned from the open to vertical position. Turning my hand is important because my thumb, on top of the rod grip, is critical to giving me absolute control in applying power. Remember this: to maximize your cast, inscribe an oval pattern in the air. Take the rod back along the high sidearm path and drive it forward using the near vertical or overhead thrust. This image was taken at the very moment I am doing FLICKSTOP - flicking the wrist back from the cocked to the de-cocked position - and "shooting" the line forward.

I am now nearing the end of the casting sequence. My weight is shifted well forward and having completed FLICKSTOP, my wrist is returned to the de-cocked position, as the fly line shoots forward. My rod arm is now fully extended, as I follow-through, and the line loop is well forward and out of view. Note the straight line of my rod arm and hand in the final position. Again, note my hands remain in close proximity, one to the other. Why do I still have line in my line hand if I am "shooting" it forward? The answer is that the line is passing through an "O" ring I've formed with the thumb and index finger. This allows me to maintain line control at all times. It is a desirable habit all fly fishers should imitate without conscious thought.

Keep this firmly in mind-there is no reason for the rod hand to ever rise above the line of the eye at any time, except to follow-through (or drift) at the end of a very long backcast. Stop, if you find yourself reaching up. This error usually results when the caster decides to "help" the rod achieve a little more distance. It is a silly error that everyone makes, especially when they begin to tire. Instead, try to accelerate and apply power smoothly as in the backcast. Do this gradually and increasingly until the moment of maximum power at the end of the cast - the very fast "flick" as in FLICKSTOP. How do you apply maximum power in such a short distance? It's easy-it's done by "flicking" the wrist back to the original de-cocked position, locking it and stopping the rod immediately, as in the backcast. Depending on the intent of the cast, wind, and other physical factors, stop the rod at about 11 to 10 o'clock. Remember this-if you stop the rod between these points, the rod tip will continue to spring forward (deflect) until all of the stored energy is released. As soon as the fly line's loop passes the rod tip, however, you can follow-through dropping the rod tip to the water without affecting the flight of the line. The objective is to be ready to fish as the line settles to the water.

I have reached the end of the cast or, if you prefer, the start point for the next cast. The rod has been dropped so that the tip of the rod almost touches the water. I am ready to fish. My balance is restored and I've assumed my normal relaxed stance after making the cast.

To Learn the Fly Cast, Follow this Set-Up Routine. Since you will be learning new body movement, Rote memory is a great way to fix in your mind what you should be doing. Unfortunately, I won't be with you when you practice the art of the fly cast; YOU, however, ARE FULLY CAPABLE OF SELF-CRITIQUE-PROVIDED YOU CARRY THIS BOOKLET OUTSIDE WHEN YOU PRACTICE. Remember: no practice, no competency. When checking yourself out, follow these steps:

  1. With the rod safely lying on the grass, strip off about 20 ft. of line and lay it out straight in front of you.
  2. With the rod at your feet, assume an open position to the target line that allows you to easily pivot in the direction will make the backcast. Do not place your feet too far apart. The position should be totally comfortable.
  3. Pick-up the rod at the reel seat and take up the grip, but in doing this, DO NOT RAISE THE ROD TIP. Leave the rod tip in contact with the grass. If you lift the tip, you no longer have direct contact with the fly; instead you have slack-the kiss of death to the fly cast.
  4. The grip has been previously discussed. Be sure that your thumb is on top of the cork grip with your index finger beneath the grip. Your wrist is in the DE-COCKED position.
  5. Turn the rod hand about 45 degrees from vertical so that you can see the finger tips of your fingers, but only the side of the thumb, not the thumbnail.
  6. With elbow close to your body, begin the backcast slowly and, at the same time, pivot your upper body in the direction of the cast using your hips and legs.
  7. Accelerate the cast with increasing speed until your rod hand reaches a point about 90 degrees from where you began the backcast. At this point, execute FLICKSTOP. Remember: THE QUICKER THE FLICK AND THE STOP THE TIGHTER THE LOOP AND THE GREATER THE LINE SPEED. This is the power stroke of the fly cast.
  8. If you have done this properly, you will see the line going up and out and the loop of the fly line as it unrolls. You will also see the edge of you thumb-but not the fingernail!
  9. If there is no LOOP, STOP! Do not go further because it is a waste of time. Start over and follow the guidance STEP-BY-STEP.
  10. If there is a LOOP, go forward …
  11. Just before the line fully unrolls on at the end of the backcast, begin the forward cast movement, SLOWLY. (A failure to follow this guidance leads to a "wind-knot", better described as a casting failure.)
  12. As you move the rod into the forward cast, be sure the casting elbow leads the rod until the final moments of the cast. Watch the cast!
  13. As you make the forward cast, begin pivoting your body back to its original position.
  14. With the elbow leading the rod and returning to the side of the body, the speed of the forward cast is increased. It ends when you unload the rod with a FLICKSTOP at about 11 o'clock, but be sure to follow-through dropping the rod tip until it is once again returned to the fishing position-close to the water.
  15. Simple? Yes! But the obligation is yours-keep this booklet close at hand. Read it over and over again until you have memorized what's been said. Practice the techniques, stopping when you foul-up and beginning again at the point where you made a mistake.
  16. Remember: The Munchkins told Dorothy: "The best place to begin is always at the beginning." Simply follow the Yellow Brick Road. If you do, know this: you will master the cast.
What went right? If all went well, your cast formed a beautiful loop in the fly line that unrolled perfectly. It is tribute to your grip, stance, low rod tip, attention to watching the backcast and, most of all, executing FLICKSTOP.

What went wrong? Sometimes it doesn't go right. Instead of a perfect loop, the end result is a non-loop. A non-loop looks a little like this depiction. Non-loops are typically caused by one or more of errors: (1) passing the rod through too long an arc; (2) dropping the rod tip too low at the end of both the back and forward casts because of a limp wrist; (3) not driving the rod with sufficient speed to cause it to bend or load. Correct these errors by narrowing the arc, controlling the wrist and stopping the rod immediately after the final acceleration.

There is also the problem of the Tailing Loop. To some degree, it stays with all fly-rodders throughout their casting life. If you do not think it a problem, be advised-it is! The first time those little teeny-tiny knots show up in the end of the tippet, know that you, too, have been bitten by the evil tailing loop bug. Most folks call them "Wind Knots." They are, of course, anything but that. The truth is the first time the rod is "jerked" forward into making the forward cast, that jerky start will leave the mark of the tailing loop. Jerking the rod unevenly applies power at the wrong time forcing the rod tip to sharply dip. The dip results in the rod tip following a concave line during the cast. Where the rod tip goes, the line will follow. The tailing loop is always lurking, waiting to tell a fly caster the sad truth: "You did bad!" Over the years, the average fly fisher repeats this error many times. The lesson is obvious-do not jerk the rod forward when beginning the forward cast.

A tailing loop can also result if the backcast and forward cast travel along the same plane. Avoid this circumstance by following this guidance-backcast using a high sidearm stroke but do not allow the forward cast to follow the same line; instead follow a slightly different track that's a bit more vertical. In other words, allow the strokes of the back and the forward casts to follow a slightly oval. With experience and practice, modifying the casting stroke will become natural depending on the specifics of the cast desired.

From experience, I know that if you will follow these guidelines, you will become a fly caster in very short order. Please know that advanced casting techniques have deliberately not been mentioned. And for a good reason … Mastery of the basics is a prerequisite to


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