A. K. Best’s Casting Techniques

February 19, 2011 By: A.K. Best

Upstream 10 o'clock angle cast to place the leader to one side of the trout.

IT USUALLY TAKES ME three or four casts to finally put the fly over the fish where I’d like it to land. But I’m a believer in presenting the first few casts to a spot that will be at least a foot or two to my side of the fish. If the fish is really hungry, it’ll often charge over to grab the fly. If it doesn’t, I can gradually work the fly in closer to the fish’s holding spot and get better floats as I adjust the angle of my casting arm and the power of the cast for more dramatic left hooks.

I’ll work the bankside run as far as I can with comfortable fifteen- to twenty-five-foot casts upstream and to the left. But before I lengthen my casts I’ll try to gradually work the little dry fly in tight to the bank just in case there is a fish that I can’t see under the shady willows. Getting a fly under low-hanging willows or any other kind of brush can be almost impossible from my standing position. And it’s a good way to lose a lot of flies. I’m not one who can execute all the fancy “on-my-knees sidearm casts” that I’ve seen the experts demonstrate to shoot a fly for fifteen feet a few inches above the water. Once in a while, when I’m really on, I can get a fly to skip under the low, overhanging brush by overpowering a low sidearm cast. It takes a little practice to make a skip cast work because you have to aim the fly to hit the water immediately under the overhanging branch with enough sidearm force to cause it to skip back under the brush. The fly actually hits the water behind a short loop of line and leader, which picks up the fly and throws it back under the brush. To make this work, the casting loop must be in a near horizontal position with the fly trailing lower than the loop. If the angle isn’t just right, you’ll drive the fly into the water with a hell of a splash of leader and line and scare the fish. It’s a little like skipping a flat pebble with a string attached. I’m always afraid the splash the fly makes as it skips back into the dark spaces will spook whatever is in there.

False-casting low to the water to keep the line and fly out of the fish's view.

When making a skip cast, I look for a little vertical channel of air between the branches. This isn’t an easy cast because the forward line and leader loop must perfectly match the gap in the foliage or you’ll catch one of the branches to either side. The slightest breeze can mean trouble. This cast is best made with a rather open loop so that, if the fly does come in contact with a leaf or branch, chances are it’ll dribble down to the surface much like a natural that has lost its grip.

If I can’t find an open channel between branches, I’ll make a few roll casts toward the center of the stream as I gradually sidestep upstream. I move into a position that will allow me to make an across-and-downstream cast to drift the fly downstream under the willow branches, after I’ve fished the easier water just under the outside edge of the overhanging brush.

I’m always a little surprised that I occasionally get a few strikes out in the middle of the stream with my roll casts. I can spend two hours fishing no more than twenty feet of stream without getting to the other side, where the big trout hang out. The first hour or two spent doing this is a warm-up for what is ahead. I see it as a chance to try a few patterns, net the water to see what I can find, and check out my casting ability. Some days I cast better than other days. And if there are a few little trout rising in a place like this, isn’t it a good idea to try to catch them just in case someday a hog is in there? If I’m successful, I’ll have a much better chance of fooling the big fish because I know what to do to get a good drift in a tough spot.

The skip cast. Look carefully and you can see where the leader and fly hit the water and were pulled forward by the fly line loop in front.

My favorite rod for fishing this kind of water (and the entire run) is an 8 1/2-foot for a 5-weight line. My favorite rod happens to be bamboo, and I use it in almost every trout fishing situation. It’s a 2-piece rod with a butt section strong enough to turn heavy rainbows in whitewater, yet the upper butt and tip are delicate enough to cast eighteen feet of leader with forty inches of 7X tippet and a size 24 dry fly. It’s the Gierach-Best taper that Mike Clark of Lyons, Colorado, makes. I’m convinced that someday this model will become known as Mike’s finest work. It’ll do everything I ask of it, from casting directly into the wind with tiny fourteen-inch loops, nymphing with a brace of weighted nymphs, or throwing weighted size 6 and 8 streamers to the far bank. It’s almost as if the flies have eyes when I fish this wonderful rod. I have a bunch of cane rods, but this one stands in front of the stack where I can reach it without moving the others.

I think that rods shorter than 8 feet have some built-in handicaps for streams wider than ten or twelve feet. Since mending line seems to be essential in almost every fishing situation I encounter, the longer rod allows me to lift more line from the water to toss an up- or downstream loop to extend drifts. A longer rod allows me to keep my backcast above the willows and other bankside brush, and I can lean a cast to either side of my body.

What I call a lean cast comes close to being a reach cast, which is usually made across and slightly up- or downstream by sweeping the rod either right or left just after delivering the forward cast and before the fly lands on the water. This action places the fly line up- or downstream of the main current. I like to think of the reach cast as something I do because I can’t or am too lazy to move upstream or down two or three steps. It’s a great way to extend a drag-free drift.

Reach cast to the upstream side.

I use a lean cast when I’ve already waded way too deep. To get a proper drift I need to stretch my casting arm far to the right or left as I false-cast (no, I can’t cast left-handed) in order to lay the fly line in a section of current that won’t drag the fly downstream faster than the current where the fly is. This can often happen when I’m fishing almost straight up- or downstream.

Upstream lean casts are a little easier for hooking a rising trout than downstream casts. In downstream casts the leader tends to straighten way too fast and cause drag, or worse yet, the leader straightens just as the fly comes to a riser. When the fish comes up to suck in the fly, the tightness of the leader prevents it from moving. A good way to stop this from happening is to give the rod a little jiggle as the line is still in the air on the forward cast. The jiggle will produce a bunch of shallow S curves in both the line and leader, which will allow me to strip line from the reel and continue to jiggle the rod as the fly comes within striking range of the fish. The challenge I have in this situation is being able to quickly set up when a fish does take the fly because of all the S curves in the fly line. Since the fly can’t move until everything is straight, I try to be careful how big the S curves are.

Another situation that might require a lean cast is when you’re behind a boulder and wish to present a fly either upstream or down. The current coming around the boulder will create faster currents that fan away from the boulder for some distance downstream. Study these currents carefully and use the lean cast to get your fly and line to land in the middle of the current.

Another cast I have found to be very useful in some situations is one I call painting. Like the reach cast, the rod is swept to either side after the forward cast is made. Keep the rod tip high on the final forward cast and gently swing it to one side and down to about a 2:30 or 10:30 position immediately after the fly hits the water. The fly will hit the water before any leader or line, and at that very moment sweep the rod to one side to paint the line either upstream or down as the situation may require. It’s much like a curved brush stroke in painting. The difficulty with this cast is getting the fly to hit the water exactly where you want and stay there. Sometimes, making the painting move with the rod will drag the fly away from where I want it to stay. That usually happens if I give too much effort to sweeping the rod to one side. It should be a gentle motion. If there is even a slight breeze, this cast is extremely difficult to execute because the moving air will often sweep the line farther than I want. This one requires perfect timing and feels so good when everything goes right.

Upstream lean cast to present a fly in front of a boulder.

Whenever I use the lean, reach, or painting cast, I try to get the fly to land three or four feet above the fish I’ve targeted. In the time it takes for the fly to float down to the fish I can strip a little more line from the reel and flip the extra line upstream or down to lengthen the float.

You can make all these casts with an 8-foot rod if you’re fishing rivers from eight to twenty feet wide, but an 8 1/2- or 9-foot rod is ideal. It doesn’t seem like much, but an additional six to twelve inches on the rod can make a world of difference in handling line after the forward cast is made. I believe too many fly fishers think the cast is over when the fly hits the water. It’s only the beginning. It’s what you do with the line after the fly hits the water that completes the cast. The cast is over when you pick up the line to make another cast.

Painting the fly line upstream after the fly has landed on the water.

And that brings me to some advice about picking up or retrieving line during the drift. Once you have determined the length of line you need to present the fly to a specific area, try to keep as much of the retrieved line in your line hand as possible. I’ve seen fly fishers with as much as ten yards of line flowing downstream in a big loop.

Then, when they pick up the line and fly to make another cast, they have to make three or four false casts to regain control of the line and its speed to make another cast. All this time the fly is in the air and not on the water. Keep as much line as possible in your line hand, lower the rod tip to the surface, and as you quickly raise the rod tip, yank the line toward you with your line hand with a very quick tug. Allow some line to shoot during the backcast, change the rod direction toward your target area, execute a sharp forward cast, and shoot the remainder of the line during the forward cast. This is impossible to do with a long loop of line hanging in the water. This pickup and forward cast will always present the fly a little farther upstream than you intended, so you must aim for a spot that is about two or three feet below where you really want the fly to land. Like everything else in fly fishing, it takes a little practice. Generally speaking, your fly will go where your thumb is pointing. (I learned that by listening to Lefty Kreh and, as always, he’s right about it.) To finish this cast you must apply a little reach technique to throw the line up- or downstream of the main current between you and the fly. If I need to really drop the fly on a dime, I usually make one false forward cast to make sure the direction of the fly and line is absolutely perfect; then I shoot the extra line to put the fly into a very tight area. This is best accomplished by keeping the rod and line loop as vertical as possible. Sometimes, especially when fishing midge adults, we need to place the fly so that it will float down to the trout in line with the middle of its nose. Trout won’t usually move very far to either side to eat a tiny midge.

Close-up of loops of line in a hand retrieve.

Sometimes you simply must cast upstream. It’s almost mandatory when you’re fishing small streams where there is no room to stand to one side or when you are fishing pocket water in a little mountain stream. Maintaining line control is crucial in either case. Both situations are good times to use a roll cast pickup before you make your next forward cast. It’s really easy to do. Execute the beginning of a roll cast, but as the fly comes forward as it normally would on a roll cast, swiftly bring the rod to the rear the same as you would for a normal backcast. You’ll get an acceleration of line speed and will easily be able to shoot ten or more feet of line on the forward cast with no false casting.

Another way to get accelerated line speed is with a water haul. This cast is especially useful in windy conditions when you need to drive a fly directly into the wind or when you are casting heavily weighted streamers long distances. A water haul in either case will allow you to cast far greater distances without making several false casts to extend line. Cast as far as you comfortably can and allow the forward cast to land on the water.

Immediately lower the rod tip to the water’s surface and strip in any loose line with your line hand at the same time. Then abruptly raise the rod to the backcast position while yanking the line with your line hand, and allow some line to shoot to the rear.

Briskly bring the rod forward while giving the line a yank with your line hand. You’ll be able to shoot a fourteen-inch or smaller loop for greater distance simply because the surface drag on your fly and line as you pick it up will generate a great deal of line speed. It’s basically a double haul that is executed after one of the forward casts lands briefly on the water. Once again, it’s a little noisy and requires a little extra strength and good timing. If you do a lot of big water fishing, you should practice this one until it consistently works for you.

Sometimes you simply must be on the wrong side of the stream. It’s a position where the stream is on your left and the bank is on your right (for right-handers). You want to cast upstream, but there are bushes that won’t allow a normal over-the-shoulder cast. I try to solve this by facing the center of the stream and casting the fly downstream, then reversing the line direction to present the fly upstream. It amounts to a cross-body cast. You’ll probably not be as accurate as you’d like, but with a little practice you can make it work.

Depending on the length of the cast, I always try to keep all the retrieved line in small loops in the palm of my line hand but never wrapped around my thumb and fingers. It’s a simple matter to make a loop over your thumb and little finger and transfer each succeeding loop into the palm of your hand by sliding your thumb and fingers out of the loop and folding it down to your palm with your first and second fingers. This creates three- to four-inch loops piled on top of each other. Then, when you go to shoot a little line, the coils will whisper from your hand much like spinning line from a reel. Like all things, it requires a little practice but will soon become an automatic reflex. You’ll be amazed at how much line you can shoot on the forward cast with only one backcast.

After the fly has landed on the water, throw a tight roll cast to put the fly way back under the brush.

There is a cast I learned from my old friend Koke Winter, the master of weird casts. It comes in handy when you’re fishing large, fast rivers where the fish are also large and fast. I’m thinking of places like the Madison and Yellowstone rivers outside of Yellowstone National Park. On these rivers you must often cast across stream forty to sixty feet or more and land the fly on the far side of a series of variable speed currents. Immediately after the fly lands on the water, quickly strip (or have ready) five or six feet of line from the reel, lift the rod tip slightly to one side, and instantly throw a tight roll cast directly toward the fly. It’s rather a savage action. You will usually throw a small loop of line near the fly, and that is often just enough line to increase a drag-free drift by as much as three or four feet.

It’s also possible to throw this smaller loop nearly anyplace between you and the fly to increase the length of a drag-free drift. Just make sure the loop falls to the upstream side of your fly line.

This one really feels good when it works, especially when a big fish takes the fly just before it begins to drag across current. (The described action is much like throwing a loop against the far bank or behind your fly to dislodge it from an exposed tree root or rock. Briskly raise your rod the moment the loop lands behind the fly. The sudden tug in the opposite direction will often free your fly.) Be ready to set the hook when you try this one, because the action of the tight roll cast will often cause the fly to twitch as much as six or eight inches and can trigger a strike when you least expect it.

Another time to use this cast is when you are fishing a large river and need to get your fly under a tree that’s too low to the water for any kind of normal cast. It’s a variation of a tight roll cast and the roll cast you would use to retrieve a fly stuck in the far bank. Cast the fly to land just short of the target. Then make a tight roll cast with your rod out to your side two or three feet above the water, and throw a fierce forward roll to create a loop no more than two or three feet high. The shallow loop will throw the fly back under the branches. It’s not pretty to watch but can be most effective. There will be a little noise as you rip the line off the water and shoot the loop forward. A lot of my casting might not be pretty, but I don’t really give a damn what others might think of what I’m doing with the rod and line. I’m only concerned with getting the fly to land where I want it to go and where it goes after it hits the water. This is a good cast when there is just enough wind to screw up your regular cast.