September 15, 2020
Have you ever made a cast where your line tip, leader, and fly unroll in a wide loop and collapse in a pile? Have you struggled with wind knots? Do you find your fly ticking or catching your rod while casting? Is it a struggle to present your fly in the wind? If you answered yes to any of these questions, don’t worry, you’re not alone. At one time or another, these problems afflict everyone who’s ever picked up a fly rod. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn the solutions to them early in your fishing career; your casting and fishing from then on will be sheer pleasure. If not, these problems can easily plague you for as long as you fish. Whether I’m teaching the Basic Trout or the Advanced Dry-Fly classes at the School of Trout, improving your casting is a top priority. Without effective and functional casting, much of the rest of the curriculum doesn’t really matter.
Here’s a key principle all fly casters need to know. The length of the casting stroke—that is, the distance the hand and arm travel—varies with the length of the line. A short line requires a short stroke. A longer line needs a longer stroke. An easy way to see exactly how this relationship works is to watch your line as you cast. When it unrolls in a narrow, tight loop that straightens out perfectly, every time, you know your stroke is just the right length. When your line turns over in a wide loop that collapses and piles up, your casting stroke is too long. Fix this by not taking the rod as far back on the backcast.
Here, you’ll have to experiment a bit. Because we’re all different physically, there’s no universal answer as to how “short” or “long” any given stroke should be. Again, watch your line as you cast. As you progressively shorten your backcast, your loops will begin narrowing, and your line and leader will begin to turn over. You’ll know you’ve got everything right when your line straightens out perfectly, every cast.
Wind knots are caused by casting flaws, not the wind. Let’s overlook the details of those flaws, though, and focus instead on a fix—an easy fix. Ninety-eight percent of all wind knots can be prevented by raising and lowering your elbow during the casting stroke. Specifically, your elbow should move up on the backcast and down on the forward cast.
This vertical elbow movement, a universal trait among the best casters in the world, starts at your shoulder.
Here’s how it works: Let your casting arm hang comfortably at your side. Raise your forearm so it’s parallel to the ground, thumb on top. Raise your thumb so that it’s even with your forehead. Doing this requires pivoting at the shoulder, which raises your elbow.
Now drop your forearm back to parallel. Note that your elbow moves down as you lower your forearm. This elbow movement is an integral part of a sound casting stroke.
Exactly how much elbow movement takes place during the stroke depends on the overall length of the stroke. It might be as little as an inch or two for a short cast (remember—short line, short stroke) and up to a foot or more for a long cast (longer line, longer stroke, more elbow movement).
A stationary elbow or a parallel-to-the-ground movement of the elbow are two of the most pervasive, harmful casting flaws that exist. With either one you’re practically guaranteed wind knots and fly ticking. Guard against them at all costs.
By raising and lowering your elbow on every stroke—without fail—you’ll prevent virtually all “ tailing loops,” the origin of wind knots and ticking. That means more time spent fishing, less time untangling. Who doesn’t want that?
Casting in the Wind
Wind terrifies most fly casters. A friend of mine is fond of saying that in Montana, if you don’t learn to fish in the wind, you’ll fish two days a year. He might be guilty of slight exaggeration, but there’s truth in that statement. There are also plenty of other windy fishing destinations in the world other than Montana. Patagonia, Wyoming, and the saltwater flats of the Florida Keys are all places where wind can be your worst enemy if you’re not adequately prepared.
Much has been written and talked about regarding how to deal with the wind, but I find most of what’s been written difficult to understand and even harder to implement, so let’s simplify things,
Successful casting in the wind requires one thing: that the fly line moves faster. That’s all there is to it. How do you make your line move faster?
When I pose this question to the majority of casters, “double haul” is the common answer.
Yes, the double haul does in fact speed up the fly line. But double hauling is an advanced technique, one that I think is best saved for when the wind is severe (over 15 to 20 mph). An easier solution for light and moderate winds is simply to speed up your stroke, to move your hand and arm faster.
Moving the hand and arm faster moves the rod faster. The faster the rod moves, the faster the line moves. In my experience, most casters are capable of moving their rods fast enough to handle wind up to about 15 mph; some can handle even stronger. But here’s an essential point: Moving the rod faster must be done in conjunction with what we’ve already discussed.
If your casting stroke is too long, no amount of line speed will turn over your line and leader. You must find the right stroke length first, then speed it up. Likewise, if you fail to raise and lower your elbow during the stroke, you’ll merely find yourself throwing tailing loops at very high speed. Not much good comes from that.
[For more information on this topic, see the illustrated feature story “Tips for Casting in the Wind” by Joe Mahler online at flyfisherman.com. The Editor.]
When you have control over your line, leader, and fly, there’s great fun to be had in fly fishing. You’ll meet with a lot of success. But if you can’t control where your fly goes, this sport can be very humbling and frustrating.
Good fundamentals are within reach of all of us; they simply have to be learned, understood, and practiced. Start by using the right stroke length, raising and lowering your elbow, and speeding up your stroke when conditions demand it. That’s how the pros do it, and you can too.
John Juracek earned a degree in fisheries biology from the University of Wyoming and worked for several years for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department before moving to West Yellowstone, where for 22 years he was a partner in Blue Ribbon Flies. His photography appears regularly in Fly Fisherman and he’s the author of Yellowstone: Photographs of an Angling Landscape, and co-author (with Craig Mathews) of Fly Patterns of Yellowstone, Fishing Yellowstone Hatches, and Fly Patterns of Yellowstone, Volume Two.