I used to think I was a pretty hot fly caster. On the lakes and small rivers around my home, I did fine with my 5-weight outfit. Then one spring, I went flats fishing down south. In a 30 km/h crosswind, I had to cast ahead of a moving target 60 feet out, using a giant, unfamiliar 9-weight saltwater outfit—and this with no warm-up and not having touched a rod since the previous fall. Plus, both my guide and angling partner were watching. It remains one of my most painful fishing memories.
So, before my next fishing trip, I did something exotic: I practised. Twice a week for a month, I spent 20 minutes airing out my new 8-weight rod in a nearby schoolyard. Soon, I was casting faster, smoother and stronger, and on my next trip, I had the skills and stamina to put the fly where it had to be. It was surprising how little training I did, yet how much it helped. I’ve since gotten better at practising, too. Here’s some of what I’ve learned.
The perfect place to practise is on a pond, with 40 feet of space behind you, and 20 on each side. Since that’s not always possible, a gymnasium, empty athletic field or large lawn will do fine. Just don’t cast over gravel or dirt—your line will need to be totally unwound and cleaned, especially before grit gets into your reel. And casting on pavement will straight up destroy your line in about 10 minutes (I’d prefer not to say how I know that).
Rig up as usual, except using a simple mono leader; without a leader, you can damage your fly line if you accidently “crack the whip.” For a practice fly, select an easy-to-see pattern and cut off the hook at the bend, or tie on a bright bit of yarn. If you don’t use a fly, your leader will land abnormally, and you may start changing your casting to correct it.
You’ll also want a few targets. I used to set out Frisbees, but now I just drop my coat, hat or anything else that’s handy. And don’t forget to wear sunglasses. Eye protection is a must when fly casting—both on and off the water.
Wind is the bane of the fly caster. If you’re a novice caster, or just plain rusty, wait for a calm day. But if you’re an intermediate-level caster, get outside and practise in all kinds of conditions. Whether you’re on a lake, broad river or the ocean, there will almost always be wind, so you need to learn the techniques for dealing with it. And it’s better to do that on the lawn at home (below), rather than on the water wasting precious fishing time.
Start with the amount of line that you can already efficiently cast, even if it’s only 20 feet. Watch both your back and forward casts, and work on making perfect tight loops. Gradually increase the distance in five-foot increments, and work on casting using as little energy as possible. Similarly, practise getting your line out with a minimum of false casting. Unnecessary false casting is tiring, and it can spook fish.
Casting on the lawn gets boring fast, so run drills to help keep you engaged. Practise hitting targets at 20, 30, 40 and 50 feet. Next, place one target 30 feet out at 10 o’clock and another one 50 feet away at 2 o’clock. Aim for one target, then lift up the line and try to hit the other one with a single false cast. Then mix up the order and directions—learning to quick-fire longer and shorter casts is immensely useful for sight-fishing.
As you improve, add other challenges, such as casting sidearm under trees or casting from a crouching position. If you fish from a boat, also practise firing in all directions while seated or kneeling.
Ultimately, your goal is to acquire muscle memory for casting naturally and automatically, without thinking. That way, you can focus on the unique challenges each fishing hole presents, and concentrate on the fun stuff like tactics, approach and, hopefully, catching a few fish.