Basic Fly Fishing Casts

 Basic Fly Fishing Casts

Basic 2 fly fishing casts you should master
to be a successful fly fisherman in
Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico


Remember on the How to Choose Fly Rods page, fly fishing great and fly rod builder Tom Morgan, "During the last 40 years, most trout have been taken from 20 to 40 feet and I expect the next 50 years will be the same." 

What this means is that you don’t need to learn how to lay out 60 and 70 feet of line plus 10 feet or 12 feet of leader to catch fish.  This is particularly true in Colorado where the average stream is some 60 feet or less wide.  If you are trying to shoot those long casts, you are missing fish at your feet.

A professional guide I know teaches teaches her students to fish at 10 to 12 feet and has said in class that many fish are caught within seven feet of you.  (I personally have caught fish within 4 feet of where I was standing.)

So the only two casts you really need to master are the "Tension Cast" and the "Roll Cast" to reach out those some 20 to 30 feet for your fish.  If you are trying to punch casts longer than this, STOP.  Wade closer and wade quietly until you can get into a better casting position. The overhand cast is useful but not necessary to catching fish. The overhand cast will be covered separately.

Tension Cast

This is just a fancy name for using the current flow to load the rod for you.  It is one of the simplest casts to perform.  Learned well, it is deadly accurate.  If you are fishing weighted nymphs or a leader with weight, the leader will roll over your rod at 90 degrees to the rod most of time.  This is so predicable that you can learn to drop a cast into an 8 inch circle under branches with practice.  (I know from experience that it can be done.  Of course, I do loose flies too.)

Performing the "Tension Cast".

  • Complete your drift
  • Let the current straighten out your line downstream
  • Drop the tip of your rod to some 8 to 10 inches above the water for maximum water loading
  • Using a side arm sweep or just a wrist snap depending on the length of the cast, bring the rod forward toward your target sharply
  • During this forward sweep, the current will load the rod just like a back cast
  • Stop your rod tip about 90 degrees from pointing straight toward your target (Remember the weight will pull the leader and line at 90 degrees to the rod. If the rod is tip is pointed at 90 degrees to the target, the line will end up going toward your target. For fishing flies with no weight, point your rod tip at the target.)
  • Let the weight on your leader bring the leader up and over your rod in a type of roll cast toward your target
  • That’s all there is to it  Pretty simple
  • To Practice — let your leader and about 10 to 15 feet of line out of your tip.  This should give you enough line and leader to load your rod for your practice casts.  You may want to use bright red yarn tied to the end of your leader for visibility until you get used to this cast.


Roll Cast

The roll cast is more difficult to perform.  The water is used as the anchor point for the line. The water again will load the rod. But you are providing the power for the cast.  Performed properly, the roll cast will roll out into a good cast toward your target.  The roll cast is easier done on more open water without trees or brush behind you. But the main use for it is when you have trees, brush or other objects at your back.

Performing the "Roll Cast"

  • Finish your drift
  • Face your target with your left foot slightly forward of the right foot at a 45 degree angle. (Reverse for left handed casters)
  • Bring your casting arm and rod up into a one o’clock position. (This would be the finish position for a regular overhead cast.  You now have your arm bent and your wrist cocked. I like to tip my rod about 10 degrees outside the plane formed by my rod and arm.  Basically I don’t like the risk of hooking myself.)
  • Stop and check you have the line behind the rod in a good loop. The bigger the loop the longer you can cast. You need to have about 4 feet minimum of line plus the leader in the water to load the rod.
  • Aim your cast slightly to the left of your target since the line will be rolling to the right of the rod.
  • With a sharp power stroke, drive your arm forward to the 11 o’clock position to load the rod and start the cast moving.
  • With a wrist snap drop your rod to the 10 o’clock position to put more power into the cast directing the line to your target. Keep your arm and rod at the 10 o’clock or 45 degrees to the water for maximum distance. 
  • When the line has straightened out, let your rod drift down toward the water until the tip is 3 to 4 inches above the surface.
  • You are now ready to throw a mend or set the hook when a fish strikes.

This may not be the traditional method of performing the roll cast but it works for me.


Nymph Fishing — Why you should fish nymphs rather than dry flies