The 5 Essentials Of A Good Fly Cast Revisited

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

Let’s take a minute to look at the 5 essentials of a good fly cast.

I was giving a talk about saltwater fly fishing the other day when I mentioned the 5 essentials. I was shocked to find that no one in the crowd knew what the 5 essentials are, or that they even existed. I’ve never written on the topic because I thought it was common knowledge. Apparently I was wrong.

I did some research and was even more surprised to find that there is a good bit of variation in what has been written on the topic and there is some of it I don’t agree with. That said, understand that what I’m about to set out for you are the 5 essentials as I learned them and as I believe they are best explained. They are roughly equivalent to the 10 commandments for the IFFF and there will no doubt be some who consider any variation sacrilege. I encourage you to read the original (here’s a good source) and take both as good advice.

The 5 Essentials are the work of Bill and Jay Gammel. Their article on the subject was written in 1990 and while it’s important work, you should bear in mind that it pertains to single hand, overhead fly casting only. Many of the ideas apply to other casting styles, but not all. I have discussed this version with some of the most knowledgeable IFFF casting instructors I know and am very confident in it.

The 5 Essentials of a good fly cast

The first thing I learned about the 5 Essentials was that there are 6 of them, so you can see that I’m off to a good start.

1. There should be a smooth, accelerating application of power.

Lefty Kreh described this motion as feeling like throwing wet pain with a brush. If you start too quickly, the paint will fly back on you, so you start slow and speed up as you go. The casting stroke should do the same, start gently and accelerate smoothly, stopping at its fastest point. This leads us to essential number 2.

2. There must be an abrupt stop

Here is where I first deviate from much of what is written on the topic. The abrupt stop of the casting stroke is the action which forms the loop. It is extremely important but is skipped over in almost everything I’ve seen written. If you’ve ever been told that you’re dropping your rod tip, you’re missing the all important stop. There are 2 important things to keep in mind. The stop must be abrupt to form a tight loop and the rod must pause in the stop position to keep the energy in the loop.

The original version of the 5 Essentials skips this and talks about slack instead, saying slack must be kept to a minimum. In my opinion, and those I have consulted with, this falls short in two places. First, if the 5 Essentials are performed correctly, there will be no slack. Slack is a symptom of a casting problem, not a naturally occurring condition. There should be no slack, not minimal slack. Secondly, it’s of no use to tell a caster to keep slack to a minimum and not tell them how. The only place I see merit for this is when beginning the cast. I’ve written about that HERE.

3. The rod tip must follow a straight line path

One of the most common problems in fly casting is deviation from the straight line path. If your loops are big and round and your line piles up on delivery, this is likely your problem. The fly line follows the path of the rod tip. In order to make a nice flat cast, with a tight loop, which will cut the wind and go the distance, the rod tip must travel in a flat, straight line.

To accomplish this we must balance two mechanical actions performed by our casting arm, rotation and translation. Rotation is the movement of the wrist and translation is the push-pull motion of the arm. Too much rotation and not enough translation causes the rod tip to travel in an arc rather than a straight line.

Some rotation is necessary, however. It is important in lengthening the casting stroke as well as generating line speed but is also important in creating that straight line. Remember, as the rod loads it bends, in effect becoming shorter. If there were no rotation in your stroke, your rod tip would bend into a convex path, causing a tailing loop. Remember that the line travels in the same path as the rod tip. You can diagnose and adjust your stroke by watching the shape of your loop.

4. There must be a pause at the end of each stroke, proportional in duration to the length of line outside the rod tip.

This is a fancy way of saying that you have to wait for the line to fully straighten out on both your forward and back casting strokes before applying power in the opposite direction. Starting the stroke before the line straightens robs the cast of power because the rod does not have the full weight of the line to load, and you create slack in the system. Taking that slack out, with your casting stroke, truncates your stroke and results in tailing loops.

5. The length of the stroke must be proportionate to the length of the line outside the rod tip.

Simply put— long cast, long stroke. Short cast, short stroke. If we look at this a little closer you’ll see that what we are talking about is how much of the rod we are loading.

For a short cast we only have a little line out of the rod tip. Let’s say ten feet of line plus our leader. Our line is designed to load the rod with the full head, not ten feet. Without the weight of the head we can only load the tip of the rod. Since the tip is six or eight feet out the shaft of the rod, its motion is amplified. It takes a short, fast stroke to cast a short line.

To cast seventy feet or more of line we must use the power of the heavy butt section of the rod. This requires a much longer casting stroke. As the rod bends deeper, the long stroke forms the crucial straight line path. You will notice that competitive distance casters grip the rod at the very back of the cork, right against the reel. This allows them to access the heaviest, and strongest part of the rod.

6. Extra Credit…The length of the haul (as in “double haul”) must be proportionate to the length of the line outside the rod tip.

It is absolutely possible to do a lot of fly fishing and catch a lot of fish without ever using a double haul. However, it is a powerful technique used by all advanced casters regardless of the fishing situation. Once you learn to double haul, you never go back.

Just like the casting stroke, the length of the hauls is proportionate to the length of the line you’re casting. Short cast, short haul. Long cast, long haul. If you’re six feet tall and you want to make a hundred foot cast, you’ll find yourself using all six feet of your arm span for your haul.

I hope this demystifies some of the fundamentals of the fly cast. If this is new information for you, I suggest you write down the 5 Essentials or print this article and carry it with you next time you practice your casting. It’s a great check list to help you diagnose casting problems and get your cast tuned up in a hurry. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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23 thoughts on “The 5 Essentials Of A Good Fly Cast Revisited

  1. Maybe nobody knew the “5 essentials” because you made up the idea. Heck, you can break an 80′ flats cast, into a 20 MPH wind, into 100 essential moves. Just learn how to cast.

  2. Thanks Louis, just keep telling me this stuff, I can see making the perfect cast in my mind & it’s getting closer…

  3. I’m new to flyfishing, but this helps . I’m still terrible but at least I kinda know where I’m screwing up now. Thanks Louis.

  4. Practice? Ask my neighbors, in our official geezer community, here in Tucson, Arizona, why that old fool is casting a 10wt (into the wind) out in the asphalt street, or on the golf course pond, in the month or so before tarpon season. Daffy maybe, or just practicing?

  5. Great article Louis. Carl McNeills video on casting “Casts that catch fish” show these essentials along with some practical applications like reach casts, tuck casts etc. Its essential viewing for anyone who casts a flyline

  6. nice article louis – the abrupt stop is absolutely right. good on you for adding this. I’ve heard it described many different ways and i like to phrase it “accelerate to a crisp stop”… the eliminate slack chiefly relates to the start of the cast (as you’ve noted), lefty says you can’t begin a cast until you move the fly. If the line isn’t straight and the fly moving till the rod’s straight up by your ear – you’ve effectively introduced a big ‘creep’ into your first backcast (pickup) and reduced your stroke so much you are highly unlikely to make a decent backcast at all.

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  9. I find in instructing Boy Scouts (and leaders) the best way to get abrupt stops is to have them punch my hand hard about 2.5 ft in front of their face. This shows them what a hard stop is. Then tell them to punch and stop same way, but 1 inch short of my hand. They can grasp this on forward cast because the motion is in their vision in front of them; it is a little harder to get them to turn their head and watch the back cast.

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  13. While an excellent recap, I believe that there is an important first step prior to the steps above. This is from Lefty himself. 1. You can’t throw slack. If you are not in contact with the end of the fly line, all of the above points are for naught. I see this all the time with new casters. You must strip in the line until you see the end of the fly line move or you will most likely end up with a pile of line at your feet or in your face. You simply cannot apply power until you have contact between the rod tip and the line.

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