Small Stream Casting

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Photos by Louis Cahill

By Jason Tucker

Of all the challenges to small stream fishing (access, obstacles, wary fish, biting insects, hillbillies) casting must rank as the most frustrating aspect of small-stream fishing.

I have coined several swear words you have never heard casting in small streams. It is that frustrating. When you go to small streams you need to bring a double dose of patience. Some days and some places I have simply turned around and walked out rather than suffer a stroke due to the frustration of casting in tight quarters.

Picture this. You have already had a frustrating day. You’ve caught some fish, but also lost some flies to the bushes. You have tied on the last ‘hot fly’ from your box. Quietly you wade up around the bend, moving slowly so as not to push water, because upstream you can hear a good fish feeding. Sure enough, when you round the bend you can see a fifteen-inch trout noisily slurping flies off the surface completely unaware of your presence. It is the biggest fish you’ve seen all day. Problem is, the fish is twenty feet away and you only have an eighteen-inch space between the tag alders to land the fly. You also don’t have much of a backcast due to the brush behind you, so you’re going to have to steeple cast the fly above you but still get it to lay out quietly just in front of the fish.

“You’ve got this” you whisper. You make that steeple cast by flipping the fly out in a tight  arc, then pop the rod tip up to the sky, feel the glass rod load, start your forward motion and change the direction of your arm movement forward toward the fish, shoot just a little line for the distance, then just as your loop extends toward the fish, the slightest breeze puffs it into the tag alders high overhead. Seeing this, you yank your rod back in an effort to stop it, only to pop your fly off in the top of the tree. The fish, seeing the commotion, scoots for cover. This is the challenge of casting on small streams. Some days you will spend more time untangling line and flies from the brush than you will fishing.

I can and do make that cast successfully from time to time. A steeple cast in tight quarters is just one skill that is helpful to have on a small stream. My disclaimer that I will now make is that I am no casting instructor. I’ll do my best to describe some of the skills you should cultivate. Honestly, some of the crazy casts you will end up attempting aren’t taught by anyone- you make them up as you go along. You don’t have to be an expert caster to fish small streams, but some basic skill will help.

Single cast. The first skill anyone should know is just a single hand cast with a tight loop. Learn how to load that rod and deliver in one cast (I’m here defining a cast as one back- and one forward cast). Delivering a cast with minimal false casting is a skill you want to develop throughout your fly fishing.  For short casts you want to pick up and deliver that fly in a one-two motion. Back-cast and deliver. For longer casts you may want to make two casts, the first to load the rod and gauge the distance, and the second to deliver the fly accurately to the fish. What you don’t want to do is keep whipping that rod back and forth until every fish in the pool sees it and darts for cover. A single cast is always better than multiple casts regardless of distance.

Accuracy. You also need to develop accuracy. That failed cast I describe above is a daily occurrence on small streams. What I have to constantly remind myself is that it’s not enough to cast in the general direction of the fish. The line is going to follow wherever the rod tip goes, so make sure when you’re making your presentation cast that it is pointed directly at the spot you are trying to hit. Not doing this is one of the most common mistakes I make. Spooking fish and retrieving line and flies from bushes is no fun.

Roll Cast. The next skill you need is a roll cast. On some streams you will spend most of the day roll casting. Again, wherever you end up pointing the rod tip is where your fly will end up. It is not enough to cast in the general direction. You almost have to sight down the rod. There are lots of books and videos on casting out there (and posts on Gink and Gasoline) so I won’t walk you through a roll cast. It is one of the easier casts to learn, and essential to small stream fishing.

Those two casts- a tight single hand cast, and the roll cast are the basis for small stream fishing. Here’s some other skills you should learn for small stream fishing.

Steeple cast. Many a Michigan small stream stuffed full of angry brook trout flows through tag alder swamp. Tag alders grow up to twenty feet tall but never much taller. Tag alders swamps typically only grow tag alders, so there will be no overstory of trees. There are plenty of situations where you have a solid wall of tag alders behind you, and for a variety of reasons a roll cast is undesirable. A steeple cast may just get the job done.

I made a fairly good description of a steeple cast above. Instead of your back-cast extending back over your shoulder, you are sending it high overhead above the bushes, then changing directions on the forward cast so your line doesn’t just slam down in a pile in front of you. This is also a case where you really don’t want to break your wrist on the back-cast, as this would allow your fly to swing down into the brush you’re trying to avoid. 

It helps to look up at your back-cast so that you start your forward motion at the right moment. Your arm is going to be high and so you end up extending your arm and shoulder forward to change the direction of the line to parallel with the water’s surface. You’ll also want to stop your rod tip high and early to help the direction change and extend your loop, then once it unfurls drop the tip softly to present the fly. 

Having an efficient cast, with as little motion as possible to start with, gives you the leeway to make a steeple cast. Done right it is a masterful performance. There’s a million ways for this to go wrong with results that aren’t family friendly. Do it right, make a good presentation, catch a good fish, and you can pack up your stuff and go home. It won’t get any better than that. Why not end on a good note? I do this cast a lot, even on big streams. I have even used it to back-cast between branches on big oak trees if there’s a big enough hole to thread.

Bow and arrow casts. There is a basic bow and arrow cast and an extended bow and arrow cast. Joe Brooks was the master at these. The secret is to hold your rod upside down with the reel facing up. Grab your fly and pull back until you think you have enough tension to make the cast, point the rod at the spot you want to hit and let go. It takes quite a bit of practice, but when there’s a big brook trout feeding in a hole in the brush it is often the only chance you’ve got of getting a fly in there. The extended bow and arrow cast involves grabbing your fly line with the tippet and fly trailing. You’ll have several loops of line in your rod hand. You release your fly line, and as it rolls forward you release the loops in your rod hand. It increases the distance you can reach with the bow and arrow cast and requires even more practice. I have seen Alex Cerveniak do this many times and actually catch fish, so don’t write it off as a stunt. It just takes practice.

Dapping. There will be times when you will just want to extend your rod with the fly hanging down and just set it on the water at rod’s length. Sometimes you just sneak up on a fish feeding close. Sometimes the bugs are hatching so well that fish refuse to move until absolutely forced. Don’t ever discount this as a method. You’ll know to use it when you get into the situation; don’t get stuck in a mind frame thinking that you must cast to a fish. Dapping is a great technique in tight quarters.

Sidearm-roll casts. This is a cast I came up with to get a fly under low hanging bushes to a feeding fish. It’s like doing a roll cast, but you draw your rod tip back at a steep angle to the side, then sweep it in a big arc forward so that it forms a horizontal loop and hopefully lands underneath the brush instead of in it. I’ve caught at least one fish doing this, and also spooked a lot of fish trying. Like I’ve said, I’m no casting instructor and I’ve only done it a handful of times in a desperate attempt at fish that are otherwise impossible to cast to. I apologize for the clumsy description. I don’t know if it is taught in any books or videos, it’s just a hail Mary cast.

Mending. In a normal book on fly fishing mending would require an entire chapter. In small stream fishing, mending is just as important, but is scaled to the water. It’s still necessary, but the adjustments are going to be smaller. You may have to make a reach cast here and there. If you can throw a good mend on a big stream you can do it on a small stream. You will be mending constantly, so you might as well get good at it. It is especially helpful to learn how to mend in the air so as not to disturb the water (and the fish) once the cast is made. You’ll be fishing a lot of pour-over situations- logs and beaver dams up north; cascades in the mountains. Water will often linger for a moment at the pour-over before racing away in the tail out. You’ll need to throw an immediate upstream mend if you’re fishing from downstream as you should be if you want your fly to stay in the strike zone for any length of time. This is one of the more common examples. You often have very little time to make the mend, so you either need to throw the upstream loop on contact with the water, or even throw it before it hits the water. Starting your mend before the line even lands is faster because you’re not fighting water resistance on the fly line. This takes a lot of practice, and it is hard to get it down without changing the impact point of your fly, but it is something I practice every time I’m out on a small stream. It can be done, and it gives you those few extra seconds for a trout to take your fly before the current rips it out of the hole. 

It’s nice when you get to those long straight stretches of stream with a bit of holding water at the head of it. Even better if you have room for a back cast. Maybe all you need is to throw  a little squiggle into the cast to get a drag free drift. Those spots are few and far between on small streams. The individual situations on small streams are so numerous and varied that it will really test your mending skills, but also hone and sharpen them immensely. One of the best things you can do, especially if you have blown a mend and think that the fish are spooked, is to stay there and practice the mend you meant to make before moving on. I do this a lot and am occasionally surprised by a fish that eats once I get it right.

Two-Handed Casting. My friend Zach Ginop reminded me that two-handed casting techniques adapted to the single-hand rod are some of the best for small streams, and he says he fishes small streams that way almost exclusively. I can snap-T, and use it regularly on small streams, but other than that, I’m not qualified to talk about two-handed technique. I’ll try to interview Zach in the near future to find out how two-handed casting can help you catch more fish on small streams.

I hope these casting tips help you be more successful on small streams.


Jason writes the fine blog Fontinalis Rising

Jason Tucker

Gink & Gasoline
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4 thoughts on “Small Stream Casting

  1. Water-haul is also super valuable in tight quarters. Letting the line and fly lay out behind you on the water and using the surface tension to help load the rod and deliver a single forward cast. Thanks for the great article!

  2. Favorite Appalachian small stream rod? I have an old Scott Alpha 8’ 4wt, but have the itch for something new. Opinions would be appreciated.

    • No surprise of course that opinions are like ‘you-know-whats’ on rod selection but here in the VA mountains I have been enjoying my 8′ 2w from TFO and a cheap reel. IMO no sense in banging a fancy rod and reel combo off a bunch of rocks trying to sneak up on the fish. I figure when I do finally smash it to bits I will only cry a little instead of a lot. 🙂 I think going shorter than 8′ is probably more detrimental to various cast and presentation types and not worth the offset in length and maneuverability you pickup. Anyway just one man’s opinion. Peace!

      • Thanks, I cast several rods yesterday. Orvis Superfine, Scott F series, and Douglas
        Upstream. All 7’ 6” or less, most impressed with the glass Superfine. Douglas was pretty good too for less than $300

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