Top 10 Casting Errors… And How To Fix Them

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 TAUGHT MYSELF TO CAST, many years ago, using a tattered old blow-in flyer from a Fly Fisherman magazine and a whole lot of guess-and-check.  In some respects this is the best way to learn anything, because you make every conceivable mistake on your way to competence.  While unquestionably the slowest way to get good at anything, there are advantages to having “been there and done that” when it comes to casting errors.  For this Ten Tips piece, I wanted to outline the consensus “Top Ten” casting errors, as well as how to go about fixing them.

#1 The Looper

The dreaded tailing loop is the Big Daddy of casting flaws, so we might as well get it out of the way up front.  The tailing loop, technically, is caused when the tip top guide of the rod tracks a concave or U-shaped path as the angler pushes it forward.  The rod tip path “shapes” the loop, and unfortunately, the U-shape creates competing planes of momentum, which cause the top leg of the loop to drop below the bottom leg.  In a controlled environment, this isn’t all that bad, and indeed some anglers can “bend it like Beckham” and force a working tailing loop to do their bidding.  For most anglers, tailing loops are the worst; this is the origin of 90% of what we euphemistically call “wind knots.”

There are two textbook ways to create the U-shaped path of the tip: punch and creep.  “Punch” occurs when the angler gets over-excited and slams the rod forward, causing the tip to rapidly flex (thus driving it downwards) when it comes into contact with the force of the backcast loop rolling away from it.  As soon as the excitable “punching” motion is gone, the tip is released from pressure and springs back upwards, creating the classic down-then-up pattern of the U-shaped path.  The solution for tailing loops created by “punching” the rod forward is to dial it back a bit, son.  Apply power smoothly from the rearmost position in the backcast to the forwardmost position in the forward cast, accelerating smoothly to a hard stop.  In everyday terms, I often find it helps anglers to challenge them to SLOW DOWN and cast the slowest loop they can.  If you’re throwing consistent tailing loops, set up a camera trap for yourself by having a buddy film you, and watch for a sudden jerking motion which compresses the rod tip downwards when you start your forward cast.

“Creep” is the flip side of the “punch” coin, and it is more common.  Creeping anglers throw the line into a backcast, then jump the gun and begin to ease the fly rod back forwards, initiating the forward cast before the backcast has actually finished unrolling.  By doing so, they slide the tip top of the rod into a mid-way-forward position before it ever encounters the pressure of the unrolling backcast.  As soon as that backwards motion hits the rod, it bends it over, just like a punching angler does with his over-application of force.  The rod tip thus dips, again creating our classic U-shaped path and, unfortunately, the tailing loop.

The solution for “creep”-based tailing loops is to watch your backcast.  For many anglers this will necessitate opening up the stance by sliding the foot on your rod-hand-side backwards, standing more sidesaddle to your target and thus making it easier for you to turn your head and watch the backcast unroll.  The key here is not to start moving the rod hand forward until it encounters pressure from the backcast unrolling; watching and waiting for the backcast to finish unrolling is the ideal way to time that motion, since it will give you a visual cue.  Remember, keep the tiptop of the rod all the way at the back of the backcast until the backcast has finished unrolling, and only then start it forward.

#2 The Planar Traveler

The second most common casting flaw is really very simple.  Backcasts and forecasts should always be 180 degrees away from each other.  You need the backcast to be going exactly opposite your target in order to both maximize the load on the rod, and also to prevent the tip from being pulled sideways when the force of the backcast encounters the opposite force of the forward cast.  Out of plane casts result in the rod tip tracking a parabola (imagine an infinity sign: ∞).  You can almost always tell when your backcast is out of plane with your forward cast because the fly will kick sideways when it finishes unrolling.  This classic hallmark is the inevitable result of that infinity-track path; the fly is trying to swing through one of the end loops as it runs out of room, thus dropping sideways.

A really crack caster can take advantage of this phenomenon to drop a controlled curve cast behind an obstacle, but for most of us, this is simply visual evidence of our casting sins.  To correct an out of plane cast, again, turn your head and pick out an object directly opposite the target you are trying to reach.  Make certain your backcast is unrolling towards that object.  One nice effect of fixing a planar travel issue is that you tend to get a lot more distance out of a cast once you’ve dialed in the straight line path of the rod tip.  I once helped an angler who had all the pieces (double haul, proper power application, etc.) but just couldn’t seem to get his cast past fifty feet.  We set a long measuring tape on a field and he focused on keeping his backcast loop over the tape, directly opposite the forward cast.  By the end of one hour (no lie) he had taken his maximum casting distance from 45 feet to 70 feet.  That’s quite an improvement with one simple fix!

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#3 The Gunslinger

I see this all the time.  An angler learns how to double-haul, and pretty soon that angler is doing his best Clint Eastwood impression by letting his hauling hand drop to “holster-level” between every cast.  “Do you feel lucky, punk?” (Hope so, because you’re relying on luck if you cast like this…)

Describing a double haul on paper is a lot like dancing about architecture, to mangle an oft-quoted line.  The best way to learn the double haul for the first time is to watch a video or have a friend show you.  But once you have figured out the basics, don’t assume you’ve got it mastered!  Most new double-haulers start out well enough, with their hands together prior to beginning a backcast.  They haul downward to their hip (thus increasing line speed in the backcast–all good so far).  But then, they commit the fatal sin; they leave their hauling hand at their hip, with the line stretched across their chests, and fail to return that hand into position to make a bona fide forward haul.  The result ends up being a limp-wristed attempt at a forward haul, with the angler mostly pulling against slack.  This is the major difference between someone who can “haul” and someone who can haul and also deliver a fly 100 feet.

To fix the “gunslinger” problem, it’s important to haul hard enough into the backcast that the line will have some momentum flying through the guides in a backward direction.  You should feel this momentum tugging on the line in your hauling hand; allow it to guide your hand back up to the butt of the rod, so that when you begin the forward haul, you are pulling not against slack, from your hip, but instead against a taut, lively backcast loop, and from the butt of the rod.

#4 The Sidewinder

This error is a close cousin of the Gunslinger who tries to haul from the hip.  The Sidewinder has figured out, more or less, that his rod hand needs to return to the butt of the rod in order to have something to haul against going into the forward cast.  What he has not yet learned is that the direction of the haul also matters.  Remember the Planar Traveler, who inadvertently creates an infinity loop parabola by letting his backcast unroll off to the side? The Sidewinder is making the same error by hauling sideways against the rod, rather than down the shaft of the blank.

Biomechanically, some degree of sideways hauling is unavoidable, because our arms only stretch so far.  But to maximize hauling efficiency, the angler should nevertheless do his or her best to always pull the line straight down in line with the rod blank; this will not only keep the rod from experiencing sideways torque, thus pulling the tip out of plane, but it will also add effectiveness to the haul by decreasing the amount of hauling energy dissipated as friction on the guides.

#5 Johnny Distance

This error is less a single problem and more of a philosophical life-mistake.  Johnny Distance is the guy who always maxes his casts out regardless of the fishing need, thereby stretching his skills (whatever level they may be at) to the breaking point.  At some level, all of us, even casting masters like Steve Rajeff and Brian O’Keefe, meet our match.  At the utmost extremity of our ability, casting errors which we otherwise have well under control return in full force.  For many anglers this takes the form of a tailing loop, which only asserts itself on casts over 70 or 80 or 90 feet.  For others, it is a power misapplication, a slight timing error which results in a cast which fails to unroll, or which kicks sideways a la the Planar Traveler.

Whatever your casting flaws may be, be assured that maximizing your distance at all times will most certainly bring them to the front.  In fishing situations, every angler would be well advised to exert no more than 80-90% effort, even if the situation (such as in striper fishing) calls for huge searching distance casts.  If you can cast 100′ on the lawn with some effort, awesome, good for you.  You still should keep your fishing casts at 80 to 90 feet, both to conserve your strength and to minimize tangles which will rob you of time actually presenting flies to targets.

#6 The Limp Wrister

Roll casts have become extremely fashionable of late, fueled no doubt by a rising familiarity with Spey casting.  I myself roll cast most of the time when nymphing on open tailwaters; keeping the fly wet is a good way to catch fish.  The problem is that most anglers learn to roll cast in a style more appropriate for bamboo or fiberglass, and that method has serious flaws with stiff, modern graphite rods.  Classic angling books will teach you to roll cast by raising the rod hand to 1 o’clock in the backcast, then pausing, thus letting the line settle into the D-loop and giving you water tension to pull against as you kick the rod into a forward cast.  While this still works, it offers very little in the way of distance or control; the angler casting this way tends to throw a very circular forward loop, which often as not winds up unrolling with the fly straight up in the air, forcing it to plummet into a pile cast, like it or not.

The solution, and I cannot stress this enough with a fast action graphite rod, is to adopt the Spey caster’s “dynamic roll cast” or “Single Spey” technique.  This method adds the element of speed to the roll cast and changes basically everything about the results.  Instead of gently lifting the rod into the D-loop position and letting the line settle into place, instead, start with the rod tip in the forward position, raised to 10 o’clock.  Sweep the rod tip backwards  and upwards, almost like an inverted J-stoke, lifting the rod tip in one smooth motion into the D-loop position.  The line should follow in a low pseudo-backcast, almost like you inverted a standard backcast.  As soon as the tip of the line nicks the water, without waiting, kick the rod back into a forward roll cast.  Once you get the timing right you will immediately feel the power; done properly this roll cast can present flies up to 70 feet away even with standard trout tackle.  You can even haul.

#7 The Italian Chef

This one is much more typical of new anglers, but even experienced old hands can find themselves serving up spaghetti if they forget the basics (often out of excitement or a need to cast further than normal).  Line management isn’t just a mending technique; you also have to manage your line in the boat or around you on the water.  The classic mistake is to pull a bunch of line off at your feet and fail to stretch it; inevitably a coiled loop of line from further back on the spool will flop over a section of line thirty feet closer to the fly.  When you begin to try to shoot line into a cast, these tangled loops will almost explode, suddenly turning your line into a pile of spaghetti.

The key here is to take a deep breath and think things through before getting excited about bombing casts everywhere.  As line comes off the spool for the first time in a given trip, it should always be gently stretched between your hands.  I usually stretch in 3-foot segments.  This is particularly true when the weather is cold, the line hasn’t been used in a while, or the line is loaded on a standard-arbor reel with a narrower center arbor.  Once the line is stretched, stack it from back to front.  This is a distance caster’s tip which is often lost on everyday anglers.  Line which is stacked with the back of the line on the bottom of the pile is much less likely to leap into a tangle.  Every few casts, re-stack the line to keep everything from growing unruly.

#8 The Texas Twister

Some anglers view line twist as an inevitability; a necessary evil created by their stroke or even the act of fly casting itself.  “I’m a sidearm caster,” they say, explaining why their fly needs time to untwist itself every few casts.  This is a mistake; properly done, even sidearm or “Belgian” casting should not impart twist to the line.

Twist actually happens as a result of a handful of easily identified malefactors: one is our old friend the Planar Traveler.  If an angler perpetually casts out of plane, the infinity-loop path of the fly can eventually impart twist.  This is especially true if the fly is corkscrew-shaped on some level itself, which is true of all wooly buggers and many dry flies with classic collars.  Flies can also twist when they are canted to one side or another, often as the result of a knot getting wedged in a corner of the hook eye, or in the case of larger baitfish patterns with epoxy eyes, when the epoxy has been allowed to settle to one side, creating a significant weight imbalance.

The solution to the twist problem is to run down the checklist: First, is the fly itself corkscrew shaped? If so, try increasing leader thickness to impart some rigidity to the system, or switching from soft mono to harder fluorocarbon tippet if an increase in X-size is not an option.  Second, has the knot slipped to one side? If this is a consistent problem, switch to an open loop knot, like the non-slip mono loop or the Duncan’s loop.  Third, is the fly itself defective in the sense of being weighted poorly? If so, switch flies, and do a better job tying it next time, wouldja? Finally, if none of these things are the problem, look in the mirror.  You are most likely guilty of a little planar travel, and you should pick out a target behind you and keep that tip path in line.

#9 Slick Willie

Slick Willie is a huge believer in the multitudinous powers of lubricant.  Every car he owns has its bearings greased bi-monthly, and he’s been experimenting in the basement with a fly treatment based on Astroglide.  His friends are tired of hearing about the custom rod he’s having built with all-ceramic guides, and suspect him of closet baitfishing.

Slick Willie is, in a sense, a victim of advertising.  He believes the only thing keeping him from casting the distance he wants is the friction of the line in his guides (and don’t get him started on the tip of the line sinking).

The truth is, very little of this matters.  Line slickness is a luxury, for sure, as is a properly floating tip, but many an angler has been able to break 100′ with a fly shop parking lot line so coated in tar, it would sink like a stone if ever confronted with an actual river.  Proper technique is the solution for casting distance issues, not fancy aftermarket creams.  Fly lines these days are permeated with PTFE (polytetrafluoroethylene), aka Teflon, the same substance they use to keep eggs from sticking to your pans.  As the line is used, some amount of PTFE leaches outwards at all times, escaping the cage of PVC molecules in which it is embedded and working its way to the exterior of the line.  The best line care and feeding practice is extremely simple: wash the line from time to time in light dish soap and sponge it off.  When it becomes irretrievably dirty, as inevitably happens, go get a new line.

#10 The Confidence Man

The worst casting mistake of all is the one made by The Confidence Man: he is so confident in his own technique, he refuses to accept any evidence that he may not, in fact, have this all figured out.  There are three or four guys in the world who could legitimately say, “No one can teach me anything I don’t already know about casting.”  I’ve met those guys, and you know what’s funny about them?  Even though they could say that, they never would, because they recognize that someone somewhere could always come up with something new.

The Confidence Man is the absolute bane of fishing guides worldwide.  There is nothing worse than getting in a boat and watching a sport flounder while spouting nonsense about how ‘we do it back home.’  Always remember, there is someone out there who can do this better than you can, or who will be able to do it better before too long.  Keep an open mind, practice the techniques you’ve learned, and confront your casting errors rather than papering them over.

Footnote: The very best book about fly-casting I have ever read is Ed Jaworowksi’s Troubleshooting the Cast.  It is out of print currently but copies of the 1999 edition remain available.  I cannot recommend this book to new anglers highly enough, and I personally owe Ed Jaworowski a debt of gratitude for unknowingly giving me the tools to beat my own tailing loop all those years ago.

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