Coaching new casters has provided a great deal of satisfaction for all of us in the fly shop but as anyone could guess, there are days when nothing seems to go right with the student’s casting other than their aptitude for tying the neatest and tightest wind knots humanly possible. Eventually someone has to ask “How long does it take to become a good caster?”
I truly believe that skill with a fly rod is one of the most rewarding endeavors I’ve ever taken on and even after nearly 20 years with a fly rod in hand at least a few hours each week, there’s a long way to go to reach the level of skill I hope to ultimately achieve. I tell everyone that you never stop getting better (given a certain level of dedication) and your stroke is constantly evolving, for better or for worse. But there is one absolute when it comes to casting that it took quite a while for me to figure out.
Practice Makes Proficient! Not “Perfect” mind you because perfect doesn’t leave any room for further growth or improvement, and besides, I don’t think anyone is perfect no matter how talented. Every one of us will occasionally chuck a fly right into the tightest tangle of bushes, just like the number one golfer in the world is bound to shank one into the woods. The best we can hope for is to avoid doing it on a regular basis.
Practicing off the water or at least with the fish removed from the equation is the only way to gain skill and build the muscle memory needed to be able to put the fly where you want it in more than a random manner. Accuracy, distance, control, and stroke variety need to be practiced without having to worry about what the fish are doing while the fly is in the water. Actually fishing instead of practicing is what kept me from excelling quicker as a fly angler and I only wish I had spent more time on grass in combination with time on the water.
In order to get the most out of your casting sessions, focus on specific skills you’ll need or situations you might encounter. Place particular emphasis on the situations that provide the greatest amount of difficulty like roll casting in cover, reaching back under mangroves or docks, threading the needle between trees, landing the fly within inches of your target, or even reaching out there and touching a distant fish. Just be sure to focus your efforts on a particular outcome and don’t just throw the fly.
Evaluating ability can take the form of competition if you create some obstacles to cast around or some targets to hit. Hoola Hoops, traffic cones, Frisbees and other household objects can provide some variety to your time on the lawn as can PVC piping glued together to form interesting casting situations. Ultimately, there are organized (yet low key) tournaments put together, like the Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club’s “Big Gun Shootout,” where you can test your abilities to the maximum. The simulated situations they create will eventually occur on the water if you stick with it long enough so putting some pressure on yourself to perform on the grass will give you a sense of “Déjà vu” when you try to hit the mark on the water.
Skill of any type comes with time and not just from having equipment capable of performing the task, although that is part of the game. Hit the water with all the weapons ready to go and your time will be better spent. More fishing will be possible even under less than favorable conditions, and more fish will come to hand in the end. I promise that your level of satisfaction will continue to increase as does your ability, and pretty soon, newcomers will be saying to their buddies, “I sure hope I can cast like him some day.”
Brian “Beastman” Eastman