Trouble with the Cast

If Hollywood made a fly fishing movie about you, what title would they choose?

Since A River Runs Through It has already been taken, I’d adapt the title of a recent Clint Eastwood film. At least I’d do this if I was honest. The movie is Trouble with the Curve. It’s the story of a baseball scout with the Atlanta Braves (played by Clint Eastwood) who tells the front office not to draft a particular prospect. The kid looks like a future star, but he has trouble hitting a curve ball.

If Hollywood made a fly fishing movie about me, a fitting title would be Trouble with the Cast. At least, that would fit the early decade of my fly fishing career. But with the help of my fly fishing friends, I’ve been able to overcome some of the struggles that are common to novice fly fishers.

Are you a candidate for a lead role in Trouble with the Cast?

Here are five common struggles and a couple solutions for each one:

1. Your casts lack distance.

There are two quick fixes if your casts come up short of your target.

First, flick your wrist. Practice this before you pick up your fly rod. Make a handgun out of your casting hand (index finger extended, thumb up, bottom three fingers pointing back at you). Now snap forward, then back, then forward, then back. That’s the action you want when casting your rod.

Too many fly fishers try to be graceful and end up waving their arms forward and backward. But a graceful cast is the product of snapping the wrists (like a baseball pitcher throwing that curve which troubles hitters).

The second quick fix is to make sure that your rod is parallel with the ground on your final forward cast.

I’ve watched a lot of fly fishers keep their rods pointing up at a 45-degree angle as their line shoots towards its target. But as legendary fly fisher Gary Borger observes, this creates “all sorts of shoot-shortening friction.” He even suggests lifting the rod butt as a way of keeping your rod parallel to the surface of the ground (or water).

2. Your casts lack accuracy.

Here are two solutions to inaccurate casting. They seem too simple to be true.

First, keep your eyes on the target. Yes, some folks have better hand-eye coordination than others. But it is remarkable how this simple tip enhances accuracy.

Second, point your tip at the target. It seems silly to make such an obvious point. But I’m often surprised how my casts go astray when I get lazy about this. As soon as I make a conscious effort to point the eye of my rod tip towards the spot where I want my fly to land (even as my rod is parallel to the ground as discussed in #1 above), my accuracy improves.

3. Your casts result in tangled line.

Once again, here are two adjustments you can make. First, stop false casting so much. The more you false cast, the more opportunity you give your line to tangle.

Second, make sure you allow your backcast to unfurl. A lot of tangles happen because fly fishers hurry from backcast to forward cast. This is a recipe for either snapping off the fly (the bullwhip effect) or for tangling line that has not had time to unfurl.

4. Your casts spook the fish.

One problem is that the shadow of your fly line spooks the fish. This is an easy fix. Stop false casting so much! That’s all.

If the problem is that you’re slapping the line on the water, then there is a simple trick to help your line land softly.

The trick is to pull your rod tip up at the last moment. Ideally, your rod tip is pointed at your target (#2) and that your rod is parallel to the ground (#3). At the last moment, make a slight upward pull on your rod. I like to think of it as a gentle hiccup. What this does is to stop the forward momentum of the line. It goes limp and falls gently to the surface of the water. This takes some practice, but it really does work.

5. Your casts get wrecked by the wind.

I have a sure-fire solution for this problem. Quit. Yes, just quit. Call it a day. Head for the truck and drive to your favorite restaurant. I’ve had some days on Montana’s Lower Madison where this has been the best option.

But there are some other alternatives to quitting for the day:

First, stop false casting. Yes, that’s a solution to a lot of problems, including wind.

Second, move in closer and shorten up your casts. If the wind is howling enough to make casting difficult, it’s also creating ripples on the surface which will keep trout from seeing your movements.

Third, a guide once told me to make a strong backcast and a softer forward cast. That’s the opposite of my instincts, so it takes some practice. But it really does work.

Now, when Hollywood shows up to make a fly fishing movie about you, your prowess at casting might lead them to title it Star Casts: The Force Awakens. At least you’ll put yourself in a better position to catch more fish.

11 Reasons You’re Not Catching Trout

catching trout

Catching trout is not easy today. You are batting .000. Maybe the fish are simply not biting. Or maybe you’re not catching trout because of one or more of these 11 reasons:

1. It’s a bright sunny day.

Not always, but I’ve often had better luck on overcast days, especially for BWOs (blue winged olives), which is a common hatch during the spring. Catching trout on cloudy days tends to be pattern for me.

2. Your fly is too big.

Whether you’re nymphing or on the surface, drop a size or two. Go smaller. Make sure you have multiple sizes of the same fly in your fly box.

3. You cast like your mama.

Unless your mama wears wading boots. Figure out a way to false cast less. Precision casting is supposed to be hard. It’s even harder on smaller streams with trees and brush. Catching trout is tied to how well you cast.

4. Your dead drift looks like a rubber ducky with spasms.

Your presentation is almost always the problem. Your fly simply doesn’t look like an insect, dead or alive. Try harder.

5. You scared ‘em.

You should not have walked up to the run like a drunk Abominable Snowman. Crawl next time. On your hands and knees.

6. The run was just fished.

Find a smaller stream with no crowds. Stop fishing the popular rivers during vacation season or on weekends.

7. It’s too early.

Yes, if you want huge browns, then maybe fishing at 4:30 in the morning is a good idea. But if you are fishing hoppers in mid August, for example, sometimes the action doesn’t heat up until late morning.

8. You haven’t moved in 30 minutes.

Remember, fly fishing isn’t bass fishing from shore. Keep moving. After a handful of casts, move on. Find the next run.

9. The river is blown out.

If the river is muddy, why are you fly fishing? Some color may be okay, but if the stream is like chocolate milk, head back to your truck, jump on your phone, and watch Netflix.

10. You’re not deep enough.

Add some split shot to your nymphing rig. Or add some tippet length to your dropper. How often are you bumping the bottom? Every so often is about right.

11. You have the wrong fly.

This should not be your go-to move when you are not catching trout. But if there is a Trico hatch going on and you’re throwing a size #14 parachute Adams, you’ll swear a lot before noon. Know your hatches and patterns.

Give these tips a try, and perhaps your luck will change. You might even impress your mama.

3 Disciplines to Master the Spring Creeks of the Driftless

Recently a friend who lives in the American West said he had heard of the great fly fishing in the Driftless (southeastern Minnesota, southwestern Wisconsin, and northeastern Iowa).

He wondered if he should put together a trip.

I paused.

He lives within an hour of the Madison, the Yellowstone, and the Gallatin, the big freestone rivers. He fishes three or four times a month. He has hit the Mother’s Day Caddis Hatch on the Yellowstone, he has hooked into the big spring rainbows on the Missouri, he has caught the running fall browns on the Madison, and he has had those late summer days when almost every other cast with a hopper pattern surfaces a gorgeous cutthroat.

Why should someone who lives near such waters fly fish the Driftless? In short, it will put every facet of his fly fishing game to the test.

Here are just three disciplines that forced me to up my game and begin to master the spring creeks of the Driftless:

Casting in and around Trees

It’s one thing to cast with a modicum of precision and distance when your backcast has no competition. You load your rod and let ‘er rip.

It’s quite another to drop a size-18 nymph with a one-foot dropper at the top of a run in a nine-foot wide stream with branches draped over you. When I started fly fishing the Driftless after twenty years of fishing in the West, I was shocked at how poorly I cast. No doubt, I wasn’t great in the West either, but in the Driftless, I was a genuine hack.

The Driftless forced me to learn how to cast with greater precision. There is still not much art or science to my casts, but at least I am more aware of my shortcomings. Fishing the Driftless forced me to pay attention to my cast and focus on placement in the run. I’ve learned the art of casting sideways in the presence of brush and low-hanging trees.

Crawling Up to a Run

Frankly, I had read Gary Borger’s book years ago, but the whole “stalking trout” concept was lost on me. It wasn’t until I started fishing the Driftless that I realized that much of my fishless afternoons and evenings was due in part to how I approached the runs.

Just recently, I watched a fly fisher trudge upright like a drunk Sasquatch into a beautiful Driftless run and begin to cast. He stood in the middle and toward the back of the run and cast upstream, in full view of the run, the sun casting his huge shadow across over the run. He cast for what seemed like 20 minutes, and then moved on. With his giant profile, my guess is that the trout spooked ten yards before he stepped into the water. I never saw a fish rise to anything he cast.

In the spring creeks of the Driftless, you cannot ape the Brad Pitt character in the movie “A River Runs Through It.” You just can’t. Fish are wary. The streams seem to be heavily fished. And to catch them requires stealth and strategy.

If you’re catching trout in a spring creek, most likely your knees (and maybe even your elbows) are muddy. You simple cannot stumble mindlessly from run to run.

Rather, you size up the run, see the next run above or below the one you are fishing, and figure out how to maintain a low profile throughout your casts. And as you move stealthily to the next bend in the stream.

Eliminating False Casts

I like to false cast, to be perfectly honest. It’s a third-rate fly-fisher’s go-to move to gain distance and accuracy. I’m no athletic god, and my fly fishing skills are simply one more confirmation of that patently obvious truth.

With false casting, the problem is, of course, that what may work (or at least have fewer consequences) in the West (when you’re standing in the Madison River and casting 40 to 50 feet) is a sure fire means in smaller spring creeks to chase away fish. They react to the movement, dart back under the rocks, and refuse to take anything you drift by them.

The trick is to fight the urge to revert to false casting when you need it most. To cast with a minimum of false casts requires endless amounts of practice before you can shoot the line out accurately (or lob it out awkwardly) while hunched over the edge of stream on your knees.

In the end, I recommended the Driftless to the person asking about it. But he may not be as great as he thinks he is. After a few days in the Driftless, though, he’ll be a better fly fisher than he is today.