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Learning to Fly-Cast  at Cabela's

Learning to Fly-Cast

Author: Skip Knowles

There are a few things elitist fly-only anglers would not like the unwashed masses to know. For one, while fly-tying and hatch matching are arguably angling's finest art, the fact is fly-fishing is not that difficult.

Learning to fly-fish.
With a medium weight fly outfit and a size 8, black, Woolly Bugger you are ready to catch almost every freshwater gamefish that swims in the continental U.S., from smallmouth and walleye to tiger muskies, crappie and 20-pound carp. The setup requires little casting skill and is particularly deadly for larger trout.

Secondly, while fly casting is angling's greatest grace and the source of awe-inspiring rhythmic beauty, anybody with one good arm can do it well enough to catch a lot fish.

Despite Robert Redford and Hollywood's periodic preoccupation with fishing-as-art, the sport was invented not for aesthetics but as a very effective way to catch fish. Wet flies or Nymphs take far more fish than dries ever will, and fishing them requires a cast that is little more than an exaggerated flip, or the simple roll cast.

A soft-spoken angler on a meat fishing trip lured me into fly-fishing by its sheer effectiveness. I had always dabbled in it, clumsily casting poppers and dry flies at panfish and trout because I liked the sucking surface strike. When it was time to seriously catch fish, I put the fly rod down and grabbed conventional tackle or bait.

Bruce Heiner showed me how devastating a well presented fly could be. We both wished to pluck crappie for dinner out of a murky backwater slough on the Snake River in early spring. It was as far removed from trout fishing a clear stream as one could get.

Bruce is now a Northwest fish biologist and while he certainly liked fly-fishing as a worthwhile end, he knew that a well cast fly imitated real life food far better than a lead-steel-rubber substitute.

I cast my proven crappie killer setup (a mini jig tipped with bait under a mini bobber) with an ultralight spinning rod, creeping it along at a perfect depth.

The wind whipped the water turbid, pushing debris and insects into one corner, where the fish fed under overhanging brush along rip rap. Horrible fly-casting conditions, and I was already smirking as I saw Bruce fight the wind while I caught a few small crappie on my mini jig.

Heiner spotted me reeling one in, sideled over and side cast a slightly weighed, size-8, brown leech and started stripping it in slowly, a foot below the surface.

His line twitched, tightened, and he proceeded to calmly, gracefully assassinate fat 12-inch crappie, one after the other. He temporarily broke the state record for white crappie that day, with a 2-plus pounder. With each slab crappie he slid onto the shore, he showed me that fly-fishing was not just for fuddy-duddies who liked form over function.

I studied that leech pattern, and the weightlessness with which the feathers pulsated as it glided naturally, slowly, suspended in the water, so unlike a jerking jig. Soon I was bumming flies off Heiner, and a long summer of battling smallmouth bass, steelhead smolts and panfish followed, as I learned to swim brown leeches over the rip-rap.

I hacked away with an old Sears fly line on my father's beat up brass Pflueger 4-wt. and white Shakespeare Wonderod. Thirteen years later, I've bonefished the flats and caught steelhead on the fly at night. But I'm still a shirt-collar snagging, mediocre caster.

Most of the time it does not matter, as long as you can put the fly where it needs to go at a distance of under 30-40 feet. This feat is probably a lot easier than you think.

Ready for release.
Nymphing, which involves fishing a wet fly below the surface, is far and away the most effective use of the fly rod because trout eat 90 percent of their diet below the surface. It takes absolutely no casting skill to speak of. If you can swing a cane pole, you are ready to nymph fish.

And often times, even the dry fly fishing has little to do with casting. Last year, during the infamous cicada hatch on the Green River, the wind howled up the canyon and roll casting became mandatory. My partner used his 6 foot 7 frame to snap downward on the rod like a lion tamer, throwing a loop that traveled along as it would in a garden hose, in a classic roll cast.

The huge, size 8, cicada patterns then flipped and landed with a splat--the louder the better!

If one of us made a delicate cast, we quickly found it was ignored unless it drifted over a feeding fish. We began to splat the flies down as hard as we could. It was an unforgettable day of dry fly fishing, and we caught browns, cutthroat and rainbows of all sizes all day long in crystal clear water.

Being able to shoot line more than 80 feet, at a moving target, in high winds is a terrific skill to develop and critical to success on the saltwater flats. But just about everywhere else, a basic fly setup and short range cast will clobber fish.

I sat in the bow of a canoe at 10 years of age, flailing popping bugs toward bluegill on my first fly-fishing trip, my dad coaching from the back of the boat. He kept the distances short, the method simple and we caught fish after fish.

Twenty-four years later, my cast wasn't much better but I hooked fish with little difficulty. Before we get far into the how-to, there are a few things to remember to avoid doing that will make life much easier for beginners.

Fifty-something supermodel Karen Graham, she of the 20 Vogue covers and gorgeous flycaster, taught me the first thing I was doing wrong was breaking my wrist over. My casting improved immediately when I locked my wrist so my forearm stayed in-line with the fly rod.

She also explained that veteran anglers struggle to learn to fly-fish because the graceful fly cast is an acceleration to a stop, a slow start, then gradually applied pressure.

Veteran spin casters want to snap their wrist in a cast, one of the worst things you can do while trying to cast a fly line.

Lori Ann Murphy of Reel Women guide service in Jackson Hole, agrees that letting the wrist flop around is the number one grief with beginners.

"Breaking the wrist causes you to come too far forward and too far back," she says.

With that in mind, long distance casting champion Jim Gunderson of Salt Lake City has a basic four-step approach to teaching fly-casting.

"The good thing about it (fly-casting) is it doesn't have to be perfect to catch as many or more fish as a long caster," said Gunderson.

Things culminated for Jim last month when he took home a $7,500, loaded, brand new, Hyde drift boat, from a sportsman's show, with a 118-foot winning cast, beating three of the world's most prominent professionals in the final shootout.

Anglers like Gunderson have a gift in the form of hand-speed, power and an innate Tiger Woods-like sense of timing. But like Woods, natural ability is only a piece of the arsenal. The rest is the product of practice, technique and timing.

Start out with a forgiving medium- to medium-fast graphite fly rod, and overload it one line size to create a heavier, easier to throw feeling in the rod. If it calls for six-weight line, use seven.

People who are not holding 30 plus feet of line in the air are not "loading" the rod (when the line stretches out on the back cast and puts tension on the rod) the way the rod is designed to. Using the heavier line allows them to feel the rod load with shorter distance casts, and that helps with learning the power application and timing.

"It can make a huge difference for a lot of people," Gunderson said. "We'll often even have women and kids who don't have as much arm strength go two line sizes heavier on a rod," Gunderson says.

Trout anglers want to start with a five-weight rod, while those learning to cast so they can chase stripers, bonefish, steelhead and bass want to buy an eight weight outfit. Both cast best with a weight forward, floating line.

Anglers on a budget should blow most of their money on the rod --the reel is less critical unless you are pursuing big fish, which require a drag. Then a reel like the Litespeed Model LS 3.5 (TM-31-4791) with a high torque drag are a nice luxury. But for trout fishers an economic reel such as the Cabela's Prestige (TM-31-4685) is not a handicap.
The results of fly-fishing is revealed in a beautiful trout.
In fact, I have fished an inexpensive, ($19.99) graphite, Cabela's fly reel (model 567, TM-31-0969) for years and love it, because it weighs almost nothing. That reel cost less than half as much as most fly lines!

A medium action, Red Start II fly rod in five weight, eight and a half feet long, by Redington, is perfect for a beginner ( 5349-865 model CRS2) yet of such high quality that you will never want to get rid of or stop using it.

Holding the rod is the first thing the Gunderson and his peers teach in fly-casting, along with stance. "Grab the rod handle like you would a suitcase, but with the thumb on top," Jim says. Other holds can be used, but power is sacrificed.

Stand with the foot opposite your rod hand pointed at the target, and the rod-side foot pointed at a 45-degree angle opposite. This will allow you to watch the line go behind you as you learn the critical timing.

The roll cast is taught as an initial way to feed out line (you cannot start casting traditional style with the line piled at your feet). To roll cast, lift the tip up, forming a slack belly in the line, and then swing the rod tip down sharply, throwing a loop in the line that travels away from you like a loop thrown in a rope. The fly lands with a flip at the end of the cast. This is a great cast to use when there is no room for a back-cast or when the wind is terrible.

Hold the rod at a 60-degree angle away from the body to keep the fly from hitting you.

Now think of the positions of the clock, with the arm extended straight in front of you as 9 o'clock. Straight up is noon, and straight behind you 3 o'clock. Casting a fly rod starts out as a gently motion, then an acceleration to a stop. NOT a sharp snap, but in one smoooth motion. Start at 9, accelerate gently to 11 o'clock, now apply power and stop the rod sharply at 1 o'clock. As the line extends out flat behind you, let the rod drift back to 2 o'clock.

Beginners have an overwhelming tendency to flop the wrist behind them and let the rod straighten out flat to 3 o'clock or worse. This leads to ugly loop casts and snagging. The rod must stop sharply at 1 o'clock, not the arm, and the wrist must be kept straight.

"When learning to cast, if people will not stop breaking the wrist over, I'll stand right behind them so they will hit me with the rod if they do it," he said. "That stops them."

Step 4:
"Turn your head and watch the line rolling out straight behind you. Timing is key here," he said. "Let the line straighten out completely. If you do not and you start to come forward too soon it is the same as snapping a whip and you can pop the fly right off." Again, let the rod drift to 2 o'clock but stop it at 1.

Now comes the forward cast. Once the line is straight out behind you, move it slowly forward, applying power at 1 o'clock and stopping on the forward cast at 11.

Now let the line fall to the ground. False casting comes later. The best anglers do not do it a lot, but it is useful to reposition the fly on the water, to dry out a dry fly and to feed out more line for a longer cast.

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