The world's best flyfishing site.

The Tongariro Roll Cast
by Herb Spannagl

The Tongariro River has been the birthplace of many homegrown fly-fishing innovations and the gateway for many introductions from other parts of the fly-fishing world. Just think of the shooting head, Red Setter wet fly, Globug, Tongariro bomb, and all the adaptations to upstream nymphing for spawning run rainbow trout. All these can be traced to this famous river and all of them during the thirty odd years that I have fished there.

The Tongariro Roll Cast (TRC for short) is the latest and certainly not the last contribution to fly-fishing that has come from this illustrious water. You may wonder how this cast got its name. After exhaustive research into the roll casting family, which includes all the so-called Spey casts, I have come to the conclusion that this roll cast, as it is practiced on the Tongariro River, is sufficiently different from other roll casts that it fully justifies its own name.

Every roll cast breaks down into two parts. The set-up and the forward cast. Because advanced roll casting is relatively new to this country you ought to know that the difference between all roll casts is purely in the set-up stages. That is everything you do “before” you launch into the delivery. The delivery cast (or forward cast) remains identical with all of them.

Before I introduce you to the actual mechanics of the Tongariro Roll Cast let me show you its significant attributes.

  • Only minimal back casting room is required, hence you can fish places others can't. (Don't tell me you wouldn't love that)
  • You will never get hit by a “bomb”. (No more pain)
  • Say goodbye to the dreaded tailwind (And collapsed back casts)
  • Your nymphs spend less time in the air and more time in the water than with conventional overhead casting. (More chance for a hook-up)
  • The cast is also less tiring and not so hard on your fly-line. (Lets you fish out the week without resorting to painkillers. It also saves money)
  • Leader length and bomb weight is less critical. (Ever tried casting with two-rod lengths of leader?)
  • You can get excellent results with gear of a lighter AFTMA rating (i.e. # 6 or #7) (Great for women, kids and men who hate pumping iron)

As you might expect there are downsides (I hope you didn't expect a free lunch).

  • The cast is not easy to learn (That should put the slackers off)
  • The cast gets more difficult the deeper your wade. (Shouldn't worry guys who habitually stand right in the middle of the best lie)
  • Not as headwind penetrating than an overhead cast. (So, don't throw out overhead casting just yet)
  • You will get lots of folk pestering you for a lesson (Great for the ego but it will seriously cut into your fishing time)
  • .…………(This space is reserved for the knockers (read guys who cant do it)

To begin with there are two terms you will need to remember. They are exclusive to all roll casting.

Anchor - Is the temporary resting position of the indicator, a little bit of line and the terminal rig.
D-Loop – Is the dynamic loop forming behind the angler against which the rod is loaded. It doubles as a back cast. Its shape resembles the letter D, with the rod being the straight part.

The Tongariro Roll Cast is easiest to learn if it is broken down into five phases.

Phase One - Upstream Line Repositioning
Repositioning of the line from the downstream fished-out position A to the new upstream target B.

Phase Two- Setting the Anchor
With a horizontal rod sweep backwards pull B straight and towards you so that the indicator comes to rest about two-rod lengths in front of you. Final distance depends on how much anchorage you need. Ensure that line and leader are straight.

Phase Three- Releasing Line
Still with a horizontal rod, sweep rod forward whilst releasing about 1-2 meters of previously retrieved line back onto the water surface directly beside you. Use water tension to pull line through the guides.

Phase Four – D-Loop
This phase forms the D-Loop. Begin by sweeping the rod tip back from its horizontal position on a backward curving path to almost vertical. Throughout the sweep speed up and finish with a small upward kick to ensure the D-Loop is airborne. Wait a fraction!!! During this pause all the spare line on the water is taken up and becomes part of a deeper D-Loop.

Phase Five – Forward Cast
During the very brief pause (while the D-Loop bellies out behind you) watch the indicator and the slack line on the water.
Do not look at the target or anywhere else. Only look at the line in front of you!!!!!!
As soon as all is straight, tight and almost off the water the D-Loop is fully formed. This is the precise moment to start the forward cast.

Don't forget to raise the line-hand during the D-Loop forming pause so that you can complete the cast with a brisk down haul of the line. Finish the cast with a hard rod stop.


  • Always position the anchor outside of your rod tip to avoid the D-Loop and fly coming up under the rod or into your body.
  • Pull line and leader straight as you plant the anchor
  • A short line haul in phase four will speed up and deepen the D-Loop.
  • Do not start the forward cast until all the line on the water has straightened and lifted into the D-Loop.
  • Make sure that some of the thick line belly is still inside your tip ring at the start of the forward cast (no overhang, please!!!!)
  • Keep your elbow close to your body during the start of the forward cast.
  • Drive the rod tip on a straight and slightly rising path to ensure a tight loop.
  • Never raise the casting hand above your ear.
  • Do not move rod tip in a downward curve.
  • If you hear your line/indicator “popping” beside your ear than your anchor has not held and the cast is ruined.
  • Instead match the anchor position to your casting ability. For example: Even a small globug provides more anchorage than a Hare and Copper nymph. It follows that prior to the forward cast you either have to leave less line on the water or you must drive the rod harder. Between insufficient and excessive anchorage there are innumerable solutions to this dilemma. Only time on the water will teach you the right combination between anchorage and rod power to get good lift off.
  • A long belly WF floating line is the best compromise for this cast.
  • It is always easier to perform this cast when the river is on the side of your rod hand.
  • The deeper you are wading the harder it is to produce a clear D-Loop. In practice it is more sensible to come back into shallower water where you can make up the extra distance with very little effort.
  • On some casts the forward line energy is insufficient to fully turn the leader over. Do not re-cast, as the slack leader will help your nymphs to plunge freely to the bottom.
  • It is not recommended that you use a power stick of a rod. On the contrary use a rod that you can feel loading against the energised D-Loop.
  • With a well-balanced rod/line combination and by applying the right technique, very little effort is needed to cast heavy bombs in excess of 20 meters.
  • The Tongariro Roll Cast is not just useful on the Tongariro. It is an invaluable casting aid for light line/short rod summer fishing as well.

Because the Tongariro Roll Cast is a dynamic precision exercise it is a bad mistake to try to perfect all the five phases at once. Start with phase one. Hone it until you can do it in autopilot. Only then go to the next phase. When you can link both together and perform them well, add the third…. and so on. Each phase relies on the before-going ones to be perfect. Generally speaking there is no such thing as a bad roll cast. It either flies or it does not. It is that serious or that funny, depending on your outlook in life.
You need water to practice this cast. Wade in up to your ankles. The ideal training venue is the shallows of a slow-running river. The ideal position for a right-hander is to have the river on the rod hand side when facing downstream. The slow current keeps the line always straight and tight and allows you to: pull, slip line, form a D-Loop and shoot. With no need to reposition the line you can repeat from phase two onwards over and over again.

The Tongariro Roll Cast looks deceptively easy when done by an expert practitioner but, as you will soon see, that is an illusion. Take heart though, I cracked it at the geriatric age of 67. It took me three years, largely because I had no instructions or help other then the chance to briefly observe a guy doing it in mirror image on the other side of the Hydro Pool. The rest was practice, experimentation, practice and more practice. Looking back I would have given my eyeteeth for an article such as this. You will still need to put in the hard yards, though. Biomechanics tell us that it takes 5000 repeats to imprint an action into muscle memory. I am convinced I needed at least triple that number. I also discovered emotions I never though I had (everything form throwing infantile tantrums to slumping into deep depressions). But hey, all that is distant history, now that I have got there. Or put in Ed Hillary's words: “I knocked the bastard off”. It is all pleasure form here on in.

Incidentally the Hydro Pool truly deserves to be called The Tongariro Roll Casting Academy. There you will have more chance to see a master blaster of this graceful cast than anywhere else on the Tongariro River. Just watching is a feast for sore eyes for some or an incitement to commit suicide for others.

What more can I tell you? Well, allow me to finish this article with a couple of predictions about the Tongariro Roll Cast. Unfortunately there is this little snag. You will only be able to judge them when you have mastered the Tongariro Roll Cast yourself.

My first prediction is that this is the fly cast of the future for Tongariro style nymphing.
My second is that those anglers who have mastered it will not just catch more fish, more easily; they will also have passed an important personal milestone on their fly-fishing road to perfection.

Now, that should be enough to get you cracking.


Herb Spannagl is retired conservation officer and national park ranger with the New Zealand Department of Conservation. Currently councillor for NZ Fish and Game. Married with two adult son and daughter, one cat and one German Wirehaired Pointer. And he wears kinky boots!


Return to whence you came
Return to home page