The lessons, however, have been better than average. With school-age children back in the classrooms and the seasonal population at a minimum, this is the time of year that I see more intermediate fly anglers looking for advice. The lessons tend to be more about catching fish than simply learning to cast.
Given the large variety of fly fishing target species we have in our backyard, going down the list while describing flies and techniques can take quite a bit of time. That list is almost prohibitively long. Just at the top are the glamour species: the “big three” (permit, tarpon, and bonefish). But there are other excellent fly challengers like snook and redfish. Those are just a few of the more popular inshore species. Then there are off-shore species and the freshwater natives along with an impressive line-up of introduced exotics.
And, each has their own preference as to the flies they want and how they should be presented. But there is one “technique” that is required for them all, and that is simply the technique of casting with accuracy.
The angler has to be able to put the fly where it needs to land. As simple as that seems, it is surprisingly difficult for the vast majority of anglers. Also, there is a lot more to this simple act than most folks realize.
First off, I find that the vast majority of intermediate anglers are enamored with casting distance. If they practice at all, their efforts generally are targeted toward adding a few more feet to their casts. Loop shape if often sacrificed for distance too. One of the first things I usually do is guess their comfortable distance, but then I place a target ring at about half way to their max and ask them to hit it.
Quite often, that is actually almost unkind, as they get only half of their usual feedback from the rod and line that they have become accustomed to. Most fail miserably, but it sobers them up and gets their attention.
I believe that casting a fluff into a ring, or toward a hard target, might not be the best way to go about learning to present a fly to a fish. First off, a fluff and a fly are very different critters on the end of the leader. But that hard target can be a detriment too.
To get the fly in the right place takes much more tactical thought than most folks realize. Often there are multiple moving parts: the fish is usually moving, and so is the current. Commonly, when fishing from a boat, the vessel itself may also be moving, and there is almost always some wind. The depth of the fish and the sink rate of the fly also require consideration. Throw in diffraction that makes the fish closer and deeper than it appears and you have quite a complicated equation.
Ignore all of those variables and there are still a few hard facts: you cannot show the flyline to the fish and you cannot attack the fish with the fly. The commonly held strategy of casting past the fish and then stripping the fly across its face to imitate a fleeing prey only works when the fish are in wide-open aggression mode. More often than not, that presentation not only results in a refusal but complete panic and flight.
My goal is to let the fish stumble upon the fly. And that requires placing the fly according to the fish’s speed, the current speed, the fly’s sink rate, and the water depth. I want it there waiting for the fish like a slow, stupid, and unobservant easy meal.
And that is why I do not like the usual hard targets for practicing fishing casts. After years of “normal” accuracy practice I found that even when I tried not to do it, I would commonly hit the fish on the head with the fly. It took me a long time to be able to not hit the hard target, but put the fly where I thought it should be presented to allow the fish to find it a short time later.
As Andy Dear described quite nicely in his recent front page, a fish shaped “target” is very helpful, but it is important to think of the target as an arrow pointing in the direction of where the fly should land, not as the target itself. Then one can practice placing the fly at different distance in front of the arrow. Only after practicing this way will placing the fly in open water without the distraction of the hard target becomes possible.
After that, you can start contemplating curves and mends to draw the fish on a path that does not lead directly back toward the angler… but that is another casting lesson all in itself.