A good cast, he explains, is the most important tool a fly fisherman can possess. Not the fly, not the rod, not the clothing — the cast.
And that’s what I’ve come to learn. What is this elusive “perfect” cast? What’s so valuable about it that people will pay upwards of $100 an hour for someone to teach them? And, forgive me if this last one gives me away as a complete novice to the world of angling, but why does the fish care how the line is thrown, so long as it’s out there and the fly available for consumption?
So I called up Mac Brown, a master casting instructor whose phone buzzes constantly with requests to teach or guide trips. On May 16-17, he’ll be one of the experts teaching casting at the annual Southeastern Fly Fishing Festival in Cullowhee, put on by the Southeastern Council of the International Federation of Fly Fishers.
According to Brown, the answer to that last question lies in the fact that fish are suspicious of objects that don’t act like food. The fisherman can try to get his fly to look like a leaf floating on the surface or to “skitter and dance” like an insect, but it has to be convincing. If you’re going for the leaf look, for instance, you can’t let the line drag on the fly like a skier on a boat, because real leaves don’t have that drag.
“They’re not that smart — little brain the size of a pea,” Brown says. “All we gotta do is trick them.”
With the right cast, the fisherman can play the ruse to perfection, buy his line enough time on the water to attract a fish’s bite, put the hook in position to set easily once the fish does bite. But it’s not as easy as it looks while the pole is in Brown’s hands, dancing the entire time he speaks.
The journey and the destination
Brown hands me the pole, and I take it kind of gingerly. It’s been nearly two years since the first and only time I’ve handled a fly rod, so it’s safe to say I’m not an expert. Brown starts me off easy.
“Hold it straight up like the Statue of Liberty,” he instructs, “and then lay it down like you’re swatting a fly with a flyswatter.”
The first attempt leaves the line folded in a pile on the grass, nothing like the straight line out that was supposed to result. Turns out I’d whipped my wrist too quickly — you’re supposed to start that forward motion slowly, then accelerate toward the final flick, Brown explains.
The next attempt is a little better, but on the following one I tangle the line in a tree. Brown suggests we shift position slightly and reminds me not to point the rod so far down when I come forward. Instead, leave it pointed up at 2 o’clock or so.
“There you go,” he says. “Now, see, you got it. Just sort of hesitate up there and you’ll have it.”
I’m feeling good as I land a few consecutive decent-looking casts, but this straight-up vertical cast is only the most elementary tool of a caster’s toolbox. It works only when you’ve got plenty of room to bring the line back without tangling it in trees or shrubs, and the current isn’t always running in such a way that a vertical cast will fool the fish. Once the line begins dragging the fly backwards, the fish knows it’s a ruse.
So we work a little on a sideways cast, one intended to land the line with a curve in it, introducing enough slack to give the fly more time to travel drag-free. It’s a handy cast to know, but a lot harder. It involves more geometry, more visualization of the physical forces working on the line, a greater understanding of each movement’s impact on the outcome. I let the line rest, try to think about Brown’s instructions and what’s happening to that orange line as my motions direct it through the air. Maybe if I had more time than just an afternoon, I’d be able to get it.
He teaches casting and guides trips, mostly to clients whose fishing regimen includes one guided trip per year or so. Casting is a skill that most anyone can learn, he says, but it requires some time, some commitment.
“The ones that jump on that bandwagon and take off with it, it clicks and all comes together,” he said. “But they live and breathe it.”
Brown has two boys, ages 4 and 8, and he’s teaching them to ride that bandwagon, too. He gets them out on the grass, doing casting drills, and he has them tying flies and learning about the ecology of mountain streams and lakes. He laughs when he talks about a recent lake fishing trip. Thirty-some anglers were perched on the shore, their best efforts returning fruitless. Meanwhile, his boys were bringing in fish after fish.
It feels good when that happens, but it’s not always so much about the daily take as it is about the journey. That’s why it frustrates Brown when clients call requesting to pull down “lots of big fish.” Because for Brown, success in fishing isn’t something that’s defined by the number of fish you bring to the net. It’s about everything that happens leading up to it.
“They want to get to the destination without taking the journey,” he says.
By this time, I’ve got a rough understanding of a vertical and a roll cast under my belt, so I go on a journey of my own, following Brown down the hill to get on the water, a little section of Deep Creek off a narrow gravel road.
It’s one of those brilliant April days, 70-something degrees, dry and sunny, new leaves just barely coloring the trees green. Brown ties a fly on the line for me, a drab-colored one for a bright day. He tends to save the bright-colored flies for cloudy days, when it’s harder for natural colors to stand out.
But Brown doesn’t spend much time thinking about the fly. Success is more dependent on understanding how the currents play on the water, figuring out what the fish are eating and coming out with the perfect cast to meet the combination of conditions.
“That’s what attracted me since I was a little kid,” he says. “It’s like solving a puzzle for that moment in time. It’s not about the fly most of the time. It’s about your ability of what you do with that fly.”
My ability, however, is nothing to boast about. As instructed, I cast upstream, mend the line to give my fly some more drag-free time on the water, turn my body to move with the fly, strip in, cast again. Snag in a tree, lose the fly, wait while Brown ties on another. Take a few steps away from said tree, cast again, mend, strip in, cast. Repeat.
Brown is complimentary of my rookie efforts, but I’m confident we’d have had a few fish on shore already if we switched out anglers.
“I’m impatient,” he’d said earlier. “I expect things to happen in the first couple of casts, and if it doesn’t I move on to plans B and C.”
The main thing, he says, is to figure out where the fish are feeding — surface, middle or deep — tackle up appropriately, and then cast your line so as to give yourself the most time possible on the water before you have to cast again.
“If I can go 40 seconds and everyone else on the creek can go five seconds [without recasting], who’s going to catch the most fish? I’ll crush it,” he says. “It’s not about casting. How many fish do you think you’ll catch waving it around in the air?”
It’s all about how many tools you’ve got in your technical toolbox. If you’ve got a bunch of casts polished up and ready to go, you can whip them out to meet any situation. Me, I’m just trying to land the line straight without hitting that tree again. And I’m definitely not fooling any fish.
But that’s OK. It’s a process.
“You’re not going to become a great caster in a lesson. Not even two or five lessons or a decade. It takes a lot of time to get the control. It’s just like playing golf or a musical instrument. You give someone a Stradivarius violin, they’re not going to go off and play a symphony right away,” says Brown, a musician himself. “This is an art form, just like anything else.”
I reel in for the last time, hand the rod to Brown, and step out of the water while the fish stay in it. But you know, that doesn’t really bother me. Because when it comes right down to it, any excuse to spend a sunny April weekday outdoors is a good one, and anyway, Brown was right. It’s a journey, and it’s an art form. I can’t leave saying that I now know how to cast, but I can leave knowing where to start.
And knowing, too, what it feels like to stand ankle-deep in a mountain stream, trying again and again for that perfect formula to call the fish out of hiding. Maybe I don’t have the formula yet, but it still feels good to try.
“What’s the perfect cast?” Brown says. “The one that catches the fish. The one that works.”