When I let the cast go, I could hear the fly line whistle through my rod guides. I envisioned a tight loop uncoiling with perfect precision — a cast that transcended even its purpose.
This was in the mid-1990s, and I was fly-fishing with good friends on the Missouri River near Craig, Mont. We were ready to buck the stiff current and exit the big water after yet another glorious morning of fishing. The entire scene cried out for watercolors and canvas: cobalt-blue sky above, moonshine-clear water below, all bracketed by majestic, awe-inspiring mountains. Such beauty is impossible to forget.
The rainbow trout were in a carnivorous frenzy, eating relentlessly on the surface. By 11 a.m., the trout had stopped rising and we were ready for lunch. But one fish, on a tricky piece of slack water in front of a sprawling beaver hut, kept eating. We looked at each other deferentially, waiting for the other to make a move. Calling everyone’s bluff, I stripped off some fly line, made two rhythm-gathering false casts and let fly.
The cast unfurled in textbook fashion — a perfect, tight loop of line, leader and fly. My hand-tied imitation dimpled the water as soft as a cotton ball and disappeared just as quickly in the gaping mouth of a 14-inch rainbow.
“Nice fish,” said my late mentor and dear friend Tom Helgeson, an esteemed local journalist and publisher of Midwest Fly Fishing Magazine. “Pretty cast. Well done.”
That moment and Tom’s words echoed in my ears this spring as I inventoried my fly rods, which had been collecting dust over most of the last four years. Life had conspired against any meaningful fly-fishing, but 2014, I told myself, would be my rebirth back into the sport. The memory of my Missouri River moment — and the absurdly lucky cast I made as a fly-fishing novice — made me chuckle and buoyed my spirits.
But my positive vibe was short-lived as I began casting practice at a local park before the trout opener. Something had happened in the last four years. All my accumulated skills and muscle memory had gone missing and atrophied into mush. I felt like the pitcher who suddenly couldn’t find the strike zone, or the golfer who mysteriously got the shanks.
My fly rods felt like foreign objects in my hand. Nearly every practice cast I made crash-landed on the water. Frustration started to build. Perhaps it was geography, I thought. So I switched practice locations. Still more crash-landings. I was stuck in the middle of a black comedy, and I wasn’t sure how to fix it.
Somehow I had to find my inner Lefty Kreh — he of national fly-casting fame. But his old how-to casting videos, all in VHS, were useless in my DVD player. The Internet was mildly helpful, but I got lost in an avalanche of information. I called some of my old fly-fishing buddies and asked them for advice, but they were too busy finding good humor in my distress.
What next? I’ve been an outdoors writer and journalist since 1994. I started poring over my old newspaper and magazine clips, one of which included a quote from Tom. My old mentor, you see, was a beautiful fly-caster. He had turned the craft into performance art.
The best fly fishers I know, Tom said in a 2006 story for a local outdoors publication, all cast well. Their styles may vary, but they all are pinpoint accurate with a fly. And accuracy often separates those who catch fish and those who don’t.
“When everything is clicking, there is a state of grace that exists between you, your fly rod and the moving line above you,” he said. “As a simple athletic event, it is unexcelled.”
According to Tom, a proper casting technique includes:
1. Lifting the line from the ground or water smoothly and with authority. Be sure your rod tip is low. Be sure your line is straight to the rod tip, with no slack when you begin your cast.
2. Propelling the line backward and stopping the movement of the rod at approximately the vertical position.
3. Propelling the line and rod tip forward and stopping your casting stroke at a precise point, when it is approximately parallel to the ground. This turns over the fly line, leader, tippet and fly, sending them soaring to your target area.
4. Once the cast has been made, lowering the rod tip to the fishing position.