Most participants at the Orvis Michigan Fly Fishing School arrive as novices. As such, we start their fly-casting instruction by asking them to pick up the fly line from the ground and deliver it back to the ground. Amazingly, this is all that fly-casting really is: a pick-up and a delivery. Everything else that we do in between these two actions is secondary to getting the line up off of the water and then putting it back down. Accordingly, we spend some time making sure that students learn the correct way to pick the line from the water. We begin on the ground because it requires less energy and offers fewer distractions than the river does.
Two main points are emphasized with novices. The first is that the rod tip must be started low. (see drawing on right) This eliminates the slack between the rod tip and the ground. The second is that the slack on the ground must be removed and the line must be straight before picking up the line. If one tries to pick up the line before the slack is removed, one expends most of the pick-up action removing slack instead of moving the line. Thus when the slack is finally removed, there is no longer sufficient stroke left to move the line from the water and propel it behind to lay out. The result is the line moving low over the water or ground back at the caster. If you’ve ever seen that line coming back at you, you understand what I’ve just described.
The other resulting problem is that if most of the stroke is used eliminating slack, the stroke must be lengthened to move the line into the air and back behind you. This longer stroke usually results in a wide arc of the rod tip and a wide loop on the backcast.
Another common mistake that novices make is trying to pick up too much line. Every angler has tried to pick up too much line from time to time. Experienced fly casters will learn to add a haul to the line to give additional power or pick up additional slack to pick up longer lines. Practice, experience, and rod length will dictate the length of line you are comfortable picking up from the water.
So to begin the pick-up correctly, strip in all of the slack line as you lower the tip of your rod to the water. A reasonable amount of line for a novice to pick up would be twenty-five feet. Then, in a continuous motion, raise the rod horizontally (keeping the rod tip low allows you to pick up line without wasting stroke distance) until most of the line is lifted from the water. Continue to add power to the pick-up by moving the rod tip back and accelerating to a solid stop allowing the line to pass by the tip forming a loop.
Since a tight loop is desirable to move the line efficiently and lay out fully behind you, the tip of the rod must move in a fairly straight path to the stop. This means that since the rod tip starts horizontal to the ground, it must not pass much beyond perpendicular to the ground at the stop. As the drawing shows, the rod tip path must be fairly straight. If one takes the pick-up back too far, in an arced path, it can only result in a very wide loop in back that makes a forward cast very difficult. The most common causes of this problem are too much slack in the line before pick-up and lifting the line with the rod tip instead of lifting the line with the rod in a horizontal position.
Aside from removing slack from the pick-up, the next key element in a good solid pick-up is the smooth, continuous application of power from start to stop. Abrupt jerking of the line from the water is noisy and inefficient. The commotion on the water will alert fish to your presence and the abruptness will make the rod load and unload before the line is lifted fully from the water.
It is much easier to apply the power smoothly when picking the line from the water because of the surface tension between line and water. This friction makes the rod bend (loading the rod) provided the slack is removed prior to lifting the line form the water. With the rod bent, or loaded, it is easy to continue with a smooth power application to a solid stop allowing the line to pass by. If the path has been fairly straight the loop will be tight and the line will lay out fully behind the caster. The line can be brought forward easily since the tight loop has laid out fully without any slack. Wide arcs of the rod tip on the pick-up will result in wide loops that “puddle” (will not lay out fully), leave slack in the line, and make it difficult to create a tight loop on the forward cast.
Like all aspects of your casting, the pick-up deserves some practice and attention. It may seem like a simple part of your casting arsenal. But remember that it’s one half of every cast you make. So take it seriously and consider these aspects. You may surprise yourself. By picking up line more efficiently you will surely be able to pick up more line and will make fewer errors.
Dave Leonhard is a master casting instructor for the Federation of Fly Fishers, director of casting instruction for the Michigan Council Trout Unlimited Fly Fishing School, owner of Streamside Orvis in Traverse City, Michigan, and director of instruction for the Orvis Michigan Fly Fishing School.