The Five Variables of Fly Casting

I previously wrote about the Five Essentials of Fly Casting. Over the last few years, I’ve spent countless hours working with our casting group in Warren, PA. In that time, we primarily practiced the Fundamentals of Casting, constructively critiqued one another, and worked on teaching casting to others. Learning and practicing the Five Essentials should be the first steps as a Fly Caster. Once you have a solid grasp on the fundamentals, you can begin to understand the next group of fly casting skills. Skills our fearless leader and Fly Fishers International Master Casting Instructor, Gary Kell refers to as Five Variables. While maintaining the Five Essentials, these Five Variables are practical changes we can make to our basic cast to create Fishing Casts. The Five Variables are:

  1. Loop Size
  2. Loop Speed
  3. Loop Plane
  4. Loop Trajectory
  5. Rod Mends


Loop Size

The Loop is the “U” shape created by our fly line outside of our rod tip. As we make a cast, the line forms two “legs,” the Rod Leg and the Fly Leg.Loop DefinitionsWe generally refer to the size of loop size as narrow (3 ft wide or less), medium (3 to 6 ft wide), and wide (6 to 8 ft wide or more), referring to the distance between the rod leg and fly leg.Loop SizeNarrow loops are the most efficient loops and are critical for casting in the wind, around obstacles, and casting for distance. As a fisherman however, medium and wide loops can be essential in the proper situations. When casting indicators and split shot or heavy sinking lines, gravity becomes the enemy of tight loops. The added weight can cause the fly leg to collapse and create infuriating tangles. I know well from past experience.

We can increase our loop size by increasing our casting arc for a particular length of line. This increase in casting arc creates the convex rod tip path (more circular) mentioned in the Five Essentials.

Beware, the shorter we can make our casting stroke for a length of line, the narrower our loops will be, to a point. If we use too short of a casting stroke for a length of line, we will end up with a tailing loop resulting in knots and tangles.


Loop Speed

We can vary our loop speed from slow, to moderate, to fast. Moderate would be considered a comfortable casting speed. Slower loops take less energy and can be helpful for more delicate presentations whereas, faster loops take more energy but can be helpful in windy conditions, to deliver a fly to a moving fish, or while your boat is moving quickly past your target.

An important thing to remember when varying loop speeds, the more force you apply to the rod, the more it bends the rod. Therefore, in order to maintain our loop shape, we have to make a few adjustments. If we cast faster loops, the more the rod bends, requiring a longer casting stroke and shorter pause. If we cast slower loops, the less the rod bends, requiring a shorter casting stroke and longer pause.

Varying Loop Speed
Slow Fast
Force Less Force More
Casting Arc Shorter Casting Arc Wider
Pause Longer Pause Shorter


Loop Plane

Our fundamental cast is typically made with a vertical loop plane. There are occasions where we need to  change the plane in which our rod travels and,  in turn, the plane our loops form. These casts are commonly referred to as a side-arm cast or a cross body cast. We can use these fishing casts when we encounter obstructions or when wind becomes a safety concern (for you or your pals). If we form our loops on the down-wind side of ourselves we can execute a safer cast. Safer, because the wind carries the loop and fly away from us instead of blowing them into us.

If you fail to execute a safe cast, here is a link for a video on how to safely remove a hook from skin. (It works. Yet again, I speak from past experience.)Varying Loop PlaneIn these situations, our Five Fundamentals remain important. We want our rod tip to follow a straight line path. However, we tip the entire casting arc on its side. When we do this, gravity can again become our nemesis and drag our loops down. A good idea when casting on a horizontal plane is to increase our loop speed to avoid having your fly ticking the grass or slashing the water surface.




Loop Trajectory

Generally speaking, we cast our loops with horizontal trajectory, straight back and straight forward. We can vary the trajectory of our loops depending on the fishing situation. It is important to note, we need to maintain loops that are 180º from one another. If we cast upward in the front, our backcast needs to be tilted downward. If we cast downward in the front, our backcast needs to be titled upward.

When we are casting for accuracy, we want to cast with a downward trajectory toward our target. This eliminates the chance the wind can blow our line and fly off target. If we have overhead branches behind us we need to cast downward underneath them, and as a result, our forward cast must have an upward trajectory.

Trajectory of our loops is varied when we stop higher or lower on our casting stroke. For an upward trajectory, stop the rod higher in an ascending manner. To direct our cast downward, stop the rod lower in a descending path.

Varying Loop Trajectory


Rod Mends

The most important thing to remember with rod mends is that the fly line will follow the tip of the rod. Once we have stopped on our forward cast our fly line and fly are going to travel in the direction we’ve just sent it. After we stop, we can use the rod tip to influence what happens between our rod tip and the target.

When we are fishing artificial flies that imitate things that aren’t strong swimmers or are at the mercy of the current (insects, eggs, etc.), it is critical that our offering is free of drag and is floating along freely with the flow. Once the fly is on the water we can mend our flies to achieve a drag free drift. It is, however, much easier to manipulate fly line BEFORE things like current and surface tension start influencing our fly line. As mentioned above, we can manipulate the rod after we stop on our forward cast and our line is still in the air to perform what are referred to as aerial mends.

There are countless ways we can execute aerial mends, but probably the most common is the reach mend. As shown below, we move the rod from location 1 to location 2 in our basic casting stroke. Once we have stopped at location 2, we move the rod to location 3 as the line is traveling toward the target. By changing the angle between the rod tip and the target, we place controlled slack that will be a buffer between our fly and line under tension created from the current. Instead of having a direct connection to our fly and a line under tension, we have bought ourselves a few more seconds of drag free drift without risking pulling our fly under water with an on the water mend.

Rod Mends


The Five Variables are essential skills for those interested in using the fly cast as a tool to catch more fish. Once you have a strong foundation built upon the Five Essentials, practice these Five Variables. You’ll be surprised how much more enjoyable time on the water is when you can eliminate tangles and have the tools to catch those extra finicky fish.


Fishing Buddies

I can’t imagine having better fishing buddies. It’s funny the way it evolves, too. One day a guy you’ve fished with only a few times says, “I’ve got a guy we really should take along sometime.” A few years later, you don’t remember what it was like fishing without either of them.

When I got started fly fishing, it was almost always by myself. Now, it’s rare. Sharing those good or bad times on the river with close friends makes it a whole different experience. They get to razz you when you totally blow a cast or a drift. And it’s ok, because they have hooksets you are still rolling about from several seasons ago. One of my recent favorites was Kris recalling, “Dude, remember the fish last year that refused you 4 times and just moved a few feet down each time? That was so awesome.” Yeah, uh that was… great? Thanks a lot. Haha.

It feels jaded to say, but fish, spots, and beautiful, contrasting colors all seem to run together. Vivid memories of good days on the water with good friends never seem to fade.

The Five Essentials of Fly Casting

When making a successful fly cast, there are a ton of things that vary. With that in mind, we consider Five Essentials that remain true for all efficient casts regardless of a person’s casting style. The Five Essentials are considered fundamental basic building blocks for wide range of casts to meet the countless situations that come up while fly fishing. Put simply, we must:

  1. Eliminate Slack
  2. Accelerate Smoothly to a crisp stop
  3. Straight Line Path of the rod tip
  4. Casting Arc must vary with the amount of fly line
  5. Pause between back cast and forward cast

Eliminate Slack

Before we begin our cast, we need to be sure we have removed excess line outside the rod tip and have anchored the line. To anchor the line, we can use our rod hand by gripping the line against the cork or we can use the line hand (typically we use the thumb and forefinger on the hand not holding the rod).

If we start our casting stroke with a pile of line at our feet, we waste a portion of the casting arc removing slack. If there is no slack in the system, the fly will move as soon as the rod tip moves.

How do we remove slack? We can strip in excess line or roll cast our line into a better pick-up position. We want our rod tip pointing toward our fly line and fly.

Eliminate Slack

Accelerate Smoothly

This is how we apply power to the rod and use the mass of the fly line to load or bend the rod. The amount of force we apply varies depending on several conditions, but the HOW we apply force remains the constant. Once slack is removed, begin slow and smoothly accelerate to a crisp STOP at the end of the casting arc. For proper acceleration, remember:

Start Slow – Finish Fast

Straight Line Path

To sum this up in one sentence: the line will follow the path of the rod tip. With no slack in the system, we smoothly accelerate to a stop, and as we load the rod, it bends. The bend in the rod makes up for the circular rotation created when we move the rod from forward at and angle to overhead and slightly past vertical.

If we don’t accelerate smoothly and we apply the improper amount of force, the rod will bend either too little and create a convex path or the rod will bend too much and create a convex path. The convex path of the rod tip creates a wide loop, which is generally inefficient (though it has its proper applications). The concave path of the rod tip creates what is called a tailing loop, where the fly leg dips below the rod leg, and creates wind knots (aka bad casting knots).

With the proper acceleration, we create narrow loops that are 4′ wide or less with parallel rod and fly legs.

Straight Line Path


Casting Arc

 If we begin the cast with our forearm, we call that translation. As we continue to accelerate, we rotate with the wrist. Translation and Rotation are what make up our Casting Arc.

Flat First – Rotate Late

The important thing to remember about the casting arc is that it should match the amount of line we have outside the rod tip.

Short Cast = Short Line = Smaller Casting Arc, Long Cast = Long Line = More Casting Arc.

Casting Arc


At the end of our Casting Arc, we finish accelerating with a crisp STOP. This stop is what forms our loop. At this point, we need to pause to let our loop unfold. The duration of the pause will vary with the length of the line. A trick to pausing for the correct amount of time is to think of your cast in 180 degrees. Just before the line straightens on your forward cast, you can begin your back cast. Unless you are shooting large amounts of line (we’ll talk about that more in the future) the pause will be the same on back as it is in the front.

If we pause too long, our line will end up in the water behind us or on the ground. If we don’t pause long enough, we hear a whipping sound. If you are dead set on idolizing Hank Patterson, use a short pause and “Snap It!”

Short Cast = Short Line = Short Pause   |    Long Cast = Long Line = Long Pause.

Practice and master the basics. They are the building blocks for all of the casts you can make with a fly rod. If you are having any issues with your cast, be sure to start with the 5 Essentials to begin to correct your cast.

Soak It In


A few years ago I made a trip out to Arkansas with a buddy and we saw a grand total of 4 hours of meager generation and nothing else but minimum flows for four days. With almost no discussion, we knew what it meant. Four days of fishing until 2 am, getting some quick sleep and a shower, and back on the water by 6 am. I feel like, two years later, I’m ready to admit that was hard haha. Would I do it again tomorrow? Just say go.

White Cr— River

We knew we only had a few days and wanted to see as much as humanly possible. We fished with Alex Lafkas during the day and put some good numbers of fish in the boat. With skimpy flows we just weren’t finding the size that system is known for. Pat told me that night that the tone was set when, after Alex netted the first 18″ fish, he asked me if I wanted to get a pic. My answer should have been a little more tactful than, “mmm… No, let’s keep fishing.”

I personally learned a ton fishing and hanging out with Alex and seeing a new river. He was very helpful pointing us to spots to check out on our own and had us into fish even when he wasn’t around. No one can MAKE the fish eat, but we did our damnedest to try! We ended up getting a handful of good ones we wouldn’t have if we’d mailed in. Sometimes, you gotta just get after it.

Grind it out.


I’m pretty lucky to fish with some die hard anglers: buddies, guides, and some assorted weirdos. They make me a better angler and a better person. They make me push the limits for “comfortable” and find out what is really possible. Surround yourself with people who are thoughtful and better anglers than yourself. People who ask you to explain why you’re doing things the way you are and expect a damn good answer.

You have to have goals in mind. It really is important to push yourself. Just don’t forget to take time to sit back, crack a beer, and appreciate the moments ingrained in trying to find fish. There is certainly a dichotomy to all this. Sometimes you have to get out there and bust it and sometimes you have to accept the bite is off or the bugs aren’t hatching. Fish hard anyway, but take time to grab some food, share some stories, and joke around with your buddies.  Ask some questions and treat ‘bad’ fishing as an opportunity to learn something and test some theories. Get out there and live it. Soak it in.



I think the older you get, the more time spent on the water, the more you appreciate the moments that capture, “Why?”

I’m not a musky guy. I’m not a warm water species guy. Hell, I’m not even a warm weather guy. I’m infatuated with trout and all of the completely unique ways to catch them. Over the last few years, my closest fishing friends have caught the musky bug and have been doing their best to convert me.

I like to think I’ve been there the whole time, supporting their changing interests. I told my buddy Pat the last time we fished, “My biggest regret in fly fishing is rowing you into your first musky!”  Ha! Not really. When it comes down to it, watching your closest friends grow and supporting it (while still complaining about how bad their musky net smells) is one of the best things you can experience in fly fishing.

I have rowed my buddies into musky, pike, and all sorts of bi-catch that comes along with it. They have gotten GOOD and I’ve had a front row seat to some wild things. But when their arms are wrecked and they need a break, they become great guides who insist I wave the broomstick, goat rope, and half chickens around. Of course, there’s always that guy who’s more lucky than good. If you hang around long enough, you get to be that guy.

Photo by Pat Burke

It’s important to know what you like; to have your fly fishing raison d’etre. If you keep a closed mind, however, you limit your own growth and the growth of those around you. There’s a big, wide beautiful world out there, lots of species to catch, and countless ways to do it. Try something new.

Hatch Hunting


Regardless of what’s happening in the world, political bullshit, work bullshit, all bullshit, it all has a tendency to drift away with rushing currents, wind drifts, or tides. It’s like you cease to exist in the real world, at least for a little while, and submit to the natural order of things.

To me, it’s never more evident than chasing hatches and rising trout. It’s a perpetual quest to be in the right place, at the right time, with the right conditions.  Witnessing the perennial transition of mayflies from nymph to subimago, imago, and eventually a dead bug on the water surface that a trout can’t resist gulping down is the essence of fly fishing.

get in my belly.jpg
Gulping Glutton

It’s almost cruel how short the prime dry fly season is in the east. That just makes it more critical to make hay while the sun shines and let the calendar and conditions set your course. Every year is different though and I think that’s a big part of what renews the fever, year after year. It’s such a refreshing challenge.

Early on, the mysticism of mayflies and the trout “jumping” on the surface is what brought me to pick up a fly rod without really understanding what I was witnessing. The fish were acting ridiculous and I wanted to be in on the secret. Years later, I’m neglecting sleep and stumbling through pastoral settings in the dark, hoping that I went far enough to avoid that long abandoned barbed wire fence and countless other things so I can stay long enough and search for risers. The stranger thing is finding yourself neglecting fishing time to plant trees along those creeks, recording water temperatures and chemical properties, and meeting with professionals to coordinate construction and permitting to stack logs in creeks just to hopefully create more opportunities.

More of this, please.

Whatever your in-road is to fly fishing, whatever the species or setting, jump in with both feet. You’ll be amazed where the journey takes you.

Um, did you just pupate on me?

Wood is Good

As I work on getting new stories together for the site, I’d like to post a few from the old site – for old times sake. Here is the first throwback post. Enjoy (or re-enjoy).

FBD Logs
FBD – Will the engineering geeks, please stand up?
(Graphic:USDA Computational Design Tool for Evaluating the Stability of Large Wood Structures)


It was Tuesday, February 23rd (2016). I was at work and it was freezing outside. I had an email pop in on my phone. “Large Wood Structures for Aquatic Ecosystem Restoration and Management Workshop.” I swear I did a double take.

The class was being organized by the US Forestry Service, Trout Unlimited, and the White River Partnership with the description, The workshop will teach aquatic restoration practitioners the design methodology to engineer log structures that mimic the form and function of naturally occurring log jams.  Topics covered will include the role of wood in ecosystems, design of engineered wood structures, and all salient topics of large wood restoration. Here’s the kicker – the class was free. Unfortunately, it was in Vermont, 450 miles away. Oh well, it was probably going to be cool.

When I glanced over at my calendar, I just so happened to see the words “Flat Water Clinic – Twin Ponds” in the adjacent squares. No flippin’ way. I was due to be in the Adirondacks, just down the road from Vermont, for a stillwater fly fishing clinic the day after the workshop ended. Call me Mike Wolfe (American Pickers) because I just became king of the bundle!

The class was three days long. Two days in a classroom setting and one day of site visits. Presenters ranged from Forestry Service folks, to private consultants doing river restoration work, to people from local Trout Unlimited chapters. Everything was discussed from planning and permitting, to management and monitoring.



The location of the class was chosen in order to take an in-depth look at a Large Wood Project that had been successfully implemented. In response to the devastation in New England from Hurricane Irene, the Vermont Highway Department entered a section of the White River and began hauling loads of river gravel away to fill washed out roads. Some sections of river in this area were the straightest I had ever seen and had very homogeneous gradation of gravel. The rivers are full of wild trout, but very few reach larger sizes in the degraded habitat.

Due to the amount of trout I’ve pulled out of wood habitat, I was sold on the benefit of wood in rivers before I arrived. However,  the technical back story of wood’s effects on rivers was really driven home. For centuries, we have removed wood from stream channels for transportation of timber during log drives and FEAR of the negative impacts we’ve been told wood has during flood events. This could not be farther from the truth.

A straightened river is an unhealthy river. Flash flooding, poor sediment retention, and shitty fish habitat are a few of the obvious issues with homogeneous channels. Over the years, with increased velocities, stream channels become “incised” and cut themselves off from the flood plain. So what does it mean when a stream doesn’t have access to the floodplain?


Geek Break!

Q = V x A

Ah yes, let’s revisit Algebra 1. You know, it has no relation to everyday life right? Why will you ever need that? In the equation above, Q is volumetric flowrate (cubic feet per second, or (ft^3)/s), V is velocity (feet per second, ft/s), and A is cross-sectional area (square feet, (ft^2)).

So what does that actually mean? When the amount of water coming down stream increases, and the area stays the same (because it can’t spread out over the floodplain) your velocity goes up. More velocity; means more energy, means more scour and erosion.


So how does wood come into play? Wood slows the flow and helps retain and sort various sized stone and sediment particles. Think, have you ever been on a stream where all the stones were roughly the same size? Was it a fairly straight channel? How was the fishing?

Wood can remedy these issues by creating step pool elements which can act as grade control, it can define channel boundaries, it can create and maintain scour in the areas we want it, and it increases floodplain roughness. By increasing floodplain roughness, you force the water to take the path of least resistance and redevelop stream meander in areas where it is currently absent. Wood is deposited on the outside of bends and over time forms log jams which fortify the bank and create habitat.


Grade Control Using Stone
“Bar Buddies”
On the inside looking out.
Large wood on the Outside bend. Note the pool forming in front and debris accumulating on the inside after only 1 year.
Demonstrating the relationship between compacted and non-compacted soil.

Wood can, unfortunately accumulate and have adverse impacts on bridges and culverts when it occurs in the wrong setting. Maintenance and monitoring of drainage infrastructure is critical under any circumstance. Large wood is not something to be messed with, but without it, the health of our streams and the quality of fishing is not going to improve. If there is more large wood in streams, more complex structures will accumulate and will be less likely to move and create problems.

When I went to this class, I expected to walk away with tools and design knowledge for implementing wood structures to improve our streams through Trout Unlimited. I got that, but what I also learned was that we need to educate the general public that wood has endless benefits in stream channels. If we can get people to leave the wood that accumulates through natural recruitment in streams, we will see huge, low-cost benefits. So many landowners want to remove wood at the first opportunity because it was common practice for over a century. Even now, I occasionally happen upon un-permitted wood removals and stream channelization to mitigate effects from flooding. One thing is for sure, if wood is removed from streams and channelization and incision continue, flooding will only get worse.


Over the last couple years, we’ve been hearing about the invasive Woolly Adelgid attacking our Hemlock population. I have lost a bit of sleep thinking about the warming that will occur in our headwater streams without shade from these ubiquitous evergreens. One of the speakers totally changed my “doom and gloom” outlook on this impending environmental disaster. “Instead of worrying about the catastrophic loss of hemlocks, think of it as a once in a generation opportunity for wood to be restored through natural recruitment.” Wow. He was absolutely right. If we can educate the masses to NOT remove these dead trees, we could restore the natural wood load so much more than we could by adding structures. Here’s our chance to improve the fishing, people. All we have to do is not screw it up.

There was a little room for fun while I was in Vermont. My wife went with me to the Green Mountain State and we sampled some fantastic local food.  I was also able to cross Vermont off the list of places where I had never caught a brook trout!

Bluelining Vermont – Note the Voluntary Large Wood!
Bridge over Lake Champlain… Headed to the Adirondacks.