Perfecting the Roll Cast

Nothing in fly casting is more important than perfecting a good roll cast for anglers who pursue trout on rivers and creeks.  After years of conducting fly casting clinics for resort guests, clients and other fly fishing guides you tend to develop your own style of fly casting.  Mine is a learned mix of Joan Wulff (my uncle would take me to watch her casting competitions/clinics in the sixties) and several other notable fly casting icons of which I had the pleasure of meeting and learning from over the years.

Purpose of the Roll Cast

The roll cast is how fly fisherman usually extend fly line out from their fly rod and is paramount to perfect when learning how to fly cast. It is the primary cast used while nymph fishing with strike indicators or while fishing small streams. Brushy, tree-lined banks behind the anglers require the use of the roll cast as well since a back cast would leave your flies tangled in the brush.

My fly casting is not on par with the elite fly casters of our time but you have to learn something after fly casting over forty years and teaching casting for over three decades so here is my take on the roll cast.

How to Roll Cast

1.     Pull fly line off the fly reel, lower your fly rod tip below the reel, wiggle your rod tip so fly line will come out and pile up in front of your feet.  Next walk your fly line out twenty feet; if you are standing on grass, or should you be in the water go directly to next step. Practicing executing a roll cast is much easier on the water. This is because the key to loading up a roll cast is maintaining line contact with the water which ensures tension on the line.

2.     Depending on which is your casting arm, off-set your rod tip left or right 20 degrees over your shoulder, so the loop you are about to form will not come back and strike you in the face.  The fly line always follows the path of the rod tip on a roll cast or a simple pick up and laydown cast.  Slowly pull the floating fly line on the water by raising your fly rod tip to a point where a slight belly of line begins to fall behind the tip. Maintain line contact with the water.

3.     At this point in the roll cast you must learn to completely STOP, for at least a second, to let the tension of the fly line pulling against the surface tension of the water create the power to load your fly rod.  After this pause, which can be as long as you like, move the fly rod tip forward towards your target executing the roll cast.

4.     Bring the rod sharply and smoothly forward and down in the direction of your target while holding the fly line in your non-rod hand to maintain tension. Your fly is in the water and you are fishing!

Achieve Greater Distance

You can achieve greater distance roll casting when you can master the size of the loop in your fly line.  When looking to form a tight fly line loop to increase distance, drive the rod tip forward just a short distance and stop.   Make sure to keep the fly rod tip up on an imaginary ceiling and aim the rod tip towards your target for better accuracy.

Advanced roll casters should try a quick down-up with the fly line hand for a single haul effect when stroking the rod forward.  This will increase load on your rod and increase distance but requires better than average timing.To cast a wide loop lower your rod tip behind you, this presentation technique will allow for more slack and less drag on the roll cast.

More Reason to Use the Roll Cast

Most any novice fly caster has been taught the art of roll casting to extend line in order to execute a longer cast.  Beginning fly fishermen quickly learn to roll cast in order to avoid obstacles on one’s back cast.  Both are fantastic reasons to employ the roll cast but here a few more advanced techniques.

  1.     As your casting becomes more advanced try roll casting behind you when a stiff breeze is hitting you in the face, just let your line settle on the water and the river current will straighten the fly line behind you before you pick up the line with your rod tip to execute half a forward cast.  This method especially helps novice/intermediate fly casters with timing and tip control.\
  2.  Taking a dry fly off the water, undisturbed, with a stealthy roll cast is an effective means to dry off the fly and to reposition the fly for another drift with a more powerful forward cast.  To do this correctly takes skills developed from practice.  At least we can learn and practice while we fish in this sport.
  3. When fly fishing for salt water fish from a boat, a forward roll cast is used to initially get the cast started.  It quickly builds tension and allows anglers to load the rod for a long, accurate conventional cast. Without an effective roll cast, it is a challenge to place your fly where it needs to be quickly.

Check out this instructional video from casting guru Mel Krieger:

To Conclude:

Practice roll casting every chance you may have, for it teaches the art of fly casting.  Learn to do it forehand and back handed.  Ask your fly fishing guide or fishing buddies to watch and critique your roll cast.  Remember even though the roll cast may not go as far or be as glamorous as the basic pick up and lay down cast, perfecting the roll cast is just as important to catching fish on a fly rod. For a free demonstration, stop by the Vail Valley Anglers fly shop for a lesson or schedule a private casting clinic with one of our expert instructors.

Bill Perry Guide and Content Writer