June 15, 2023
The biggest fish of the day was rising sporadically right under an overhanging branch. Like the stream itself, the casting window was small, with my only approach being downstream of the rainbow lazily finning in the crystal-clear water. The entire creek was less than a dozen feet wide, sparkling and gurgling through a claustrophobic tunnel of shrubs and gangly trees. The tips of branches bobbed in the current—another impediment foretelling a lost fly and spooked fish.
The coin-bright male would leisurely rise, float back and out of his lair, sip in a small caddis, then dart back to his safe haven. There was a 2-foot hole in the rank tangle overhanging the dark slot that was the rainbow’s hiding place.
"Ain’t gonna happen," I said to myself before remembering a hokey tactic—more of a parlor trick, really—known as the bow-and-arrow cast. When I showed that fish to my buddy, he did an actual double take straight out of a Three Stooges film.
Perhaps calling these “trick casts” isn’t entirely accurate. But they are less-common adaptations to casts, and you should consider adding them to your fly-fishing arsenal. Some are old-school—popularized in books decades ago, but now out of favor. Others came from pure, unadulterated happenstance or hair-pulling frustration as fish taunted me from water unreachable by traditional means. Over the years, they’ve all led to otherwise uncatchable fish in hand. One or more of them might pay off for you.
1. BOW-AND-ARROW CAST
Reel in until you have about a rod’s length of line and leader extending beyond the tip-top. Hold the fly by the bend of the hook. Point the rod tip toward your target and pull on the fly to put some bend in the rod. Carefully release the fly without moving your rod hand. It’s not pretty, but it’s better than flipping the bird to that pig of a trout basking in its hidey-hole.
2. BACKHAND CAST
On another creek with sinister streamside brush, I stood knee-deep in a riffle as I watched a mid-sized brown lolling in the tailout of a pool. A boulder pile kept me from going farther across. Being right-handed, a "normal" cast would have hooked tree limbs, not trout. By bringing the rod across my chest on my back cast, my line sailed through the opening downstream and then forward into the bubbles. The trout vanished with a flip of its tail, but I saved the fly. Cock your casting arm about 45 degrees inward, so it and your rod come back to your "off" shoulder. Power your back cast to ensure the line straightens behind you. When it does, hold that angle and power your cast forward.
3. BACKWARD CAST
Am I the only angler who’s always on the wrong side of the stream? Often, we struggle to maintain our equilibrium on slippery rocks in strong current with a forest in the way of our back cast. And we can’t move farther into the stream because there is no "farther." The narrow slot between our body and the vegetated bank cuts off hope of a decent cast to a pod of brookies cavorting in a tub-sized pool upstream. But turning a back cast into a forward cast might just work.
Face downstream to give your rod more wiggle room over the stream instead of being between your body and the tree-lined bank. Cast as usual but keep your back cast a little higher to avoid lighting your fly on the water too soon. Maintain equal power on both the forward and back cast, then lay your final back cast gently in front of the fish. Turn to face upstream in time for a slashing rise … or at least the hope of one.
4. STEEPLE CAST
My favorite trout stream harbors rainbows that practically launch from the water when hooked. Even a small fish punches well above its weight on this tributary of a well-known river, so it pays to touch every piece of good-looking water: slow, deep slots between boulders, and roily water spilling into tiny pools. However, massive timber looms on the banks—trunks and limbs reaching for fly and leader. If my back cast is really an "up" cast, though, I might put my Parachute Adams where it needs to go. In these instances, I rely on the steeple cast.
First, sweep your back cast by lifting your casting arm dramatically upward. Keep the whole mess forward of your shoulder the whole time. The line should follow, straight up. Because you’ve got gravity working against your line, it’ll take longer to straighten, so allow an extra microsecond at its zenith.
Then—and this is the key—punch it forward while your hand is raised. If you simply reverse your upward sweep downward you might hook yourself, or the entire line-leader-fly may splat in a heap right in front of you. Get your fly up and then quickly out of there like the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote. Add the sound effects if it helps.
None of these casts are rocket science, though they do involve some physics. You might want to practice on your lawn first, then on more open water where the effect of current and friction on the line makes things more realistic. Use these "tricks" and you’ll save a few flies, catch an extra fish or two and impress your fly-fishing friends to no end. Sometimes, that’s the best reward.