Friday, April 24, 2009

On Teaching Fly Casting – The Spokane Fly Fishers

This year I have been invited to organize the casting portion of the Spokane Fly Fishers fishing school. This was a great opportunity to review my lesson plans and adapt them for the three day program. The Spokane Fly Fishers is a wonderful local club particularly welcoming to a wide variety of participants including women and children.

In preparation for the school, I drafted a lesson plan for the three day curriculum. To see a copy please contact me at The fly fishing school typically attracts 30 to 60 students. This year attendance is down, undoubtedly impacted by economic conditions.

The club has many fine fly fishermen and some good casters as well. My challenge with 30 students was I needed the help of fellow casters and I needed to craft a curriculum that would provide a consistent format for instruction. I also wanted to recognize that all casting instructors have “discovered” tips and techniques that work for them – and I didn’t want the curriculum to stifle creative instruction – thus my focus on the “substance” of the fly cast.

Some Observations

I continue to notice some universal characteristics of beginning fly casters. First, particularly with folks who have fished with lures or bait, the challenge of over coming the muscle memory of the bait cast can be daunting. I have found that using a technique shared by Don Simonson to be particularly helpful.

Throughout the three days of casting instruction I will visually demonstrate the basic casting stroke. I will start by demonstrating what it looks like to wrist cast and also to hinge cast only bending the arm at the elbow. I ask them to watch the end of my casting “finger” and to describe the path my finger (the rod tip) creates. Yes a nice big loop! I ask them to pantomime these motions.

I then have them pantomime the proper casting stroke by holding their wrists steady and with their elbow at their sides and arms bent at about 10:00 – the path the “finger” rod tip makes if they simply raise their elbows – yes a nice straight line path of the “finger” rod tip!

I ask them to close their eyes and repeat the casting stroke several times – kind of like Mel Krieger’s down-up exercise in teaching the double haul. Very effective! I want the student to begin to develop new muscle memory, different from their bait casting history.

Another observation – many instructors talk too much! I find myself in this boat often! Usually when we instruct too much we end up using negative terminology – such as don’t do this – or no that is wrong. I have to work hard to keep my instruction sessions brief and succinct and positive! I usually like to limit the talking sessions to no more than three to five minute segments. Five minutes is pushing the limits – it is really too long as well!

For me a good rule of thumb is for an hour long session is to limit the instruction (the talking) to no more than 12 minutes (about 20%) of the total class time. The instruction time would consist of three or four brief demonstration “breaks”. The rest of the hour is spent with the students discovering for themselves the joy of the fly cast. I also constantly ask the students if they have questions or comments. Most do, so give the student the opportunity to share.

Finally, one of my assistants came up with a great suggestion. Since many fly fishers’ fish from pontoon boats or float tubes – spend some time casting from a seated position! I have seen Macauley Lord demonstrate the cast while lying on his belly! We are going to add this technique to the curriculum!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Large Woody Debris

Trees. Shoreline vegetation. What a nuisance they can be when we all are working moving water on the fly. How often have we lost that special fly? That fly that was working so well, lost on that shoreline tree! The last of the best fly in our box of the day. But this vegetation is vital to the health of our streams, as well as our fly fishing experience.

I am gaining a better appreciation of that riparian vegetation as I work the rivers and streams of the Pacific Northwest. Most of our streams have been modified to such a degree so as to no longer resemble the free-flowing streams that existed prior to the Hudsons Bay Company.

Prior to our settlement of this land, streams flowed freely, moving and shifting. Scientists call it channel migration. Streams owned our valley floors, shifting over time, usually over decades, claiming and returning longer tracts of the valley floors in the process of migrating.

Shoreline trees play a most important role in the process of natural channel migration. Large woody debris, specifically, are essential to stream migration and fisheries habitat.

I didn't fully understand the working of large woody debris until this past spring. During spring runoff on the Yakima, an enormous Ponderosa pine dropped from the shoreline edge to land square across the river. Most trees-usually cottonwood-fall in a more downstream direction. That is, the direction of the wind-almost always downstream. Not this pumpkin. It fell perfectly perpendicular to the shoreline, its main stem halfway across the channel. The pine's configuration presented a formidable obstacle to drift boats and rafts-and me in my waders.

What I didn't understand was why this particular pine? Its base was situated 30 feet from the normal high water, well away from the current or shoreline erosion. On the opposite bank stands another pine, whose roots were half exposed by a heavily eroded shoreline. Many times, I had observed this tree, fully expecting it to fall at any moment in the path of a strong wind gust. But no, it still stands.

The Pumpkin, on the other hand, fell while still firmly set on land. Or at least that's what it seemed. I took the time to follow the trunk of this great tree from stream to base. The tree was fully four feet in diameter at the base! What I discovered helped add to my understanding of the river.

The base of the tree was fully uprooted. The tree had not broken- it had tipped over! The pine's roots were wet and rotten. Certainly, there had been plenty of fine fibrous membrane to carry food and water to the canopy. The roots were so wet they had weakened over time.

What we are reminded by this phenomenon is that a river channel is quite complex. While the channel itself is well defined, the actual shoreline riparian zone can and often does extend hundreds of feet from the edge of the flowing channel. The dimension of this influence zone varies with the size of the stream and the geology of the basin. On the Yakima, this zone can be several hundred feet wide.

It is within this zone-the channel migration zone-that the river takes claim to large woody debris, so vital to the health of our streams and our fisheries. Most often, the claiming of large woody debris by the river is direct and dramatic-the result of the working of the river and the erosion of the stream banks. In the case of the Pumpkin, the claiming was subtle. Upon investigation, the tree fall was result of groundwater movement along a shallow shoreline.

The result of this particular reclaiming has been dramatic. The tree fell across a broad riffle, fully fifty yards in length, just above a small island.

After several weeks of high spring runoff, the riffle has changed dramatically. The tree has shifted to a downstream direction, yielding to the power of moving water. The riffle is now half its original size. On the downstream side of the tree, the riffle is non-existent. A large pool has been created and the riffle replaced. Above the tree, the riffle has also been eroded.

The fishing characteristics of this stretch of river have been changed significantly. This was a piece of water I knew well. It was one of my favorites.

The presence of such large woody debris in our special streams enhances the fishing experience. I will now have to learn the new holding pockets. I will watch new riffles created as the stream works its way around the pine depositing gravel and stones in new and different configurations. I will learn this new water over time. And when the next pumpkin falls; I'll learn it all over again.

Len Zickler

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Len Zickler is a Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) certified casting instructor and former Director of Education for the Washington State Council of the FFF. Len chaired the Northwest Fly Casting EXPO for the Washington Council of the FFF for several years - an event an event his team won in 2002.

Fishing since he could walk, Len cast his first fly 20 years ago, and has focused his passion for fly-fishing with the formation of the Columbia Fly Casting School (CFCS). The school is designed to provide basic fly fishing instruction.

Len has been a student of some of the best fly casters in the country, having taken instruction from Mel Krieger, Macauley Lord, Berris Samples, Tom Jindra, Don Simonson, carl Zarelli and Tony and Marilyn Vitale. Len's instruction blends techniques and tips he has learned from his casting mentors. Len's instruction focuses on what he describes as "the five essential elements of effective fly casting" - the substance of our sport.

The Substance of Fly Casting

In fly-casting instruction we make a distinction between the physics of making effective fly casts, which we refer to as the "substance" of casting; and the personal tendencies fly casters develop related to such things as stance, grip, and wrist movement - which we refer to as casting "style".

In effective fly-casting there are four essential elements to the "substance" of the cast:

  • To make an effective cast keep slack in the fly-line to a minimum
  • The length of the casting stroke will vary with the length of the cast
  • There is a pause at the end of each stroke, the length of which varies with the amount of fly-line beyond the rod tip
  • The fly is going to go in the direction you accelerate and stop the rod tip.
  • The effective cast is accomplished by smoothly moving (accelerating) the rod from slow to fast, combining this stroke with an abrupt stop of the rod, which bends or "loads" the rod.


In order to make a cast in either the forward to backward direction, the caster must get the end of the fly moving, which cannot be accomplished if there is slack in the fly-line.

A common error is for the beginning caster is to start the cast with the rod held at a 45-degree angle above the ground or higher. This position will cause the line to belly, and will result in wide loops in the back cast, or worst yet, tailing loops.

The proper starting position for the initial pick-up is to hold the rod tip down, almost to the ground/water, with all slack removed.

Casting Stroke Length

The length of the casting stroke will vary with the length of the cast. Simply stated, the longer the cast the longer the stroke, and the shorter the cast the shorter the stroke.

This principle is why the "clock face" method of teaching casting (a casting stroke between 10:00 and 2:00 for example) is somewhat misleading.

Short, accurate casts of less than 30 feet, can be accomplished with a very, very short casting stroke (between 11:00 and 1:00 for example). While long casts of 50 feet or more require the caster to move the rod through a much larger casting stroke (really long casts might require a casting stroke between 3:00 and 9:00).


Similar to the variable length of the casting stroke, the caster must pause in the forward or backward stroke, the length of which depends on the amount of fly-line beyond the end of the rod tip. Because the cast requires us to accelerate the rod in a forward or backward direction, we are pulling against the weight of the line in order to "load" or bend the rod.

Trying to cast a line before it has appropriately straighten, or after it has started to fall to the ground, causes a variety of problems in the casting stroke. Premature casting before the line has formed a nice "candy cane" shape at the very end of the stroke, will cause the snap, crackle and pop or bull whipping of the fly-line.

Starting a casting stroke after the fly line begins to fall, can cause a variety of problems, including wide, air resistant, open loops, or even tailing loops as the caster attempts to overcome gravity by applying too much power in the casting stroke to compensate for the slack-line.

Loop Shape and Direction

The fly is going to go in the direction that the caster smoothly accelerates and abruptly stops the rod tip. Nice, narrow, aerodynamic loops result when the rod is smoothly accelerated through a straight-line path, combined with an abrupt stop at the end of the forward or backward casting stroke. In order to accomplish tight loops, as a rule, it is best to limit the amount of bend in the wrist.

Wide loops are the result of the rod tip following a wide, looping, oval path (a convex path).

Tailing or crossing loops are caused when the path of the rod tip fall below a straight-line path (a concave path), which is usually the result of the caster applying too much power somewhere in the casting stroke, or when the casting stroke is too narrow for the amount of bend in the rod.

The Fly Cast

The fly cast consists of a smooth acceleration of the rod tip (slow to fast), combined with an abrupt stop of the rod. the spedd of the rod acceleration combined with the stop will dictate the shape of the loop.

The Fly Casting Grip

I attended the FFF Conclave in Idaho Falls and had the opportunity to take instruction from some of the best casters in the sport. Mel Kreiger, Macauley Lord, Joan Wulff, and Rhea Topping, as well as many other masters, delivered instruction on a variety of topics.

Each of these masters teaches their own "style" of casting and each had definite opinions on the topic of the casting grip. Fortunately, all agree on the "substance" of the physics of the cast. Through this piece I want to record some of my observations of the topic of the casting grip.

So, let me ask you, do you utilize the correct casting grip? Do you use the Kreiger "key" grip, or the Wulff, thumb on top? Do you ever extend your forefinger on the grip, as an alternative? Is your hand placement (the V between your thumb and fingers) nicely aligned straight with the handle and rod, or do you turn your hand slightly to a more outward position, in the style of Lefty Krey?

Well relax; there is no correct answer to the first question. Your casting grip is a matter of personal preference - it is an example of a style in fly-casting.

Not all of the masters agree on the "best" grip. Wulff is a strong advocate of the thumb on top position. As a matter of fact, if you were to take instruction from Joan, she would insist that, while in her class, you perform the cast "her way". She will grab your hand and adjust your grip to her style! You'll have to admit that the Wulff style has been wildly successful for her throughout her career.

While acknowledging personal preferences, Mel Kreiger really likes what he describes as the "key grip". He also described this grip as the "golf club" grip, as it is the same grip you would use when handling a golf club, where the thumb and forefinger are positioned along the side of the club shaft.

Mel advocates this grip as a more natural hand position, allowing the delivery of more power in the casting stroke with less effort.

I have come to appreciate the comments of Macauley Lord on this topic. Each of us as fly casters has our own physiological makeup, with kinesthetic limitations and flexibilities. We all have a very personal approach to our style of fly-casting, and the grip that is most comfortable for us is probably the best choice. It is a matter of personal style that, as instructors, we should not try to change.

I actually advocate Doug Swisher's approach in teaching, which suggests that the caster be aware of the advantages of the variety of grip positions, depending on the fishing or casting conditions.

I use the thumb on top grip for 90 percent of my casting. That would be for medium distance casting in the 35 to 60 foot ranges. It is the most comfortable grip for me, as I can cast comfortably, all day with enough power to deal with most conditions.

I often use the forefinger on top grip for accuracy casting at very short distances of less than 35 feet. The forefinger grip helps to limit wrist movement, which tends to keep the rod tip following a straight line, forming very efficient and tight loops that are critical to accuracy casts.

When casting for distance I will modify my grip ever so slightly and use a "modified" key grip. When I am double hauling, and trying to carry a lot of line in the air, my cast has a tendency to get out of plane. The rod tip following a slightly curved path in the back cast causes this condition.

For me, this is caused by limitations in the arm/hand movement of the thumb on top grip. To correct this tendency I will rotate my hand on the rod grip, moving my thumb from the on top position - to one slightly on the side of the grip. This slight modification helps to facilitate a straighter rod tip path, more efficient casting loop and greater distance.

I suggest that you try the variety of rod grip styles. Experiment with various grip positions for a variety of casting situations and learn the different styles of the masters. This practice will greatly enhance your casting abilities in a variety of on the water fishing situations.

Introduction - Columbia Fly Casting

The Columbia Fly Casting School (formerly the Kittitas Valley Fly Fishing School) was founded in 2004 by Len Zickler to offer beginning fly-fishing and casting classes. The home base of the school is located in Spokane, with "on the water" classes are offered on the Spokane River or lakes and streams surrounding Spokane.

The motto of the school is "enhancing cold water resources through fly fishing instruction". The fly casting is our passion, and we are proud members of the Spokane Fly Fishers.

The schools location is within a stones throw of the Spokane River and Riverside State Park - affording easy wade access for instructional purposes. Classes may be booked by contacting the School at 253-797-6850 or at Over night accommodations can be easily arranged at a variety of venues in Spokane.

What is the Correct Stance in Fly Casting?

The stance in fly-fishing is a bit like steps in a dance. Imagine the fishing situation you have encountered - the dance you chose should match the music of the river. Whether you are fishing for accuracy; you need a little more distance; or conditions call for that perfect presentation cast, the position of your feet - the stance - can greatly help or hinder your "dance" experience on the water.

Stance is another one of those elements of personal choice in fly-fishing. Foot position has been described as having characteristics of a western trout stream style, an eastern closed style or a salt-water flats style.

The beauty of the human body is its ability, and need really, to achieve equilibrium - a natural state of balance. It is important to understand that the natural state of balance will shift throughout our lives and, without us realizing it; we will adjust our posture to our limitations and circumstances.

I would suggest that the variety of stance styles all have a place in our fly fishing experience and it is to our benefit to understand the advantages of variability in the placement of our feet for the variety of circumstances we will encounter on the water.

In most fly casting situations, the most appropriate stance would have the casting foot, that is the foot on the side we are holding the rod, placed slightly behind the opposite or off-hand foot. In other words if you hold the rod with the right hand, your right foot would be placed behind the position of the left foot.

The typical distance between the feet in this stance would be at a "comfortable" shoulder width - not too wide - and not too close together. The object here is to discover the most comfortable position for you. Since we are all different physiologically, we will all naturally find the foot position that is most comfortable.

The reason this stance is most appropriate is because it gives the fly caster a comfortable range of motion appropriate for most fishing situations. This is a comfortable position for shorter casts that require some accuracy and is great for longer casts up to 60 or 70 feet.

Let's say you need to make a reach cast to either the left or right. Don't allow yourself to lock-in to the same stance for these casts! Move your feet! Let the stance match the dance!

If you hold the rod in the right hand and need to make a reach cast to the left, I find the best foot position is exactly opposite the comfortable position I describe above. My normal stance limits the range of motion I have for an effective reach cast left. By placing my off-side foot, in my case the left foot, slightly behind my right foot, I open up my range of motion to the left and can execute a much more effective reach cast to the left.

Similarly, if I wish to execute a reach cast to the right, opening my normal stance by moving my right foot back, just a bit, greatly enhances my range of motion to the right. This repositioning facilitates a more effective presentation for the reach cast to the right.

For short, accuracy casts, I recommend my students stand square to the target, much like the position one would take to throw darts. Again, for really short casts placing the casting foot slightly ahead of the off hand foot can be very effective. I like to use a tip cast with the rod right in front of my face, not unlike looking down the barrel of a rifle. A stance square to the target can really enhance the accuracy of your casts.

For distance casting the stance is critical to achieving the most efficient and longest casts. Certainly there are remarkable casters, Steve Rajef and Joan Wulff most notably; who can accomplish very long casts with relatively closed stances.

For the average caster who is looking for just a little more distance, the open, salt-water style offers the greatest range of motion and most comfort.

This stance calls for the caster to significantly alter the position of the feet. I like to place my casting foot well behind the off hand foot. I also consciously bend at the knees more, almost to the point where it is a bit uncomfortable - but not too uncomfortable.

This stance allows the greatest range of motion for the distance cast. Remember, for great distances, we need to move the rod through a much wider casting arc. Also, to be most effective with the wider casting arc, the path of the rod must flow as straight a path as possible. The open stance helps facilitate the range of motion required to execute a straight-line rod path through a wide casting arc, and thus be most efficient for longer distances.

Remember, allow the stance to match the dance - and enjoy the music of fly-casting!