Deadly Accurate: The Musings of a Straight Shooter

Casting editor, Jeff Wagner, discusses five ways to improve casting accuracy

It’s especially satisfying to make an accurate cast, whether that means hitting a dry-land target or dropping a fly on the water right where you want it. There are few things as agreeable to the senses as looking where you want your fly to land and seeing it go there. But being accurate is not as easy as it looks and I find many folks express a desire to be accurate on the water, but they just don’t want to practice. While your concentration may be better on the stream, if you can’t hit a 30-inch ring on a casting pond, you won’t hit it on the water either.


Look where you want the fly to go, not where you don’t want it to go. It’s a principle that applies in other sports too. Once while mountain biking in the Colorado Rockies, I was barreling down a hill faster than I should have been when I came to a jump. I noticed a large tree on the other side of the jump. I wanted to miss the tree, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Not only did I go toward the tree, I hit it mid-air. The same is true with your fly. If there is a tree you don’t want to hit, don’t look at it. Instead look at the spot where you want the fly to go. Most people look at an area, viewing the general destination. This is often a landing zone about three feet in diameter. Be more specific. Pick a rock under the water, a repeating riffle, a reflection on the water or a bit of glare.

Target Acquisition

Find the fish first; don’t cast blindly. One of the worst mistakes is casting to a group of a fish. Groups of fish don’t eat flies; individual fish eat flies. Find one, and watch its movement. Carp are great for this. When they feed at the surface they often congregate in “clooping” pods – a beautiful sight! However, the mistake is to cast at the group, expecting that a fish will eat the fly. That may happen, but – and shotgun shooters can tell you all about this – you’ll be more successful if you pick a single target. Choose a fish that looks to be feeding and cast to a point in its feeding lane. This is also true for trout rising in a pod. Utah’s Green River below Flaming Gorge Reservoir is a good place to find this. Near the dam you’ll find hundreds of large fish barely moving, but picking off morsels that drift down the conveyor belt of gin-clear water. Inexperienced anglers cast to the group—generally unsuccessfully. Pick a feeding fish and then a specific point in front of that fish in the feeding lane.


Knowing the distance to the target, and knowing how much line to have out can be one of the most difficult skills to master. One of the best ways to understanding the relationship between your fly and the target is to test the distance and visualize it. This takes two people. Begin by casting to a target. False cast until you believe your fly will land on the target, then present the fly. A few things need to be measured: first, the angle of the rod when it stops on the forward cast. Also, observe the perceived orientation of the fly in the air when it’s farthest from the caster and above the target. This is often termed the “hover point.” The fly at this point might appear to be 18 inches above the target but slightly in front, or 24 inches above the target but slightly behind. Document these perceived measurements.

Now have someone put the fly on the target to get the correct amount of line. Using just that amount of line make one presentation (typically you will have to add a few inches of line to accommodate very small amounts of slack). Next lift the rod to your forward-cast stop position and hold. Have your friend pull the line tight with just a slight bend in the rod tip and place the fly in the air above the target at the elevation it was at the end of a false cast. Now, false cast to the target and observe the perceived location of the fly relative to the target. You now know you have the amount of line necessary to hit the target.

The objective of this exercise is to show what “good” looks like compared to what you normally do. There is usually a substantial difference between the two for casters who have not worked on casting in a controlled situation. Memorize the angles and orientations for the “good” exercise and repeat and practice them until they are second nature. Orientation of the fly is probably the most important. Does the fly appear to be 12 inches above the target and slightly short? Is it 18 inches above and slightly long? Repetition creates muscle memory that becomes habit. This perceived orientation is what you want to mimic in future accuracy attempts.


One of the most interesting things for me as I teach, compete and observe, is watching the movements of a caster. For example (and we have all seen it), a caster is trying a rod. He begins casting to a target and the loops and casts look great. Then on the presentation, the final delivery, he extends his casting arm toward the target. Or he drops the rod and bends his knees. Or he completely changes the rod position. This “body English” does nothing for his casting. If accuracy is a process, it needs to be repeatable. This means using the same motion the same way every time. By doing this you can focus on the core motions and reduce the variables in your cast. This is repeatability. Limit the motions and learn how far your elbow drops. Look at the rod position, your hand position and grip, and your stance. I want a stance and a casting motion that I can use over and over. I have one stance for casts out to about 60 feet, one for heavier weight rods or longer casts, and one for true distance casting. They are all repeatable.


Now that we have distance we can focus on aligning the fly, line and rod to the target. We want a false cast that has limited slack, no curve or waves in the line and is headed toward the target. Make a few casts until you have achieved alignment to the target. When a false cast aligns as closely as possible and feels under control, make a mental note and repeat it on the next cast, focusing only on the fly going to the target. This is the presentation cast, the final delivery.

In practice I shorten the process to a simple acronym of DAP, meaning distance, alignment, and presentation. Lots of recent research suggests that the brain is not capable of multi-tasking, so focus on one aspect at a time. Many casts go wrong when the caster glances to some outside interference or concentrates on the line in the hand or the line in the air. Make it simple. First concentrate only on getting the distance. Once you have that, concentrate only on the alignment. Then on the final cast concentrate only on how you want the fly to be presented. By using this sequence and developing confidence in each step you can focus on one element at a time.

There is a lot here to think about but casting happens quickly. In a competition you might have five seconds, at most fifteen seconds. When fishing, the amount of time you take is dependent on the fish and conditions. However, the more you work on it the more it will become second nature, and you’ll do it correctly without thought or prompting.

With these steps you can cast less and catch more. Take the time to practice and go through the sequence. A few seconds of focused thought will result in better casts and more fish.