Being Better

Peter discusses teaching others to flyfish.

Maybe you’re familiar with the quote, ‘Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.’

Well, after a lifetime of fishing and half a lifetime teaching fishing, I completely agree with the sentiment. However if I had written it, maybe it would read more like this: ‘Give a person a fish, and you feed them for a day. Teach a person to flyfish, and they may choose to catch and release. They will certainly find a peace and happiness that only immersion in nature can provide. It’s also likely they too will become a teacher of flyfishers, thus making the world a better place.’

How to teach flyfishing

From the perspective of being a professional flyfishing guide and educator for 25 years, I’ve observed a host of different ways to teach flyfishing, each with varying rates of success.

Let me tell you what comes to mind as my most successful teaching mission. A decade before I became a flyfishing guide, I worked for the tool company Sidchrome. At that time, I was practicing my fly casting every lunchtime, 2 hours every evening and all day Saturday in an (ultimately successful) effort to win gold at the World Casting Championships. Mates from work would sometimes come and watch at lunchtime and it wasn’t long before they started to pester me to teach them to flyfish.

Back then, I was fishing every Sunday on a small stream in the Goulburn catchment. I knew this creek and most its small trout intimately. It was grasshopper season and I probably averaged 20 fish each trip. Most were caught within 30 feet, on dry flies, in crystal-clear water. The takes were all visible and it was such exciting fishing. Each Sunday, I was in flyfishing Disneyland and I never got sick of it – although the fish probably got sick of me!

Small, clear streams make a great classroom.

Anyway, eventually the pestering of workmates Ross and Reece worked, and I agreed to teach them flyfishing. I arranged to pick them up on Sunday morning: I would supply all the gear; they would provide lunch plus a couple of cold beers.

When I was setting up streamside, the boys asked where their gear was? I gave them each a pair of polaroids and that was all. I told them to be sure to stay within a metre of my side and to always watch the fly every time it was on the water – it was crucial that they saw everything I saw. (I also knew the boys wrongly believed I was going to hand over the rod at some stage during the day.)

We got back to the car after a terrific day of full-on fishing. We caught over 20 fish and I missed as many. I say ‘we caught’ because it was a little like that. It doesn’t actually matter who is holding the rod when there is sight-fishing to be had. It’s one of the wonderful things about sharing flyfishing with like-minded friends.

And by the end of the day, I was certain of one thing; the most important thing. I’d instilled a desire and a passion in both my mates. It was clear flyfishing had them hooked and they would now commit to doing whatever it took to catch fish that way.

They don’t have to be big to be addictive!

Now let’s turn the clock forward some 30 years. I’ve just dropped a client back at Central Highlands Lodge in the highlands of Tasmania. A voice calls out across the crowded bar, ‘G’day Haysie!’ It’s Ross and Reece and they are in Tasmania for their annual fishing trip. I’m quickly introduced to their sons, who they’ve taught to flyfish. The sons seem to be about 30 years old and I’m immediately taken aback by the size of these men that I remember as babies. I’m proud of Ross and Reece, as I know what it feels like to walk the remote World Heritage area of Tasmania with a son you’ve taught to use a fly rod.

As I walk to the car with the guys after several G&Ts, the lasting feeling is, ‘God, I must be getting old – those boys will be teaching their boys soon!’

So, if it’s possible, the best thing any budding flyfisher can do, is simply spend one day on the water sight-fishing with someone who is really good at flyfishing. The mentor must catch fish regularly, and the visuals should be the most rewarding part of the experience. (It would be good if this mentor was also a crash-hot caster.)

Alternative Beginnings

It’s a wonder anyone ever learnt to flyfish in days gone by. Most books on fly casting were confusing and in fact plain erroneous. Magazines were full of pictures of unobtainable monster fish and advertorial. Casting videos were boring.

A more contemporary approach might be to type ‘how to flyfish’ into Google, and practice, practice and practice while you study on the internet. Then book a casting instructor, followed later by a fishing guide.

This is clearly a better model and now that I think about it, this was more or less the process that worked for me so long ago – minus the Google search!

At the time I was 13 year old who’d lost his Dad, but I was lucky enough to gain 50, being the members of the Red Tag Flyfishers club who practiced on a pool walking distance from my Melbourne home. In particular, I was taken under the wing of Jack Joyner. Jack had no children and he treated me as a son. He was also a world casting champion and a flyfisher without peer.

After a year of learning to tournament cast at floating rings, I was taken to Bostock Reservoir, about an hour’s drive west of Melbourne, on a beautiful dry fly day. I caught the clappers out of the trout and I’ve steadily improved over the 44 years since.

The right learning balance

The following is how I would advise you to proceed if you want to get really good at flyfishing.

70% of effort towards learning to cast

A good instructor should be your first port of call. You need to come away from the session with a clear understanding of the three basic casting strokes: roll cast, pick up/ lay down cast, and false casting.

Roll cast

I can think of six good reasons to learn this cast, but to keep it simple, think of its primary use as a cast to get your line organised out in front of you before preparing to make a regular back-cast. It’s also a cast to use when there are trees or obstructions behind you, so it’s really important to learn this cast well if you plan to fish streams. The roll cast is best explained by this video:


Pick Up/ Lay Down Cast (PULD)

As the name says, this is a single back-cast, followed by a cast onto the water. It’s a foundation casting stroke that should become your major fishing cast. Over 90% of my fishing is done with this cast.

From a teaching point of view, the PULD is most often learnt immediately after the roll cast has been taught.

Set up for the PULD cast like this:

  • The line is laying in front of you at 10 metres. It is straight and tight. Your rod tip is just touching the water. You are turned a little side-on, toward your casting arm side, so it will be easy for you to see where your back-cast is going.
  • A good teaching technique here is to turn the rod upside down so the reel is pressing lightly against the forearm/wrist. This simple trick lessens the likelihood of the wrist being used in the back-cast movement; it instead requires the use of the forearm and upper arm. You will begin your movements with the correct muscle groups being used and developing a memory.
  • Now using a relaxed and light hand grip, smoothly accelerate the rod into a back-cast. Be sure to start the back-cast SLOWLY. Smooth acceleration is much easier to achieve from a slow start than a fast one. (This is certainly one of the secrets to good casting.)
  • Watch for a 2cm waterfall of water coming off the flyline as you lift or peel it up from the water. When the waterfall gets to your leader join, you can squeeze your hand with a little further rotational speed and stop the rod abruptly.
  • Carefully watch your back-cast unroll. The line should be climbing upwards from the rod-tip – not down toward the ground behind you.
  • Try to make the back loops narrower and play with the tempo or speed of them. When you are learning, you need just enough line speed for the line to straighten behind you. Supersonic speed is your greatest enemy.
  • Move the rod forward into the forward cast just a moment before the flyline has fully unrolled. Don’t wait for the line to fully straighten – that’s too late.

Possible mistakes to look out for include:

  • Accelerating off the water too fast.
  • Swinging the rod tip too far back and down before you stop.
  • Waiting too long on the back-cast, so the line falls too low before you tow it forward into the forward cast.
  • Not squeezing your hand to stop the rod.
  • Coming into the forward cast too fast and too soon, resulting in a loud cracking noise.

Making the forward delivery cast seems to be pretty much an instinctive process for most people. My advice is to look rather than stare at the target you wish to hit. Feel that you are trying to hit it with the rod tip. There must be an ‘out, out, out, out, down’ feeling. Don’t simply arc the rod tip down in a windscreen-wiper stroke toward the water at your feet.

False Casting

This is the cast most beginners associate with flyfishing. It’s what they are likely to see in movies and flyfishing videos. This is the constant back-and-forward movement of the line through the air. Sometimes, people false cast upwards of a dozen times before they finally lay the fly on the water.

It’s a cast that looks cool but doesn’t catch fish. It hooks bushes behind you, it wears your casting arm out, scares the fish (as well as your mate beside you in the boat!) and it’s likely to create more tangles. Try to keep false casts to a minimum by getting better at the PULD cast and roll cast.

Practice, Practice, Practice

You need practice drills that are relevant to your level of experience, and you need to do these drills regularly until you reach a fair degree of automaticity. Ideally, you would then see an instructor for a follow-up lesson some months later. You should now be ready for much of the fishing-related aspects of casting: accuracy, line landing effect, casting planes, loop variation, line management, exposure to various fishing techniques, etc.

At a guess, someone (man, woman or child; old or young) who comes to me to learn to fly cast, should be an effective fishing caster within a year or so if they dedicate themselves to the process.

15% of effort on understanding the fish

This involves knowing things like:

  • What the diet of the fish you’re targeting is, and at different times of the season.
  • What the fish’s senses can detect (sight, sound and vibration), and what things scare it.
  • When the fish spawns and how this effects behaviour.
  • Positive and negative environmental factors (e.g. water temperature); the list goes on…

    Learn about the diet of your target species where you fish: what they eat, and when.

15% of effort understanding where to and how to fish

Learn which locations are best to fish, and where the productive parts of lakes and rivers are at different times of the season. Keep in mind that some lakes and rivers fish better than others from time to time. On lakes, learn where the weed-beds are, the rocky reefs and yabby beds. On streams, learn when fish like the heads of pools, and when they like the tails, or glides, or backwaters.

Learn the various methods of flyfishing. Dry fly, various nymphing techniques, streamer fishing, loch-style fishing, wind-lane fishing and polaroiding. Figure-eight retrieves and the wonderful roly-poly retrieve.

Now begin to understand the range of tackle at your disposal. Rod ‘weight’ and length. Sinking lines, poly leaders, bead-heads, Zonkers, strike indicators, sink tips, tippet rings, glue kits, click drags and disc drag reels, and much more.

Learn about flies: everything about them. When to use which fly, and how to move them or not move them.

In summary

Whilst excellence in casting proficiency can come within a year because it’s a physical/technical skill; understanding the fish – and knowing where and how to fish – is knowledge that’s still being acquired even after a lifetime of firsthand experiences.

So, my advice is to get good at casting as fast as you can (this is the 70%) then book a good fishing guide, who can initially take care of the other 30%. Arrange to fish at a great time of the season and consider occasionally asking your guide to take the rod and show you how to do it – except with the point of the hook cut off and without a strike. You might then actually catch the same fish if you can repeat the process a few minutes later!

Hopefully you will be hooked forever just like Reece and Ross all those years ago and the world will become a better place.

Peter Hayes guides and teaches fly casting from his lodge in Tasmania as well as in other mainland states. His next 2019 live-in weekend course is on November 23/24.