Roll-casting is a vital technique in nearly all fly-fishing situations. More than simply a means to make a forward cast when backcast space is compromised, it also enables an angler to remove slack from the line, raise a sunken line to the surface, lift a popping bug off the water to make a quick delivery, or reposition the line before executing a pickup and backcast.
Yet as important as the technique is, many otherwise competent casters have difficulty with roll casts. The fault lies not in the inability of the anglers but in some of the instructions commonly preached in years past. Advice such as, “Raise the rod to 1 o’clock, let the line drape behind you and stroke downward, as if chopping wood,” will generally result in a poor cast. For anything more than a short cast, it compels the caster to apply excessive force, and when the cast piles up on the water, as it so often will, a commonly suggested remedy is to use more power. That would be sound advice only if too little power were the cause of the faulty cast. Ironically, most casters already use too much power, because such instruction compels them to do so. Let’s rethink such teachings, define the problems they cause and create a more efficient stroke.
A Closer Look
First, that line draping or sagging from the rod tip to the water represents slack. It must be removed and resistance added to the rod tip before the rod will load. Second, the wider the angle between the rod tip and the line, the more deeply the rod will load. Clearly, the angle is very small when the line hangs from the rod tip. Third, when the rod straightens, the line will continue to unroll in the direction the tip was traveling at that instant. So if you want the line to travel forward, stroking downward is obviously bad advice. The line will go down and splash or roll on the water, but a roll cast isn’t made on the water; it’s made in the air. At the same time, a downward stroke will limit distance because the line’s contact with the water prevents the shooting of additional line. Fourth, if the line piles up, the alternative to casting harder is to make a longer stroke. Limiting the distance you move your arm and the rod with a predetermined starting point (e.g., 1 o’clock) restricts your stroke and therefore forces you to cast harder.
Mechanical principles are constant, but motions vary from cast to cast. Depending on the result you want, you must change where you start, the length of the stroke and the speed and direction you move your arm and the rod. Beware of instructions that specify any of these before determining what your desired result is. The following suggestions will make roll-casting easier and more efficient.
Try to have no more than about 1½ to two rod lengths of line in front of you when you start the forward cast.
The longer the cast, the farther back you should take the rod, as with any forward cast. Remember, a roll cast is simply a forward cast without a regular backcast. This is the same idea as with throwing a baseball or hitting a golf ball.
When you bring the rod back, lift the tip slightly to make a loop of line behind you (generally called a D-loop). The longer the cast desired, the longer and narrower the D-loop behind you should be. A longer roll cast is in fact a switch cast, a term commonly associated with two-handed casting.
The wider the angle between the rod shaft and the line coming from the tip, the deeper the load you will get. I’ve dubbed this the critical angle. For longer casts, widen the critical angle (or tighten the D-loop).
Before the D-loop settles on the water behind you, while only a short section of line is in contact with the water, move your hand and the rod forward with steady and continual acceleration, stopping so that when the line leaves the rod tip, it is going straight ahead, not downward. To add distance to your roll cast, you can add a line haul just as you would with a normal forward cast.
Compare the starting and finishing positions of the rod, the line and the caster’s arm in the photos opposite. Removing slack, achieving a wider rod-to-line angle and using a longer stroke ending in the direction you want the line to go will result in an effective roll cast that requires less effort.
Comparing the Good with the Bad
These images display a well-executed and a poorly executed roll cast.
The problems here include too much slack at the start; too much line on the water, requiring a lot of effort just to overcome the surface tension; and a high rod tip, which will move downward toward the water. Notice the wide D-loop and narrow critical angle. Take a look at the tip in the starting photo and the tip in the finishing photo. Compare the direction and the length of this stroke to those in the following cast.
These photos show improved technique. Note the tighter D-loop, the wider angle between the rod tip and the line, less line on the surface, the longer stroke and the forward trajectory of the line.