It’s a repeated truism in fly fishing: most fish are caught within 35ft of the angler. This remains true whether we’re walking, wading, drifting, paddling or poling. Are all fish going to be right next to us when we are trying to get them to eat? No, but ask any redfish or drift boat guide and they’ll tell you that a high percentage of fish hooked by their clients are at distances easily measured in feet, rather than yards.
Another true but less-frequently repeated adage in fly fishing? Short casts are hard.
There’s a sweet spot for fly anglers that starts somewhere around 25ft and stretches out to 50ft or so. In that range, we have enough fly line in the air to feel in control without having to do any major hauling or flailing of the rod. With decent technique and a mild breeze, the cast generally goes where we want.
That leaves a 24ft bubble around the angler where things are actually trickier, not easier. If that sounds illogical, let’s do some math and a little physics. Assume we’re fishing a 10ft leader; that leaves 14ft of fly line to move the fly through the air. The typical weight forward (WF) fly line gets its weight designation from the number of grains in the first 30ft, and it’s common (and usually prudent) to match the weight of the fly line to the rod weight - say, to run a WF5F fly line on a 5-weight fly rod. But if you’re only casting 14ft of fly line, you’re attempting to cast only about half of the mass that the rod was designed to throw.
Line and rod manufacturers know this, of course, and they have teamed up to offer a wide variety of quick-fixes. The most common fly line design solution is simply to load a whole bunch of weight into the first 30ft of line, known as the “head” of the fly line taper. In theory, this “short head” or “aggressive head” design means that even 14ft of line will have enough mass to at least get the fly moving.
This configuration is often marketed under a ‘redfish line’ designation or as a “big fly” line, and the weights are sometimes marked as “half-size heavy” or even 1.75x heavier than the official grain weight. Partly as a result of these innovations, fly line weight “standards” have become more like suggestions these days; there’s a lot of variation between makes and models, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds while trying to compare head lengths, grain weights, and taper diagrams. There is also significant debate about whether this encourages folks to stagnate as casters.
There’s definitely a trade-off here: lines with shorter, heavier heads do enable deeper loading of the rod with less line out, so they’re effective for quick casts at close range - but they don’t usually support a loop well at longer distances. It’s also argued that because they rely on the heavy head, they act more like a conventional rod and less on good fly casting technique. If you can, try out different lines and see how well they cast with the rod that you have, and how easily you’re able to hit both close and more distant targets. You might be surprised by how much a different line can change your ability to cast a particular rod.
Lighter rods (in the 000-weight to 4-weight category) are already used mostly within our 24ft bubble. Creeks and small ponds often don’t give you the opportunity to stretch out longer casts. It’s not a coincidence that many of those lighter rods tend to be more flexible and have a slower action than heavier rods. That helps support loop formation and control even with less line out, especially compared to heavier, faster rods that respond best to more line in the air.
For larger flowing water, stillwaters, and the salt, a 5-weight is often the lightest we would want to use, depending on target species and circumstance. Going up from there we get into the meat - pun intended - of streamer fishing, sight casting, and blind casting. This is where it gets tricky since we often need to hit targets both inside and far beyond that 24ft bubble with the same setup.
How do we compensate for the trade-offs? Choosing a rod with a slower action can help here; many of today’s ultra-fast saltwater rods are downright lousy at the short game. Some anglers 'overline' their rods, meaning that they'll use, say, a WF9F or even a WF10F on an 8-weight rod. This approach has some merits and several very vocal champions, but various attempts to research the efficacy have revealed a mixed bag. Maybe someday we’ll dedicate an entire column just to overlining and underlining.
Short shots run the gamut. Sometimes we find ourselves throwing or swinging a fly from the rod tip directly to the fish, sometimes called “dapping”. Sometimes a short, choppy cast with an open loop will get the job done.Are you crawling up to a stream on hands and knees to deliver a bow-and-arrow cast? Did that redfish or carp suddenly appear out of the murk close enough to actually throw the fly to them? Are you nymphing that deep run with an indicator or Euro style? In each of these situations and many others, understanding how to manipulate a short amount of line will catch fish. Regardless of what rod and line pairing you choose, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear me say that you should be practicing at these short-shot scenarios.
Some of the most challenging situations we encounter in sight casting are when we’re eyeing an initial target that’s farther away, say 35ft (10.6m) or more, then spot a fish at close range, say, at 12ft (3.6m) or less.
In a sightcasting scenario, short shots can become moments of pure panic. The fish is close, they’re about to spook, the margin for error is small, and blowing the opportunity is far more likely than a successful hook set. Skill honed by regular practice is your best bet for moving the odds into your favor when time and distances are short.
Roll and single-hand Spey style casts are often the fastest option for these transition casts. It comes down to line control and a bit of luck. Do you have the ability to confidently move the fly into the fish’s sphere of awareness? Can you do it smoothly, without the abrupt, jerky movements that rock boats, move water and spook fish? Once the fly is there, can you regain control of the slack in time to make contact with the fish if it eats? Sometimes that can mean a hail-mary, up-on-your-toes kind of trout set - even in saltwater. Don’t look at me that way - do you want a chance at that fish or not? Even truisms (in this case, “Never trout-set in saltwater!”) have some exceptions!
There are times in fly casting when we need long, elegant casts, and there are times when we sacrifice all of that for speed. Time is usually our biggest enemy, and our initial casting decisions must happen quickly. In a lot of ways, casting at close-range targets challenges us to be an athlete in ways that distance casting does not. And as coaches constantly remind their athletes, winning begins with preparation and practice.