Techniques Tenkara

Advanced Casting Part Three: On the Water

Part Three of a Three Part Tutorial Series by Rob Worthing

Welcome to the third and final installation of our three-part series on advanced casting for fixed line fly fishing!

The first two parts of this series gave us a common language we can use to explore advanced casting, and gave us the tools to start building our casting skills. In Part One, we introduced Four Dimensional Casting. Four Dimensional Casting taught us to dissect complex casting strokes into four basic dimensions – the vertical, the horizontal, the rotational, and time. In Part Two, we began combining the four dimensions to form casting strokes. We organized select strokes into a Casting Progression Table, a training tool that builds skills in a logical, step-wise manner.

At this point, you should be used to thinking in terms of the four dimensions, and spent some time – in the lawn and on the water – honing your casting skills by working through the casting progression table. That means you’re ready for the fun part. You’re ready to learn how to apply advanced casting skills on the water to catch fish. Read on.

Part Three: On the Water

There are essentially two ways to use advanced casting skills on the water. First, to reach difficult lies. Second, to influence the drift of your fly. The first is pretty obvious, almost intuitive. The second can take some effort to grasp, so the meat of this article will be spent on it. As we look at each, remember the goal is not to simply memorize what you read and copy it on the water. The goal is to understand how casting strokes interact with the environment, how different casting skills combine to form those strokes, and how this can be used to trick fish.

Using Casting to Reach Difficult Lies

Many of the best lies on the water go unfished. Some appear so out of reach, anglers walk by without even noticing they exist.  When they do notice, it may be just long enough to ponder the trophy fish that must be holding in that perfectly protected, “unfishable” prime lie. By playing with combinations in the vertical, horizontal, and rotational dimensions, you can unlock those prime lies.

If you’ve spent any time at all playing with the casting skills described in Part Two of this series, the potential for reaching difficult lies with advanced casting should be easy to imagine. A 45 degree or 90 degree sidearm cast is a great way to reach a good lie under overhanging cover. A steeple cast is incredibly useful for presenting your fly when standing with your back to (or, with a bit of practice, while standing under) a tree.  

These are classic examples of when playing in the horizontal and vertical planes can help catch fish. But what really unlocks water is rotation. Rotation is the link that allows the advanced caster to combine the other dimensions. Figure 1 illustrates the use of a roll cast to a fish surrounded by cover.

Fixed Line Casting - Prone Roll Diagram
Figure 1: Using Rotation to Reach Difficult Lies. In this scenario, the prime lie (red x) is tucked deep under an overhanging tree (green arrow). You’d like to use a cast in the horizontal plane, like a 90 degree sidearm. But this time, the opposite bank is lined with trees, and the bend in the river prevents you from casting straight upstream with a low sidearm. There is zero opportunity for a backcast in the horizontal plane. The only open channel for a backcast is straight downriver in the vertical plane. But that’s not in the same plane as your fish. How do you transition from a backcast in one dimension (vertical) to tuck a fly under a tree in another, completely different dimension (horizontal)? Add a third dimension – the dimension of rotation. In this case, a prone roll (blue line) transitions the fly from an overhand backcast (vertical) to a sidearm forward cast (horizontal), tucking your Utah Killer Kebari deep undercover to reach the rainbow in that prime lie.

The supine and prone roll are superb for presenting a fly in the most difficult to reach places, and has been responsible for some of my biggest fish to date.  Ever cast your fly right where you want it with a 90 degree sidearm close to the surface, only to realize your drift is blown by all the line you just laid on the water? Ending that sidearm with a J cast will keep your line high and dry, setting you up for that tight tenkara drift we’ve all grown to love. Ever extend your drift so far the fly ends up too close for a backcast?  Or have to start with the fly in your hand? Try using a figure 8 to pick up your fly from the water (horizontal) and transition to an overhand cast (vertical).

These are just a few examples of using rotation to combine horizontal and vertical casting elements to unlock water. The potential for combination is truly endless.  When you’re in the lawn or on the water, look for obstacles to challenge your skill, and create your own casting strokes to meet the demand.

Fixed Line Casting - Prone Roll Rainbow
A small bow caught on a Utah Killer Kebari using a prone roll cast. NOTE: This is a fish that was caught underneath the boulder in figure 1.

Using Casting to Influence the Drift of Your Fly

The most valuable example of using advanced casting to influence the drift of your fly involves the supine and prone J. J casts are the first skill in the rotational dimension.

For the rest of this lesson, we will presume you are casting with the rod in your right hand. If casting with your right hand, the supine J involves ending your cast with a palm up rotation of your forearm (tracing the letter J with your hand), resulting in a small loop at the end of your line, causing the fly to land to the right of the line. The prone J involves ending your cast with a palm down rotation of the forearm (tracing a backward letter J with your hand), resulting in a small loop at the end of your line in the opposite direction as the supine J, causing the fly to land to the left of the line.

Clear as mud? Try imagining you are casting to a clock face on the surface of the water. The supine J aligns you with angles between 7 and 12, and the prone J covers everything between 12 and 5. Regardless of the angle, your fly still lands first and your tippet second, with the rest of your line off the water.

Now let’s add drag…

Anything in the water – fly, tippet, or line – is susceptible to drag. Lets consider two types of drag. First, surface drag created by current, the surface tension of the water, or both. Second, line drag created by the weight of your line as you hold it off the water. Sometimes drag is a good thing, like when surface drag animates a small grey kebari to look like a mayfly struggling to emerge through the surface tension of the water. Other times, like in a dead drift, we want to eliminate unnatural drag. Either way, we have to learn to control drag to get the presentation you want.

In fast moving water flowing more or less in your direction, we can use a standard overhand cast and get a good drift, because any surface drag from the water is in the same direction as the current, and the water is moving faster than any line drag created by the weight of our line. Change either one of those variables – flow or direction – and you’ll need to change your cast to avoid drag.


For micro-currents (small tongues and cross currents, eddies, pillows, etc.) that are not flowing in your general direction, an overhand cast will result in surface and line drag that is not in line with the current, and not natural. This kind of drag will kill a good dead drift, and can make fly manipulation less effective. In this case, you can use the J casts to orient your tippet and fly in the same direction as the micro-current to get a more natural drift. To do this, you trace a J with your hand that is in the same direction as the current. Your fly will land upstream and your tippet and line will be oriented in the direction of the current. For micro-currents, the tail of the J cast points in the same direction as the current.

Figure 2 illustrates this micro-current paradigm. There are a TON of these micro-currents in good tenkara water, and I find myself routinely using J casts to get better drifts.

Figure 2a&b. The Micro-Current Paradigm. You are presented with three currents (a, b, and c) flowing in different directions (yellow arrows). This is the Pecos River in New Mexico, a freestone stream with a dense population of wild trout, so you expect a trout (red x) to be holding in all the likely places. Current a is fast moving water flowing more or less in your direction. An overhand cast will get the job done (green arrows 1 and 2). Currents b and c are NOT flowing towards us. To get the drift you want, you have to change your cast to match the angle of the current. Current b is flowing at about 8 o’clock, and is matched with a supine J. Current c is flowing at about 5 o’clock, and is matched with a prone J. Note the order of these casts. This order gives us the best chance of presenting a fly to each fish and, with luck, landing that fish without spooking the others.

Macro-currents pose a different challenge. In macro-currents (large pools and tongues, deep runs and riffles, etc.) the water on the surface is moving faster than the water at depth. The water at the bottom (where fish frequently sit) may be very slow indeed.

With an upstream overhand cast, your tippet and line gets caught in the fast moving surface water and drags your wet kebari unnaturally out of the slower, deeper water. You can use a J cast to combat this by flipping the paradigm used for micro-currents. Instead of casting so you trace a J in the same direction as the current, trace a J in the opposite direction as the current. This will cause your fly to land downstream of your tippet. The tippet now has a longer distance to travel before it can create drag on the fly, allowing the fly a chance to sink and catch in the slower, deeper water. With macro-currents, the tail of the J points up the current.

Figure 3 illustrates the macro-current paradigm.

In very slow moving or still water, surface drag is created by the surface tension of the water, and you get awful line drag when you try to hold your line off the water. With an overhand cast, the weight of your line off the water drags your fly across or near the surface. While sometimes good, most frequently this is not how you want to present your fly. For example, it can prevent a wet fly from sinking when you want to fish deeper, or drag a dry fly unnaturally across the surface. Some fixed line anglers rely on very thin floating lines laid on the water to prevent drag in still water. While this can be very effective, it sacrifices many of the benefits of tenkara and tight line Euro nymphing that come with holding your line off the water.

To counteract drag in still water with your cast, use the same paradigm as we described for macro-currents. Trace a J cast so that you tuck the fly under your tippet, such that your fly lands closer to you than your tippet. The fly can then anchor deeper before line or surface drag takes effect.

The micro-current paradigm is extremely useful on freestone mountain streams and other fast, featured water. For lakes, ponds, and those long stretches of smooth water you hit on many large tailwaters, the macro-current paradigm works best. The great thing is that you’re ready to fish all of them.

Fixed Line Casting - Prone J Rainbow
A fat bow caught in the slow waters of a Southern tailwater using a prone J cast to anchor the fly in the depths. NOTE: This is a fish that was caught using the tactics in figure 3.

In Closing

As far as I know, no one has ever applied advanced sports-specific training concepts like a progression table to fly fishing. And this just might be the first time the Western hemisphere has seen phrases like “advanced casting” and “fixed line” printed in the same sentence! But the core concepts in this series on advanced casting are nothing new.  Using J casts to combat drag in tenkara is similar to using a reach cast or aerial mend in rod and reel fly fishing. Look close enough, and you’ll recognize elements in this lesson from the likes of Wulff and Kreh, spey and switch, trick and trial, etc.  Why should such diverse styles of fishing share common elements? Because they work.

The water is a dynamic place. From moment to moment, no bend, turn, run or riffle is ever the same. To catch fish, the way we apply advanced casting skills has to be just as dynamic.  The goal of the series was not to learn specific casts, but instead learn a systematic approach to building casting skills for life. It’s an approach that creates dynamic anglers, ready to adapt to any water. Becoming a dynamic angler isn’t easy, and this series was not designed to be easy. It was designed to be effective, like the common fish-catching elements it’s founded on.  Now, GO FISHING. Go create your own casting strokes. Find your own tenkara.

Rob Worthing has had a fishing rod in hand for over 20 years. An avid angler, world traveler, backpacker, and wilderness medical professional, he enjoys going off the beaten path to find the best fly fishing possible. He is passionate about fishing tenkara in remote mountain streams. In addition, Rob takes great pride in combining techniques learned while fishing six continents and four oceans to create hybrid fixed line fly fishing styles that simply catch fish. He is one of the founding partners of Tenkara Guides, LLC.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.

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  1. Great information! I will start practicing and using this. Thank you for sharing your knowledge

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