(When drift-boat fishing, the holding water can go by quickly--often, only a long cast will get the fly to the fish before you’re off downstream.)
Fish close: if you started out as a fly fisher by reading the beginners’ books or taking a fly-fishing course, you’ve almost certainly heard this standard advice. It’s sound advice--I offer it myself when I speak at clubs and fly events and in my books and magazine articles. In fact, it’s really The Rule about distance for beginning fly fishers. The Rule is a river rule of course, since trout-lake fishing necessarily involves lots of long casting. But it’s hard to deny that when you’re only 25 feet from a fish, your odds of setting the hook immediately on a deep nymph, seeing your dry fly or emerger go gently down with a trout nose, or keeping a hooked fish away from trouble are much higher than with a fish 60 feet away, across all that water...
So, really, The Rule is not just for beginners; it defines a smart general strategy for all fly fishers. But anything so broad as The Rule is bound to have exceptions.
The obvious exception is big water, where the fish may hold far out into the river. The Rule is useful here too, since in most big rivers the trout hold within 10 to 20 feet of the bank. But not always, and not everywhere--so, what If the trout are rising a long cast away; what can you do? Cast long, of course.
I remember a run on a lower section of Oregon’s Metolius River--small water upstream, but far too broad and deep to cross by wading downstream on the run--where the trout like to come up for uncharacteristically huge Green Drake mayflies hatching in the middle of the river. I was left with two choices: fish the edges where few insects--and few fish--showed, or punch the fly way out there. I, of course, punched. I couldn’t ignore those distant, frequent risers.
The problem was trees, not in a thick forest, but enough trees for their branches to fill in most of the space behind me. So I’d look for a break where I could fire a short back-cast, take a position that would angle my cast out as close to where I needed it as possible, and shoot a lot of line. It worked.
I wish I’d had a Sharkskin line back then--this line really sails out on a shoot. The swishing sound it makes as the high points of its textured surface slide across the rod’s guides used to distract me. Now it assures me I can reach distant fish without strain. If I say more, I’ll sound like an advertisement. But truly, the Sharkskin’s been a blessing over the past few years whenever I’ve needed long casts.
In nymph fishing rivers, even 35 feet is considered a long cast by many. Nymph fishing requires such a quick hook set at the slightest tell of the strike indicator that close-in fishing really counts. But some big rivers, the Lower Sacramento in California for example, hold deep trout way out in their centers. And I’ve taken trout in other big rivers such as Oregon’s Lower Deschutes with a distant nymph--sometimes finding those long presentations have really kicked up the action.
If dry-fly fishing at long distance is a solid challenge for most of us, nymph fishing at that range is a steep challenge for about any fly fisher. Some strategy helps. First, deepish (though safe, sensible, and careful) wading is often in order for long-range nymphing. Second, because casting one or two weighted nymphs, perhaps with shot on the leader, and a bulky strike indicator is always tricky at any range, you need practice and patience to work up to long nymph casts--don’t rush it, develop the long and therefore necessarily smooth casts you want over weeks or months on the water. Third, maintaining a natural drift of fly and indicator is tough when they’re far out there in a complex of currents, so learn to pick good casting angles, and to make long mends. And fourth, setting the hook quickly enough and handling a hooked fish are complicated by all that line, so while you want slack line for a natural drift of the indicator and fly, you can’t let too much line get away from you out there or the time it takes to pull it all in and set the hook will lose you fish after fish.
Still, long-cast nymph fishing can work wonders--it’s well worth the effort to develop the skills it requires.
So prefer short casts (stretching them to medium-length casts only when required), and make them the foundation of your trout-river fishing. But keep the long-cast option in your mind, with dry flies, emergers, nymphs, and streamers. It’s a valuable, if challenging, option.
(Sometimes, pushing your fly way out into the river will connect you with fish others are too timid reach.)
Skip Morris is a name fly fishers know well-- he’s published 13 books on fly fishing and fly tying over the past 23 years (including Fly Tying Made Clear and Simple, Western River Hatches, Trout Flies for Rivers, and Morris & Chan on Fly Fishing Trout Lakes) along with over 200 magazine articles on these topics. He’s also played host on a national fly-fishing television show and several DVDs.