Renowned fly-caster shares tricks of trade

Published October 2, 2005

Taught to fly-fish by his uncle, Del Dubreuil, as a youngster in Connecticut, Dan Lagace has been passing on the gift for almost 20 years. He is widely recognized as one of the region's most accomplished and cerebral fly-casting coaches - and even highly skilled casters seek out his tutelage.

Few in the Tampa Bay area can match Lagace's teaching skills, or the time he has invested in analyzing and developing effective teaching techniques. His ability to break the art of fly-casting into simple components, and his use of metaphors everybody understands, have led to regular appearances as an instructor at regional and national fly-fishing conclaves and to articles in major fly-fishing magazines.

When I was learning how to cast a fly-rod, he spent an afternoon making me dip a paint brush in a bucket then flick the water off the brush onto a wall, an exercise that closely mimics the basic back-and-forth movement of the fly-cast, keeping the brush in a straight line without breaking my wrist. It allowed me to experience the feel of a correct fly-cast without the distraction of a 9-foot fly-rod in my hand.

Even more impressive, he can teach an already proficient caster how to cast with either hand. Not a bad skill to have, he said, "when you consider that half the time the wind is going to be blowing from the wrong direction, the angler is going to be standing on the wrong side of the river, or the fish is going to be on the wrong side of the boat."

The most common fly-casting mistakes by newcomers, Lagace says, are not keeping the rod tip straight, or level, throughout the cast, and breaking the wrist. Keeping the wrist rigid is often difficult for anglers more accustomed to spin fishing, since they are taught just the opposite.

Another key to successful fly-casting is always lead the cast with the elbow instead of the hand. Leading with the hand, he says, results in the angler pushing the rod instead of pulling the fly-line.

Failing to come to a "good, positive stop" on the back cast is another mistake Lagace frequently sees. In fact, because the back cast in fly-fishing is more important the forward cast, he recommends beginners watch their back cast to make sure they are seeing the signature tight loop in the fly-line, which tells them when to begin the forward cast. With more experience, they will feel the rod loading and won't need to do this, at least on short casts. But, he notes, tournament distance-casters (those who routinely cast 100 feet or more of fly-line) almost always watch their back cast because they are carrying so much line in the air they can't feel the rod load as well and must watch for the curve of the line behind them to know when to begin the forward cast.

Saltwater fly-fishing, which requires anglers to use heavier rods and flies and deal with capricious winds, requires an additional must-have skill - the double haul. This technique uses the noncasting hand to accelerate the speed of the fly-line and cut through wind.

While most fish can be caught with little more than a 45-foot cast, Lagace believes saltwater fly-rodders should aim to cast at least 75 feet proficiently.

"I teach people to cast far and well, because in saltwater you're only going to have perfect fly-fishing conditions about 10 percent of the time," he says. "If you can only cast 40 feet on a calm day, you're only going to be able to cast about 20 feet on a windy day."

Good fly-casting takes practice, but Lagace says practicing and fishing is not the best combination. He recommends anglers find a grassy field and cast, focusing on one aspect they want to improve rather than trying to fix everything and winding up just reinforcing bad habits.

"It's really, really important to get with somebody who knows how to cast and can watch you cast and tell you what they're seeing," he says. "Even the best casters in the world get help from time to time because we all tend to get lazy or fall into bad habits."

COMING UP: Inaugural Fly Fishing Challenge, Oct.29, sponsored by the Mangrove Coast Fly Fishers and the CCA-Sarasota Chapter, at Ken Thompson Park in Sarasota. $50 entry fee. Call Rick Grassett at (941) 923-7799. ... Annual Big Gun Shootout casting competition, Nov.20, sponsored by the Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club, at Picnic Island Park in Tampa. Call (727) 866-8682.

--Nanette Holland is a member of the Tampa Bay Fly Fishing Club.