Practical and Useful

Practical and Useful

off-hand casting

  • By: Dave Hughes
  • Photography by: David Hughes

Click image for slideshow.

I learned to cast left-handed, but not because I injured my right shoulder, suffering with it for three years until rotator-cuff surgery finally freed me to cast right-handed again. No, that injury came many years later. I learned to cast with my left hand because the right bank of my home river, the Deschutes, has a road alongside it, and it gets heavily pestered by right-handed casters working upstream. The left bank, looking downstream as boaters do, has no road, and is inconvenient to fish right-handed. As a consequence it’s lightly fished.

My favorite way to fish this broad and brawling river is to insert myself along that left bank, wade upstream against its pushy current and fish the water right next to shore with short casts, most often with a dry fly or a dry-and-dropper rig. The more efficiently I can tuck casts tight against bankside boulders and bunchgrass clumps, the more likely I am to draw up the kinds of trout that make their living killing salmonflies, Golden Stones and big fall caddis. That abandoned left bank is best fished left-handed.

If you take the road out of the equation, the same thing can be said for the left bank of the Madison River, the Colorado, Penns Creek and quite likely your own home stream, wherever it might be. One bank will be fished much less than the other, and it’s almost always the bank that is best fished with left-handed casts.

I agree this sort of bank fishing can be done with off-shoulder casts. After enough years practicing, it can be done fairly well. But it’s difficult to tip the rod over into a sidearm cast that lays a line loop parallel to the water and just a foot or two above it, to shoot a dry fly back beneath sweeping alder and willow limbs, into the kinds of places where lunkers have learned they’re safe. Such lies are almost impossible to fish off-shoulder, but if you’ve practiced enough, they’re easy to fish with your off-hand. It’s also easy to make the case that the same amount of time it would take to become proficient casting off-shoulder would be far better spent practicing casting with your off-hand.

Off-handed casting has a way of opening opportunities. I find it at least as useful on small streams as I do on the big one where I learned to do it. It’s a law of nature that about half the holding lies on any brushed-in bit of water are best approached from one side rather than the other. If you’re able to switch your rod from hand to hand, you’ll be able to fish each small-stream holding lie according to its kind. I’m not saying you’ll be able to do this right away, or even in the first season. I will, however, promise you that small streams are the best place to hone your off-handed casting skills. Casts are short, and those ever-critical repetitions are constant. No other type of fishing will instill kinetic memory into your off-side hand and arm, eye and brain, more quickly than prowling small streams, casting from the side each situation requests.

Once you get your non-dominant hand operating on automatic at short range, then you simply need to employ it in a wider range of situations, over time, during which you’ll slowly learn to extend your grace. Never try to force your off-hand—or your on-hand for that matter—to cast farther. Instead just keep casting, and by nature you’ll extend the distance that you can cast gracefully. Then you’re fishing, rather than just casting.

An on-shoulder wind is another good reason to learn to cast off-handed. On many big Western rivers, wind is nearly an afternoon constant. A wind from the wrong direction can drive your cast right into your face. Being able to cast with either hand allows you to put the wind in your favor, no matter which way it blows.

The ability to switch-hit is also beneficial when you bang banks with nymphs or streamers from a moving boat. Your guide will cross the river constantly, wherever the bank looks better on the other side, which will be at just about every bend. If you can change casting hands, and thereby avoid lobbing your big weighted weapon over his head, he’ll not only be happy, he’ll be quite surprised. If a target shows up mid-river—and you’ve practiced enough—it’s eventually easy to switch hands while a cast unfolds in mid-air.

I’ve done this so often that it’s become sort of casual to switch hands with a cast in the air . . . in at least one case, far too much so. I fished the Bighorn River with the great Bob Krumm at the oars, casting a nymph right-handed while Bob kept the boat just the right distance off the left bank. A promising mid-stream boulder showed up in range on the opposite side of the boat. While my right-handed backcast unfolded, I tossed my rod from right hand to left, rather than handing it off, so I could hit that boulder before it got behind me. The right-hand toss was on target, but my left hand made an unforced error. The rod simply flew on by it and landed in the water, just off the port bow of Bob’s boat.

I reached down and plucked the rod out of the Bighorn before it had a chance to sink, rolled the line back into the air with my off-hand, tossed it into a backcast and hit that boulder as if nothing had gone wrong.

Bob said, “What happened up there?” I had no logical answer, so said nothing. Don’t do that, either-handed.

Off-handed casting is obviously useful, but it can also be very beneficial when you just want to impress your friends, or even strangers. Jim Schollmeyer once fished left-handed down one bank of the Firehole River, with casts designed to install slack line for drag-free dryfly drifts. Such casts can look awkward with either hand, but they can also work wonders on trout. A couple of kibitzers, one of them an apparent expert, sat in the grass, watching Jim fish. A breeze accidentally delivered the wizard’s comments to Jim mid-stream. “That guy sure can’t cast,” he told his companion.

Jim finished the bit of far bank water, crossed and turned to work his way back upstream, switching back to his dominant right hand and making direct casts that needed no trickery. After a few minutes he heard the other fellow say to the expert, “He’s casting pretty damn well now.” There was no answer.

I know two ways to learn to cast with your off-hand. The first is the long and patient way that I did it: Just begin at some point and spend time doing it wherever the situation calls for it. I can promise that you’ll catch as many frustrations as fish in the early stages. But I can also promise that life will open out sooner than you think, and the advantages will present themselves more often than you expect. It might take some time to extend your grace beyond 50 and 60 feet. To this day I can’t cast as far left-handed as I can right. In truth, I still get about twice as many tangles, left-handed, when casting complex two-nymph rigs with split-shot and an indicator on the leader. It’s a cost of doing business. Off-handed casting has provided me a lot more trout than it will ever cost me because of an occasional tangle.

The second way to learn off-handed casting is one I learned from entomologist and angling author Rick Hafele, who is left-handed. We were preparing for a trip to Chile. We had a half-dozen rods strung and were casting them in a park, making sure we had all the right lines and that all of our outfits functioned properly. At the end, while we BS’d about the great fishing we were about to have, Rick casually picked up a rod in each hand and idly began casting both.

He’d never fished right-handed to any extent in his past. He was suddenly casting both of those rods with exactly the same motion, getting the same loop, laying line out not long, but as gracefully with one hand as the other. We were both stunned by the swiftness with which his right hand followed the directions of his dominant left. After a few minutes Rick set down the rod in his left hand, and his right went on casting exactly as if it knew what it was doing. It’s a great way to get a jump-start on learning to cast off-handed: String two similar rods, go out on the lawn, let your strong arm teach your weak one just what to do. It doesn’t seem fair, after all I went through over so many years, but it works.

I will warn you that the most difficult part of off-handed fishing is not the casting, but training your dominant casting hand to do what the line hand has spent a fishing lifetime learning. It took a couple of years longer to teach my right hand to retrieve, control line and land fish than it did to teach my left hand to cast. The fumbling can become comical at times, but if you force that hand to stick to its new task, it will master it. You might need to scold it.

And I just discovered a painful new reason to learn to cast with either hand before disaster happens. While hooking my driftboat trailer to the pickup, about a month ago as I write this, the thing attacked me, breaking my right collarbone. It’s healing up nicely now; the doc says I might be able to start casting a fly in about six more weeks.

He doesn’t know I can cast almost as well with my left hand as I can with my right. I’ll take his advice and stay off streams, but I know some ponds that are full of trout.

Hughes’ classic underground book, An Angler’s Astoria, has just been re-published in hardbound by Stackpole Books, with new material added. See

Photographs by the author