Cascading off Mount Wellington in the Hobart hinterland, my creek is about as overgrown as you’d want a fishing spot to be. There’s lots of scrambling over and under fallen trees, an arching canopy of foliage that hides the sky, and moss growing on anything that’s been there more than three weeks. Like many tiny creeks around the world, it has a population of brown trout that never get much bigger than your hand, but they take on the myriad colours of their environment, making each one a tiny precious object.
It’s no place for a 9-foot 5-weight. It’s pure ‘twigwater’. And bow and arrow casting accounts for 90% of deliveries.
I guess it’s understandable that some folk might see bow and arrow as a lesser form of fly fishing — I mean, you just pull on the fly and ping it out don’t you…? Well, yes. And no.
As I try to explain to my guests on the creek, a normal overhead cast isn’t always the best cast to use. You need to have a whole quiver of casts at your disposal when fishing varied situations. This is just one more… that happens to be entirely different.
Bow and arrow casting can be quite simple, or as complex as any cast. The situations where it’s required are obvious when you get into somewhere like my creek. You need to present at incredibly close range with great accuracy, avoid obstacles overhead, and avoid the rod being seen against the sky or background trees. You need to cast under foliage and under logs crossing the stream, and in places where there is just no room for a backcast. There is no normal cast that will work in there.
When I’m helping beginners to cast I often get them to hold the rod at a stationary angle forward, while I pull the line tight behind them, pre-loading the rod, before letting go and demonstrating that the rod does the catapulting, not your arm. In a normal overhead cast your arm is just doing the loading before that moment of release.
So a bow and arrow cast is really no different, it just involves less waving around. It’s just the very last part of a normal cast, set up manually and held in position until release.
And like a normal cast, the rod-tip path determines loop shape and size; the amount of load determines the distance and line speed. By adjusting the shape of the curve in the rod you can affect the way the line lays out — open curve for open loop and soft landing, tight curve for tight loop and better speed.
Once you’ve accepted that this bow and arrow caper might work, you start to see the advantages. You can keep a really low profile, as the rod never has to be lifted above head-height. There’s virtually no movement, so spooky fish at close range in clear water have less chance of seeing you. It’s more accurate at close ranges of less than 5 metres. You can change the plane of the loop to either side to avoid obstacles or get under overhanging trees. The fly can be delivered into very tight spaces and through tunnels in the foliage and you don’t even need a vertical alleyway for the line to travel back and forth or for the rod to swing down through as in a normal cast.
The disadvantages are that range is limited and that you can’t use long leaders, although they’re not usually required in the locations you’d be doing it anyway.
Most people think of the bow and arrow in its simplest form, which involves pulling about a rod-length of line and leader out of the tip, holding the bend of the hook, pulling it back to form a load in the rod (pointing the rod grip at the fish, aiming the taut line to a point a foot or two above the target and making sure the rod tip won’t hit the ground or water on release) and letting it go, trying not to hook yourself in the finger. It’s a valid method, but many fishers don’t venture beyond that one technique. With the limitations it imposes, it’s unsurprising that many just never bother doing it much.
The length of line from the rod tip to your hand is pretty much determined by rod length and arm reach. Since you can’t manoeuvre a long rod in tight spaces, let’s say it’s a 7-footer, plus 3 feet of arm reach — total 10 feet from the rod tip, most of which is leader.
But wait, there’s more to it!
What if we now pinch the end of the flyline, along with the leader held in a loose loop or two with the fly dangling just below the hand? We now have 10 feet of flyline plus our leader of, say, 7-foot — total reach from rod tip is now 17 feet. It's almost double. Get out your twig rod and try it in the hallway or on the lawn.
Now try taking it further. Hold the flyline a few feet up from the leader knot. Some of that leader can be laid on the ground if there are smooth river rocks below (unlikely in your hallway but use your imagination). We’re now out to 20 feet.
Now that you’ve got 20 feet of line out on the pool, try this… Keep your rod low and strip off another 10–15 feet of line from the reel. Keeping the rod horizontal, slide it back until you can reach the rod tip and pull out the shooting line as you move the rod forward again (without pulling back in any line already on the water). Lock off the line against the cork handle with your grip hand.
With the line you’d already cast still laid out straight in front of you on the water (or carpet), grip the flyline where you can load the rod into a nice wide, deep bend and hold that line hand above and behind your head. You’ve just formed a perfect D-loop ready for a roll cast. Let it fly…
Keep trying further and further until your line just won’t turn over. Pretty far huh? One of my creek guests claimed he couldn’t ever roll-cast that far the normal way!
This technique brings me nicely to rod length. To reach the tip without changing grip-hand position, I think a rod of about one foot longer than your height is ideal. That way you can move the rod back and reach forward to the tip, using your fingers like a pulley to retrieve the line after a cast. This is essential if you get a refusal or miss the spot, as you don’t have to lift the rod up high to dangle the fly and line within your reach. These creek fish are small but not stupid. They’ll see the rod movement and spook like the best 10-pounder.
I’ve been playing with furled leaders for this stuff too, which turn over nicely at short range. I’m using a 50" ‘Shorty’ Cutthroat leader for a 4/6-weight line, and about 2–3 feet of 5-pound tippet. Don’t fish too light — you will hook trees and you’ll lose flies if fishing lighter.
Oh, and I use a 5-weight line on my fibreglass 6-foot 3-weight. It’s not like I’ll be casting far, and on the few occasions the stream opens up enough for an overhead cast, it’ll be super-short and the extra weight loads better in close. Try out that in the hallway too. See, all you need is a short rod and you can use your usual 5-weight line and reel.
Finally, don’t just think ‘twigwater’ for bow and arrow techniques. What about under the willows on a big lowland stream for willow-grubbers? Wading the edges of a deep lake with trees against your back and big rainbows cruising the drop-off just feet from shore? In bass-country for getting in amongst the snags? Learn it and uses will present themselves more often.
‘Never too narrow for bow and arrow’ is a mantra that can relate to your mindset as much as to your fishing situation.