An essential technique for wild fall trout, the bow-and-arrow cast is perfect for working a small, overgrown stream.
In the spring, I wrote a column about hunting for tiny wild brook trout in streams in Southern New England (Big Rewards In Small Places, Issue #10, 2020), and how rewarding it is to discover wild trout—some exceeding 10-inches—in places you may not expect to even find minnows. Pursuing gorgeous wild brookies in their specialized ecological niche—small brooks—can be fast-paced, challenging, and very rewarding.
As I mentioned in that article, the most difficult part of fishing these small, wild trout streams is first finding viable populations of fish to target, and then simply getting a fly in the water without getting hung up in the bushes or trees. Fly selection and gear are much less important than when fishing pressured, trophy-sized trout. Instead, once you find the fish, the challenge becomes just getting the fly in front of them. It can be truly maddening and infuriating when you get a fly caught in a tree, are forced to break it off, and then retie, only to immediately get the fly caught in yet another tree on the very next cast. It also can get expensive quickly, losing fly after fly, and it’s not good for the environment leaving hanging bits of tippet and flies in the foliage.
Therefore, in the streams I frequent, I very rarely make a traditional over-head or side-arm fly cast. Instead, my fishing is comprised of about 30% short roll casts, and 60% some form of bow and arrow cast. The bow and arrow cast is a simple technique that can work on any size body of water (it even works with spinning tackle, though I won’t discuss that here.)
The cast mechanics are simple, but it is an essential tool for any serious fly angler. First, you only let out as much line as you can pull back with your arm and still get some small amount of bend in your rod. How much depends on how large the fly is and how delicately you want it to land; for me, it’s usually something between 6 and 12 feet. Grasping the fly hook carefully between your fingers, you pull back creating tension in the tip and body of the rod. You aim your fly at the spot you want to fish, and let it go; the bend in the rod launches the fly like an arrow from a bow, hence the name. In theory this technique allows you to reach distances with small flies without getting caught in trees or bushes. You can also perform the technique on your knees, while sitting, and I sometimes use the bow and arrow cast laying prone; I only do this if absolutely necessary to remain stealthy and not spook the fish.
How far you cast with the bow and arrow depends on the length of your rod, the length of your arms, and your skill level. The shorter the rod and larger the fly, the less effective the technique becomes. However, on small streams, having a short rod can be indispensable in not getting hung up in bushes, so it is a tradeoff you have to determine for yourself. I prefer a rod between 6 and 7 feet for this type of fishing, and a 7-foot rod is typically more than enough for me to reach most pockets with a bow and arrow cast. Yet, a 9-foot rod is far better at reaching greater distances, and I have seen very talented anglers use bow and arrow casts to send a fly 25 feet, holding small bundles of folded line in their hand.
Finally, when bow and arrow casting, I suggest trying to place your fly in the closest proximity to where you believe the fish is holding. Since you have so little line to work with, and are so close to the water and the fish, there are often limited opportunities to mend line and adjust a drift. You have to be ultra-precise, and therefore I suggest practicing in your yard before heading to the water. Further, when getting used to the technique, consider using aerodynamic flies with a little bit of weight, as this helps in learning the physics of the cast. Flies like a bead-head prince or very small (size 12 or smaller) cone-head wooly bugger would be a good place to start; both of which are dynamite brookie flies. The technique works fine with dries, but there is more nuance to get used to depending on the size and composition of the fly.
I want to close with a couple words of caution after such a hot and dry summer. The fall is brook trout spawning season, and we must draw a line between what is best for these tiny fisheries and our desire to catch fish. For example, this time of year I try to stay out of the water completely (so as to not walk on their eggs.) Further, in one miniscule stream I fish, I limit how many days I fish (maximum two per week) and how many fish I catch before going home (a dozen, despite being strictly catch and release.) I feel my impact is then low, and that if I make these small compromises now, I will have a healthy population long into the future.