Fly Fishing Devon: Fly Casting Instruction on the River Avon

Fly Fishing Instruction & Guiding in South Devon

We fish on several Dartmoor rivers including the Yealm and the Avon. Both are freestone rivers that flow through wooded valleys and the fertile farmland of the South Hams.

This page is an explantion of our approach to instruction and guiding on Dartmoor rivers which can sometimes be a challenge to first-time visitors.

Fly Fishing Instruction on the River Avon

There is a long history of fly fishing instruction and innovation on the Devonshire Avon. I follow in the footsteps of Mr J.B.S. "Jack" Notley who - from the end of the First World War - offered fly casting lessons on the river.

Jack didn't write any books or magazine articles, but I have this leaflet designed to promote his fledgling business venture.

Jack Notley's approach remains just as relevant today as it was when he began fly casting instuction on a professional basis in 1919.

In fact he was years ahead of his time - the leaflet shows that he taught what is known today as   'Single-Handed Spey Casting'

He was well aware of a problem if you only use the overhead cast. On the backcast flies can get caught in trees and bankside vegetation. This can be particularly frustrating on the Avon, and other tree-lined local rivers.

The solution is straightforward: use a roll cast instead of the standard overhead cast.

In Jack's words: "To some it may come as a surprise to learn that with a high bank or bushes 10 ft. behind it is a simple matter to cast 30 ft. or so straight out or to either side; this is done by means of the switch cast [ now called the roll cast ] , which can be learnt in one or, at the most, two lessons."

In 1914 Arthur Bradley included a chapter (pages 216-244) on the Devonshire Avon in his book   "Clear waters; trouting days and trouting ways ..." . Bradley's writing is in the style of his times that may grate with modern readers. But it is worth persevering because he gives a first-hand account of the challenges that are still faced by anglers fishing in the wooded valleys along the Avon and Yealm.

Jack Notley was an innovator ahead of his time. He realised that Spey casts - then used by salmon fishers wielding long double-handed rods - could be used with a single-handed trout rod to cope with the bankside conditions described by Bradley.

We teach a combination of Spey and Skagit casting styles to cope with encroaching vegetation on Dartmoor rivers. The essence of   our approach  is to combine the concept of the 'waterborne anchor' from Skagit with the 180 degree principle from Spey casting

It's worth heeding Jack Notley's words as you continue browsing this page !

"One cannot learn to (roll) cast correctly by reading how it should be done, it is very necessary to have it demonstrated and explained by the waterside. ... neither can anyone learn to fish unless one has tuition under natural conditions."

I would add that these YouTube videos don't necessarily fill the void left by the printed word ! But I hope they convey the essence and versatility of the roll cast.

Learning the Basic Roll Cast

As casting instructors we advise anglers to align their 'D' loop and anchor point with the target. This is known as the straight line principle: the anchor and 'D' loop should lie along a straight line. The next video shows the basic roll cast.

Limitation of the Basic Roll Cast

Roll casting has a serious drawback.You can’t change direction and - without modification - you would simply keep placing the flies back in the same spot. Jack Notley would have been aware of this, and taught anglers Spey casts to change the direction of their cast.

Here is one of several ways to change the direction of a roll cast.

Learning to Change the Direction of a Roll Cast

Once the basic roll cast has been mastered the next step is to introduce a way of making a large change of direction. For example the Double Spey cast is a useful technique when fishing down-and-across for brown trout and sea trout

The next video shows how this involves swinging the rod to and fro across the body to reposition the anchor to be in line with the target.

How to Increase the Accuracy of a Roll Cast

This final video shows how very small Double Spey movements are used to make adjustments to align the anchor with the target. Think of this as a 'micro Double Spey cast'. This subtle manouevre helps to prevent a 'tracking' error - a possible reason for inaccurate roll cast presentations

This version of the video also includes an error that I made spontaneously. The Double Spey movements I made did not reposition the anchor. The D loop was moved but I left the anchor at the position it had reached at the end of the downstream drift. Casting guru Simon Gawesworth terms this the "Bloody L" - the D loop and anchor lying on the water in an " L" shape.

This resulted in the line falling as a curve on the water which was the result of my tracking error. I should have checked the position of the anchor on the water before making the forward stroke.

What can you learn from my mistake in that video ?

Firstly we all make casting mistakes. Don't beat yourself up about it !

My mistake shows how easy it is to misjudge the amount of angular change you are forcing on the fly line. The problems mount as the weight or air resitance of your fly and length of your anchor increase.

J.B.S. "Jack" Notley's (1893-1988): A lifetime's experience of fly fishing

Jack in later years

When he was 87 years old, Jack wrote that 1899 was: "A memorable year for me as I caught my first fish, it was about 5 inches long and I had my photo taken holding it in my hand, I was sitting on top of one of the pillars of Diptford Schoolmaster's house."

Jack Notley fished the River Avon on and off over 80 years. He began teaching fishing and fly casting on a professional basis in 1919.

He knew John James Hardy personally and through him he "got more pupils than I could deal with and had to turn some down".

Two of his first clients were Their Royal Highnesses Prince and Princess Arthur of Connaught. The Prince was a grandson of Queen Victoria. He certainly got off to a flying start !

He was a widely respected instructor over the next 50 years, and revered by this member of the Avon Fishing Association.

Towards the end of his life he wrote these words: the Writer is very grateful to this lovely river for some of the happiest days of his life, especially when he and his father used to fish together in the pre 1914 days.

As well as stressing the importance of learning to roll (switch) cast, Mr Notley showed anglers how to use surface tension to load the rod, how to cope with wind, as well as the importance of balancing rod and line. Jack knew how to help his client's overcome casting faults such as the 'broken wrist' and using too much force instead of allowing the rod to cast the line.

And he did this without the benefits we have today of YouTube videos, social media, and books by casting gurus. Jack must have mostly relied on his own observations, practice and experience.

This rest of this page contains the text from a leaflet outlining Mr Notley's approach to teaching fly fishing and casting on the Devonshire Avon.

I have highlightd particularly relevant parts of the leaflet below

Jack wrote: "FISHING as a Sport is appreciated by many, but there are many more who would gladly avail themselves of the chance of participating in it, did they but realize that facilities are available whereby they may receive thorough tuition and sound advice with an average chance of sport on actual fishing preserves, and so be relieved of the monotony which obtains when attempting to learn under less favourable conditions.

There are Schools for Casting, but Casting is not Fishing, nevertheless the angler who can competently handle his rod and tackle and place his fly or lure wherever he desires, not only when conditions are propitious, but also when they are unfavourable, will have a reasonable chance of success.

It is rather surprising, but nevertheless true, that whereas the business man studies for his special line of business and probably spends years learning and perfecting the intricacies thereof, yet the would-be angler buys an outfit to suit his pocket, goes down to the waterside and "worries along" somehow, when by a small judicial outlay he or she, as the case may be, can learn to handle a rod and line under natural conditions on well stocked rivers. And as regards choice of Tackle, he or she can take down to the riverside rods of various lengths, weights and balances and thoroughly try them out so that a suitable one may be selected, for no more can a fisherman cast well with a rod unsuited to him than can a sportsman shoot well with a gun that does not fit.

A fly may be cast on a lawn, but the art of placing a fly on the water in the most tempting manner, overcoming obstacles, and luring a fish to its undoing, can only be learnt under natural conditions.

A man may purchase a set of Golf Clubs and learn a perfect swing on his own lawn, but that will not make him a good Golfer; he can only become proficient by playing Golf on a Golf course, where he learns how to judge length, overcome obstacles, shorten his grip or alter his stance. So with the Angler; in order to become proficient he must learn under natural conditions, where obstacles are met with in the shape of bushes. and trees, and where the wind is generally blowing the wrong way.

Why is it that one angler fishing a pool fails to rise a fish and another coming along behind him hooks one in the same pool? It is because the latter has the knack of placing his fly or lure in such a way that it is irresistible to the fish. There is far more in fishing than the majority of anglers realize, and in order to be really successful it is necessary to be able to handle with ease a fairly long line, and to place your lure where you wish, whether the elements be in opposition to you and bushes abound on all sides or no.

To some it may come as a surprise to learn that with a high bank or bushes 10 ft. behind it is a simple matter to cast 30 ft. or so straight out or to either side; this is done by means of the switch cast [ now called the roll cat ] , which can be learnt in one or, at the most, two lessons.

One of the reasons that anglers fail to catch trout when conditions are favourable is because they cannot handle their rod and line as they should do, for it is under the bushes that the fish lie, sucking in the tasty tit-bits that drop from their leaves and branches, and also gaining shelter therefrom: these are the easiest trout to catch, provided that you can get your fly over them, as they are not disturbed as much as are their fellows, lying in open stretches of water, which water, being free from obstruction, is constantly flogged.

After over 70 years of fishing and over 50 years of tuition in both casting and fishing, numerous opportunities have occurred of observing where the average angler fails. The chief reason is failure to handle the rod correctly. As in shooting, it is very rarely the gun or cartridge that is at fault, it is the man behind the gun; and so in fishing under average conditions, it is rarely the rod or fly that causes empty creels, but the person behind the rod.

If an angler can cast a fairly long line accurately, and cast under bushes, fish should generally be caught; the better the day, the heavier the creel. The usual tendencies of the average fisherman are to use quite an appreciable amount of effort in casting the fly, making use of the whole rod and not the top only when making the "quickness" or " flip" in both back and forward casts, and also -leaning forward and stretching out the arm. Casting should be effortless, and should cause no strain or ache, and it will not do so if the correct action and timing are made.

The actual casting is done with the right forearm and shoulder (if right-handed and using a single-handed fly rod), and the cast should be made slightly across the body, In the back cast the right forearm and shoulder are drawn back and the body allowed to swing to the right. It is all very simple and easy, and there is practically no wrist work at all, but so many anglers make casting look like hard work.

One cannot learn to cast correctly by reading how it should be done, it is very necessary to have it demonstrated and explained by the waterside. Casting cannot be learnt on a lawn as there is no" pull" on the fly when making the back cast, neither can anyone learn to fish unless one has tuition under natural conditions.This has been proved over and over again by the number of pupils the writer has had, who have previously received tuition in casting and fishing on some pond or similar water, and who had no idea of how to approach a rising fish or how to cast under bushes. This latter can only be learnt successfully by having tuition where there are bushes.

What a pleasure an angler would derive if able to cast a straight line against a moderate breeze; it can be done, and the effort required is negligible, just the correct action and timing; but how many can do so?

Clients can be taught with their own rods, but it is advisable that beginners do not purchase an outfit before coming down for lessons, as a large supply of rods and tackle is kept in stock, and the pupil can "tryout" on the river whatever he fancies, and so choose exactly what suits him best. It is impossible to get the best out of a rod unless the line fits it correctly, and it is surprising the number of anglers one meets who use lines of a gauge and weight that are quite unsuited to their rods. It is a mistaken idea that in order to cast a fly 40 ft. to 50 ft. any strength is required; no effort is necessary provided rod and line are suited to one another, and the cast is "timed" correctly.

A beginner owes it to himself to have tuition and so prevent any chance of getting a bad start, for it is as easy to commence correctly as incorrectly, yet how many get the opportunity? 'Sound beginnings spell ultimate success'. Bad habits are as easily acquired in fishing as in other sports, and it is necessary for these to be corrected. Anglers of some experience may possibly find difficulty in casting under overhanging branches or against the wind, one or two lessons on the rivers here where every kind of obstacle can be found, though there is plenty of "open water" too, should quickly put them right.Arrangements can be made if required, whereby clients may be taught on their home waters. 

Within a few miles of the School of Casting is one of the finest Trout streams in the West Country. Little known and little fished, a grand Fly river and no short risers. I have fished it over 40 years and much prefer it to any of the numerous rivers I have fished including the Kennett and Lambourn.

Ticket and Licences always available on 12 miles of water.

RODS. I am not at all enamoured with the modern Fly rod, which, in my humble opinion, is too stiff and quickactioned, and the rings are much too small. A Fly rod with a stiff or quick-actioned top prevents one from placing the fly accurately under. bushes, also when striking or playing a heavy fish the top, being stiff, does not "give" enough, and so if using light tackle a breakage may occur.As regards rings, they should be large, but light in weight, so that line may be "shot" easily in wet squally weather.

A first class rod builder with over 40 years of experience behind him is now building rods for me, so that I can offer first quality well finished split cane Fly rods of different lengths with the best possible action for fishing purposes, and with light weight rings, and real Agate butt and end rings.

These rods are by no means "whippy", they are exact copies of my own rods, most of which I have had in constant use for over 30 years; they have a stiffish butt and middle, but there is plenty of action in the tops. This allows one to lift a long line from the water in the back cast, and easily drive it forward in the forward cast, even against the wind, but at the same time the easy action in the top prevents breakages when striking or playing a heavy fish.

All classes of Fly rods in stock have this action and large rings, and are faithful copies of my own rods. 

SILKWORM GUT. This comes direct from one of the best firms in Murcia, Spain, and only Champion quality is stocked. Salmon, Sea Trout and Trout Casts, also Gut Points.

FLIES. All Duns are tied with Natural undyed hackles.
Only the best quality hackles and hooks are used; no dyed hackles except for Salmon and Sea Trout flies. All dry flies have stiff glossy hackles.

As flies are tied on the premises any special pattern can be made up at very short notice.

Fly dressing materials-Hooks, Silks, Tinsels, Natural Dun Hackles, etc., always in stock.

LINES. Kingfisher Double tapered Silk Fly Lines in all sizes. Also Silk backing.

REELS. Beaudex, Pridex, etc. in all sizes