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Get a grip - Fly casting grip styles

May 02, 2017 3 min read

Most fly casters are pretty well focused on improving their fly cast, but few of us give much thought to how we actually grip a fly rod.

Over the next few posts we’ll take a look at the three most commonly used grips and their pro’s and con’s - no particular grip is right or wrong, but each does have some influence on how you move a fly rod and deliver a line.

The three grips that fly casters most commonly use are:

  • Thumb on top - Favoured by Joan Wulff
  • The key grip, or V grip - Favoured By Jason Borger
  • Finger on top - Favoured by a bunch of crazy europeans ;-)

The way you grip a fly rod most likely has a lot to do with what you were initially taught, and for most of us that was the classic “thumb on top grip”

Believe it or not the thumb on top style can be the most debilitating and difficult grip to get right. Let me explain:

The bones in the hand and wrist allow you to manipulate objects in many different ways. Each hand contains 27 distinct bones that give the hand an incredible range and precision of motion.

If you put your hand out in front of you with thumb up and then poke it back over your shoulder as if you were making a back cast you’ll notice two things (now that you’re looking)

  1. Your thumb is likely pointing in towards your ear - naturally causing you to hook the rod around behind your head and toward the opposite shoulder. This leads to poor tracking and hooked casts. Not good. (unless you want a curve cast)
  2.  That thumb is most likely about parallel with the floor. If you had a fly rod in your hand you’d be drilling your back loop down into the ground or water behind you. This delivers big open loops on the back cast causing the line to either tick the water, or bust off flies on the rocks and brush behind you. You will never punch a line into a tail wind with that loop, nor will you develop the line speed required to shoot line or execute a nice forward haul.

For these main reasons the thumb on top can cause no end of casting problems - particularly for beginners who tend to wave the rod around in a huge arc forming large open loops - or worse - no loops.

Fly casting Grips thumb on top grip Carl McNeil

Thumb on top - the one we all grew up with.

Fly casting Grips

It’s not all thumbs down for thumb on top.

Thumb on top is a strong grip and particularly powerful on the forward cast. It can also be a very accurate grip if you line up thumb, elbow, and sight line. I’m sure this is one reason why the Joan Wulff school tends to recommend it.

Thumb on top also tends to facilitate that final rod rotation at the very end of the stroke - the “Power Snap” as Joan calls it. 

Thumb On top - Pros and Cons.


  • Strong
  • Facilitates forward rod rotation
  • Accurate - if you watch that tracking


  • Very troublesome on the back cast
  • Open loops, drilling the ground behind
  • Difficult to track well resulting in hooked casts

 Carl McNeil - thumb on top

Ok, I've exaggerated a little here. But if you feel like you're setting up to club someone in a dark alley - you need to get a grip, or at least, a better grip.

Interested in your thoughts and what you find works for you.

 Next time - the Key grip

8 Responses

Tom Jindra
Tom Jindra

May 11, 2017

A thumb-on-top (TOT) grip doesn’t necessarily contribute to poor tracking. In my experience, the determining factor is arm position, aka casting style. If you tend to cast low and off to the side like Lefty Kreh, for example, a TOT grip definitely contributes to the “hooking” problem you describe, and it gets worse as you lengthen your casting stroke. It just might be the most common problem I see with intermediate casters.

The solution, in this case, is to change your style, be more aware of your tracking or change your grip. I favor changing to a V grip.

Lefty, by the way, is impeccable with his tracking, despite using TOT.

For vertical casters such as Joan Wulff, TOT seems to have no ill effect on tracking. TOT might even be the best of all grips for vertical casters. But as you move off the vertical, the tracking issue begins to reassert itself.

Noel King
Noel King

May 05, 2017

that was explained very weii now I know what is causing me a few problems thankyou. Cheers Noel


May 04, 2017

i always encourage my students from the very first class to experiment with all types of grips with all types of casts. Thumb on top is a very commonly used grip for all the reasons you listed — and more.

The stop on the backcast is very positive and controlled. The caster must think about the stop before beginning the stroke, and then bring the thumb to precisely that position.

Thumb on top prevents strain on the index finger (or base of index finger as in the key grip) on longer casts.

Thumb on top is the easiest grip to change casting planes for most people, compared to the other two. Backcast delivery (like Mark Sedotti’s Sayonara Sling) are most efficiently performed with thumb on top. i teach the backcast delivery as a preferred means of dealing with casting-hand wind rather than cross body or tilted rod casting.

Some mends are more easily executed with thumb on top, so using that grip during the cast allows immediate mending w/o altering grip.

One way to reduce hand fatigue while casting is to only clench the cork tightly at the beginning and ending of each stroke, relaxing the grip mid-stroke and during the unrolling pause. Index on top and key grips don’t facilitate this grip relaxation technique as well.

Accomplished casters will use variations of different grips without much conscious thought — but it’s a very important part of effective delivery/presentation.

Peter Morse
Peter Morse

May 04, 2017

I think of it like this, we don’t throw anything with our thumb. Grip it like you want to throw it.


May 03, 2017

Just when I thought I had a good grip with the thumb on top method I had to go and read an article about the v-grip and crooked thumb technique/s. I think I get a much better application of the stop with a bend in that thumb when in a v-grip. I think it comes down to the ability to squeeze my hand quicker when the forearm is rotated inwards and I already have a grip on the cork that’s in a half squeeze because I’ve cocked or bent my thumb. Either that or I’m so busy looking at my grip techniques that I’m not even watching my loops…;)

Michael Lorimer
Michael Lorimer

May 03, 2017

Hi Carl. Thumb also one of commonest joints to suffer osteoarthritis so 60+ brigade may notice pain at base of thumb particularly on back stroke (ironically this might stop them over arcing and improve loops but at cost of pain). Wrist splints can help stabilise this action, wonder whether they could be used as training aid anyway to improve linear action and tight loops?!

Thomas Eckert
Thomas Eckert

May 03, 2017

Ok I am one of the crazy europeans ;-)

Shaun ASh
Shaun ASh

May 02, 2017

Very nice piece an under talked about style issue that really effects substance
A piece every caster should read and consider especially for instructors.

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