What Is Shadow Casting in Fly Fishing? Is Shadow Casting Real?

The majestic “shadow cast” made a massive impact on audiences during the theatrical run of A River Runs Through It. The fly fishing industry grew 60 percent in1992, the year of the film’s release. So, what exactly is a shadow cast, and can you learn to do it?

Shadow casting in fly fishing is a specialty cast created for the film adaptation of Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It. The primary purpose of the cast is artistic rather than practical, as the creators wanted a cast that captured the essence of Brad Pitt’s character on screen.

Admittedly, this isn’t my typical article. I prefer to share my knowledge, provide tips, and educate on all things fly fishing. However, the movie and “cast” is iconic, so I figured I’d carve out a little corner of my blog to pay homage to it. Enjoy!

Man fishing in river looks like shadow casting.

Who Invented the Shadow Cast?

The shadow cast already had a place in readers’ imaginations for over a decade after the release of Norman Maclean’s novella in 1976. However, it took a team of dedicated fly fishers to manifest this masterful cast physically for the film. So, who are the artists behind the shadow cast?

Multiple fly fishers invented the shadow cast. John Dietsch, the fly fishing supervisor for “A River Runs Through It,” began developing the cast early in production. Local fly fishers from Montana, including John Bailey, contributed as well. In addition, Jason Borger provided further input.

The development of the shadow cast begins with John Dietsch, the fly fishing supervisor of “A River Runs Through It.” Dietsch has an extensive resume, including work on the hit Netflix series “Ozark.” Having a unique background in film and fly fishing, Dietsch understood the requirements of this remarkable cast.

Challenges Dietsch faced

Dietsch had plenty of obstacles to overcome. For instance, he was a part of a film crew consisting of about one-hundred-fifty people. Furthermore, the creative team was not very familiar with fly fishing in the first place. So when Dietsch discovered the first storyboard sketches included tackle boxes and spinning rods, he knew there was plenty of work to do.

Part of Dietsch’s plan was recruiting as many local experts as possible. One of the more renowned contributors was John Bailey, the successor of Dan Bailey Fly Fishing. Bailey taught Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer how to fly fish for the film, and he played a significant role in the editing process.

Jason Borger’s involvement in the film came later when he doubled for Brad Pitt. Jason and his father, Gary Borger, discussed the shadow cast at length before shooting. When they conferred with Dietsch, the three realized that their vision of the cast was practically synonymous.

Does Brad Pitt Perform the Shadow Cast in A River Runs Through It?

Considering how complex the shadow cast is, it seems pretty unbelievable that a movie star with beginner’s training could pull that off. In truth, some of Pitt’s fly fishing is in the film, but the shadow cast isn’t his work.

Brad Pitt does not perform the shadow cast in “A River Runs Through It.” Still, Brad Pitt and Craig Sheffer indeed received fly fishing training for the shoot. However, Pitt’s stunt double, Jason Borger, performed the more complicated casts, including the shadow cast he helped develop.

Much of the fly fishing in “A River Runs Through It” was manufactured for the film. In other words, the fishing was choreographed, not spontaneous. There are many examples of this throughout the film. However, the most famous example is in the “Big Swim.” In this scene, John Dietsch simultaneously doubled for Brad Pitt while controlling the prop fish that Pitt’s character was chasing.

Like much movie magic, some fly fishing in the film is Pitt’s, and some are his doubles’. However, these clips were mixed in editing, therefore producing the scenes as you know them today.

Brad Pitt did learn some fly fishing for the film, though. However, according to John Bailey, Pitt and Shaffer struggled for some time. Eventually, the two actors made a breakthrough when they stopped trying to mimic Bailey’s fly fishing and focused on fishing as their respective characters would. Still, it wouldn’t be fair to either actor to expect them to reach professional ability in such a short time.

Luckily, Jason Borger, one of Pitt’s doubles, was able to comprehend the cast that John Dietsch was looking for and replicate it for the camera. You can learn more about this experience in this YouTube video from Fly Culture Magazine:

Are a Shadow Cast and a False Cast the Same?

Have you heard other fly fishers say that a shadow cast and false cast are the same? In turn, if you wanted to learn a shadow cast from a professional, would you ask to learn a false cast instead? The truth of the matter lies somewhere in between. 

A shadow cast and a false cast are not the same. Both casts serve similar purposes, and neither ever hit the water. However, a shadow cast has a fancier execution than an average false cast. Furthermore, while helpful at times, you should limit your false casts to avoid scaring fish.

So, what’s a false cast? Essentially, it’s a regular fly fishing cast that never touches the water. This cast helps fly fishers in various ways. For instance, false casting is an excellent diagnostic tool to see where your casting can improve. 

Plus, you can use it on the water when you need to dry off your fly. In turn, you can get a couple more casts in without applying more floatant. Furthermore, you can change your fly’s direction and test your distance with a false cast.

However, the shadow cast isn’t your average false cast. From a storytelling perspective, the shadow cast portrays Pitt’s character’s artistic ascendancy. Therefore, it needed to look much flashier than the usual false cast. 

That’s why Dietsch and his team developed a cast drawing from multiple techniques to create something truly unique. Therefore, stating that a shadow cast is the same as a false cast would discredit various artists’ contributions and hard work.

How Do I Perform a Shadow Cast?

Now that you know what a shadow cast is, you’re probably excited to learn how to do it yourself. Remember, this isn’t very practical, but here’s an overview of the mechanics behind the cast.

To perform a shadow cast, you need to adhere to the following steps:

  1. Ready. Ready your cast, as you would a regular fly fishing cast. You can learn more about improving your ready position by checking out this article from Orvis News.
  2. Galway. Next, make a Galway “backcast.” Galway is essentially a back-to-back forward cast.
  3. Pendulum. After that, you turn to your casting arm to perform a Pendulum cast. This movement creates that horizontal loop effect under the rod.
  4. Climbing Hook. Finish the Pendulum cast by pulling the rod up with a climbing hook.
  5. Repeat. After the climbing hook, turn your arm again and repeat from the first step.

Final Thoughts

In short, the shadow cast is a unique and significant part of fly fishing history. While it doesn’t serve a practical purpose, the shadow cast proves that fly fishing is a beautiful art of its own. 

Many professionals came together to create this magical moment on the silver screen. To learn more about the shadow cast, I recommend reading Maclean’s novel and checking out the writings of professionals like Dietsch and Borger.