It’s almost March, yet here in the Piedmont it is still winter this year. I can hear Western fly fishers chuckling when they hear or read of complaints from their Mid Atlantic brethren of our harsh winter. But the polar vortex has rendered conditions not seen in Virginia in at least the past forty years, the length of time that I can personally attest to. The picture below depicts something I have never experienced here before, the freezing of the Jackson River, one of my favorite Virginia trout streams.
So what is an avid fly fisher supposed to do in times like this? I’m tired of tying flies, and I can’t take the time or spend the money to go south of the equator. I’ve read all the reviews of this year’s new equipment, and I’m almost finished with Paul Schullery’s “Fly-Fishing Secrets of the Ancients: A Celebration of Five Centuries of Lore and Wisdom”. Well, for me it has been a time to ponder and practice my fly casting basics. As I grow older and must deal with my changing physical abilities, understanding and mastering the fly casting basics has become ever more important in order to continue to cast efficiently and accurately.
The Casting Motion
Most casting instructors would agree that the basic casting motion can be described as a speed-up-and-stop, followed by a pause. But to translate that motion into an effective cast, I think there are three important elements that must be understood. They are rhythm, the arc of the rod’s path, and the contributions of the hand and wrist.
Let’s begin with rhythm. If you don’t dance, don’t worry, I’m not referring to that kind of rhythm. In contrast to every other sport that may involve a bat, club, racket or stick, the backcast is a dynamic component of fly casting. In the other sports referred to, the sporting implement is slowly positioned behind the sportsman, and readied for a forceful forward swing or stroke. But in fly casting, the back cast should mirror the forward cast, in force, speed and direction.
If one is using a slow to medium action rod, the rhythm is a bit like a waltz, slow-fast-paaause, slow-fast-paaause. If one is using a fast action rod, it’s more like a cha cha, that is, cha-cha-chaaa, cha-cha-chaaa. The paaause and chaaa lengthen as the length of line outside the rod lengthens. This allows the looped line to unfurl and flex or load the rod.
If one compares the casting action of beginner and intermediate casters to more expert casters, the most striking difference lies in the back cast. The less expert casters underpower the back cast and hurry the transition to the forward cast, thus failing to fully load their rods. The fully flexed or loaded rod, rather than the casting arm, provides most of the power to the following forward cast. Thus a casting motion that does not fully load the rod, leads to short, underpowered casts. In contrast, a casting motion with good rhythm and balanced force in both the forward and back casts, will most often result in a fully loaded rod, and a good forward cast.
Next let’s discuss the casting arc. We’ve all heard the phrase, “move the rod from 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock”. This is of course an approximation of the actual casting arc, which will vary under different circumstances. But I think it is helpful to understand the physical principles at play.
The drawing below illustrates one of the principles underlying this dictum, the potential flexing of the rod. The maximal potential flexing or loading of the rod is partly determined by the rhythm of the cast as described above, and partly by the stop positions at each end of the casting arc. The rods in the illustration below are moving from left to right, i.e. a backcast. If the rod is suddenly stopped in the upright or vertical position (V), provided there is adequate force in the cast, it will be flexed or loaded maximally, as seen with rod position #1. In contrast, if the rod is dropped to the horizontal position (H), there is no flexing of the rod possible, as seen in rod position #5. Any stopping point in between these two extremes, #’s 2, 3 and 4, will potentially flex the rod to a varying degree.
Generation of Force
A second principle, adequate force, is necessary if the rod is to be flexed or loaded to its maximum potential, as determined by its stopping point. Force is generated by the speed of the cast and the length of the casting arc. If the rod is stopped in the vertical position to maximize the potential flex, the casting arc is shortened, reducing the force that can be applied to the line. This may not be sufficient to fully load the rod, despite it being stopped in the theoretically perfect position for maximal loading. If however the rod isn’t stopped until it reaches points illustrated by rod positions 2, 3 and 4, more force can be applied by virtue of the longer casting arc. However, this increased force is offset by reduction of the maximal potential flex of the rod.
Thus the ideal stopping point of the casting arc is a compromise or tradeoff between the generation of adequate force, and the maximal potential flex of the rod. If we again look at the illustration, rod position # 2, which approximates 2 o’clock, nearly matches the theoretical maximal rod flex seen when the rod is stopped in the vertical position, while also allowing for the application of greater force due to the longer casting arc. So the old adage is helpful as one envisions the casting arc and tries to achieve maximal loading of the rod.
Another way to increase the arc of the cast, and increase force and casting distance, is to move the base of the arc, that is, the butt of the rod, through a greater distance. When doing this, it is very important to move the forearm and rod butt in a horizontal plane, parallel to the water’s surface. This will keep the tip of the rod moving in a horizontal plane, producing a line-path that is horizontal as well.
If the forearm is moved up or down, the rod tip and line will also move up and down, resulting in loss of force and accuracy. Trailing loops will be formed, which are inefficient and lead to tangles in the leader and line. To create a horizontal motion, the caster’s body is turned about 45 degrees away from the target (for the right handed caster the body is rotated to the right), which then allows the body to rotate backward and forward, much like a golf swing. The arm, rod and rod-tip may then easily move in a horizontal plane, increasing the casting arc, and providing more force and line speed to the cast, while also keeping the line moving horizontally.
When fishing, we use a variety of rod positions, extending all the way from horizontal on the right, through the vertical, to horizontal on the left, and all positions between. Regardless of the rod position, the principles of the casting arc remain unchanged. The rod should be moved through the plane established by the starting position of the rod.
The last principle element I want to discuss is the role or contribution of the hand and wrist. Most of the casting motion is performed by the forearm. But the hand and wrist contribute to the cast in two ways, the grip and the casting motion.
Most fly fishers have learned to cast with the “thumb on top” grip. I think this grip has several disadvantages, especially for the beginner. The structure of the wrist joint is such, that this grip allows, virtually encourages, the rod to be dropped to the horizontal plane on the back cast, while limiting the forward motion. To see for yourself, just hold a pen or pencil with this grip, thumb on top, and place your forearm in the vertical position, mimicking the casting grip and rod position. While keeping the forearm upright, move your hand backward and forward. You will note that the pencil reaches 11 o’clock on the forward motion, and 3 o’clock on the backward motion. Unfortunately, this is a poor casting arc, and one which most beginners struggle to avoid. It results in poor loading of the rod on the back cast, as we previously discussed, and weak forward casts.
Now rotate your hand 90 degrees clockwise, placing the forefinger on top of the pen. Put your forearm in the casting position, and again move your hand backward and forward. This time you will note that the pen reaches 9 o’clock on the forward motion, and 1-2 o’clock on the backward motion, more closely tracking a good casting arc. Thus the “finger on top” grip can assist with learning to cast with a good casting arc.
The grip also contributes to the accuracy of a cast. If you were to point to an object, would you use your thumb or your finger? I think virtually everyone would use their finger. If you again grip a pen, gripping it first with thumb on top, then finger on top, and point quickly to several objects, I think you will find that the “finger on top” grip is more natural and more accurately points to the targets. Thus the “finger on top” grip can assist with casting accuracy, which when fishing on a stream, is essential to presenting a fly to a feeding trout.
Lastly, let’s consider the hand and wrist’s contribution to the casting motion. It may again be helpful to use an analogy, this time the throwing of a baseball. If you pretend to throw a ball, I think you will discover that the throwing motion begins with the forearm, and ends with a rapid and forceful forward motion of the hand. This final thrust of the hand adds a great deal to the overall force and speed of the throw. In addition, it lets the fine-motor muscles of the hand and wrist guide the final direction of the throw. A maximally effective casting motion similarly begins with a slower motion of the forearm, and finishes with a fast motion of the hand, for both the forward cast and backcast. In fact, when casting short to medium distances, little more than a forceful thrust of the hand is needed, provided that the other essential elements of the cast, rhythm and arc, are utilized properly as well.
So if winter is giving you “cabin fever”, you too may want to ponder and practice your casting. Yes, don’t forget practice, so that when spring finally arrives, you’re ready to hit the water with a good cast.
Written by Allan Simpson, March, 2014. Edited November, 2016.