This is the second of a series of articles I have written for Vagabond Flyfishing Magazine , this one a little more detailed and focusing on essential elements of a good cast. You can’t escape it, fly fishing is about fly casting, or at least that is the starting point. So in the next few pieces for Vagabond I am going to be looking at some structure in terms of what makes fly casting work, what is happening when it is going wrong and how to fix it. So this and other articles on casting will also appear on The Fishing Gene Blog, for the benefit of those yet to discover Vagabond.
There are many different ways and styles of teaching (and thus learning) casting, but there are equally a number of indefatigable truths about what works and what doesn’t. Sure you might prefer to have one or other leg forward, or use your finger, thumb or palm of your hand on the handle, ( I have my own opinions, which I am not going to share here). You may like to have the rod at something of an angle or favour those which are faster or slower in their actions. But the mechanics of good casting are an absolute given. This isn’t art, this is science, fly casting is pure physics and as such obeys critical scientific laws which aren’t going to change any time soon.
Not that one need to take a scientific approach, just that the laws of mass, acceleration, energy storage, resistance and such will directly affect the result. I can’t change that and neither can you.
So what makes a good cast anyway?
The very simple answer to what could become a complex question is that a good narrow loop makes for a good cast. We aren’t going to concern ourselves at present with the idea that occasionally one might wish to throw a more open one, good loops are good casts. Practice getting good loops and you will by default have good casts.
Note: The “loop” is the rounded link between the two legs of the line as the line unrolls in the air, looking rather like the tracks of a tank in motion. The closer together the legs the “tighter” the loop and the better the cast.
So then, what makes for good loops?
The movement of the rod tip controls the loops, sure you can argue that the movement of your hand , arm or whatever control that tip movement but the line doesn’t know a thing about that. The line only knows what the rod tip does and follows suit. Move the rod tip in a straight and accelerating line and the fly line will unroll in a neat tight and efficient cast.
Move the rod tip in a convex path and you will have a wide and inefficient, wind resistant cast lacking momentum and carry.
Move the rod tip in a concave path and you will throw tailing loops, those annoying squiggles which catch your fly in the line and produce wind knots in your tippet.
And you may well then ask what makes straight, convex or concave rod tip paths, and the answer to that question is YOU!
When you cast, move the rod using your hand on the handle, you can effectively do two things, you can “flex” your wrist, (It is what casting instructors refer to as “rotation”) , and don’t be too quick to tell everyone that is bad, because it isn’t. Or you can move your wrist “forwards and backwards” which is what instructors call “stroke”. If you want to think of it like this, rotation is like flicking a marshmallow off the end of a stick, (speed). Stroke is like punching someone in the stomach (linear acceleration). A good cast involves both of these motions.
If you rely only on rotation, you will have a massively convex rod tip path, (less so if you are using a very soft rod). On the other hand, if you rely on only stroke you will not be able to achieve much by way of acceleration. That said the vast majority of anglers rely far too much on rotation and focus far too little on stroke.
Looking at rotation first:
If you simply move your hand forwards, as in punching someone in the stomach, should you move your hand 30 cm in a second for example you will move the rod tip 30cm in a second. However if you rotate your wrist by a few degrees of arc, (when you do this is important), you will move the rod tip considerably more than 30cm and in a lot less time too. Whipping out my rusty maths, a 30° rotation of a nine foot rod will move the tip 4’6”. It should be obvious that you cannot move the rod tip that far using only stroke, not unless you have very long arms.
It is perhaps important to make note at this point that when I say “move the rod tip” and “speed” I mean that the rod tip would move that fast were it not bendy. But of course the rod is bendy so instead of the tip moving rapidly to start with it stays relatively still and “stores” the energy that you have put into it, held back by the inertia of the line. It is this storage of energy as much as anything else that makes it possible to cast easily with a fly rod. “Rotation” of the wrist then is actually a critical part to loading the rod to best effect and all these dire warnings about “breaking your wrist” are so much hot air. You cannot cast well or effectively without breaking your wrist or rotating your wrist, the more important bit is how much and when you do this.
Stroke is the linear movement of your casting hand to affect a long and straight rod tip path. Without stroke you will always have a convex rod tip path and a less effective cast as a result.
So in Image One, below you can see the effect on the rod tip of only using rotation. In this instance the rod is imagined not to bend to clarify things. The more the rod would bend the less obvious would be the convex nature of the rod tip path.
Finally the combination of rotation and stroke as it occurs in a real cast (exaggerated). Initial rotation loads (bends) the rod, and accelerated stroke keeps the rod loaded and adds a little more bend and then final rotation adds even more bend to the rod until it is fully loaded. When at the far left of the image you stop or pause, the loaded energy in the rod launches the line in a nice neat efficient tight loop.
This is one of the reasons why attempting to “Throw” the line doesn’t work, as the caster you can only load the rod, in reality most if not all of the actual “throwing” gets done by the rod itself as it unloads. So if you are starting off or trying to improve your casting, the first thing to do is to look carefully at your casting, does it contain both rotation and stroke? Is the stroke long enough? It probably isn’t. Better still have a mate watch , because it isn’t easy to see for yourself, best yet, get some lessons.
To see a graphic illustration of the combination of stroke and arc in a cast take a look at www.inkwaziflyfishing.co.za the animated graphic at the top of the page illustrates the principle quite well.
In the next article we will look more deeply at that overall casting stroke, why the length of the stroke needs to change with line length and why if it doesn’t you will end up with tailing loops.
In fishing it is traditional to wish someone “tight lines” but here I think “tight loops” is a better “au revoir”
Tim Rolston is a fly fishing guide, past World Flyfishing Championships competitor, captain and coach, an IFFF certified fly casting instructor, fly tyer and author. His book “Learn to Fly-Cast in a Weekend” can be downloaded from his website at www.inkwaziflyfishing.co.za . He is also available to run fly casting workshops for groups, clubs or fishing venues as well as offering personal tuition. Tim can be contacted on email@example.com