Every fly fisher would like to cast better and more efficiently. Why is it, then, that many fly fishers can’t cast well and don’t understand fly casting? Much of this problem, we believe, stems from the way fly-casting instruction began several centuries ago in Europe, where most fly fishing occurred on small streams not more than a few yards wide.
The tackle of the day was a long 12- to 16-foot wooden rod and a short line, not much longer than the rod, constructed of twisted horsetail hairs. With such a long rod and short line, it was only necessary to lift the rod to a vertical position and return it to a near-horizontal position to make a cast. Since the rod/line combination remained constant, anglers only needed that one casting motion. Tackle and fishing conditions are different now.
As fly tackle changed, casting instructors began teaching the fly-casting stroke by relating it to the hands on a clock face. Thus was born a teaching concept that persists today. Most books, magazine articles, and videos teach that certain casting motions should be performed with reference to positions on a clock face. We believe this is a major reason why so many fly fishers are not better casters. We believe that if you can eliminate the casting stroke positions as related to a clock face, you can become a better caster.
What is Fly Casting?
Fly casting can be explained easily without getting into physics and using technical language. Fly casting is the smooth and gradual acceleration of the rod to put a bend in it by pulling against the weight of the line, which causes the rod to flex, or load. At the final moment of the cast, the hand is greatly accelerated and stopped, which allows the tip to snap back straight, causing the line to unroll toward a target. In the case of a forward cast, the target is toward the fish; with the backcast, the target is a point in the air behind you (typically 180 degrees from the forward cast target). The backcast is simply a forward cast in the opposite direction, so the same principles apply. The more you can unroll the line efficiently, the easier it will be to cast.
Fortunately, good casting does not require strength. Anyone can cast well, especially if they use proper technique rather than muscle.
The Four Principles
Fly casting is not magic. It can be described with basic high-school physics. There are many methods of fly casting, but regardless of how you do it, the following four principles will govern your cast.
The dictionary defines a principle as “a fundamental truth, law, doctrine, or motivating force, upon which others are based.” Whether you use a short 6-foot rod or a 14-foot two-handed rod, these four principles will apply. They never vary.
Once you understand and accept these principles, you can become a better and more efficient caster. They can also help you learn to use other casts, such as an extra-high backcast, a better roll cast, or a curve cast.
1. Before you can load the rod, you must remove all slack from the line.
Loading the rod requires line tension against the tip, so that when you move the rod, the weight of the line holds the rod tip back, causing the rod to bend. You wouldn’t try to cast a spinning lure before reeling the lure in close to the rod tip to eliminate slack. It’s the same with fly casting. If there is slack between the lure/fly and the rod, you can’t make a good cast.
2. Once the slack is gone, the only way to load the rod is to move your casting hand with ever-increasing speed to a sudden stop.
The cast involves continuously “getting faster,” with the slowest movement at the beginning of the stroke and the fastest movement just before the stop. At the final moment of the cast, you make a much faster, very brief (one inch), speed up and abrupt stop (many people call it a power stroke; it should be called a “speed stroke.”) The size of the casting loop is determined by the length of the speed-up-and-stop (speed stroke). The faster and shorter you make the speed-up-and-stop (in the final moment of the cast), the tighter the casting loop and the faster and farther the line travels. If your hand continuously accelerates during the stroke, the rod will continue to load deeper into the butt. If your hand does not accelerate during the stroke, or if it slows, the rod will lose part of its load.
3. When your casting hand stops and the rod straightens, the line continues in the direction the rod tip finished its travel.
This principle is key to determining casting direction and accuracy. Once the rod tip stops, you cannot change the direction of the cast. It’s the same as a rifle shot. Once a bullet leaves the barrel, you cannot change its direction.
You must determine where you want the line to go before you stop the rod. If the rod tip finishes its travel toward the target, the line will go in that direction. You can, however, alter the line behind the fly (by mending line in the air), but the direction of the cast is determined when you stop the rod. This is an important principle to understand if you want to improve your accuracy or make specialty casts, such as curve casts.
4. The longer the distance the rod and your arm travel during the backcast and forward cast strokes, the easier it is to make the cast.
The converse is also true: The shorter the casting stroke, the harder you must work to put the same load into the rod. When you need to cast farther, throw heavier flies, or cast into the wind, don’t cast harder; cast smarter by lengthening your casting stroke.
We don’t advocate a different way to cast or a different style of casting; we offer a different way of thinking about casting. All casts have these four principles in common, and they apply to everyone. They are invariable. They have no exceptions. You can use them or abuse them.
The distance you move your hand, the direction you move it, and the speed at which you move it must change for different fishing situations. Therefore, any rules of instruction must allow for these changes.
Any instructions that don’t allow for variations—even though they may work sometimes—will often leave you frustrated when you encounter different situations. Anglers who always attempt to cast precisely by moving their rod between two predetermined clock face points often experience a helpless feeling when they try to throw a heavily weighted fly and it hits them in the back, they catch a tree on their backcast, or they tangle their line on the forward cast. These and other problems occur precisely because the casters are following instructions suited to different (unrelated) conditions. Your casting must be adaptable to changing fishing conditions, from relatively calm trout fishing to windy flats fishing.
If you focus on the four principles behind your casting movements, you will be able to identify your faults and correct them under a wide variety of fishing conditions to make casts that you thought were impossible.
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