December 29, 2022
This article originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Legendary baseball pitcher Satchel Paige advised, "Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you." While that might be good advice for pitchers, it's bad for fly fishers. The backcast programs the forward cast. A good backcast reasonably assures a good forward cast. If your backcast has flaws, you will have to compensate during the forward stroke. The better option is to correct the back cast problems. However, before you can diagnose and remedy problems, you must know exactly what your backcast looks like. I can't overemphasize how critical it is to observe your backcast and analyze what you see. Here are some of the most common casting problems I regularly observe.
Symptom #1: Asymmetrical backcast loop, indicating misdirected energy and slack in the line
This is usually related to the direction in which the tip is moving when it stops. A stroke lacking acceleration causes a wide-open loop to the rear. Bending the wrist on the backcast or swinging the arm like a windshield wiper normally produces the same effect.
Conversely, accelerating too hard and then stopping the rod nearly straight up, so that the tip over swings and sends the line down ward, creates an angle in the line. In either case, some of the energy is going downward, yet the efficient direction would be straight to the rear. The angle or belly in the line (see illustration) means that part of your forward stroke will be wasted by merely pulling the slack out of your line before the line tightens and the tip loads for the forward stroke.
The Fix: A slight stab to the rear with your thumb and rod tip as you stop can correct this. Film or photograph your rear loop, and practice until you can get it symmetrical.
Symptom #2: Shock waves
Shock waves in the backcast lead to the same problems on the forward cast as the asymmetrical loop. They are generally caused when you begin the cast with the rod tip too high (instead of pointing it low toward the water) or with a belly of slack in the line and make a quick, jack-rabbit start in an attempt to load the rod.
The Fix: Before you cast, point the rod straight down the fly line, tip low to the water, and get as much slack out of the line as possible. Make your initial motion slowly, and when the line is taut to the tip continue accelerating to a quick stop. The shock waves will vanish.
Symptom#3: Waiting for the backcast to straighten completely before starting the forward cast
For years, many casters have preached doing just this, but the fact remains that it is poor technique and leads to a series of problems with the forward cast. First, once the line straightens (A), tension on the rod tip relaxes and slack develops as die line starts to fall (B). Until you get rid of the slack and resume line pressure against the tip, you can't load the rod moving forward. Second, by using the first part of the forward stroke to get rid of the slack that you just created, you load the rod later, making the forward stroke effectively shorter, meaning you have to cast harder. You also have the tendency to finish farther forward with the tip going downward, which can affect distance. The worst result, however; is that waiting interferes with the smooth acceleration of the forward casting stroke. Since the line begins to fall once it straightens, you have to make a quick, jerky start on the forward cast to regain the tension and start loading the rod. You will most likely generate shock waves and possibly a tailing loop, and certainly waste effort, because you must cast harder than necessary.
The Fix: Start forward casting while the line is still unrolling. You can make a slow start and smooth acceleration, the rod will load instantly, you will have a longer effective stroke requiring less force, and you'll finish with the rod tip and line going forward, rather than down.
Symptom #4: When making a longer cast, there is a small angle between the rod and line at the start of the forward cast
I dub this the "critical angle." Most anglers have learned to keep their rod tip low and in line with the fly line before beginning their backcasts, indicating a wide critical angle, but they violate the same principle when they cast forward. If your line were parallel to the water on your backcast, when your rod is pointing nearly straight up (between 12 and 1 o'clock), that would make about a 90-degree angle. If the rod and line formed a straight line, we'd call that 180 degrees. That critical angle will vary from cast to cast, depending on how far you want to cast. A smaller angle, of say 90 to 100 degrees, is sufficient for short casts, but maintaining that angle as you try to cast farther means you will have to go harder over a short distance to load the rod. Tests show, too, that with a small critical angle nearly all the load is on the rod tip and little energy is generated against the end of the line and the fly.
The Fix: The key to making longer casts, without casting harder, is to start with the rod pointing back farther, even to straight back, for me longest casts. It will create a deeper load in the rod. Some advocate cocking the wrist slightly at the start of the backcast, before bringing the rod and arm back. Avoid this practice. It's inefficient and makes the backcast more difficult because of the smaller angle. It also nearly always results in a diminished critical rod/line angle at the start of your forward cast.
Symptom#5: Top of the loop drops below the bottom of the loop
This can be caused by a weak backcast, poor acceleration, a slow hand stop, or sometimes by turning the hand and causing the rod tip to track in a curve. The loop should unroll over itself. Even if you are making a sidearm cast, the top and bottom of the loop should be in the same relative positions. Unless you correct this, the forward cast will curve or end in a tailing loop instead of traveling straight.
The Fix: Study your backcast and practice until you impart enough energy and can stop the tip while it is traveling straight so the top of the loop stays on top.
Develop the habit of looking at your backcast. Unless you have a clear picture of what's going on back there, you'll never realize that your backcast is the cause of most of your casting problems, and you won't have a clue about what to fix. The vast majority of my coaching involves working with anglers’ backcasts. While it isn't always practical to study it when fishing, you should during practice. Even so, I query good anglers regularly, and nearly all tell me they regularly check their backcasts when fishing, especially under difficult conditions or when it's critical to make a perfect cast.
Ed Jaworowski is a retired professor and author of The Cast (Stackpole Books). He lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania.