The dreaded tailing loop is a common casting fault that visits all fly casting anglers one time or another — often when they attempt long casts. A common fault while going for extra distance is using the same short stroke with a lot more gusto. But instead of the Steve Rajeff in us coming out at a flip of a switch, we often find a frustrated "Arggh!" escaping our mouths upon seeing a pile of line dumping in front of us.
There are many diagnoses to this cause, most common being that the rod tip takes a U-shaped dip instead of a straight-line path during the forward cast, causing both portions of the fly line loop to cross each other. And since we can't forever blame the rod, nor buy ourselves out of casting faults with new and better rods every time they improve the old ones, we eventually have to turn a critical eye toward ourselves.
As physics shows, distance casting is more complicated and more dynamic with increased line speed, and greater demands on our casting. What works at short distance does not necessarily work for long distance. And in the case of tailing loops, the "U-shaped dip" that is commonly blamed for the tailing loop is preceded by applying too much power too early in the cast.
In reality — a reality that is best explained with high-speed film — a tailing loop isn't as much about the rod tip taking a dip, but by the ascending tip after it bottoms out. Armed with this new insight, it's easy to get yourself out of a tailing loop midcast, even after you've gotten yourself into it.
And when you take this insight a little further, you can also see the possibility of achieving long casts from short strokes without the tailing loops. The benefits of a short, compact casting stroke allow you to keep your arm close to your body for reduced joint stress and muscle fatigue over the course of a long, windy day.
This new, sloped tip path also allows you to make larger aerialized mends for longer drag-free drifts since the "power punch" affords higher line speed. You also get more distance with less effort, and you get the fly onto the water quicker since the line straightens lower over the water. Only a barbarian could turn away from this offer of getting more for less.
Since tailing loops are as common an ailment to fly casters as the common cold, it would be hoove us to find new ways at looking at an old problem. All the pictures shown here on a grid background are stills taken from a single forward cast filmed at 60 frames per second (a commercial DVD is usually 24 frames per second). Superimposed on top of each other, the selected stills reveal the path of the rod tip so we can visually follow its shape. I used a micro practice rod, because the yarn and rope are large enough, and the cast is slow enough, for easier detection on camera.
The first figure, Figure 1, is a cast without tailing loops, a cast we all know too well as our 'A' game cast. Notice the rod tip travels a near level path during the forward cast. This is the cast we want when we find ourselves with audience!
Figure 2 is a classic tailing loop, with the red top portion of the line crashing into the yellow bottom portion. Notice the U-shaped path the rod tip takes when it dips from the level path you see in figure 1. Get a little headwind and "Whoa — where did our 'A' game go?" This is the cast we blame on the wind, and remind anyone who is within earshot why nature can be so unkind.
Figure 3 is a superimposed photo of stills extracted from figures 1 and 2 when the rod tips were at their lowest altitude in both instances (point of greatest load). Notice the bottomed-out position from figure 2 is lower than from figure 1, pointing to the fact that the rod is loaded more from being shocked, causing a more severe rod bend. Since a rod tip path closely resembles an ellipse as the tip load increases, more bend results in a greater altitude drop, explaining the difference between the two altitudes.
If the saying that "shocking" (too much power, too early) causes tailing loops is true, then we should be seeing a tailing loop in figure 3. But it is clear from this picture that the red part of the fly line is not yet close to crossing over the yellow part, thus a tailing loop has not formed yet. Thus, this photo shows that shocking the rod does not cause tailing loops, although it simply lowers the altitude the red and lagging portion of the line travels at.
So when does the tailing loop happen if it is not occurring during the shocking phase? Figure 2 shows tailing loops first occurring as the rod tip is beginning to ascend from its bottomed-out position.
From all this we can see that shocking the rod does not cause tailing loops, but rather the rod tip ascending from a bottomed-out altitude during the unloading phase. Physics dictates that the red portion of the line cannot make a dramatic change of direction to follow the ascending rod tip, and thus it continues on its lower-altitude path, sending it into a collision course with the now upright yellow portion.
If this scenario is in doubt, prove it to yourself using your best cast and stopping the rod early, causing an ascending rod tip. You get the same tailing loops, but this time without having to shock the rod.
At this point you might ask, what if we don't ascend the rod tip after shocking it, what do we get? Can we still shock the rod without ever incurring tailing loops? Can we power punch for greater speed much like a bat out of hell? If you answered "yes," I like the way you think.
From Dread to Curiosity
Now that we know it is not the loading phase that causes a tailing loop, but rather the ascending rod tip path as it unloads, let's reverse engineer the end of the cast so it comes out smelling like roses.
In order for a "shocked rod" to deliver an unspoiled cast, it must not climb at the end of the stroke. So, we simply play with shapes by taking the upward right vertical leg, recline it, and, presto, we have a near straight but downward sloped line as shown in Figure 4.
So, how do we translate this intellectual knowledge into a usable biomechanics? In other words, what do you need to do with your arm/hand to make the rod tip travel in this straight but downward-sloping path? I suggest pushing down the rod tip by: 1) Opening up the elbow angle, 2) Opening up the wrist angle, and/or 3) Rotating the shoulders much like when jogging.
Many people believe these recommendations are cast killers, but my experience (backed up by extensive photography and video) shows that when done in the right amount and at the right time, you can get high line speed with killer loops.
Styles Out There
Once in a while on the river I would see a "push down" style of casting (Figure 5) where the caster gets very high line speeds and a sharp loop. The end cast looks like the caster is knighting a kneeled person with a straight arm, finishing with 180-degree angles in both elbow and wrist, while remaining square to his target during the entire process (thus no body rotation or side arm action). Again, this is much like an elbow-forward cast, with the rod tip path made level with a straight arm finish. This cast is dramatically energetic with a downward descending angle, making the fly stop very close to the water. No downtime from having the fly parachute gently here.
And there's the elbow-forward cast, Figure 6, that I first learned from Gary and Jason Borger. This cast has a lot of power since a well-timed shoulder rotation can generate high line speed in a compact stroke.
My years of playing competitive racquetball also supports this technique, especially generating high racquet speed with almost no wind-up room. However, with a fly rod I could never keep this compactness while going for distance without causing tailing loops.
Now with this sloped path, I am able to achieve both compact strokes and high line speed, but this time without tailing loops. However, the experts in this casting style turn the entire cast on its clock face, starting to now load the rod at the 9 to 10 o'clock position instead of the traditional 11 o'clock position.
What flows from this new, larger angle is a lower rod tip position starting the forward cast, a further flattening out of the blended path and a finishing with a higher loop trajectory. That is how the experts get a straight-line path from start to finish, as well as a higher trajectory finish, as shown in Figure 7.
And finally, we have the Scandinavian cast (Figure 8). This cast is fairly new to me, uses much less wrist and elbow adduction than the push-down style, with the forearm finishing horizontally with almost no change in wrist angle throughout the cast.
Again, high line speed and tight loops seem to be the selling feature here. But the larger point here is that all these styles allow a deep loading, followed by a rod-tip path that never throws the lower leg into the upper leg path during unloading. Hence, the cast gives us high line speed and unspoiled tight loops.
Differing styles may vary in their combination of joint adduction in achieving this lower altitude during the unloading phase. They may also vary in how they are positioned on the casting clock face in achieving a flattening of the path to achieve a flatter start-to-finish level path. But architecturally they all are from the same family of getting deep loading with compact strokes for unspoiled loops.
Three sacred cows have been gored here. The first is a tailing loop is not caused by shocking the rod, but by how the tip travels while it is unloading.
The second is that compact strokes and long distances are not as incompatible as once believed, and once again can be made compatible when we biomechanically adjust to ensure we don't end up throwing the legs of the loop into each other.
The third is that opening our wrist and elbows do not necessarily cause open and inefficient loops, but instead can cause sharper, highly energetic loops when applied in the manner that ensures a straight-line path during the unloading phase.
When technology such as high-speed filming presents us new facts, facts that often no longer support old beliefs, we are often at the juncture of embrace or rejection.
Paradigms without understanding their basis can often cause us to reject ideas simply because it's outside the old window.
However, when we release our grip on old paradigms in exchange for greater knowledge and explanation of the facts, it can be truly exhilarating. And only then can we truly diagnose our casting in ways that free us from mindless practice with marginal results.
Barny Wong lives in Detroit, Michigan, where he teaches group and private fly-casting lessons. His website is awholenuthalevel.com.