It’s January. When was the last time you cast a fly rod?
Many, many fly fishers get out and get after fish in the coldest months and the nastiest conditions. I’d wager that the majority, however, stay inside and simply dream of spring hatches. Both are okay. Both are legitimate forms of angling expression. The former involves layers and technical fishing skills. The later usually entails fly tying and catalog perusing.
If you either don’t fish in the winter or don’t fish often, there is no reason why you can’t add casting to your routine of gear cleaning and YouTube daydreaming. Do you have a yard? If your yard is frozen, do you have access to a large room? A warehouse at work, your gym’s racquetball court, or your church’s sanctuary (not during service, of course) could all accommodate some practice time.
Even fifteen minutes can be helpful. Fifteen minutes of casting off the water is sometimes more beneficial than hours of casting on the water. Reason being, you’re thinking about casting – not fishing. And you can think about specific facets of your cast. Your grip, your wrist, the application of power on the forward motion, the application of power on the backwards motion, your stance, your waist, your elbow, your shoulder… the list goes on and on.
Being off the water and just casting allows you to isolate elements of your cast that might need some fine tuning. The position and movement of the elbow and shoulder is one area of focus that can pay off dividends if there are fundamental flaws.
Right now, pantomime a gentle casting motion. If a fly rod isn’t handy, grab a pencil or a fork. Now see the range of motion you can impart upon the rod by moving just your wrist. Unless you’re particularly flexible, your wrist can only create a conical motion with the rod. That is the area your wrist can effectively move a fly rod in. Now, move your elbow. Not just in a casting motion, but all around. Between the flexing of the elbow and the associated rotation of the shoulder, the grip of the fly rod can traverse an enormous range of space. This effect is magnified exponentially when considering where the tip of the fly rod has traveled.
What does this quasi-calculus have to do with casting? Fly line only goes where the tip of the fly rod pulls it. If it pulls it in a generally straight line, it travels in a generally straight line. This produces a gentle arc on a single, flat plane that results in tight loops. This path generates the most line speed and allows for the most accuracy.
As the arc widens, so do the loops (this happens when your rod tip moves vertically too much). The wider that plane becomes the more the line moves side-to-side (this happens when your rod tip moves horizontally too much). The results are erratic variations in line motion and lower line speed, which means less distance and less accuracy. You can compensate for variation by altering the application of force and a variety of other tactics. But those techniques are best used purposefully under specific circumstances – not to remedy poor fundamentals.
One simple fix is a book. Reading books on casting helps, but holding a book between your elbow and side can actually assist your mechanics. By gently pinching the book against yourself, you significantly limit the angle that your elbow moves. Your muscles have to work to cast the rod. More importantly, you are forced into a smaller planes in which you can move the rod tip. A smaller horizontal plane because you can’t rotate your arm up with your shoulder, and a smaller vertical plane because you can’t raise your elbow too high. Think about it like this: you want your rod tip following a path that could trace a narrow figure-8 on top of a mostly flat umbrella, as opposed to a severely concave umbrella with a wide figure-8 on top.
Holding a book is a tutor. It is too rigid, too limiting. But practicing eliminating needless variation in rod movement is helpful. You’ll develop muscle memory, which is better done off the water. You’ll learn how the rod feels when loading in this manner. This is indispensable when pushing for longer casts. As mentioned before, widening that horizontal plane is a death-knell for distance.
There are certainly a number of other very important variables that can impact the cast. Many anglers cast accurately and fish productively with very nontraditional casting strokes. But if you are looking to improve your casting and fishing, assessing the fundamentals of your stroke can go a long way in making your time on the water more efficient and effective.