Conservatively, I’ve taught hundreds of private fly casting lessons over nearly 25 years. If you count seminars, the number of students I’ve worked with might be in the thousands. I say this not to impress you, but rather to impress upon you that I’ve seen a bunch of fly casters—all ages, sexes, and levels of ability.
Teaching fly casting is not a one-way street. The lesson is not simply me spewing pearls of wisdom at the student and punctuating each with a resounding: “Thus spake Zarathustra!” The students teach me a lot as well (I don’t let them know this, lest they ask for a discount). In fact, almost everything I know about teaching fly casting I’ve learned from students, and every student has probably taught me something about fly casting. Among the most important things I’ve learned from a student was taught to me by a student who didn’t show up—ever.
This sounds cryptic, so let me explain.
After years and years of teaching fly casting, I’ve learned to expect that when experienced fly anglers arrange for a casting lesson, they invariably will have problems with their back cast and problems with their forward cast as well. This has become very predictable. I know before we meet I’ll be seeing a flawed back cast and also a flawed forward cast. The problems will vary from angler to angler, but they will be there—both in the back cast and also the forward cast.
None of this should come as a surprise: Fly anglers take casting lessons specifically to work on problems in their cast. However, there is one fly angler who has never contacted me for casting instruction, and his or her absence from my roster of students is noteworthy—sort of like the dog in the Sherlock Holmes story who does nothing in the nighttime. The caster who has never shown up for a lesson is the caster who has a solid back cast and a troubled forward cast. Not only has this person never arranged for a lesson—I’ve never seen this person at the casting pool at any of the fly fishing shows I’ve attended, nor have I run across this person while fishing.
In my teaching I’ve placed much emphasis on the importance of the back cast to the entire casting sequence—particularly in distance casting. The vast majority of fly anglers who wish to add distance to their cast fail to see that the back cast and the forward cast are really two sides of the same coin. Any problems that exist in the back cast will be somehow manifested in the forward cast. Yet these anglers are fixated on trying to deliver a long line; that is, their primary focus is on the forward cast.
In Mel Krieger’s video titled The Essence of Flycasting II: Advanced Flycasting, there’s a segment done with Steve Rajeff. This is the best footage I’ve seen of Steve Rajeff’s back cast, and this alone is worth the price of the DVD. Steve Rajeff is a tournament caster, and I don’t pretend to know anything about tournament casting, but I can tell you that Steve Rajeff’s back cast is as close to perfect as any I’ve seen. In the interview Rajeff talks about the amount of work he put in to developing a good back cast. As I said, I don’t know anything about tournament casting, but I know enough to know that fly casting tournaments are decided by what is done on the delivery. So for Rajeff to spend the entire interview talking about the importance of a good back cast is something of which the rest of us should take note.
I sometimes hear from former students, or from fly anglers who have my casting DVD. They’ll call on the phone, and the conversation usually goes something like this:
“I’ve been working on my cast, but I can’t get beyond 65 feet. I’m very frustrated!”
To which I’ll reply: “How’s your back cast?”
Silence. Then, after a moment, “My back cast…?”
“Yes. Your back cast. How is it?”
Their response will be something along the lines of this: “My back cast is okay, I guess. Most of the time, anyway. Obviously it’s not a hundred percent—there are issues. I have difficulty getting the 40 feet of line behind me consistently, and I have some trouble getting it to lay out straight. I don’t always form a tight loop. But the hell of it is that no matter how much I practice I can’t seem to cast beyond 65 feet. Do you have any idea what might be wrong…?”
Yes, I do have an idea what’s wrong, but fly anglers like this are still not ready to hear it.
For you casting geeks, here’s a thought experiment to ponder:
Imagine a casting student comes to me for instruction—in particular, he wants to add some distance to his cast. He’s been working hard at it for a while, but his distance cast is stuck at about 65 feet.
I’m going to video this guy’s long cast to get a baseline and to have something he can use for comparison later.
Then we’re going to work on his casting—but only his back cast. Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to help students develop good back cast form, and my objective here is to get the student to develop a solid back cast (from the open stance) that unrolls in a tight loop and lays out in a straight line behind him.
This is not a single lesson, but rather a number of lessons over a period of months. Still, we’re going to work only on the back cast. This guy is going to be expected to practice regularly as well, but his practice sessions will be limited exclusively to the back cast—that is, he won’t be allowed to practice his forward cast—or anything else—at all. If he wants to make a forward cast, or a haul, or anything else, he can do that when he goes fishing. When he goes fishing he can do whatever he wants, but whenever he’s practicing he’s allowed to work only on the back cast with 40 feet of line outside the rod tip.
I have faith that with instruction and regular practice this student’s back cast will improve. I have faith because I’ve seen it time and again—in myself and in my students. In time, he will have burned the muscle memory of a good back cast into his arm. He will be able to load the rod properly and unload it abruptly to effortlessly unroll his back cast in a tight loop (40 feet of line outside the rod tip) to lay all the fly line out behind him in a straight line. On command, he’ll be able to unroll high back casts, medium back casts, and low back casts. And he’ll be able to do this consistently—that is, his worst back cast will get the job done.
When I’m convinced that this student can now make good back casts standing on his head and in his sleep, I’ll call an end to the experiment and ask to see the results. That is, I’ll ask the student to show me his long cast. Remember that he hasn’t been allowed to practice his forward cast at all. The only time he’s been allowed to make a forward cast is when he’s gone fishing (and I don’t know, or care, how often that’s been).
So what do you think his long cast will look like now compared with the baseline video? Do you think his long cast will be 65 feet, or do you think it will be longer than that? Also, what will his overall cast look like? Will it be symmetrical, or will he have a solid back cast and a troubled forward cast? In other words, do you think the experiment will have produced the fly caster I have never seen…?
My point is this: I’ve never seen a great fly caster who did not have a great back cast, and I’ve never seen a fly caster who had a great back cast and only a mediocre forward cast. They may exist, but of the thousands of fly casters I’ve watched, I’ve yet to see them.
Thus spake Zarathustra!