The Essentials of Distance Fly Casting: Part Two

Forming Tight Loops

The video clips illustrating this post were made with an app called Hudl Technique. For best effect, enable the HD quality and watch the clips in fullscreen mode, the controls to which are at the bottom right of the screen.

Tight loops are critical to distance fly casting. The tighter the loop you can form, the farther and faster your cast will travel. Tight loops are critical to distance casting because they focus all of the energy from the cast into a very narrow area. Also, tight loops are less wind-resistant than wide loops and are a must for casting into a wind. (One aspect of hauling that many fly anglers overlook is that hauling allows you to form a tighter loop than you could form with the casting stroke alone. I’m convinced that at least some of the extra distance we get from hauling comes simply from forming a tighter loop.)

Imagine two casting strokes, identical in power, identical in every way, except that one of the strokes forms a large, open loop while the other forms a tight loop. All other things being equal, the cast with the tight loop will travel farther and faster. The tighter loop isn’t carrying more energy than the open loop; it’s simply transferring it more efficiently by focusing all of the energy within a very narrow area.

Imagine using the palm of your hand to push through the side of a watermelon.  You’re probably not going to be able to do it. Now imagine trying to do this using an icepick. You’ll be able to penetrate the watermelon easily with the icepick, and not because you’re using more energy—you’re probably using much less—but because the icepick is concentrating all of your energy into a very small area. In fly casting, the difference in effect between an open loop and a tight loop is just as dramatic.

Virtually everyone reading this post has more than enough power to deliver a fly 70 or more feet without hauling. The only reason you’re not doing it is because you’re not using your power to your best advantage. Learning to cast distance is not a process of becoming physically stronger, as some fly angers believe. Learning to cast distance is learning to make full use of the power you already possess. Good distance casters are not necessarily the strongest people. Good distance casters are those who’ve learned to use their power most efficiently. Forming a tight loop is simply the most efficient way to transfer all of the power from the fly rod toward the target.

As I pointed out in the previous post in this series, a good casting stroke is a smooth, continuous acceleration that concludes with an abrupt stop. When the rod stops on the forward cast, the airborne fly line, which you’ve been pulling from behind you, continues to soar forward. The line is anchored at the rod tip, and when the following fly line passes over the rod tip, a loop forms. The bottom leg of the loop remains anchored at the rod tip (as long as you don’t release the line trapped in your line hand) while the top leg continues to unroll toward the target.

As I’ve said, the tighter the loop of line, the farther and faster the cast will travel. To ensure that you form a tight loop, there are two important things you need to keep in mind. First: Your cast will assume any shape that the path of the rod tip has traveled. And second: The path of the rod tip is determined by the path of your rod hand.

In our ideal fly cast, the rod tip follows a straight-line path throughout the casting stroke. The casting stroke concludes with the rod tip stopping just far enough beneath the path of the following fly line so that the line passes slightly above the rod tip (rather than crashing into it or passing beneath it, as it does when you form a tailing loop). The size and shape of the loop are determined by the position of the rod tip relative to the path of the following fly line at the conclusion of the casting stroke. If the distance between the rod tip and the path of following fly line is small, then the loop will be tight: It will look like a V or a U that has been tipped on its side. But if the distance between the rod tip and the path of the following fly line is great, then the loop will be large.

Good fly casters have learned to accelerate the rod tip through a straight-line path and then drop the rod tip just far enough beneath the path of the following fly line at the end of the casting stroke so that the fly line passes just above it.

Good casters use a limited wrist movement to accomplish this. That is, during the second part of the forward stroke—what Joan Wulff refers to as the power snap and Lefty Kreh calls the speed-up-and-stop—the caster pushes forward with his thumb while pulling back with his lower fingers. This pushing-pulling motion tilts the rod a bit forward, dropping the tip slightly as the rod unloads—just far enough to allow the following fly line to pass above it.

The back cast is a mirror image of the forward cast. The caster uses a limited wrist movement on the back cast to help form the loop. During the back cast’s final acceleration, the wrist moves from bent-forward to straight. This movement positions the butt of the rod from parallel to the forearm to approximately 45 degrees to the forearm. This drops the the rod tip just slightly beneath the path of the following fly line, forming a tight loop on the back cast.

Casters who have trouble forming tight loops veer off the straight path and bring the rod through a curved path, concluding the casting stroke with the rod tip well beneath the path of the following fly line. Your ability to move your rod hand, and hence the rod tip, through a straight-line path throughout the casting stroke is so important to your becoming a good distance caster that you should think of what you’re doing as straight-line fly casting. (As I’m fond of saying, “All fly anglers know what a straight line is until you put a rod in their hand.”)

If you’re having trouble forming a tight loop on the forward cast, the clock-face analogy may help you. Imagine yourself at the center of a clock face. Twelve o’clock is directly above you, and nine o’clock is directly in front of you. Imagine also that the rod is the hour hand of the clock. If you’re forming an open loop on your forward cast, take note of where the shaft of the rod (just above the grip) is positioned when you stop the rod. If your rod is positioned at, say, 9:30 when you stop the rod, try to stop it higher—at 10:30 or maybe even 11:00 and see what effect this has on the loop.

The back cast is a mirror image of the forward cast. Therefore, the rod tip must move in a straight-line path throughout the back cast stroke as well. If your rod hand veers off the straight-line path, and you end the stroke with the rod tip significantly below the path of the following fly line, you will form an open loop on the back cast. Again, it may help you here, if you’re having trouble forming a tight loop on the back cast, to focus on stopping the rod higher—with the shaft pointed at, say, the 1:00 position.

Many fly casting instructors dislike the clock-face analogy—I believe it has limited application as well—but if you’re having trouble forming tight loops, you may find it of some value in helping to keep the rod tip on its straight-line path.

A major problem would-be distance casters have with forming tight loops is directly related to loading and unloading the rod. The typical caster, in an attempt to add power to his cast, swings right through the point where he should be stopping the rod. As we’ve seen, this causes the rod hand—and hence the rod tip—to veer off its straight path. In effect, the caster rips the loop open.

I can’t stress enough that distance fly casting has nothing to do with strength and has everything to do with developing good form, and that learning to form tight loops is a critical step toward developing that good form. Refine your ability to form tight loops and you’ll automatically add yards to your cast.

[To read Part Three of this series, click here.]

 

The Essentials of Distance Fly Casting: Part One

 

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Loading or bending the rod stores potential energy in the rod, analogous to drawing a bow to fire an arrow. Dig the shorts!

 

I’ve illustrated this series of posts with video clips made using Hudl Technique. This is an app that allows you to create video reviews of any athletic activity using slow-motion, stop-action, and drawing tools to highlight various aspects. Hudl is popular among amateur and professional sports coaches to critique player performance. I’ve found it a particularly useful tool to help teach fly casting. To get the full benefit from these clips, enable the HD quality and watch them in fullscreen mode, the controls to which are at the lower right of the screen.

Loading and Unloading the Rod

Without question, the most important aspect of distance fly casting is loading and unloading the rod. All the power you’re ever going to put into a cast is determined by how well you do this. Loading and unloading the rod properly is also the most difficult thing to learn in fly casting, so let’s take a close look at it.

In their simplest terms, loading the rod entails pulling the rod into a bend, and unloading the rod entails stopping the rod abruptly to force it out of a bend. Loading the rod is how we apply power to a cast: Pulling the rod into a bend stores potential energy along the length of the rod, just as an archer draws a bow into a bend to store potential energy along the length of the bow. Unloading the rod–that is, stopping it abruptly–is how we release all the power stored in the bent rod. Let’s get a clear idea of how we do this, because grasping it mentally is the first step toward being able to do it physically.

As I’ve said, the fly rod works similarly to a bow and arrow. A drawn bow has energy stored along its length. When you release the bowstring, the bow springs back into position and its energy is transferred into the arrow to propel it. To cast a fly line you pull the rod into a bend; i.e., loading the rod. To unload the rod you stop it abruptly. The energy stored in the bent rod is transferred into the fly line, propelling it either forward or backward. (In terms of fly rod mechanics, the forward cast and back cast are identical casts delivered in opposite directions.)

Unlike the archer, however, the fly caster has no fixed point to draw against to load the rod. You have to use the weight and inertia of the fly line to draw the rod into a bend. The way you do this is by accelerating the rod throughout the casting stroke.

Whether it’s lying on the ground or on the water, whether it’s in a straight line in the air behind you or in front of you, the fly line, for all intents and purposes, is at rest. Newton’s law of inertia states that objects at rest tend to remain at rest; that is, they resist our attempts to move them. When you use the rod to try to move the stationary fly line, the inertia of the fly line resists. This resistance pulls the rod into a slight bend. Now you’ve started the fly line moving toward the rod tip. To continue to pull the rod into a bend you have to continue to use the line’s inertia and move the rod tip faster than the speed of the following fly line. To continue to load the rod, you have to constantly move it faster–you have to accelerate the rod tip throughout the entire casting stroke.

If you move the rod tip through the casting stroke at a constant speed, the rod won’t bend. And if you hesitate even the slightest bit at any point in your stroke, the line will catch up with the rod and the rod will unload prematurely.

Perhaps the biggest problem I see among casters trying to gain more distance is that they apply too much speed and power to their casting stroke. Most casters I see use more than enough speed and power to deliver a fly 80 or more feet. The problem is that they apply it wildly or indiscriminately. In fact, I’ve never once had to tell a casting student to use more speed or power in their stroke–I’ve always had to tell them to use less. This is difficult to comprehend at first, but you need to understand that speed alone does virtually nothing to load a rod. Imagine a fly rod with 40 feet of line outside the tip. Imagine also that you could move this rod (through a vacuum) at a constant speed of 500 miles per hour. Because the rod and line are both traveling at the same speed, the rod will not bend. For the rod to bend, the rod tip must always be moving slightly faster than the speed of the following fly line. It’s not speed itself that loads a rod, it’s the gradual increase in speed: the acceleration.

Fly casters who equate a fast casting stroke with a powerful casting stroke usually begin their stroke much too quickly. Using too much speed at the beginning of the casting stroke will overpower the rod, sending shock waves into the line and destroying your cast. Instead, a good casting stroke begins slowly. What’s important is that it gradually, continually gains speed throughout the entire stroke. The most efficient casting stroke begins to pull the rod into a bend as soon as the rod tip moves, and it gradually continues to pull the rod deeper into that bend throughout the entire stroke. It’s a smooth, continuous acceleration. The rod tip travels relatively slowly during much of the casting stroke (though it’s actually moving a bit faster all the time) and moves quickly only during the final portion of the stroke, just before you stop the rod abruptly to unload it.

Think again of the bow and arrow. Imagine that you want to achieve maximum power and distance. I probably don’t have to tell you that how quickly you draw the bow is irrelevant; drawing the bow quickly doesn’t determine how much potential power you put into it. How much power you put into the bow is determined by how deeply you draw the bow. The same principle applies to fly casting. The potential power of a cast is determined not by how quickly you draw the rod into a bend, but by how deeply.

My most powerful fly casts don’t feel particularly fast–my most powerful casts feel as if I’ve loaded the rod deeply. Remember: The objective of the casting stroke is not to get the rod or line moving quickly. The only objective of any casting stroke is to pull the rod into a bend.

Feeling the rod bending under the fly line’s inertia is fairly subtle. One reason I try to get students to slow down their casting stroke is because if you swing too fast you won’t feel the rod loading. You can cast a good amount of line with a fairly slow rate of acceleration, provided you load the rod efficiently. And being able to feel the rod loading is critical to your developing a good casting stroke.

Some years ago I had the opportunity to watch a demonstration by Mark Sedotti, who is both an amazing distance caster as well as an amazing showman. He said something at that demonstration that I’ve been thinking about ever since. He said, “All of the exceptional casters I see load the rod more slowly than everyone else.”

Once you’ve loaded the rod, unloading it properly will ensure that you transfer all of the energy from the bent rod into the fly line. The proper way to unload the rod is to stop the rod abruptly.

Think once more of the bow and arrow. If you want to achieve maximum distance and power, you wouldn’t let the bowstring creep forward before releasing it. Rather, you’d release it at full draw, and all at once. The same holds true for the fly rod. For maximum power, you need to unload the rod when it’s fully bent, and you need to unload it all at once. The only way you can do this is by stopping the rod abruptly. If you bring the rod to a gradual stop, it’s going to start unloading while you’re slowing down. If you decelerate the rod tip before coming to a stop, you won’t get the full potential out of the rod. To get maximum potential out of the rod you have to stop it dead.

Many fly anglers have trouble with this concept because it goes against common sense. If you were trying to drive a golf ball 200 yards or if you were trying to throw a baseball a long distance, you wouldn’t stop the stroke. Rather, you’d follow through with maximum power. However, the fly casting stroke is different from almost every other sports stroke you can think of in that the fly casting stroke must stop abruptly. One of the main problems I see with fly anglers trying to cast distance is that they follow through with maximum power rather than stopping the rod. They’re trying to throw that fastball.

You’ll often hear fly anglers talk about the need to “hit” or “punch” a long, powerful cast. These terms create exactly the wrong impression, and I suggest you drop them from your vocabulary. A good fly cast is nothing like a punch. If you were throwing a punch at a punching bag, you wouldn’t start slowly and accelerate gradually. You’d apply as much speed and power as you could from the outset; your fist would bolt forward like a spring. Nor would you stop your fist at the bag: You’d reach beyond that and try to punch through the other side of the bag.

And this is exactly what I see most fly casters doing when they try to gain distance. Rather than stopping the rod abruptly, they reach through the point where they should be stopping and try to “punch” the cast. Regardless of how much power they may think they’re putting into the cast, they’re actually decelerating the rod. By failing to stop the rod abruptly you suck energy out of the cast.

To think about it another way, imagine a car traveling 50 miles per hour when the driver hits the brakes. The car comes to a stop over a number of yards, but everything inside the car remains intact. Now imagine this same car hitting a brick wall. The car stops dead. Every object inside the car that is not secured becomes a projectile. This is what happens during a good fly cast. The rod stops abruptly—as if hitting a wall—and the fly line becomes a projectile.

It was a huge revelation to me when I finally learned (after more years than I care to admit) that my job as a caster is simply to bend the rod and stop the rod—it’s the rod that fires the fly line. In a very real sense, my learning to fly cast was a process of learning to take myself out of the cast.

The casters you often see flailing away at the casting pool of the fly fishing shows, straining to heave the fly line into the backstop, have not really learned to load and unload the rod properly. Rather, they’re bypassing the rod and are simply hurling fly line back and forth with their rod arm. In truth, you can bypass the rod and throw a fair amount of fly line with your arm, but such a rug-beating act doesn’t hold together when any real pressure is put on it. In short, you will never be able to throw as much line with your arm, or do it as effectively or as powerfully or as easily, as you will by learning to cast it.

When you learn to load the rod smoothly and gradually and to unload it abruptly, when you learn to stop throwing line with your arm and let the rod sling it, I assure you that delivering a fly 70 or more feet will be as effortless as the top casters make it look.

[To read Part Two of this series click here.]

 

The Essentials of Distance Fly Casting: Introduction

 

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Your ability to cast a long line is determined by the integrity of your basic casting stroke.

The popularity of saltwater fly fishing on the East Coast exploded in the early 1990s with the resurgence of the striped bass population. Suddenly, fly shops were popping up everywhere throughout New England, and it seemed that everybody was fly fishing in salt water—including a large number of people who had never fly fished before.

Today, as it was then, many fly anglers who come to the salt for the first time are unprepared for its challenges. Even longtime freshwater anglers, who may have 20 or more years of experience fishing for trout, freshwater bass, and panfish, often find themselves at a disadvantage when they try to play the saltwater game. And without question, the greatest challenge to saltwater fly anglers is the casting. Although a 30-foot cast will allow you to fish effectively on most trout waters, a cast restricted to 30 feet is going to diminish your chances for success in salt water.

Anglers new to saltwater fly fishing often wonder how far they actually need to cast to be successful. Joan Wulff, in her book Fly Casting Techniques, suggests that to fly fish effectively anywhere in the world, you must be able to cast 50 feet under all conditions. This is sound advice that many 50-foot casters will misinterpret. If your longest cast is 50 feet, you’re not going to be able to cast 50 feet when faced with a 12-knot wind. (Remember: 50 feet under all conditions.) Fly fish in salt water long enough and you’re sure to find yourself in situations that require you to use the equivalent of a 70- or 80-foot cast in order to drive the fly 50 feet.

Casting requirements will differ according to gamefish species and location. For example, fly fishing for striped bass and bluefish in the Northeast is, with a few exceptions, a game of covering water: The more water your fly swims through, the more fish it will pass, and the better your chances of hooking up. In such situations, a 70-foot cast will cover more than twice the water of a 30-foot cast. Sight-fishing for bonefish, on the other hand, often requires you to deliver a fly 50 or 60 feet quickly and accurately to intercept a moving target, and you usually have to contend with some wind. But no matter where you fish—fresh water as well as salt—the better you can cast, the better your chances are of taking fish.

The subject of distance fly casting is muddled with misinformation—a state of affairs to which the internet has contributed. Perhaps the greatest piece of misinformation  that still persists is that learning to double haul is prerequisite to making a long cast. Without question, the double haul is an invaluable casting tool, but it’s not the basis for distance fly casting. A good caster can deliver a fly 70 or more feet without hauling.

The truth about distance casting is so simple that most fly fishers refuse to believe it: Your ability to cast a long line is determined by the integrity of your basic casting stroke. Once you refine your basic stroke—that is, your rod-arm mechanics—you’ll be able to make a long cast with a very modest effort, and you’ll be able to do it without hauling. As evidence of this, take a look at the following video, shot in slow-motion, in which I deliver a cast of nearly 80 feet–without hauling and with a fairly modest effort. [For best effect, enable the HD and watch it in fullscreen mode, the controls to which are at the bottom right of the screen.] 

I’m convinced that all good distance casters have mastered three fundamentals of fly casting: First, they all load and unload the rod properly. Second, they all form tight loops. And third, they all lengthen their casting stroke when they need to make a long cast. Individual mechanics may vary somewhat, but these three fundamentals are constants.

In the following four posts in this series we’re going to take a look at the essentials of distance fly casting and how they work together to deliver a long line. It’s my hope that you’ll gain a better understand of the requirements of a long fly cast and that you ultimately can use this information to add some distance and power to your own cast.

[To read Part One of this series click here.]