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.]