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.]