Lengthening the Casting Stroke
The video clip illustrating this post was made with an app called Hudl Technique. For best effect, enable the HD quality and watch the clip in fullscreen mode, the controls to which are at the bottom right of the screen.
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In Part One of this series we said that the potential power of a cast depends on how deeply you bend or load the rod. A very short casting stroke might load the rod sufficiently to deliver a fly 30 or 40 feet, but to deliver a fly a longer distance you must pull the rod into a deeper bend. One of the major problems I see with fly anglers making the transition from fresh to salt water is that they try to do all of their casting with a single stroke length. That is, their rod hand moves the same distance during the stroke regardless of whether they’re making a 40-foot cast, or they’re trying to make a 70-foot cast.
When we try to load the rod deeper using a very short casting stroke, troubles arise. A forceful load combined with a very short casting stroke often results in your shocking the rod and destroying the cast. Remember that a good casting stroke is a smooth, gradual acceleration. Shock the rod and you’ll destroy the cast every time. Often a short, jerky casting stroke produces what’s known as a tailing loop (also known as a cross loop). A tailing loop forms when the rod unloads above, rather than below, the path of the following fly line; the loop is crossed rather than open-ended. Tailing loops can tie knots in your leader (fly anglers refer to these as “wind knots,” although they have nothing to do with the wind), and in severe instances tailing loops can even tie knots in your fly line. Tailing loops may also be caused by using too short of a stroke for the amount of bend in the rod, or by using too short of a stroke for the amount of line you have outside the rod tip.
To load a rod deeply without shocking it, you must accelerate the rod over a longer distance; that is, you need to use a longer casting stroke.
There’s a school of thought in fly casting that says if you need to make a longer forward stroke, simply make a longer back cast stroke. I’ve seen some excellent casters cast this way, but I don’t cast this way myself, nor do I teach this method, as I’m convinced it’s a less efficient set of mechanics (I detail the reasons for this in Lesson Seven of my book Master the Cast: Fly Casting in Seven Lesson).
To lengthen the stroke for my forward cast I use drift. Drift is a repositioning of the rod after the conclusion of the back cast stroke. After you stop the rod on the back cast and the loop of line is unrolling behind you, your elbow leaves your side and you reach upward and backward with your rod hand, allowing the tip of the rod to drift back a bit. This move sets you up to bring the rod through a longer forward stroke—that is, a wider casting arc. You are able to load the rod more deeply over a longer distance without shocking it and make a long delivery with a very modest effort. (Drift in the forward direction—that is, after the rod unloads on the forward cast—is called follow-through.)
Drift is virtually impossible to see until you understand the mechanics. To the untrained eye, drift is inseparable from the the casting stroke; the back cast stroke and the drift appear as if they’re a single motion. But they’re not—they’re two separate entities. First the rod hand stops to unload the rod on the back cast; then, while the back cast is unrolling, the rod hand reaches upward and backward. The drift move exists outside the back cast stroke and arc and is enacted without power. I think of drift and follow-through as a relaxing in the direction of the unrolling cast.
How long you need to make your drift in order to deliver the fly a given distance depends on a number of factors; there are no concrete answers. For example, the length of our arms is in direct proportion to our height. Therefore, at 6 feet tall, my arms are longer than those of a caster who is, say, 5 feet, 7 inches tall. With equal equipment, this caster would have to bring his rod hand through a longer distance, in proportion to his body, to achieve a stroke length equal to mine—so he’ll probably have to drift a bit farther back than I will to make the same cast. (For the purposes of instruction, I’ve made a very long drift in the above video review.) As you progress as a fly caster you’ll come to know, by feel and experience more than anything else, what will be required of you physically, in terms of stroke length and the application of power, in order to deliver a fly to a distant target. The more you refine the three fundamentals we’ve discussed—loading and unloading the rod, forming tight loops, and lengthening the casting stroke—the easier everything will become.