The Essentials of Distance Fly Casting: Part Three

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.

11 thoughts on “The Essentials of Distance Fly Casting: Part Three

  1. George
    You often refer to shocking the rod. What exactly does that mean. I think of it as the rod is bent and straightens causing it to vibrate sending shock waves down the line. My casting coach thinks it means only to force the tip path bellow the straight line path.
    Jeff

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  2. Jeff, thanks for the question.

    When I speak of shocking the rod, I’m talking about an excess of force, often at the beginning of the stroke, that ultimately damages the cast.

    Even on a good fly cast the path of the rod tip falls slightly beneath the straight-line path when the rod unloads. Also, on a good fly cast, when the rod tip bounces back after the rod unloads, you often can see a tiny shock wave in the fly line. A good fly cast requires a smooth, gradual application of power. A very sudden, very forceful application of power–shocking the rod–creates an aberration, as you can see in the video review in Part One of this series.

    I believe very soft fly rods are excellent learning tools because they require a very smooth application of power to cast well. Try to load them too suddenly or too forcefully and you’ll kill the cast every time.

    I hope this helps to clarify.

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  3. Even on a good fly cast the path of the rod tip falls slightly beneath the straight-line path when the rod unloads

    How does this happen? If the rod tip is on a straight line path and unloads the distance from butt to tip has to increase and should send tip above slp.

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  4. Jeff, to address your question I’ve added a video clip to Part Two of the series, which deals with loop formation. In my experience, when the rod tip finishes above the straight-line path or the path of the following fly line the result is a tailing loop.

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  5. George
    Thanks for the help. I see now what you are referring to when you say the rod unloads bellow slp. I see it as dropping bellow slp AFTER the rod unloads and counter flexes bellow slp.

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    • “If the rod tip is on a straight line path and unloads the distance from butt to tip has to increase and should send tip above slp.”

      The distance form the butt to tip does indeed increase during unloading and lengthen the rod.

      However, when the tip is close to directly overhead, the caster should be entering the fastest rotational acceleration of the rod and merging into the power snap and stop. So, as the rod is unloading and lengthening, it is lengthening in a continuouly more horizontal direction as rotation continues.

      When the rod unloads completely at the rod straight position, it is below the trajectory of the fly line it is pulling along behind it.

      That is the reason for the saying; “short cast; short stroke….long cast; long stroke”

      Cheers,
      Jim C

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  6. I would like to discuss a previous statement.

    “However, when the tip is close to directly overhead, the caster should be entering the fastest rotational acceleration of the rod and merging into the power snap and stop. So, as the rod is unloading and lengthening, it is lengthening in a continuouly more horizontal direction as rotation continues.”

    When the tip is close to directly overhead, I assume reference is to the tip being in the middle of the casting arc. When the tip is in this position I would argue the fastest rotational acceleration should be over not entering it. When the tip is directly overhead ,centered in the arc, the tip is as close as it will get to the rod butt. For this to have happened maximize acceleration had to have already occurred. The angle of the rod butt is at the end of the arc and the tip lags behind , deceleration begins and rod begins to unload and approach counter flex. It is the counter flex after rod straight position that drops the tip bellow the slp . As soon as the line travels faster than the rod tip we have loop formation.

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  7. Hi Jeff,
    I hope you didn’t and don’t take offense at my attempts at clarification. Technical discussions and symantics, I’ve noticed, can unintentionally ruffle feathers and create unintended animosity. In fact, even the experts can’t agree on the definitions of the components of a fly cast. I’m thinking maybe I shoulda and should just keep my mouth shut and my hackle wet. ;>)

    But I’m hoping that’s not the case here and will try to elaborate on what I think is going on during a cast which is a little different from what you think is going on. There are numerous theories and styles out there by very accomplished fly casters, many of whom disagree on both what is happening and what the caster should do to either cause or prevent them from happening.

    So the below is just one more guy’s thoughts on it, and this guy doesn’t have a doctorate or even a degree in physics.

    ‘When the tip is close to directly overhead, I assume reference is to the tip being in the middle of the casting arc.’ Yes, or close to it.

    “When the tip is in this position I would argue the fastest rotational acceleration should be over not entering it. When the tip is directly overhead ,centered in the arc, the tip is as close as it will get to the rod butt. For this to have happened maximize acceleration had to have already occurred.”

    I think you are conflating rod load with rod tip acceleration. The rod butt should continue accelerating as will the rod tip after max rod bend (aka; MCL – Minimum Cord Length.) The rod is at its maximum bend at that point in the cast largely because the pull angle of the line on the rod is roughly perpendicular. In that narrow angle before and after perpendicular, the rod will bend more under the same load than it did earlier in the cast – allowing for SLP (relatively Straight Line Path of the tip.)

    “The angle of the rod butt is at the end of the arc and the tip lags behind, deceleration begins and rod begins to unload and approach counter flex.”

    The tip does lag behind of course, but the rod butt should still be accelerating beyond where it was at the “maximum rod bend” or “ minimum cord length” point (whichever term you prefer.)
    If not, the rod will unload prematurely, the previous SLP will be lost because the tip will rise above the line it is pulling, and a tailing loop will result.

    The unloading rod after “max rod bend” is actually accelerating the tip almost to RSP (rod straight position) as it unloads, transferring that stored energy into the line. Continuing the acceleration helps delay the unloading (as does the haul if applied late in rotation) and maintains SLP to the stop.

    “It is the counter flex after rod straight position that drops the tip bellow the slp . As soon as the line travels faster than the rod tip we have loop formation.”

    Yes (presuming no haul) the loop forms as you say, but tailing loops are formed before counterflex, during the actual cast.

    So the more the rod is bent at the max bend point, the greater the rotational acceleration (and/or haul) must be after that point to achieve SLP by preventing the rod from unloading too soon. And that rotation will put the tip at the rod straight position just below the line it is pulling along behind it at the rod straight position. That is why most instructors stress “smooth acceleration”, and “accelerate to a hard stop”, and “most acceleration should occur toward the end of the cast”.

    So if a person is casting really well to a certain distance, has a great backcast, good turnaround timing, and tight loops, but begins getting tailing loops at greater distances, the chances are he has too narrow (acute) a casting arc (angle) or is rotating the rod butt to his maximum acceleration too early in the stroke, or is hauling too soon – often two or all of the above.

    Counterflex primarily controls the initial loop size. High line speed will cause a good cast with a large initial loop size from a big counterflex to “morph” into a narrow loop due to air drag on the loop face.

    However, this is all basically esoteric gibberish which is not nearly as beneficial as George’s easily understood and logical program of casting for distance and power. I didn’t know any of this stuff at all until 5 or 6 years ago and have been catching all kinds of fish on flies and poppers since I was 12 without knowing any of it.

    George, in fact, wrote an article about a casting technique I’ve been using myself for at least 40 years that I didn’t even think was possible after reading his article. It was only through enhanced video of my own cast that I discovered I was doing exactly as he said – what I thought was impossible just weeks before.

    So, you are forewarned ; I already have a history of thinking exactly backwards.
    I am Jim and I agree with this post – at least for now.

    Cheers,
    Jim

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  8. Jim
    I am a featherless friend that enjoys the casting mechanics. Thanks for your thoughts and comments.
    “The tip does lag behind of course, but the rod butt should still be accelerating beyond where it was at the “maximum rod bend” or “ minimum cord length” point (whichever term you prefer.)
    If not, the rod will unload prematurely, the previous SLP will be lost because the tip will rise above the line it is pulling, and a tailing loop will result.”
    Here is where I am having a problem understanding. If the rod is at maximum bend and we continue accelerating rod butt rotationaly won’t the rod continue to bend more shortening the cord length even more ? How can one continue accelerating beyond maximum bend without increasing bend even more ?

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    • Hi Jeff,

      ”If the rod is at maximum bend and we continue accelerating rod butt rotationaly won’t the rod continue to bend more shortening the cord length even more ? How can one continue accelerating beyond maximum bend without increasing bend even more ?”

      That is a great question for the technical casting forum at Sexyloops which is filled with competition distance casters and many engineers and physicists with doctoral degrees who have written theses on casting.

      One, I think, is that the Max Bend point is the point within the casting arc at which, during one specific cast, the caster has decided is the optimum place for it to be, given his trajectory, the amount of line he’s carrying, how far he wants to cast and so on. Nearly no one on the planet even knows what it is much less that they are constantly changing it. They shift that point back and forth through experience casting, depending on the distance cast, the trajectory desired, the amount of line they are carrying, the rod properties and so on..

      On distance casts, given the recovery rate of modern saltwater rods especially, the caster has to time the rotation and the haul so that the Max Bend does not occur so early that he cannot continue rotating and hauling fast enough in the remainer of the casting stroke to prevent the rod from unloading too soon and causing a tail.

      The way I see it, by definition, there is only one Max Bend point per cast. So it is not possible to bend the rod more after it occurs through acceleration or any other means because then it would no longer be the Max Bend point – the Max Bend point would then be later during the stroke.

      The big problem in distance casting is exactly where to place it so that, combined with a haul, the caster achieves maximum line speed at or close to loop formation and that the loop then flies on the proper trajectory to its intended spot without tailing.

      By “where to place it” I don’t mean where in space relative to the caster’s head. I mean where it occurs in the varying angle between the rod butt and line the tip is pulling. The “where” is not a point in space but an angle.

      Take a look at a circular clock face and imagine a pickup starting at the 3 o’clock position. Now look at the two minute marks above the ”3” and notice how little the rod tip will move IN THE DIRECTION OF THE CAST if rotated up to the second minute mark from the 3 o’clock mark – which is also how far it is moving (accelerating) the line.

      Now look at the minute marks either side of the 12 o’clock mark (12 degrees of rotation just like above) and you will see a marked increase in the distance the rod tip and line moves IN THE DIRECTION OF THE CAST.

      The reverse happens past the perpendicular, and rotational acceleration has to speed incredibly to just slow down the rod unbending (unloading) because each degree the butt moves beyond the perpendicular moves the tip (and consequently the line attached to it) less and less in the direction of the cast per degree of rotation. If you continued beyond the 9 o’clock position it would actually be going backwards.

      So rotation beyond Max Bend is increasingly downward, away from the direction of the cast, to counteract the straightening (unloading) of the rod up into and above the path of the line it is pulling.

      I got a camera a couple months ago that will take video at 240 frames/sec, and took videos of two backcasts using a 28 year old rod with a billfish line on it. The total time between MCL and RSP was 56 milliseconds (0.056 seconds.) With a lighter, new rod and line it would be much faster I am sure.

      So if someone (or me) told me that cast would have been much better if I had waited 10 milliseconds longer before hauling and added 10 milliseconds to my casting arc – could I actually do it? That’s almost a 20% difference even though it’s only one hundredth of a second. And secondly, is he even right about it – given my own physiology?

      I think when it comes to casting, those correlations and computations regarding acceleration, timing , trajectory etc. are what the coaches call “muscle memory” and are based on the results experienced through the senses (all of which re-inforce each other), and which, I think, are stored in the subconscious mind. The more successful repetitions the stronger the “muscle memory” becomes.

      I think what happens with sensory repetition is that all the good results cause a good mental feeling that imbeds those muscle reactions which caused it into the subconscious, and deletes the existing ones resulting in mediocre results. Eventually, the caster is able to cast without any thought to the cast at all and can cast in pitch darkness perfectly competently without any visual input on the forward cast either.

      I also think the primary reason why many casters have so much trouble is because they have eliminated one of the primary senses, eyesight, from half their casting stroke, and never get to the point where they have any feeling of line tension in the line hand because there isn’t any tension there.

      That is one of the things that led me to this site. I watched George’s “10 steps to distance” DVD. George starts with the backcast, pounds on the backcast, gets his students to look at the backcast results, and to feel the backcast results.

      One cannot develop a good forward cast without a good backcast and he re-iterates this frequently throughout his casting program.

      The actual physical mechanics and minutia of the cast are interesting to some, including me, or I wouldn’t have bought that camera; but they are by no means as important as basic knowledge and time on the rod handle, in my opinion, either for developing casting skill or for the enjoyment of the sport.
      Cheers,
      Jim

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