Slide Loading: Spotting the Elephant in the Room

The following post appeared, in slightly different form, as a feature article in Tail #27, January/February 2017. My intent was to spotlight current technologies that have the potential to positively impact the way fly casting is learned and taught—namely, high-speed digital photography, slow-motion video, and video sports analysis applications—technologies that were not available when I was learning to cast. I use the controversial technique of slide loading as an example of how we can use the technology to see what’s actually happening in the cast—as opposed to what we believe, or say, is happening.

My only wish was that the photos in the published piece had been a bit larger to show the differences in hand positions between the conventional double haul and slide loading. I’ve tried to rectify this here. Also, at the end of each photo sequence I’ve included a video review created with the Hudl Technique to highlight the differences in the two techniques, as well as to highlight the app’s potential as a learning and teaching tool for fly casting.

My thanks to former editor of Tail, Josh Wrigley, for helping me formulate this piece, and to Joe Ballarini for publishing it. Thanks also to Jamil Siddiqui and Amy Riechenbach for their high-speed, high-resolution digital photography. I couldn’t have done it without you.

For a more detailed treatment of the Hudl Technique app, please take a look at my blog post devoted  to it.

Delivery

Some fly casting instructors doubt whether slide loading is an actual event. Others view it as an error. High-speed digital photography, slow-motion video, and a sports analysis app allow us to examine it in detail.

If you’ve taken fly casting lessons, you know the drill: The fly casting coach instructs you on proper mechanics and technique, observes your cast, analyzes it, and then offers you feedback to refine your game. Ideally you’ll use this feedback to direct regular practice sessions, resulting in a higher level of performance. For a saltwater fly angler, this means a longer, more powerful, more accurate cast. In subsequent lessons your coach will offer further instruction, analysis, and feedback. Again you’ll take this feedback into your practice sessions—and so on. Like any physical skill, the fly cast is built over time with practice.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway. In reality, rarely does anyone transition from novice to expert smoothly along a consistent timeline. For the coach’s part, success depends (among other things) on the quality of his or her observations and feedback. To analyze the fly cast in real time presents challenges. While the technique of a beginner is relatively easy to assess, the same is not true of the more advanced caster. The better a fly caster you are, the less obvious your errors, and the more difficult it will be for a coach to accurately observe and analyze your technique. This is particularly true when your coach can observe your cast only in real time—in person—and has no permanent record to which he can refer. Add to this that all coaches bring to the process their own perceptions, biases, and assumptions. And frankly, not all coaches agree on what constitutes proper fly casting mechanics or technique.

To further muddle things, coaches are not always clear on what’s happening in their own cast: What we think we’re doing is sometimes very different from what we’re actually doing, and our teaching reflects this skewed view.

Over the past few years, high-speed digital photography and slow-motion video have become affordable to the average person. Today, anyone with a smartphone can shoot  high-quality video at 120 frames per second (with a GoPro camera you can double that). Until fairly recently the software used to analyze sports video was available only to well-funded professional and college teams. If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can download one of these apps for free and start using it today to analyze your fly cast. This technology provides a permanent resource for fly casting analysis that is accurate, objective, and free from bias. In a word, the camera doesn’t lie. And the ability to record and play back video in slow motion allows us to view aspects of the cast that are difficult, if not impossible, to see in real time. If you’re among the 60 percent of the population who are visual learners, your being able to see yourself cast on video likely will have a much greater impact on your progress than simply listening to your coach’s verbal critique.

In the following article we’re going to take a look at one of the more popular sports analysis apps and how you can use it to improve your own casting. We’ll then use the app, along with high-speed digital photography, to take a look at the little-understood, highly controversial adaptation of the double haul known as slide loading.

Here’s Hudl

Formerly Ubersense, Hudl Technique is one of several popular apps that can be used to record and analyze video in a wide variety of sports. You can download the app onto an iOS or Android smartphone (the basic app is free), but using it on a tablet will allow you to better see the cast and give you a larger workspace. (I shoot all my video and create Hudl video reviews using an iPad Air 2.) Features and functions of most interest to fly casters include:

  • Slow-motion video up to 240 frames per second (if supported by device) allows you to see things you could not see in real time
  • Variable playback rate to 1/8 speed
  • Stop-action and “scrubbing” allows you move through the clip frame by frame
  • Clock measuring in 1/100 second increments allows you to pinpoint precise moments in the cast
  • Zoom function lets you view details
  • Drawing tools—various lines, arrows, circles, boxes, angles, text, all available in a variety of colors—allow you to highlight various aspects of the cast
  • Voiced-over reviews, either single or comparison reviews

The app’s value as a learning tool is its ability to create a visual record of progress, provide instant feedback, and provide permanent feedback in the form of reviews.

Your first videos should be your baseline cast in whatever areas or aspects you wish to improve. This could be your basic cast, your distance cast, loop formation, double haul, quick cast, etc.

Take the app with you to casting lessons—even if your coach doesn’t know how to use the technology. If there’s something your coach wishes to correct in your cast, video it, then take a short break to review the clip together. You can even video your coach demonstrating proper technique for comparison. You cannot overestimate the value of this sort of visual feedback to your learning.

Creating a video review will give you permanent feedback (at this writing, the review feature of Hudl is available only on iOS devices). When you tap the microphone icon at the top of the screen, the app will begin to record all playback features, drawings, and speech. A simple review could consist of you and your coach scrubbing through the video clip frame by frame with him talking about various aspects of your cast and how you might improve it. If you wish, you can use the drawing tools to highlight the things he points out. There’s really no wrong way to make a review as long as it helps you to progress.

The Hudl app offers you a number of ways to share videos with others. This would allow you to have your cast critiqued by a coach on the other side of the country or the other side of the world, provided they have the app.

I’m not particularly tech-savvy, but after spending ten minutes with this technology I was convinced it’s going to change the way fly casting is learned and taught.

Let’s use the app, along with high-speed digital photography, to take a close look at my double haul—and what might be “wrong” with it.

Haul as I Say, Not as I Do

A haul is simply a pull on the fly line during the casting stroke. Pulling fly line through the guides during the stroke enhances your cast in a number of ways, including a deeper load on the rod, higher line speed, and a tighter loop.

When I was learning to cast, the prevailing explanation of the double haul prescribed that you execute the haul in synch with the final stage of acceleration—that portion of the stroke in which the rod butt rotates toward the underside of the forearm on a forward cast (or away from the forearm on a back cast). Joan Wulff calls this part of the stroke the power snap, Lefty Kreh calls it the speed-up-and-stop—analogous to what the Federation of Fly Fishers has termed rotation. For example, during the back cast, your rod hand and line hand move in the same direction during the first stage of acceleration. Then, during the second stage of the stroke, your rod hand and line hand accelerate in opposite directions. After the rod unloads, and while the loop of line is unrolling behind you, your line hand moves toward the first stripping guide to give back line (at the same speed the unrolling cast wants to take it); the line hand finishes at a position near the reel as the fly line straightens. For the forward cast, the rod hand and line hand move forward together during the first stage of acceleration. Then, during the final stage of acceleration the rod hand continues forward to complete the casting stroke while the line hand accelerates opposite that to execute the haul. (The late Mel Krieger, who was among the most influential fly casting instructors of his era, created a very popular pantomime exercise to teach the double haul—he called the hauling movement “downup”—that is still widely used by casting coaches today.)

[FYI: In the following photographs and videos I’m casting a Loomis NRX 9-foot, 8-weight rod lined with an 8-weight Wulff Triangle Taper fly line in orange.]

Figures 1 through 8—the conventional double haul. The caster hauls on the back cast stroke (Figures 1 and 2). As the back cast unrolls (Figure 3) the line hand moves toward the first stripping guide to give back line, finishing at a position near the reel as the line straightens (Figure 4). On the forward cast the rod hand and line hand move forward together during the first part of the stroke (Figure 5). During the second part of the stroke the hands accelerate in opposite directions, completing the forward stroke and haul (Figures 6 through 8).

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Figure 1

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Figure 2

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Figure 3

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Figure 4

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Figure 5

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Figure 6

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Figure 7

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Figure 8

I learned to haul according to the above description, and this is how I would teach hauling to students. However, at some point I realized my actual double haul was different than my explanation, the version I was teaching—but I couldn’t explain how. It felt to me that I was hauling throughout the entire stroke—but I knew that had to be wrong. This puzzled me for several years, until I was finally able to see myself double haul on slow-motion video. To my surprise, my double haul looked different from what it was supposed to. It wasn’t until I reread Joan Wulff’s Fly Casting Techniques and found the short passage on her adaptation of the double haul, and read it with new eyes, as if for the first time (in truth I’d probably read it a dozen or more times previously), that I realized I was slide loading.

In the 2012 revision to her original work, Joan Wulff writes: “This technique is contrary to most instructors’ teaching of double hauls, but I promise you that the best casters eventually do it naturally, whether they know it or not. I didn’t know it until I saw slow-motion film of one of my early casting compadres, Johnny Dieckman, slide loading while demonstrating a double haul. I then focused on my own line hand and found that I too was doing it—unconsciously!”

In slide loading, while the fly line is unrolling during the back cast, the rod hand starts forward through the stroke while the line hand is still giving back line. As strange as it seems, during the first part of the stroke the rod tip slides forward along the fly line with no actual load on the rod. When the rod hand and line hand meet and the back cast straightens, the weight of the line is felt suddenly. At this point, the rod hand is positioned to execute the second part of the stroke (power snap) and the line hand is positioned to execute the haul.

A number of casting instructors have opined that they do not consider slide loading a real event. Still others have equated it to a casting error—creep or drag. I can appreciate this: Slide loading breaks the rules. In particular, it violates the widely held principle that slack line should be kept to an absolute minimum (a principle with which I agree in virtually all instances). Slide loading also effectively shortens the length of the casting stroke—remember, during the first part of the stroke there is no line tension nor any load on the rod. This violates the tenet that a long casting stroke is required to make a long cast.

The camera doesn’t lie, however. High-speed digital photography and the Hudl Technique provide evidence that slide loading is indeed a real event, and when it’s done properly there is no negative impact on the cast. In particular, no tailing loop results from the shorter casting stroke.

Figures 9 through 16—slide loading. The back cast stroke and haul are executed as they are with the conventional double haul (Figures 9 and 10). However, as the back cast unrolls (Figure 11), the rod hand begins forward through the stroke while the line hand gives back line. The rod tip slides forward along the fly line with no load on the rod (Figures 12 and 13). When the hands come together and the fly line straightens, the weight of the line is felt suddenly (Figure 14). The caster is now in position to execute the haul (Figures 15 and 16).

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Figure 9

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Figure 10

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Figure 11

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Figure 12

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Figure 13

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Figure 14

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Figure 15

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Figure 16

Nobody taught me to slide load. My double haul simply developed this way without my knowledge—probably over a number of years. But why…? Having had a couple of decades to think about it since discovering it in my cast, I believe it has to do with the evolution of rhythm, timing, and efficiency in technique.

When I perform it now, the traditional double haul feels clunky to me—as does Mel Krieger’s pantomime exercise—like single casts strung together. It has no flow. Slide loading gives the casting sequence a feeling of wholeness. There’s a much nicer cadence. The casting strokes and hauls flow seamlessly. There’s never a question where in the stroke to place the haul. Slide loading automatically positions you to execute the haul, and the timing is determined by feel. You’ll feel the weight of the fly line suddenly—dramatically—and that’s your cue to haul. My timing is better with slide loading than with the conventional haul—and if your timing is better your cast will be better. With slide loading I don’t have to drift as far on my back cast to make a long delivery, making for a more efficient stroke.

I don’t believe slide loading by itself bends the rod any deeper than does the traditional double haul, but the camera suggests that it bends the rod as deeply—certainly enough to cast as far as you would need in any practical fishing situation.

Let me make it clear that I’m not suggesting slide loading is superior to the traditional double haul—or even something you should necessarily work toward.  I believe your cast will either develop this way on its own—or it won’t. And if it doesn’t, I don’t think you should be concerned in the least. In fact, I think the double haul is the least important factor in a long cast; you’ll make much greater gains in distance and power by mastering the fundamentals—loading and unloading the rod, loop formation, etc.—the principles that are covered in every basic casting lesson.

When I became aware of slide loading, something strange happened: I began to see it in the fly casts of others—often in its embryonic phase (that is, just a hint), other times in its full-blown form. And a number of these slide loaders were instructors whose explanation of the double haul fell more in line with the traditional. Whether they were aware of what they were doing I can only speculate.

Whether you’re a fly angler looking to improve your cast, or you’re a fly casting coach who strives to stay on the cutting edge of instruction, the Hudl Technique will give you a new, very different set of eyes. I suggest you download the app and try it for yourself. What you see may enlighten you.

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