Fly Casting: Distance, Technique, Effort and Practice – Redux

Recently, I spent five or six practice sessions concentrating on tuning up my back cast to get rid of some bad habits that returned during a long fishing trip.  Structural restoration has been achieved but deeply grooving the changes is ongoing work. Doing that work led to me further clarify my thinking on the relationship between distance and technique. Within that relationship effort is the key performance indicator of the health and wellbeing of my technique.  Less effort means better technique and vice versa. Less is more. Using more effort than is (absolutely) necessarily means my technique could be improved. More is less. 

I’ve known that for a long time now but I keep revisiting the well and every visit provides fresh insight as I learn more about the reach and importance of this simple idea. It means so much more than “don’t heave” or “stay smooth”.

Here are my conclusions after reflecting on my recent experience. I’m assuming they have general application but please note that they come from personal experience and what you do with them is up to you.

1. If you have the technique you can go long and it will be easy and effortless. 

2. If you don’t have the technique going long will be difficult and you will probably heave (because that’s instinctive) which will compound rather than fix the problem(s).  Let’s bring that to a sharp point. You need sound technique to go long but going for maximum distance won’t give you sound technique. Cart before horse problem.

To bring both these conclusions into a practical focus, we can improve technique effectively and sustainably (only) by gradually extending carry and distance achieved on delivery.  I practice this way, often, and (try to) make a habit of making a longer smoother stroke instead of a shorter punchier stroke to cast a given distance.

When the limits of technique are reached it’s time to back up, get back in the groove, tidy up, restore order and only then advance once more. Repeat as required. Effort is no substitute for efficiency.  Yeah, trust me, I know how painfully and fundamentally “unnatural” and “counterintuitive” that sounds but….such is life.

Again, none of that is hardly a new and stunning discovery. It’s trite but I’m far from convinced that it is blindingly obvious or widely practised much less religiously observed and intentionally practiced.  If you see someone making or trying to make long casts and they don’t look graceful, easy and composed in their movements chances are they skipped that lesson or weren’t paying full attention.  You don’t need quantitative measurement to detect excessive effort. You can feel it when you are casting and see it if you watch the video footage.  Failed or poor distance casts that don’t fully turnover and lay out straight are a clue. This brings me to a third conclusion and my most recent ahaa moment.

3. I’ve written about practice and sensory motor learning a few times now and won’t plow that ground again here. However, it might be worth reading that stuff if you haven’t already done so. Certainly, I’ve changed my practice regime since writing about it and I might get around to revising those pieces accordingly. On now to the most recent insight.

What is less obvious, but perhaps more important than my first two conclusions, is that frequently trying for maximum distance means we are “practicing” at and beyond the limits of technique. What that likely means is that we are actually grooving its weaknesses and failures.  If we practice within the limits of technique we can instead refine its strengths and reinforce its successes. That’s the groove I want to be digging deeper.  Note to self and reader; please read this paragraph again so that you practice success, not failure.

Going back to where this started, improving my back cast technique had consequences for the forward cast technique.  As I’ve said:

“I have become a great believer in the virtue of making the back cast movement mirror, as far as possible, my forward cast movement.  By that I mean I want the cadence and tempo to balance out and I want the technique and its kinetic sequence to feel essentially the same in execution and effort going back and going forward. Translation, rotation, completeness of the finish and most especially the timing, amount and progression of effort – I want all of this to feel like two cycles of a pendulum.  I want to make two focussed casts – one backwards and one forwards – with the same conscious intent such that with trajectory adjustment I can deliver effectively going either way.”

Having adjusted the effort profile on my back cast I needed to adjust the forward cast to match and… I have. Less effort going both ways means better technique. The job now is to groove that success deeper with purposeful practice. That’s good practise.

A final thought. I fully realise that my approach diverges from the orthodoxy on making long casts which derives from distance casting competitions and instruction. The accepted approach there is that distance comes from line speed and line speed comes from (correctly timed) effort by the rod and line hands.  More is more. 

From a physics point of view that is basically correct provided the effort is applied in the intended direction of the cast and, of course, that’s the hard part. Accordingly, technique tends to ride the knife edge between power and tailing loops. That is no longer my journey or motivation. As Bob Wyatt put it, so well:

“When one understands its ethos, the difference between fly-fishing and all other forms of fishing becomes clear. An aesthetic tradition embodied in the tackle, theory and practice, is a large part of what makes the fly-fishing experience meaningful.” (Trout Hunting, 2005, p.15.)

My journey is about graceful movement and accurate delivery.  It’s about ease rather than distance.  It’s about aesthetics rather than athletics. Sure, I still like to see how far I can go but now, only within those constraints and, as ever, only with standard fishing outfits.  Consequently, I have “lost” around 10 feet in maximum distance but what I have gained is worth far more – to me anyway.

The argument of this journey is fly fishing therefore fly casting. Casting efficiency, therefore ease, therefore grace, therefore control, therefore accuracy. Mastery, rather than dominance or display, is what I seek.