Practice, Learning and Happenstance

I’ve been busy researching and writing about the teaching of fly casting but recently I had a pleasant reminder of what it’s like to be on the other end of the process – as a learner.

There I was down at the park only to discover that the summer grass had been growing considerably faster than it was being mowed. My intention to was complete a usual practice session with an emphasis on tracking and tracing – tidy fly leg vertical to a tidy rod leg.  Straight lines rule.   My usual practice area was more of a field than a lawn with several inches of grass topped by a carpet of flowering clover. Knew it was going to be a pain but decided to press ahead.

Clover flowers are particularly adept at catching the fluff which makes pickups much more difficult and ticking far more hazardous. It is hard to execute a smooth pickup when the fly catches, twangs loose and causes chaotic interference with keeping a straight fly line.  The occasional and slight ticking one often experiences with long carries goes from barely noticeable to a worst case of killing the cast completely. There isn’t much tension in a long line (between rod tip and fly) at the best of times but fly hungry vegetation can produce a go, stop, go like crazy sequence that can sometimes be recovered from and sometimes not.

After the trials of frequent error I discovered that being extra smooth worked at least as well if not better than simply trying to keep the fly higher off the deck by increasing the elevation/trajectory of both back and forward casts. 

Being smooth reduces the extent of dangly bits, especially the leader and tippet where tension is least. It is somewhat counterintuitive because you might, like me, imagine that waiting too long for turnover to be completed would cause bigger problems as the line fell further thus increasing the chances of ticking or worse.  Intuitive answer? Hurry things along a bit more and add a bit of punch. Tried all that, plus increasing elevation and creeping a bit more than usual, without success. The ticking and fwusterwation continued. Smoothness was the answer.

Smoothness made the pickups easier, cleaner and more reliable.  In fact that’s what I discovered first and then applied a similar acceleration profile to my false casting.  What mattered, in both cases was starting significantly slower than “normal”. 

Today I went to a different park with closely cut grass. My intention was to groove my latest version of smooth acceleration based on a (even) slower start. Wait a tiny bit longer and move into the commencement of the stroke more gradually. That tempo is set by the slow start.  There was no leader/fly grabbing to provide feedback but I had the Feel from the previous session to guide me. It took a while to gather it all up again but eventually I “got it” and was able to build from a minimal power drill to medium/long casts, then different types of cast (eg dynamic rolls and side casts) and finally long casts. Feeling cocky I put out a decently long cast of 100’+ with very little effort and decided it was time to reel in and go home.

So what? Superficially I learned nothing new. It’s hardly headline news that smooth power application is highly desirable – essential even, if you aspire to casting at an advanced level and want the onlooker to notice how effortlessly you move. However, the quantitatively small changes I made in those two sessions produced a huge qualitative change in the experience of performing the movements – to the Feel of my casting. For the same felt effort it probably added 5-10’ in distance and it also improved my accuracy at long distances. In a sense, though, the improved performance was a footnote to the pleasure of moving more efficiently. Technique drives performance and a positively different sensory experience in executing the movements is a pretty reliable indicator of improved technique. 

All this from the happenstance of long grass!  Learning doesn’t come exclusively from following standard operating procedures. It (also) comes from discovery.  Opportunity knocked. I heard it and opened the door to a delightful guest.