Fly Casting Movement: Effort as an Organising Idea for Control


As a curious person I want to build my understanding of fly casting on solid ground. It remains a work in progress. As a metaphor I was recently attracted to the means by which a railway viaduct designed by Brunel was constructed over marshy ground. To support the structure they dug down through the soft mud until the bedrock was revealed and on that the stone piers were built. The body of popular knowledge about fly casting features a lot of wobbly and unscientific structures built on unfounded belief.

This site tracks my journey of knowledge construction down to the bedrock of mechanics then onwards and upwards to biomechanics, followed by sensorimotor learning Deviating from the construction metaphor, my journey was one of exploration which did not follow a planned route or blueprint but rather evolved simply as one thing leading to another. Mechanics equations don’t make casts. Biomechanical sequences are not self executing. Understanding sensorimotor learning is useful but not sufficient guidance for optimising how we acquire and refine casting movements. Teaching and Practice are likewise helpful in getting the movements right. My journey has been powered by inputs both from people I’ve talked with and from my own research which favours peer reviewed publications.

Still, however, I felt a need to better understand the personal, subjective experience of performing fly casting movements as opposed to observing those movements being performed by others or by me (on video) and trying to get better at doing them and teaching others to do them better. Learning is always a subjective experience.

Before I get into Effort as an organising idea here’s a very brief summary of the journey highlights so far.

  • Newton’s second law of motion describes net Force applied to a fly line (mass) propelled (accelerated) in the intended direction of the cast. F=ma. Force is most efficiently applied in and with straight lines. Force applied in any direction other than the one intended is effectively opposed to and deducted from what we want to achieve. The essence of efficiently applying force to a fly line via a fly rod is to optimise net Force in the intended direction of the cast.
  • A throwing action like fly casting essentially involves a biomechanical sequence of body bits from those close to our core (proximal) to those further away from it (distal). The bigger and more powerful muscles (proximal) are for good for gross motor skill and the smaller (distal) muscles are less powerful and better suited to fine motor skill.
  • As our sensorimotor system acquires new movements we progress from the slow channel of cognitive control, through associative control and on to the fast channel of autonomous control. In other words we lay down new patterns of movement and as we repeat them the central nervous system relocates them from the slow and somewhat clunky channel of conscious thought to the faster and more fluid channel of unconscious performance. This is not a simple linear process as changes and refinements will require frequent returns to the slow channel before conscious thought becomes unnecessary. We crawl before we can walk before we can run. Repeat as necessary.

Neural Patterns of Familiar Movements

Evolution has taught our brains to save time (good for survival) in perceiving, thinking and acting by building and using patterns. For good reason, reflex actions like flinching, ducking or lifting a hand off a hot stove don’t require conscious thought. That’s the fast channel of sensorimotor control and reflexes unconsciously trigger the execution of established movement patterns.

At the conscious, cognitive level, we likewise build and use neural patterns. For example we recognise objects that fit established patterns. We know the difference between a cup and a beaker, a wine glass and a tumbler without thinking too long or deeply about it. That’s because we use patterns in perception as well as object recognition. Magicians use our patterns of perception to fool us with “slight of hand”. Actually, it’s slight of vision patterns and managed attention.

We also use patterns when we move voluntarily and for the same reason; it saves time. For example, imagine there is a bar in front of you (shouldn’t be too difficult) and on it is a glass milk shake beaker. We pick it up off the bar and raise it and draw it towards our face stopping at eye level. Then we put it back where it was. I’m guessing that if we see that it is empty our grip strength and how much force we use to move it as described will be assessed and executed without conscious thought. If we see that the beaker is brim full of milk we will slow down to avoid spillage and we will unconsciously use more force to grip, lift and move it. Now, imagine there is a trick added and the beaker looks to be full of milk but actually it’s full of polystyrene cleverly disguised as milk. What will happen? We will lift “too fast” and have to slow the movement down. The opposite would happen if we were tricked into underestimating the weight. We would then have to compensate for the unexpected heaviness of the beaker. We would adjust by speeding up our movement to reach the chosen rate of movement and we would do that by increasing the force applied.

Still with me? What I’m trying to demonstrate is that everyday movements are very familiar and we execute them somewhat unconsciously with pre-determined choices of which bits to move when, how fast, how far and with what force. Secondly when the movement feeds back something unexpected we are able to compensate. What is it that we subjectively experience when we make those adjustments? A change of effort. Too much effort and we reduce it to slow the movement down. Too little effort and we increase it to speed up the movement. Feedback facilitates effort adjustment which changes how we move.

Existing known patterns of movement feedforward to our body bits the commands to move. If feedback says “Whoops, too much or too little effort is being applied” we feedforward again to adjust the amount of effort to achieve the desired movement outcome. In my view and personal experience the expectation and apprehension of effort required organises how we execute a voluntary movement. Effort is applied force which effects the speed and often the range, of a familiar movement.

To illustrate this let’s take another example. (Humour me, ok?) Imagine you are sitting at a dinner table and the friend on your dominant side has left their plate unprotected. A fly enters the scene and you decide to shoo it away from your friend’s meal. Your movement, at your choice, can be slow and gentle or fast and aggressive. It can be somewhere in the middle of those extremes. Try pantomiming that shooing movement at all three different tempos.

Next, pay attention to your hand movement at the end of both a gentle and an aggressive shooing action. If you are like me the hand will hardly move at the wrist with a gentle movement and with an aggressive movement it will extend vigorously. In between the hand movement is in between. For me and probably for both of us, we can now see how the chosen speed of the movement (driven by effort) unconsciously changes the range of hand movement at the end of the movement sequence.

As we executed a familiar movement at varying rates we demonstrated that we are moving according to established neural patterns. To emphasise the point try finishing a slow shooing wave with the hand movement of a fast wave. Do the opposite – fast wave with slow wave hand movement (even harder to do was it not). You will probably notice that it requires conscious change which makes the movement feel a bit strange – because, of course, you are deviating from an established movement pattern otherwise executed without thinking about it.

What has this got to do with fly casting? Ok, fly casting is supposed to be a tricky new set of movements we have to learn from scratch. Say we change the milk shake movement to finish it by throwing the contents of the beaker back over our shoulder. No real problem eh? So for my money that action is a lot like the backcast of the basic or foundation stroke. Fly shooing off your friend’s plate is actually a lot like making the backcast of a side cast. We have all heard and used other movement analogies like painting the ceiling or flicking water off the brush. These work and resonate because they are familiar and we can do them without much trepidation. Why not fly casting, at least at the basic level?

Overpowering – Cause, Consequence or Both?

What are the most common casting “faults” I see when I’m out and about? Over powering and over rotation with, in my revised view, the latter being largely an effect of the former. I’d be surprised if most casting teachers didn’t say these were the most common problems their students present with. Not talking about absolute beginners here but more about folks who can cast at least well enough to catch a fish or two.

Most casters use too much force and I note in passing that using just enough force is still part of my learning journey. How much is too much? More than is required to complete the cast as intended. So, why do we do it? Let’s be a bit more specific. What is/are the cause or causes of over powering and over rotation? My suggestion is that we over power very often in an attempt to compensate for “technique issues” connected with or even caused by, over powering. If there is major slack in the line after a back cast we weren’t watching then we will probably speed up the forward cast in an attempt to get in touch with (get feedback from) the line. Maybe the poor backcast was due at least in part to the poor forward cast that preceded it, one that didn’t extend properly. The caster is thus caught in a vicious cycle. Over rotation might well be part of that cycle as we rotate sooner, further and faster to try and cure the inefficiency thereby adding to the inefficiency. A fast movement pattern is being used when a slow to medium movement pattern would be a much better choice in terms of control and therefore efficiency. Effort is the subjective experience of applying net Force in the intended direction of the cast.

Faced with such problems teachers could start giving instructions (to ourselves or others) to reduce the stroke speed and change the movement sequence by delaying rotation or telling the caster to use less wrist and more of something else and so on ad finitum. Alternatively, we could pay more attention to causation and less to effects. We could, for example, use the triangle method in conjunction with PUALDs in both directions. The pause between backcast and forward cast gives us time to think and consciously adjust things. We could get the caster to lay out their line out straight so that when they started to move the fly line started to move. The caster will then be able to see what is happening with the line as well to feel the line as a weight/resistance. They will notice the difference between a slack line and a straight line from a more successful cast that fully extended. Feedback will be received from two sources, sight and resistance. This would constitute a major advance on virtually no useful feedback at all. By “useful” I mean feedback which facilitates adjustment of movement to meet the desired acceleration of the fly line – subjectively, an adjustment in effort.

Learning and Change

The caster at this point, aided by a lot more sensory feedback, might be able to start moving more slowly and (therefore) smoothly. This would be learning by discovery instead of by direct instruction. We could facilitate the process, if required, by making suggestions like “Maybe try starting a bit slower” or even “See if you can keep the hand/wrist action until later in your stroke and you might make your loops a bit narrower”.

Slower movement is easier to control. Smoother movement is a demonstration of increased control. Casting more efficiently means achieving more distance and better accuracy from less effort – ie applied force. We increase stroke length with cast length to lessen the force and speed required for execution of the movement. Line speed is produced by force applied over a distance (or for a time). A shorter faster stroke demands more effort for the cast distance than when we cast for the same distance using a longer slower/easier stroke.

In varying amounts of time casters will probably start to notice the benefits of using less effort. As their neural patterns change and a different planned effort is matched to a changed expectation of effort and then by results it will, you know, start to “feel better”. Change is, indeed, the hard part and change requires commitment and persistence but, for me, more understanding of and attention to, cause and effect in casting inefficiently (“poor technique”) will work better than just relentlessly picking at “faults” one after another.

But, I hear you say, what about other faults like tracking or tailing loops? Well I’m not saying over powering is the only issue but I will offer that it is a lot easier to cast in straight lines, back and forward, if you aren’t heaving – using unnecessary force. Tails come from lumpy force application which, I might suggest, is likely to be caused by over powering at some point in the stroke; effort profile needs a tweak. Creep (starting too soon) is said to be a cause of tails. Why, I would ask, do you think casters feel they need to hurry?


An organising idea is like the hub of a wheel with spokes connecting to other related ideas laid out around the circumference. I like organising ideas – a lot. When we cast we apply force to accelerate a mass – of our body parts, the rod and the line. We need to do that with optimal efficiency which will come from maximising net Force in the intended direction of the cast.

Casting is a throwing movement and that is done most efficiently from using the biomechanical sequence that time, evolution, and anatomy have bequeathed to us. It’s a movement we learn and as it becomes more familiar neural patterns are formed, refined, entrenched and moved to different parts of our brains so the movement is performed without thinking about it. For familiar movements we develop patterns which include instructions for what to move in what order, how far and how fast. That’s how come we can pick up a milk shake or shoo off flies without a lot of thought and with a range of choices in the tempo of the movement about to be made. Further, we can use sensory feedback and even conscious thought to adjust our movements.

Using the triangle method, with PUALDs in both directions we can get more and better feedback. This is one example of something we can use to enhance feedback and facilitate change to the neural patterns we have developed. They are, for each and all of us, our patterns and using them to perform our movements is necessarily a subjective experience.

Got a problem with over powered casting and over rotation? Consider the chain of causation. Is it something like this? Too much slack negatively affects feedback which leads to going too fast which leads to over rotation. You could try slowing down or using less wrist or translating more and rotating later etc etc. This is the objective instructional approach. Alternately you could obtain visual feedback, see what it going wrong and adjust your movements until there is less slack and better turnover with less effort. This approach considers the subjective experience and encourages self discovery which will probably result in better and more lasting learning.

Converting a mechanics equation into a subjective movement experience via biomechanical sequences performed with sensorimotor control applies theoretically to all voluntary movements. To make any voluntary movement we have to consciously and/or unconsciously chose which bits to move in what order, how far and how fast. Familiar voluntary movements, like shooing flies or fly casting, are regulated, essentially or at least significantly, by the allowance for effort which forms a component of our neural patterns for making those movements. I suggest that managing effort so as to alter those patterns, together with adjustment as required by feedback, is pretty central to learning how to cast more efficiently. Focussed, purposeful practice informed, shaped and directed by this knowledge is the key to improved efficiency.