Fly Casting Practice 2.0 : Efficient Effort

Let’s begin by briefly touching base with the the Famous Five Essentials or rather the most important essentials, the Straight Line Path (SLP) and its best friend Smooth Power Application (Acceleration). The SLP is what happens when we apply power efficiently – basic mechanics. Producing an optimal SLP is virtually impossible without smooth power application to our body bits which move the rod which tows the line.

Taking that a couple of steps further, when we apply power we subjectively experience that as effort. When we make any movement, such as a throwing movement, with sundry body bits each bit is given an intended range of movement, speed of movement and a slot in a movement sequence. We regulate effort to control how far and how fast we move. We can make adjustments to the movement by adjusting the effort we make when and if sensory feedback tells us that things aren’t going as expected . All this was dealt with in my previous post on effort as an organising idea for control . Historically, I’ve banged on about efficiency ad nauseam so enough already but take and make of what follows as you choose.

Ok then so what would happen if we decided to apply those ideas absolutely – not just as good ideas which influence how we cast but to take them to the limit and build a casting stroke with strict adherence to them – maximal efficiency from minimal effort? I’ve been trying to do this just because I’m curious and for other equally good reasons one of which is that casting with optimal efficiency is very enjoyable. Also, several years ago my casting shoulder started to hurt occasionally after long practice sessions so to prevent that injury increasing until it terminated my fly fishing I needed to make some stroke changes.

Excess effort diminishes efficiency by reducing the Straight Line Path and the smoothness of power application which in turn can result in tailing loops. In the parlance of fly casting instruction over powering is a common fault. I think, however, that  there’s probably more to it than that.  As I recently discovered (in my own casting) it also impedes the refinement of technique because excess effort diminishes control. The behaviour of the fly line, in particular loop shape and alignment of both the fly leg and the rod leg (in the same plane), gives us solid evidence of and visual feedback for mechanical and biomechanical efficiency. We get additional sensory feedback from the subjective effort to objective result comparison – how easy or how hard we needed to move to make a cast. I experience effort feedback during the movement sequence – how hard at what stage in the sequence did I just move my upper arm, forearm or hand for example? That is, “what was the effort profile of that movement sequence”. Adjustment happens by feeding forward changes in the effort profile – relatively more or less forearm or hand effort for example.

As Fitts law tells us, movement accuracy (control) suffers with speed (effort). Keeping that in mind we might understand excess effort as being any more effort than is required to make the intended movement (cast). That means we need to drill down much deeper than the over powering fault diagnosis teachers often make when their students are casting like windscreen wipers. As suggested above we might take this to its logical limit and consider that any excess effort is a technical impairment.

All that happens to be the path I’ve chosen. Consider an alternative and aesthetic perspective. My partner is a graduate of the Royal Ballet School and she long ago shared with me the idea that grace is economy of movement. The poet Ralph Waldo Emerson summed it up nicely when he wrote that, “The line of beauty is the result of perfect economy”. If you have ever watched a superlative caster you will have noticed, instinctively, the effortlessness with which they cast. They cast with economy of effort and it is beautiful to watch.

One last thought before I set out how my practice regime has been supplemented. A vast amount has been written and spoken about being in a state of flow. In sports we hear a lot about being “in the zone”. Recently I watched a TV doco which looked at performance and brain wave patterns among archers – both an elite archer and then some students. What struck and stuck with me was the definition of “the zone” as a state of both intense focus and complete relaxation. You might prefer something less pointy and if so “mindfulness” could have more appeal. This is the state I try to maintain when practicing. I get more from 45 minutes of mindful practice than from two hours of determined practice. Both are purposeful.

My recent practice sessions have been adapted to:

  • Maximise efficiency by minimising effort 
  • Modify my casting stroke to protect my casting shoulder –  more shoulder flexion and extension instead of horizontal and vertical rotation. (See here for what that means if unsure.)
  • Restore accuracy after these changes and at distances out to normal fishing limits -ie 80’  – 90’ .

To do this I’ve evolved a combination of existing drills.

  • Use minimal effort for full and accurate extension of the line with tight loops
  • Start short – c.5m – casting to targets smoothly
  • Ensure loops are neat, narrow and aligned in both casting directions (tracking, tracing and SLP) and watch the dangly bits at the fly end – smooth casting means less dangly bits.
  • Preserve the effort profile of that stroke as it lengthens and casts are extended in 5’-10’ increments as far as possible
  • As soon as it gets out of shape – loops and/or effort profile – retreat as far as necessary to restore effortless delivery
  • Repeat the process of gradually increasing casting distance rather than keep banging away at or near the point where form starts to deteriorate

Two things help me to regain form – 1) switching to dynamic rolls which accentuate late rotation and 2) switching to side casts which allow a full view of the stroke and fly line in both directions. Also for longer casts I sometimes just concentrate on carry and getting everything in order there without concern for accuracy and total distance on delivery.

Signs that form needs adjustment include casts that didn’t go as far they should have or failed to extend the leader. Crucially, any sense of undue effort (breaking out of the desired effort profile) to remove slack or compensate for inadequate extension are sure signs of technique shortcomings. Time to retreat and restore technique before recommencing slow increases of distance.

When I started 65′ – 70’ was about where the “problems” started. Now it’s more like 80’-85’. I aim and expect to get out to at least 90’ and, maybe, beyond. NB I’m not talking about maximum casting distance but the range within which effortless (graceful) form can be maintained.

Hero casts for maximum distance are absolutely forbidden because they guarantee the exertion of unnecessary and therefore unwanted effort.

I will update my page on Fly Casting Practice with the exercises listed above.