Fly Casting Movements – Athletic, Aesthetic or Just Practical?

Odd question(s) to ask, surely, but indulge me for a moment.

My fly casting journey was driven originally by the simple idea that by casting better I could fish better. It was a practical endeavour. After a while that changed somewhat when casting became something I enjoyed exploring because it was difficult and complex and, you know, because I’m curious. At that stage much of what I was learning and practicing came originally from the lore of competitive fly casting. It was useful, to a point, but I felt a strong need to keep my casting connected with my fishing. More recently I’ve noticed another shift in what drives my casting – in my objectives if you like. Reflecting on the passage from back then to just now I can make some deeper sense of the journey, providing narrative continuity to something that previously seemed episodic and undirected by anything much more than a desire to improve. This post retraces some of the story and I write it now as just that, a story and not as a manifesto, much less a sermon. As ever, make of it what you will.

For me competition fly fishing or fly casting aren’t places I want to go. My model is one of personal excellence which does not depend upon and is not demonstrated by, being better than other people at doing something. With that in mind I will make no attempt to advance my way of thinking about and of doing things by pointing out the problems with alternate models. I much prefer mutual recognition of common ground and respect for difference.

From competition casting comes the idea that distance proves technique because long casts require sound technique. Doubtless that is true in a general sense but it doesn’t quite cover the field. Back five years ago when I started the present phase of my fly casting journey I tried following the notion of distance casting as the model for and means of, developing robust technique. The general idea is that if you can cast 100’ then 60’ will be effortless. Accordingly, you build your technique for distance casting and/or accuracy competition and that’s it, job done.

I gave it a good shot and made countless casts out to 100’ or so and a pretty good number considerably beyond 100’. However, when I tried aiming at targets 70′ – 80’ away my technique was found wanting. I couldn’t reliably achieve both the range and bearing requirements. At the distances common for accuracy comps I was just fine, though without any plonking down of the fly and line – anathema to a sight fishing addict.

So it was time for a change and I turned away from distance as a quantitative outcome towards efficiency of technique as the qualitative driver of outcomes – range and bearing included. Around this time a nagging shoulder problem finally persuaded me to reconstruct my technique into a 3 phase system which went from no rotation of the torso for short-medium casts to some rotation for medium-long casts and then substantial rotation for the longest casts.

Once the changes began to be grooved and tracking was restored I began to turn toward to economy of effort as the primary objective of my technique – finding ways to do more with less. (As explained in this post.)

I see now that the shift to economy of effort as the objective effectively marked the end of any remaining aspects of an athletic casting model followed previously. The means had become an important end in itself. Striving for qualitative rather than quantitative outcomes – minimising effort rather than maximising distance means that “maximum” distance is now how far my casts go without any disproportionate effort which attempts to overcome faltering technique. Will that help my fishing? Yes, almost certainly.

In recent correspondence a friend of mine mentioned Picasso’s famous antiwar painting “Guernica”. From artist to viewer, the message I get from it is simple. What makes it a great work of art is the power of its expression. – emotional and intellectual responses undifferentiated. There’s a fair bit of ground to map out between Picasso and me casting (!!) but thinking about the painting and looking at it again started to connect some dots on my conscious and unconscious map. The dots were:

  • Grace is economy of movement
  • Objectively, we are taken by the aesthetic of graceful, effortless movement – it is moving, appealing and beautiful
  • Analytically we can pull it all apart via mechanics, biomechanics, sensory motor control/learning etc and we can get some, repeat some, insight into how it happens but little or no understanding of why it happens and how we see and appreciate it
  • Grace, then, sits at the intersection of art and science

There has been extensive exploration of science. Now I want to spend more time with art. To be clear it’s not a binary choice and I’m not finished with science but I do want to reposition it.

So, in a recent practice session I got closer again to what I want to do, at will and on demand. I was knocking out 75′- 80’ casts with a 5wt and DT 5 with ridiculous ease, enjoying it immensely and not just because it was efficient, effective and the effort was economic. The short version of what I was doing is “slow aim”. Start slow, go easy, finish full exactly on target is the longer script. I realised this is what I have been drawn towards for the last five years. It is what I enjoy doing as opposed to thinking I should be doing. Finally, in both senses, I realised that I enjoy casting like this because it is expressive. Taking a chance here but there it is, the fourth E of movement.

If I were writing for an audience of dancers or gymnasts what I just mentioned would be instantly understood and accepted – movement is expressive. It’s not, in my view, a coincidence that two of the prominent and “easy on the eye” casters (Joan Wulff and Christopher Rownes) were both professional dancers and dance teachers. Everyone knows about Joan Wulff and her success in casting tournaments but I also remember reading about her saying that fly casting was feminine and beautiful and that was why she loved it. The interview with Rownes linked to above is well worth the watch. He, like my partner, is a graduate from the Royal School of Ballet. They get movement as comprised of parts and performed as a whole, expressively.

First any fish, then big fish, then fishing.
First any cast, then long casts, then casting.