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Practice – Change of Objective, Better Than a Holiday

For a several years I have been practicing with clear purpose by adopting an objective and, as the military say, maintaining it. It started way back when I decided to expand the zone within which I could comfortably and reliably cast to a target, be that a covering cast or simply putting the fly on the water exactly where I wanted it. The idea was to expand that comfort zone from a radius of 60’/18m to one with a radius of  80’/24m.

To do that I reasoned it would be necessary to be able to cast 100’/30m, more or less at will, so that a target at <80% of the maximum distance would be relatively easy to hit. The implication of this approach was that going longer while staying accurate was the best strategy for of achieving my objective. So I did all that and banged endless casts out there with my 5wt combo with a lot of them going a fair bit further than 100’/30m. My accuracy out to 80’/24m certainly improved but still I wasn’t happy.

Now, call me a perfectionist or an idiot or both, but the source of my unhappiness was not just obsession with greater length but rather dissatisfaction with a lack of repeatability. It became obvious that the further I cast the smaller was the margin for error. A few degrees of tracking error at say 45’/14m doesn’t matter too much but it matters a hell of a lot more at twice that distance. In fact any compromise of casting efficiency matters more and more as distance increases. Distance makes increasing demands on technique, exponentially so in my experience and I’m not Robinson Crusoe.

Gradually it dawned on me that better technique probably wouldn’t be acquired by constantly casting at or beyond the limits of that technique. So I sort of reversed the strategy and started spending more time casting to comfortably reachable targets and progressively extending the range. I could do this easily because I used a tape measure and marked distances along it with golf balls painted in fluoro colours and attached to 4” nails as spikes. Yeah, you’re right. I practice in the park and not over water. The tape means an end to delusions of grandeur because it tells no lies. It also forms a straight reference line which is both an aiming guide and a measure of deviation from the target in both range and bearing. I know when I’ve made a good cast not just because the practice fly is near the target but also because the fly line will be laid out along the tape.

Let’s leave out a fair bit of the full story and cut to the chase. As I started thinking about and researching the biomechanics of casting and then the sensory motor system it became clear that there was a conceptual line joining the dots from physics to biomechanics to sensory motor learning. The origin of that line was efficiency. What I was discovering experientially fitted very nicely with what I was discovering with my research and doubtless each was informing the other.

What emerged from all this is the delight of capturing the feel of the efficient cast and what it takes to produce it. The next step was preserving that efficiency and how it feels as I try to progressively extend the distance to target without losing too much accuracy. I have settled on 3 or 4 increments of 10’/3m each for this process. I go back and forward in the sequence repeatedly trying at all times to keep the feeling. I get accurate, objective/external feedback on the results. I extend and reduce the starting distance from the series of increments. Wind direction no longer determines location.

The implication of this approach is that my notion of what is strategically correct has changed. My objective is now to improve accuracy by improving efficiency – to be smoother so I can cast better and more accurately. What I have learned is that distance is relative, accuracy is priceless and smoothness is essential to both. Makes a nice change. Easier on my casting shoulder which is now carrying a bit of osteoarthritis. (Nah, not caused by fly casting; consequence of too many falls from horses, motorbikes and such.)

There is a lot more of the story coming as I am nearing completion of the followups of the Einstein Series Stay tuned.

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Going Long : The Top Secret Secret

Here I am, back at the keyboard after another practice session. Going back a few posts I wrote about regressing after an extend fishing trip to Tassie. You can find that one here . As part of fixing the problems I shot some more footage of my casting. OMG, there I was doing a bunch of things I thought I had stopped doing a year or two ago. Wrong! Leaving out some of the longer story I decided it was time to rebuild my backcast and that meant being able to extend the stroke, staying straight in the tracking department, then smoothing out the forward stroke, extending it a bit. In other words the job was to extend my stroke and carry, stay in the comfort zone and minimise slack. I’ve written about that too. The Meaning of Slack

Understanding all my necessary work requires understanding a little bit about anatomy and the biomechanics of fly casting – essentially a throwing action. It also brings us back to a couple of the 5 essentials.

Let’s start with the basic or “foundation” casting stroke as it described by Jason Borger. You stand pretty much front on or square to the target. On the back stroke the wrist starts out being in a slightly cocked position (ulna deviation) and the elbow is bent at about 90deg. Here, roughly, is the sequence of movements. The upper arm is lifted and rotates at the shoulder joint in the direction of the cast. The forearm moves toward the bicep, the wrist uncocks (radial deviation) and at the stop your hand finishes beside your head at about eye level. The forward cast is essentially the reverse of that sequence. Upper arm lowers, forearm extends, wrist is cocked again as you stop. The whole casting sequence, back and forward, is similar to hitting a nail into a wall, roughly at eye level. In biomechanics terms the kinetic sequence is essentially proximal (nearer to your torso) to distal (further away from your torso).

Now we know from Bill Gammel, Essential #2, that the length of the casting stroke must increase with the length of the line being cast. The rod bends more when we use it to tow more line and we have to compensate for the extra bend. The other reason we need a longer stroke is that more Force will be needed to put more kinetic energy into the line to make it go faster. That energy can come from punching the same stroke length harder or, much more preferably, from a longer period of acceleration using the same kind of Force applied over a longer distance. That’s called Work and is explained here. Smoothness of the power application ( line acceleration) is the reason why longer is better. Control, accuracy and avoidance of tailing loops are the reasons you want to be smooth instead of punchy.

To stay smooth while casting longer lines (extending carry) we extend the stroke. With the foundation stroke, however, we reach a point where extending the stroke hits some anatomical road blocks. Your forearm will hit your bicep because the elbow is a hinge joint and not a ball joint. Your upper arm can only rotate backwards so far at the shoulder, especially with your lower arm bent at the elbow. You can get a bit more stroke length from leaning forward a bit at the start of the back cast and leaning back slightly at the start of the forward cast.

My preferred means of increasing movement beyond the natural limits of the foundation stroke is to rotate my shoulders (torso) just as you do when throwing a ball or stone or javelin or whatever a long way. To do that you have to open your stance by putting your throwing side foot back behind the other one. Long throws in any sport I can think of involve open stances and significant shoulder rotation which enables extension of the throwing arm. They also involve significant weight transfer, back and then forward again in the direction of the throw.

One of my self video discoveries was that I wasn’t rotating my shoulders far enough to free up the full extension of my arm. The elbow is a simple hinge joint. You can twist your forearm below the elbow and your upper arm above the elbow but the elbow joint only allows flexion and extension of the forearm in line with the upper arm. Accordingly, if shoulder rotation is insufficient there are only two ways your arm can extend. Your forearm can go somewhat away from you and outside the proper straight line of the back cast causing a tracking error. Alternatively, you can push the upper arm and lower arm upwards, which is what I was doing and, trust me, it looks really dicky. How far you want your shoulders to rotate, of course, is a matter of personal choice,  physical ability and the length or type of cast you want to make. I’m not medically qualified but I can safely say  if you ain’t straining when performing a smooth, easy and natural throwing movement you are a lot less likely to be injured. Efficiency trumps effort, yet again.

Like any red blooded individual I like casting long but, and it is a non negotiable “but”, I am only interested in long casts that can deliver the fly accurately. That means I have to stay inside my comfort zone and avoid any and all heaving.

I’m going to stick my neck out here but I don’t get much pleasure from watching a lot of distance competition casters, especially on their delivery stroke. From my perspective, throwing (heaving) yourself off balance is cringeworthy. If you want to see what I’m talking about go to YouTube and watch a video of  Joan Wulff making a serious distance cast. See how she looks at the finish of a delivery cast. She was a dancer. It shows. Grace. Balance. Likewise, when I read distance casters going on about “hitting it” I shudder to think of what will happen to even an advanced caster who takes that stuff too seriously.

The top secret secret to (my kind of) going long is to stay inside your comfort zone, extend your stroke, shift your weight and, above all, stay smooth.

 

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Feel the Beat, Keep to the Rhythm

Here’s one for the kinaesthetic learners, for folks who enjoy being mindfully in touch with their bodies and for anyone else who gets the general idea.

Way back when I read A River Runs Through It I remember coming to the bit about Norm’s dad and the metronome and casting being “an art that is performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.” And being younger and smarter than I am now the stiffness and stuffiness of this approach was all too apparent. But I missed something.

What I missed was not the limitations of the clock face and the robotic 4/4 rhythm, it was the advantage and beauty of casting smoothly with a rhythm shared between the back cast and the forward cast. Just enough effort, both ways, and no more. No rush.

I’ve read a fair bit about fly casting since then and tempo gets an occasional mention. Of course tempo is about the speed and not the rhythm of the two strokes. Shorter casts have a faster tempo because the strokes are shorter and the line takes less time to turnover. Rhythm rarely gets discussed like it does in sports such as golf. If you rush the backswing in golf, chances are you will rush the forward swing even more. Result? Horror show.

Now, the beat is what you hear when you tap your toes in time with the music. The rhythm is the number of beats to the bar. I am not, of course, suggesting a count or recommending jazz, blues or salsa for inspiration. What I’m talking about is feel and matching the rhythm of back and forward casts so that what you do on the way back feels like what you do on the way forward and vice versa. The “do” here being the extent and timing of effort and the smoothness of the acceleration. It’s easy when you stay in time. Obviously the muscle and joint movements are not the same in both directions but that doesn’t matter, feeling the beat of those movements and staying in time is what matters.

I love the hero cast into triple figures as much as the next mere mortal but when I need a break from polishing my stroke for more distance here is where I often go to recapture the simple life. I go back to a medium casting distance, one that is just long enough to get into the flow and I make a series of casts, with or without hauls. I don’t need to watch the back cast except to sneak an occasional peak at loop shape and trajectory.

On the forward cast all I am watching is turnover,  loop shape and how close to parallel the two legs of the line are. I want a narrow somewhat pointy loop, both legs in the same vertical plane and no hooking of the leader that indicates a tracking error. I’m probably using a foundation casting stroke with limited shoulder rotation.

The strokes are long enough to minimise effort. It’s like being on a swing, easy back and easy forward. I feel the beat and stay in rhythm. Why? Because it feels nice, because that’s where I want to be when I’m sight fishing and want a precise cover that lands like a raindrop. Because the longer my carry in this state of grace the longer I can cast accurately.

Now, after a while I might get the distance itch so I add five feet and then another five and so on until I am near the limit of my technique. I might keep pushing and adding shoulder rotation and weight transfer until I reach full stretch or I might back off and stay in the comfort zone because right there life is simple, covering casts are tidy and the fish is all I will have to worry about.

I could tell you how all this lines up with mechanics but I won’t spoil the show. I am still reading up on biomechanics but it’s a good fit there as well. It’s all about efficiency. That’s where aesthetics and science reunite.

 

 

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The Meaning of Slack

As part of the Einstein Series I wrote about the Straight Lines Rule and part of that was casting with straight lines which means fly lines having as little as possible slack in them. The reason to avoid slack is that taking up it is a Force thief. It steals from the net Force in the intended direction of the cast – forward or back – and we don’t have that much Force to spare. We don’t want to spend part of our stroke length taking up slack instead of powering the line out to where we want it to go. That’s the mechanics taken care of.

So there I am down at the local park practicing with my 5wt combo and trying to maximise carry. I’m not going for distance alone. My objective, as usual, is to extend the distance at which I can cast accurately. Effort and accuracy are sworn enemies because effort diminishes control.

My aim is to extend carry while staying in my comfort zone. That zone is staked out with a  bunch of big signs that all say “Keep out! No heaving allowed”. How do I know when I am at the edge of that zone? It is when my technique starts to crack, slack starts to increase and I am sorely tempted to heave to try and get rid of it. In other words the appearance of slack is an alarm signal telling me my technique is faltering.

A few dots need to be joined here. Some years back I watched a video of Matt Howell and he talked about “chasing slack” as an impediment to distance casting. I also remember a post to Sexyloops Board by Bernd Ziesche describing his observation that going long requires more than just a good back cast and a good delivery cast. It requires a good sequence of casts. Light bulb moment. A good sequence for me equals slack being minimised (among other things of course). During a good sequence carry length can be built. During a poor sequence slack starts to get out of control. Consequently, carry length is being demolished and, on the longest casts, sometimes to the point of complete failure.

When the carry gets hard to maintain I frequently start chasing slack. Sometimes I get it back in hand and sometimes I lose the battle and the bastard gets away.  Slack is, however, always a sure sign that something is amiss. Consequently, I look for that border between comfort and battle and try to find out why 65′ is a doddle and 80′ is often a battle. Slack marks the frontier. My job is to expand the empire.

Of course the presence of slack doesn’t mean so much in shorter casts because we can catch it more easily with a longer stroke or a touch more power in a “normal” stroke length. The longer our carry, however, the less margin for error we have. At the limit of our stroke length we only have more power to use in arresting the thief and that opens the door to heaving who happily teams up with the slack thief to increase the proceeds of crime. A vicious cycle ensues.

There are various ways of finding the culprits but CCTV (my phone on a tripod) is usually foremost among them. If I film a series of casts of increasing carry length starting well within in the comfort zone and finishing beyond it, I can often see what the problems are and just as importantly, where they start.

If you have come this far you probably don’t need me to say what drills or tricks I use but, fwiw, I do things like:

  • PUALDs in both directions to check out tracking and to see where the limits are and how they can be pushed.
  • Extend carry a little bit at a time (tighten the reel drag and peel off a foot or so each time)
  • As above, with and without hauling
  • Pantomime and slow motion using just the butt section of the rod especially to groove the joint movement sequence and therefore late rotation and haul timing
  • Making accuracy casts to a series of small targets at 5-10 foot intervals

All these things, performed with close attention to effort, loop shape and turnover, help me improve technique which then shows up in all the usual places, including carry optimisation and slack minimisation. It is all about energy efficiency – body to rod and rod to line.

 

 

 

 

 

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What’s Next?

I suppose most blogs and personal web sites are vanity projects at some level. Here we are trying to show the world that we are knowledgeable and clever. That wasn’t part of my conscious intent in setting this site up but it would be silly to dismiss the possibility out of hand.

Up until I decided to write the Einstein Series I had vague ideas of recording my journey as a casting pilgrim, a travelog for fellow travellers, and then along came a determination to cut the crap about physics and fly casting which finished up as the Series. Once it went live some intriguing things happened, new ideas came to mind; some of them more original than others; some of them pointed me in different directions and some affirmed my earlier choices. This thing is organic, it’s an expression of me and because money is not involved I am free to go where instinct and reason tell me to go.

So, with blessed technical help from a friend I get the Series live to air. My entire marketing effort consists of a heads up post to several bulletin boards and a couple of emails. Two things pleasantly surprise me. First, the Series is well received. Second the site goes from an occasional visit by some poor lost soul to nearly 500 people dropping by within a week or so and mostly they have a good look around the place. So I go from deciding to publish technical stuff which is relatively accessible to a niche within a niche market and hoping someone will find it useful to realising that if you publish good content, people will find it, read it, and appreciate it.

Don’t get me wrong and expect an equivalent Series to pop up every month. That’s not feasible and I’m not going exhaust myself trying to become an internet celebrity who becomes rich from being famous. Not going to happen.

Instead I’ve decided to learn from the experience. The experience says, “Write with your personal values. Write stuff that is accessible, practical, authentic and authoritative.”

So what’s next? Right now I am looking at the biomechanics of fly casting. It makes  sense in several dimensions. The mechanics of fly casting, as written about in “Physics FOR Fly Casting“, is about how we can put kinetic energy into a fly line to make it do what we want it to do. It tells anybody who will listen that efficiency trumps effort and exactly why it does so. If we follow the trail of kinetic energy it leads back to what we do with our body parts to get the optimal transfer of kinetic energy into the fly line so that it deposits our fly on target.

If kinetic energy is a bit ethereal for you then how about this. Bruce Richards’ six steps for sorting out casting problems are Line, Rod, Body; Body, Rod, Line. The line responds to the rod being moved by the body. Change your body movement, to change rod movement to change the line movement. The key point here is that the body is the middle two steps. It is both the problem and solution. It ought to be the centre of attention far more than the rod and the line but in the fly casting literature, including internet content, it seems to be all about the rod and the line.

Here’s the more poetic take. What do we notice when we see a seriously good caster in action? We notice the grace of their movements. “He/she makes it look effortless”. What’s that about? My partner is an ex professional ballet dancer. “Grace”, she once explained to me, “is economy of movement.” In other words, graceful movement is the result of efficient movement. My conceptual theme for fly casting excellence is that Art marries Science and Efficiency presides at the ceremony.

Stay tuned.

 

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Pardon My Regression

Here’s the story. Early December last year I go out for a practice session, my first since a 5 week fishing trip to Tassie. After loosening up a it I try a distance cast. It lands nicely and close to the tape but it’s a bit short. I repeat the cast several times with much the same results. Huh? Where did that other 15 feet of distance go? It all feels nice and relaxed and the accuracy is fine but clearly something(s) is wrong with my technique. How can that be when I’ve been fishing most days for 5 weeks, catching my share and generally hitting the targets?

Nothing else for it but to video my casting and analyse. Doesn’t take long to find the problems. One look at the first few casts and I know what’s wrong, basically several of the things that used to be wrong with my distance technique – insufficient body rotation, lack of weight transfer, tracking error out to the left on the back cast, too much rotation too early. Bugger! Back where I started as long as 2 years ago. Cringeworthy.

Well yes and no. Out to the outer reaches of the “kill zone” where targets can be hit confidently and comfortably I’m fine. Yes I’ve regressed but, in my defence and while I was away fishing, my technique adapted to the demands I placed on it.  It is also fair to remember that standing knee deep in the water, having to avoid the shrubbery on the back cast and covering the target fish before the opportunity passes ain’t the same conditions as chucking a long line in the local park.  Lastly it’s a more general reminder that play is rarely a substitute for practice in many sports. The envelope of technique has to be  nurtured and pushed if it is to be maintained and extended.

No way I’ll rest until the missing 15 feet have all been recovered and after a couple more sessions I’ve got roughly half of it back.  Don’t get me wrong. It’s been hard work. However, the problem won’t be solved completely until I insure against future loss. The insurance policy is only in draft but when finished it will include some clauses which trigger review – things I need to notice in future and fix before they get out of hand. Without vigilance we default to old habits. Without a lot of practice we don’t consolidate new habits as much as we like to think we have.

I really hate to say it but I have a sneaking suspicion this is another instance where progression is the only alternative to regression. Either I go forward or I go backwards; staying still isn’t really a viable option.

 

 

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No Substitute for Casting Technique

I know, wouldn’t it be nice if:

  • a change of leader would give us reliable turnover
  • a new line would give us more distance
  • a special line lube would double the length of line shoots
  • a new rod with top secret technology would magically increase our casting range by 30%
  • another magic new rod would have us casting into a tea cup at 60’/18m instead of a hula hoop at half the distance
  • a tip here and a trick there would give us all the answers to all our problems

I know because over the years my hope was invested in at least some of those things and all for little or no lasting return. My bubble has been burst – repeatedly. You can’t buy a better, longer cast.

Worse, far worse than false hope, is yielding to instinct, the one that says to cast further I need to throw harder. It’s been my public enemy No. 1 for nearly all the time I’ve been fly casting and still, I have to try not to heave on my longest casts, not even just a little bit, not even if it’s ok to “hit it” once I’ve gone past the danger zone. No, no, non, nein, nyet. méiyǒu, ie, nei, and the same in any other language.

We can’t play like Segovia, sing like Domingo, dance like Fonteyn, or cook like Tetsuya just by reading the book or watching the video. Why would it be any different for fly casting?

Of course, we do not all aspire, even secretly, to cast like Joan Wulff or Steve Rajeff but what made all these people great is relentless devotion to technique. From that we can learn something! What we learn is that there are no shortcuts, substitutes, silver bullets or gee whiz gadgets that will spare us the work, effort, discipline and dedication to task. We can not google the answers to everything.

There are several ways to respond to the inescapable, we can avoid and resist, we can be crushed or, we can be inspired.

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Line Release when Shooting

Here’s something fairly short and sweet. When shooting line, what is the best time to release it?

A few months ago I needed to have a play with my line release timing. My shooting distances didn’t seem to match the line being carried. Carry increased but shooting wasn’t increasing proportionately. Consequently, I was having to work hard to get full turnover on long casts without a following wind. I wondered if something (else!) was missing. Having to work hard usually indicates a technical fault.

Read up on Sexyloops forum and found some graphs plotting line speed and rotation speed (angular velocity if you want the technical term). They said the best time to release is about when the rod is fully straight again (Rod Straight Position) after being bent earlier in the stroke. To be precise, at RSP1.

Right then. How do we put this into practice? Let’s assume we are doing the right thing with our rotation and haul timing – ie being late for both.

  • Start hauling when we start rotating (yes there are probably finer adjustments but this will be fine).
  • Finish hauling just before the end of rotation.
  • Release the line immediately the haul is finished.
  • Hopefully, that means we release at about RSP

I had been delaying the release longer but realised after the research that I needed to let go earlier. So I went earlier and the shoot felt much more energetic. How much more? Always hard to say because it’s impossible to make a fully controlled experiment which isolates a single factor so we can compare the before with the after. My best guess, using a tape measure, is that it gives me a distance benefit of between 6′ and 10′ (2-3m). It’s exceptional value if maximum range, the longest repeatable casting distance, can be extended by that much. Oh, and here’s a quiet killer, it works the same going both ways – for back casts as well as forward casts.

Why does it work? Not going into the Newtonian equations in this piece so here’s an analogy instead. Imagine you are driving a car with an automatic gearbox. If you want an efficient launch you take your foot off the brakes before pressing the accelerator pedal. If you are still on the brakes you be will retarding the vehicle at the same time as trying to make it accelerate – forward or backwards. Well, a late release is applying a braking force on the line shoot.

 

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Tradition and Dogma

As a part of fly fishing, fly casting is more than a personal interest or activity, it’s part of a tradition. Dogma, however, while being all too common, is not part of a tradition. In fact I would argue it is the opposite of a living tradition which behoves us to keep an open mind and remain well, curious. Tradition inspires. Dogma dictates. In my view fly casting needs to embrace tradition and exclude dogma.

Here’s part of something I wrote about 16 years ago. (The subject was “What is a Fly” in the context of fly tying.) I haven’t changed my mind since then.

“Two of the great things about fly fishing are that it has a long history and a bright future. The long history gives us a tradition and in the age of discontinuity it’s very reassuring to have something like a tradition to hold on to. Tradition is a rope that leads back a long way and has been worked by many hands, recognisably just like ours.

To try to fix for any or all time “what is a fly” is to be pulled backwards by the rope of tradition instead of drawn forwards in the act of continuing to build it. Once you spend more time making sure you are still attached than making sure you are still going forward, the rope of tradition soon turns into the chains of dogma. More trees than fish are caught on this type of back cast.”