Coaching a Friend: Teaching Principles Applied

Not very long ago I spent an hour or two with a friend who wants to improve his casting. I’ve  fished with him and worked with him before so I knew what I would like him to tackle – overpowered forward cast, underdeveloped back cast and lastly an effective double haul. Sound familiar? Anyone who has taught fly casting will recognise all these as common problems.

My friend and I discussed what he wanted to work on and because he is a friend and trusts me he was open to my suggestions.

First thing I wanted to leave him with was the triangle method as something he can use whenever he chooses so we got some rope and set that up. It works for all levels of casting skill from beginner to advanced and everywhere in between. It’s one of the things I use for tuning up my casting, though I no longer need the rope. The visual cues provided by side casting over a set of lines is the key to its effectiveness. You can see exactly what you are doing…or not doing.

Second thing was to introduce a minimum power exercise using the triangle as a visual structure and cue that would allow him to control his stroke length while working to reduce applied force.

Thirdly, once the first couple of things were working well enough for him to benefit from them, I got him to start doing PUALDs in both directions. Again this is something I often use to tune up something(s) in my technique. One of the things it demonstrates is the great advantage of casting with a straight fly line. Slack is not our friend and conspires with instinct to encourage overpowering. Eliminate slack and find the minimum power needed to complete the cast and a new day dawns. PUALDs give us time to see what just happened, think about the next stroke and how to change what needs to be changed.

There was a bit of wind blowing so I got him to move to different corners of the triangle in order cast downwind  as an aid to minimising power and, by reversing directions, the upwind cast then becomes a test of both technique and power restraint. Works the same for forward and back casts.

Within a fairly short time he was really getting the hang of it as was obvious from the tighter loops and smoother acceleration. My input at this stage was mostly to compliment the better casts. No need to say anything about the not-so-good ones because that would have been stating the obvious to him.

Because he gets physics and asked, I explained that the SLP is essentially shorthand for maximising force applied in the intended direction of the cast. To put it in a nutshell, it’s about vectorial purity. Counterintuitively, we get better results from less force applied more efficiently. Intuitively, we attempt to compensate for inefficient force application by using yet more force which will invariably be applied even less efficiently.

My other input was to encourage him to memorise the feel of the good casts and how it differed from the not-so-good ones. I suggested he give it a name.

So, within two hours his casting stroke, in both directions, had become much smoother and more efficient – no more spiky power application. Instead of punching the delivery out to 50 odd feet he was stroking it smoothly out to nearly 60’. What he achieved was very satisfying for both of us and the feedback after a couple fishing session was that the improvements had “stuck”.

If you compare this post with my Teaching Fly Casting: Interim Research Report you will be able to see the principles I was attempting to apply. More emphasis on “production” and facilitating student discovery and less emphasis on “reproduction” and direct instruction. Use of the overall “feel” of getting it right as a means of capturing and entrenching improved performance of movements.

I also learned something else too. I really enjoy teaching fly casting, especially when it succeeds beyond my expectations. :^))

 

Fly Casting Practice: My Bag of Tricks

As many of you know by now I practice regularly to maintain and improve my casting technique. Some of what I learn finds its way into this blog and I’ve written extensively on how I structure practice sessions to optimise my sensory motor learning.

This post is not so much about the things I’m trying to improve as about the exercises I often use to make improvements. I make no claim to originality for any of them. How I use them individually or in series suits me and might be useful to others.  When using them I often morph back and forth from one to another once the groove or “feel” of the cast elements get established fairly well.

This variation provides a test of how solid the gains are because it forces me to adapt the learned movement change or “feel” from one movement sequence to another and, often, back again. When fishing, things like gear setups and weather conditions mean one size very rarely fits all.  We have to adapt technique to meet the requirements of the casting task – standard, non-standard or even unique requirements to make the desired presentation.

Good casters adapt easily and readily, meaning they can maintain control, composure and task focus. If we want to “see the shot, make the shot” there’s not much room for conscious thinking or dry runs.  We need to size up the situation, pick our target and make the desired presentation, adapting our technique as required.  Practice can help with that but only if we practice adaptation intentionally.

Here are some of the exercises and some of the things I use them for and neither list exhausts all the possibilities. 

Triangle Method

Lee Cummings developed this method and you can watch his video of it here. The genius of this exercise is that you have a full view of every movement you, the rod and the line make. Secondly, the reference lines create a defined path and maximum stroke length. It’s the first part that I use extensively because sight is our dominant sense and so the ability to see everything expedites sensory motor learning.

I don’t bother with the ropes and markers and just switch to side casting. In that mode I can take in all the sight cues from my body bits, the rod and loop shapes. 

  • It tells me about tracking and power application. 
  • It’s good for examining stroke and haul timing and making tweaks to them.
  • You can add or subtract hauls and shoots.
  • You can use it with Pick Up And Lay Down (PUALD) casting.
  • You can tidy things up and then graduate from sideways to canted to overhead and back again if you think the feel or groove needs to be re-established or simply to exercise your ability to vary and adapt the stroke.

It may have been developed to get beginners going but I’d suggest it is very useful at whatever level of casting ability you have attained.

Dynamic Rolls

Making tidy dynamic roll casts with tight loops, fly leg nearly vertical to the rod leg and complete turnover gets harder as we cast longer, not least because it is inherently less mechanically efficient than a standard overhead cast.  A medium overhead distance quickly becomes a medium-long or long dynamic roll cast. 

The principal answer to the “problem” is to rotate late in the cast. As ever, we also need smooth acceleration and a full finish. For this cast the full finish can be combined with a high finish to optimise line tension. Simply put, in longer dynamic roll casts there is less margin for efficiency error.

I use dynamic rolls as a means of testing and improving my general casting efficiency. For example, if my overhead loops on longer casts aren’t tight enough for my liking I may switch to dynamic rolls. When they are going out nicely I might switch back to overhead casting and then switch back and forth. Pick up into a dynamic roll, turning that into a false forward overhead cast. If I can get both types of cast travelling sweetly at will, individually or as a mixture, I expect the feel to be similar in both – similar, but not exactly the same.

During accuracy practice I will often aim for the same target(s) but switch back and forth between overhead and dynamic roll casts.

Simple Overhead Casts

By “simple” I mean standard overhead casting stripped back to the essentials – no hauling and, often, no shooting. What’s left will be the bare bones of rod hand technique for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health. We are thus confronted by technical weakness and given the chance to turn them into strengths. 

By starting with a short to medium distance and extending it as far as we can rod hand essentials can all be tested – tracking, timing, smoothness of power application, minimisation of slack and the straight line path.  The quality of our five essentials is now there in plain sight. 

We can add to the bare bones by feeding line into the forward or back casts and by shooting line into the delivery to examine the strength of our technique.  It’s very satisfying when a decent carry can be turned into a surprisingly long delivery.

Pick Up And Lay Downs

PUALDs are another very useful testing, diagnostic and treatment exercise. I start with a medium length cast and extend as far as my technique will permit. I pick up from a forward delivery and make a back cast delivery or a single false cast to the rear and then a forward delivery or any combination of pick up, single false cast and delivery.

Pick ups naturally lengthen and therefore slow down the ensuing casting stroke in whatever direction we choose. Slowing down helps smooth out acceleration. Laying down provides an instant check of our tracking – in both directions. The loop shape and completeness of the turnover tell the story of casting efficiency.

I often throw PUALDs into the mix with simple overheads and triangle method. A dynamic roll is essentially a PUALD cast unless the delivery is turned into a false forward cast. I make them with and without hauls and shoots and I often keep extending the line out until my technique falters. As with simple overheads it is both surprising and satisfying to see just how far we can cast when we cast with optimal efficiency.

One Thing at a Time

Probably the most obvious aid to improving technique but it needs to be said and observed. We have a finite capacity to learn and improve our movements via the “thinking about it” channel, especially when the movements being altered are deeply ingrained. That’s why it helps to slow things down as we can do, for example, with PUALDS. 

It also helps to avoid gumming up the cognitive (slow channel) attention buffer by trying to work on multiple “problems” simultaneously. It’s why, for example, my practice regime provides for attention to back casts and forward casts separately.  Likewise doing the fine tuning/improvement work is easier when we operate at medium distance where mostly our movements are controlled unconsciously (fast channel).

Recently I was working on even smoother power application essentially by starting slower. You will find the story in my previous blog post. I also wanted to experiment with snappier hauling because my line shot to line carried ratio was less than gold standard (c.50%).  What I quickly discovered was that speeding up the line hand movement and slowing down the rod hand movement was a marriage made in hell. Work on one or the other was fine. Both at the same time was a mess. Two different rhythm/cadence changes by two different sides of my body was too much for the slow lane of the sensory motor system to handle. It was fun to try though.

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.

Teaching Fly Casting: Interim Research Report

Have just added the above as a new page. As explained in its introduction section, “I have spent a lot of time trying to get fly casting teachers to talk about their work – not about what they teach but rather how they teach. With some notable exceptions it turned out to be a difficult row to hoe. Accordingly, I decided to redirect my energies to researching teaching/coaching in other sports, particularly those with the numbers, the organisational structures and most importantly the money to push the envelope, to look outside the box of traditional practices and get some serious sports science done.”

My research and discussion of it with friends has turned up enough of value to publish this interim report. I have to decided to publish further reports as and when that seems useful. I have learned a lot already and know I have a much longer journey in front of me.

Going outside the fly casting box to other sports will doubtless raise some eyebrows and prompt some scepticism – to put it mildly. Some teachers of fly casting will probably wonder what I’ve been smoking. To all my readers I say simply this. Please keep an open mind and please remember I’m not trying to trash the good work that many of you have done as teachers over a long time as evidenced by the greatly improved casting skills of your students. Instead of finding fault my intention to introduce new ideas from other places where movement and motor skills are being taught. Even in sports where the numbers are huge compared with fly casting history shows that teachers tend to teach what they learned and how they were taught – a history that resonates strongly with me and hopefully you too.

“Power Snap” Out of It?

Emerging (slightly) from a two month lockdown last week saw me have my first casting practice session for what seemed like a scary long time. It was exciting to string up for a cast but I did it with some trepidation in wondering how much of my technique might have gone missing. The result was a pleasant surprise. My accuracy was a bit below par but the efficiency gains I’ve been working on for a couple of years now were all still there. In fact, it was sweet enough to reassure me that a lot of the good stuff had become largely unconscious, meaning it was now being controlled by the fast lane of my sensory motor system. The learning had stuck courtesy of structured, intentional practice. By the end of the session my accuracy and other things had improved significantly – almost back to peak expectation.

One thing I noticed early on was the absence of anything recognisable as a snap at the end of the back cast or forward cast even on medium long to long casts. Yes, I did get a bit snappy tidying up a bit of slack a few times. However, for the core casting cycles, including those leading to long casts aimed at the 90 foot (golf ball on a spike) target, snappiness was omitted. Stroke length rather than wristy effort was doing the job.

So what’s the big news here? Two things come to mind. One is Joan Wulff’s power snap of the wrist at the end of a stroke. Another is a memory of someone else I respect saying that power snaps and tailing loops could be a cause and effect couple. So a power snap was/is not an open invitation to go for it right at the end. Late rotation and late haul are the way to go as the finishers to smooth acceleration during the rest of the stroke. A power “snap” that gets just a bit too snappy too early is, like a vigorous haul that finishes too soon, asking for tailing trouble.

Not trying to score points here, much less get into another unnecessary and unproductive argument but rather just saying that what works for me doesn’t require anything truly snappy at any stage. What feels right and gets pleasing results is smoothness throughout the stroke which is finished fully in that same way, feel and rhythm.

Over the years I have caught a few fish out at 90’ or so but by “few” I mean maybe a handful or two over more than 30 years. So when I cast with a 5wt combo to a target 90 feet away it’s not make believe but it’s not meat and potatoes fishing either. Going to have another practice session before I publish this and see if it confirms or qualifies what I’ve just written.

Just back from that second session and it partially qualified what I wrote above. It was a reminder that one never steps onto or into quite the same field or water. Different conditions today – less benign wind and Spring growth of the grass and flowering of the daisy like weeds made things harder. The wind was both stronger and more flirty. The fly was catching more frequently during the lifts and the ticks. As a result I found myself having to “punch” more casts a bit more often to get full extension and remove slack. This meant that both back casts and forward casts incorporated a “snap” more often.

When I could be as smooth as I wanted to be – easy start, smooth acceleration and full finish to the stroke – a snap was unnecessary and frankly, unwanted. In that mode I could still make the great majority of fishing length (accuracy) casts – despite the changed conditions. I could also see that in true fishing conditions what would be necessary would be variable. For example, quick re-positioning, restricted back cast room, wading thigh deep and chancy wind gusts would change the situation and the ask.

Dynamic Rolls

These are a standard part of my practice regime. At the best of times roll casting is less (mechanically) efficient than overhead casting and when I got going today I realised again what an excellent test of casting technique and its controlled adaptability they provide. To make a nice dynamic roll cast it’s best to rotate late and as length increases it pays to begin applying a measured and still smooth “snap” – think subtle and well timed increase of effort rather than getting punchy at the finish.

Longer dynamic roll casts require both more effort and (therefore) more care in how and when it is applied. All of that is, of course, true for overheads as well. One of the differences, however, is that with a longish dynamic roll cast the pause between the setup (back cast) and the delivery is considerably and necessarily shorter. This changes the cadence and provides a temptation to hurry up instead of waiting for it. The rushed delivery is usually poorly executed. Being in a rush instead of being in the smooth flow of correct timing isn’t helpful with any cast. To stay smooth technique has to be adapted to avoid temptation and embrace the different timing requirements. Done nicely, cadence changes but control remains solid.

Summing Up

f I were starting over or advising someone who was getting started “power snap” would probably not be standard terminology. Depending on skill levels, I would prefer describing a finish that was smooth at all times and sometimes needed to be a bit firmer or more positive/decisive. That additional effort should be avoided if possible. When it isn’t necessary it isn’t helpful. My initial thoughts weren’t wrong but they were a bit idealistic. The second session produced some qualifications. Ahaa… but.

Not that much about fly casting is as simple as “always” or “never”. Two notable exceptions for me are always being smooth and never heaving. But you knew I was going to say that. Efficiency rules.

Practice Update

As I mentioned a few posts ago, tuning up my back cast lead to some further savings in effort – going both ways. My standard practice regime has since been changed to include minimum effort and also back cast delivery drills which have helped cement in these recent improvements.  The page on Fly Casting Practice has been amended to incorporate the changes. Here they are the in a bit more detail.

Minimal Effort Casting Drill

This is now how I often begin and sometimes end, a practice session. Beginning with it sets the tone and ending with it reinforces that tone as the new normal.

Start with a short length of fly line out, say 5-10 feet plus leader which is around 10 feet long for my usual practice set up. Make gentle, short strokes both ways, while making sure the loops are kept tidy – narrow, in the same plane and pretty much parallel. 

See if you can reduce effort enough to make the cast fail – incomplete turnover. Trust me, it’s not easy until you get a fair bit of line out. No hauling or shooting is allowed at this stage. Try to make slow, easy movements, finishing with soft or hard stops but soft is probably more in the mood.

Gradually, extend the cast until to you get to medium distance or longer as you wish. The idea, obviously, is to remind us just how little effort is needed. That’s the groove you want to stay in for most overhead (and side) casts.

As a variation and reinforcement try making PUALDs both ways – one back and then one forwards. Then make a single false cast in one direction before making a delivery in the other. I do this in one delivery direction at a time.

Extend distance and the length of the stroke but keep the same effortless, smooth and soft stop stroke. Keep the stops high and the loops narrow.  When it becomes necessary to haul in order to preserve low effort casting I do that but until then I try not to haul. How far can you go? I’ve gotten out to 80’ both ways and will be looking to extend that.

This is also how I often finish up, coming in shorter again and maybe sneaking out to medium distance.

Accuracy Casts in Both Directions

To reinforce the improved back casting I deliver, to targets, off that cast as well as the forward cast. For this exercise I add hauls and false casts back in, one at a time. When things are going well I might shoot line for the longer range targets.

Timing of Drills

When I started the new regime each drill/exercise was timed using my cell phone. These days I rarely use the phone, not because I’ve given up on time management but because I don’t really need it now. A drill is performed and when all seems in order it is time to move on. Overall the sessions range from 45 to 60 minutes.

Purpose

The particular purpose(s) to which each session is dedicated changes but always with the resolve to never practice without at least one clear, conscious purpose. Good practice is intentional. 

Fly Casting: Distance, Technique, Effort and Practice – Redux

Recently, I spent five or six practice sessions concentrating on tuning up my back cast to get rid of some bad habits that returned during a long fishing trip.  Structural restoration has been achieved but deeply grooving the changes is ongoing work. Doing that work led to me further clarify my thinking on the relationship between distance and technique. Within that relationship effort is the key performance indicator of the health and wellbeing of my technique.  Less effort means better technique and vice versa. Less is more. Using more effort than is (absolutely) necessarily means my technique could be improved. More is less. 

I’ve known that for a long time now but I keep revisiting the well and every visit provides fresh insight as I learn more about the reach and importance of this simple idea. It means so much more than “don’t heave” or “stay smooth”.

Here are my conclusions after reflecting on my recent experience. I’m assuming they have general application but please note that they come from personal experience and what you do with them is up to you.

1. If you have the technique you can go long and it will be easy and effortless. 

2. If you don’t have the technique going long will be difficult and you will probably heave (because that’s instinctive) which will compound rather than fix the problem(s).  Let’s bring that to a sharp point. You need sound technique to go long but going for maximum distance won’t give you sound technique. Cart before horse problem.

To bring both these conclusions into a practical focus, we can improve technique effectively and sustainably (only) by gradually extending carry and distance achieved on delivery.  I practice this way, often, and (try to) make a habit of making a longer smoother stroke instead of a shorter punchier stroke to cast a given distance.

When the limits of technique are reached it’s time to back up, get back in the groove, tidy up, restore order and only then advance once more. Repeat as required. Effort is no substitute for efficiency.  Yeah, trust me, I know how painfully and fundamentally “unnatural” and “counterintuitive” that sounds but….such is life.

Again, none of that is hardly a new and stunning discovery. It’s trite but I’m far from convinced that it is blindingly obvious or widely practised much less religiously observed and intentionally practiced.  If you see someone making or trying to make long casts and they don’t look graceful, easy and composed in their movements chances are they skipped that lesson or weren’t paying full attention.  You don’t need quantitative measurement to detect excessive effort. You can feel it when you are casting and see it if you watch the video footage.  Failed or poor distance casts that don’t fully turnover and lay out straight are a clue. This brings me to a third conclusion and my most recent ahaa moment.

3. I’ve written about practice and sensory motor learning a few times now and won’t plow that ground again here. However, it might be worth reading that stuff if you haven’t already done so. Certainly, I’ve changed my practice regime since writing about it and I might get around to revising those pieces accordingly. On now to the most recent insight.

What is less obvious, but perhaps more important than my first two conclusions, is that frequently trying for maximum distance means we are “practicing” at and beyond the limits of technique. What that likely means is that we are actually grooving its weaknesses and failures.  If we practice within the limits of technique we can instead refine its strengths and reinforce its successes. That’s the groove I want to be digging deeper.  Note to self and reader; please read this paragraph again so that you practice success, not failure.

Going back to where this started, improving my back cast technique had consequences for the forward cast technique.  As I’ve said:

“I have become a great believer in the virtue of making the back cast movement mirror, as far as possible, my forward cast movement.  By that I mean I want the cadence and tempo to balance out and I want the technique and its kinetic sequence to feel essentially the same in execution and effort going back and going forward. Translation, rotation, completeness of the finish and most especially the timing, amount and progression of effort – I want all of this to feel like two cycles of a pendulum.  I want to make two focussed casts – one backwards and one forwards – with the same conscious intent such that with trajectory adjustment I can deliver effectively going either way.”

Having adjusted the effort profile on my back cast I needed to adjust the forward cast to match and… I have. Less effort going both ways means better technique. The job now is to groove that success deeper with purposeful practice. That’s good practise.

A final thought. I fully realise that my approach diverges from the orthodoxy on making long casts which derives from distance casting competitions and instruction. The accepted approach there is that distance comes from line speed and line speed comes from (correctly timed) effort by the rod and line hands.  More is more. 

From a physics point of view that is basically correct provided the effort is applied in the intended direction of the cast and, of course, that’s the hard part. Accordingly, technique tends to ride the knife edge between power and tailing loops. That is no longer my journey or motivation. As Bob Wyatt put it, so well:

“When one understands its ethos, the difference between fly-fishing and all other forms of fishing becomes clear. An aesthetic tradition embodied in the tackle, theory and practice, is a large part of what makes the fly-fishing experience meaningful.” (Trout Hunting, 2005, p.15.)

My journey is about graceful movement and accurate delivery.  It’s about ease rather than distance.  It’s about aesthetics rather than athletics. Sure, I still like to see how far I can go but now, only within those constraints and, as ever, only with standard fishing outfits.  Consequently, I have “lost” around 10 feet in maximum distance but what I have gained is worth far more – to me anyway.

The argument of this journey is fly fishing therefore fly casting. Casting efficiency, therefore ease, therefore grace, therefore control, therefore accuracy. Mastery, rather than dominance or display, is what I seek.

Back Cast Tune-Up

At the beginning of April I arrived back from another extended and delightful trip to Tasmania. Unfortunately, I also came back with a bad casting habit I thought I had gotten rid of.  Five weeks fishing in Tassie conditions – wind and an urge to make quick covers – brought back the (felt) need for speed and with that my version of over rotation on the backcast – too much effort. The result of this over rotation was a pronounced dip (slack line effectively) in the back cast, especially with longer carries. It’s mechanically inefficient and a Force thief because the next forward cast has to remove the slack before it can propel the line where and as I want it to go.

The problem was picked up by Graeme Hird with whom I had a post trip “cast and a chat”.  It was confirmed with some video footage. He also suggested a remedy which was to practice making a delivery off the backcast – something I have long needed to do more of.  I took up and adapted his suggestion. Thanks mate.

At first glance all this refers to a common and “simple” problem. Viewed from a fault correction perspective both the problem and the solution are straightforward. Too much rotation? Rotate less. How? Use less effort and don’t use your wrist joint as much. Oh, ok then.

If you, like me, tend to over rotate on the back cast and a standard fault correction approach works that’s your good fortune. However, I need to know the why if I’m going work out the how to of fixing the problem. In this instance I wanted to work out why going a bit hard was driving a biomechanical bug which came in two parts. First, too much hand movement (extension) at the wrist joint (effort induced) and secondly, not enough freedom to extend the forearm more and thus the rod hand less. Both these problems derive, essentially, from excessive effort.

That first problem was assisted by more upper arm movement during a basic cast from a squarish stance. The second problem arises with a more open stance for longer casts and so more shoulder turn/torso rotation assisted effort reduction and also improved tracking issues which also arise during the rotation stage. (More squared stance for short to medium distances and more open stance for the medium to long casts.)

As always, casting movements of the rod hand should be executed with smooth acceleration and minimum effort. In my case the acceleration was smooth enough until the point where too much effort was being applied during wrist extension. A lack of shoulder rotation on the longer carries was forcing my forearm to move outwards in an attempt to get around the block imposed by the limited movement permitted by the elbow – essentially it is a hinge. That outward movement put my tracking off by about 20 degrees. Like I said, none this was entirely new nor is it the end of the world for fishing casts. It was old habits returned in both square and open stance casting that produced slack line and a tracking error. You can check this fairly definitively for yourself by making a delivery off the back cast and seeing how the line lays out. The best evidence, however, will come from video footage.

I don’t want to make this either more simple or more complicated than it deserves but, as you may have found out already, tweaking one thing often results in consequential changes of two kinds. 1) Other things have to be adjusted to accommodate the change. 2) Insights gained from changing one thing can inform how you do other things. In fixing my problems I’ve had to make adjustments and I’ve benefited from both varieties of consequential change. More on that another time but for now let’s look at the remedial process. Off to the park for some practice and (re)learning.

Step One 

Working with a square stance and basic stroke I could watch my loops in real time and then on video. Were they tight enough or a bit fat?  Starting with a medium length cast and then going longer and shorter did the trick. Pick up and lay down casts in both directions helped as did smoothing out the forward cast in response to the easier tempo of the back cast. Also incorporated was something Peter Morse showed me recently – deliberately casting with (absolutely) minimal effort in both directions. It feels like the casts will fail – but they don’t. 

Step two 

The next job was sorting out the longer carries for longer casts from a much more open stance. This was more complicated, of course, because the casting movements involve a lot more bits of the body. To give the adjustments a clear purpose I used my line of targets but instead of facing them I turned around and aimed at them off the back cast. The focus became back casts with false casting, delivery and trajectory alterations to suit. While I was doing this I could sortout the biomechanical issues to keep the loops tight and the tracking correct. It soon became obvious that I needed to ease up a bit more to keep everything tidy. Easing up applied to casts in both directions. Oh my, did I just find a way of saving some more effort? Yep, an unexpected bonus.

Step Three: Reflection

I had made significant changes to my back cast which had consequences for my forward cast technique. Instead of merely correcting a “fault” isolated from the rest of my movements I had finished up renovating and reconstructing a significant part of my overall casting technique.

Let me explain that a bit more. I have become a great believer in the virtue of making the back cast movement mirror, as far as possible, my forward cast movement. By that I mean I want the cadence and tempo to balance out and I want the technique and its kinetic sequence to feel essentially the same in execution and effort going back and going forward. Translation, rotation, completeness of the finish and most especially the timing, amount and progression of effort – I want all of this to feel like two cycles of a pendulum. I want to make two focussed casts, one backwards and one forwards, with the same conscious intent such that with trajectory adjustment I can deliver effectively going either way.

Outcomes

My practice regime has been amended to include:

  • Casting in both directions with minimal effort – meaning just enough to complete turnover and with gradually increasing distance from medium to medium long – no hauls.
  • PUALD casts made in one direction and then the other – pick up and back cast then pick up and forward cast – no false casting allowed at first and then allowed in one direction at a time.
  • Accuracy casting in both directions – as above with increasing distances. False casts and hauls added back in.

My casting has been restored to its pre-trip status and with added benefits. More on where those benefits took me that next time.

The Thrust: Longer Stroke, Less Effort, More Control, More Accuracy

I’m always looking to improve some aspect of my casting which usually means finding ways of increasing efficiency and thus reducing effort. At present I’m trying to use a more extensive thrust (full arm extension) finish, especially on my delivery. I also want to see if I can enhance my backcast by adding some sort of thrust component to it as well for both false casting and for delivery off the backcast. However, that will have to wait because I have returned from another Tassie trip with some work to do on my backcast and I’ll post about that another time.

Mechanics

The heading of this post partly answers the “why” question. Why do this? If we take a mechanics perspective it is fairly easy to understand the explanation. By using a longer stroke we can do more Work on the line. Work is Force by distance so how much Force is applied for what distance determines the Work we do on the fly line and thus the kinetic energy we put into it.

Pardon my repetition but the relevant Force is not any old force going anywhere, it’s a vector Force, a net Force in the intended direction of the cast as we accelerate the mass of the fly line. To do X amount of Work we can apply more Force over less distance or less Force over more distance.

Biomechanics and Sensory Motor Control

We know from biomechanics that the bigger muscles are closer (proximal) to the centre of our bodies. The smaller muscles are further away (distal). The bigger muscles are better at grunt and the smaller ones at finesse. So if we lengthen the stroke we might well be taking the pressure off the smaller muscles by using some of the bigger ones to a greater extent. That means less effort is required from the distal muscles which means better control.

If I detach the rod butt and, using a basic or foundation cast movement, make a slow forward cast and stop I can see that there is still a bend at my elbow between the forearm and upper arm. Secondly, my rod hand is more or less in the same plane as my inner forearm. This is true regardless of my grip type (which in practice varies from thumb on top to a V grip).

Now, if I repeat the forward cast and this time fully extend my arm, the bend between forearm and upper arm disappears and, somewhat unexpectedly, I notice significantly greater movement of my hand which is now cocked (extended) further and somewhat turned in (pronated). The exact differences in angles may vary from person to person so I’m not concerned to make an exact measurement of the degree change. The difference is obvious and significant just watching where and how my hand finishes.

Back to casting mechanics. As the fly rod is a lever that amplifies the travel distance of the rod hand, you can bet that the rod tip is describing a much long path with full arm extension than it does with partial arm extension. From our body’s point of view the difference isn’t so much but from the rod tip’s perspective, the difference is very significant. It gets translated roughly the same distance in both cases but rotated a lot further when we thrust, fully extending the arm and pronating our rod hand.

From the perspective of sensory motor control we know from well accepted studies that we can be more precise in our movements if we move slower which is exactly what a longer stroke allows. Elsewhere on the site there is plenty more detail on the three perspectives I’ve just touched on – mechanics, biomechanics and sensory motor learning.

The Story of How

The other question is “how” – how to make a thrust finish, how to incorporate it and how did I get the idea of making a more expansive thrust finish on the delivery. Just for the heck of it I’m going to start with last part and expect that along the way we will cover the other two “how” questions.
If you watch any seriously competent caster the odds are you will see a thrust finish on their long casts. For example, find some footage of Joan Wulff finishing a long cast. Her casting arm will be fully extended, her torso rotated slightly toward the target and her weight has moved entirely to the front leg. It looks nice and it works well. As Steve Raejeff has put it, for distance casting his stop takes place when he runs out of arm, ie after full extension.

For many years I’ve incorporated a thrust into my longer casts. For much of that time I wasn’t thinking about anything to do with physics, biomechanics or sensory motor learning. It worked so I used it. Then, about a year or so ago I started playing with TLT, lancio angolato and svirgolato. These casts are not about prodigious distance but rather about subtle and artful control. So, I was intrigued and started seeing what I could take from lancio angolato, which finishes with an emphatic and extensive thrust, and import it into my standard overhead casting. It produces an extremely narrow loop, helpful for sneaking casts under the vegetation. What I noticed straight away was the extra zip it injected in all casts from shortish to quite long. (Little wonder that lancio angolato adds zip – lots more Work is being done.)

The next step was to play around with this expanded version of a thrust and modify it to fit casts of different types, lengths and applications. I find that reverting to a sidecast is often helpful. Going back to the start of the triangle method, as it were, allows me to see what is going on, what is working well and what isn’t. Visual clues and adjustments inform the sensory motor system nicely because we are built to use our sight as a primary sense. It gives us data that we won’t necessarily get or use just from feel alone.

Out on the water I get to play with new things and see if they work for me. A couple of examples. Casting upwind – angle up behind and then use the thrust in the low forward delivery. Casting across and maybe slightly upwind to cover a riser and you want it see the fly before the tippet? Side cast with thrust and let the wind impede the last bit of the turnover to keep the fly slightly downwind. The thrust is now a variation of technique I can and do improvise with. You can use it squared up with the basic or foundation cast. You can use it with a partially or fully open stance employing a much wider casting arc.

For medium long to long casts I began using a modified form of thrust which reduced total effort. I’m still refining the technique for the forward cast but it’s clearly there to stay. It allows me to use a longer stroke without excessive rotation at the finish.

Try this at home. Square up and use a foundation overhead cast out to a medium distance. Don’t stop and then drop the rod to open the loop. Stop “high” and keep your loop tight. Now, look at the angle between your upper arm and your forearm. As already described, my guess is that your arm won’t be straight. There will be a slight bend at the elbow and your hand will be in a similar position to mine. When I see that I see opportunity to get another little bit from the upper arm, forearm and hand. With an open stance a little extra contribution from final shoulder rotation and weight transfer can be added to the list. All this is what a thrust finish offers. It’s almost like a secondary sequence from proximal to distal. Why let the opportunity pass you by?

A nicely executed thrust will extend the Straight Line Path, that is, it will increase net Force in the intended direction of the cast. When my cast finishes with a thrust I often seem to get narrower loops and that could be just an SLP thing. It may also be that in thrusting we “push into the bend” of the rod, delay straightening (maintaining rod flex longer) and reducing counterflex. I don’t have the mo-cap footage to provide the proof but I suspect that is what’s happening.

If you don’t presently use a thrust finish, try it and see if it works for you. If you do already finish with a thrust try making a more emphatic thrust and see how that goes.