Fly Casting Practice

Introduction

Last year I contemplated writing an in depth article about casting practice, essentially part four of the series and story of mechanics, biomechanics and sensory motor learning. I decided against it then because site visitors seemed to be less interested as the story progressed. Despite that and with some awareness of urge and inevitability I found myself writing repeatedly about practice in my blog, simply because my own practice kept on providing evidence that there was so much more to practice than mindless repetition. So, with lockdown time on my hands it was time to concede, collect, review and refresh what I’ve learned about practice, both theoretically and experientially. Here it is. Couldn’t help myself.

Before going on I want to acknowledge the valuable feedback provided by my reviewers, Blake Robertson, Mike Shaw and Vince Brandon. Thanks guys. It is appreciated.

There are mountains of content, physical and digital, out there on the subject of fly casting. The majority of it is concerned with identifying and curing faults in technique. A little of it is about what to practice – drills and such. There is very little about why we need to practice and only a tiny amount of content devoted to understanding and applying the principles of practice as informed by science or experience. Why is that? Why is fly casting, even as a sport or end in itself, so apparently separated from or indifferent to other sports and movement science? Compare this with the massive efforts made to identify, accumulate and refine a body of knowledge about optimal training and skills development in so many professional sports such as golf, football, baseball, cricket, basketball, tennis and on it goes. I’d hazard a wild guess that more is known about this stuff in European handball than in fly casting, probably including competition fly casting.

For sure there is a demand issue and most anglers just want to fish and if they catch fish then who needs lessons, much less regular practice? Fishing is their sport; casting is just a means to that end. Of course, that is their legitimate choice and I’m pretty confident they won’t be avid readers or regular visitors to sites like this one. But….ask a professional fishing guide, any of them, what limitations their clients often demonstrate and I’ll wager my house on the most common answer.

I don’t pretend to have exhaustive knowledge of sports science in general or skills practice in particular but I think I know enough now to offer a few collected thoughts about casting practice – thoughts which follow on from understanding a bit about casting mechanics, biomechanics and sensory motor learning. My own experience has been informed and re-shaped by applying what I’ve learned along the way. Practice is where the rubber meets the road.

Getting the Concept

What is practice – as opposed to doing? That might seem like a “dumb” question with an obvious answer. There is, however, more to the question than first appears. Practice is where you learn to do new things and to do old things better. Practice is mindful. Contrastingly, mindless repetition is doing the same things the same way without much prospect of learning or improving. If fishing is the doing bit then yes if you decide to learn new things and consciously set about trying to do old things better then improvements are certainly possible, especially if you fish a hell of a lot. But, seriously, how often is that decision made and carried out? Assuming it was how much improvement is likely to be made compared with time dedicated to practice?

You can’t really fly fish and practice your casting at the same time, at least, not without diminishing the pleasure and effectiveness of one or both activities. When I’m fishing, ideally, I don’t want to think much about my casting and that’s especially true when I am sight fishing. See the fish, see the shot, take the shot. Anything else is a distraction.

Having “defined” practice let’s move on to the Why, How and What issues of casting practice.

Why practice fly casting? That is now the easy question. To get better at it. To maintain and improve our casting skills. That is, for the same reasons that all sorts of people including elite athletes, dancers, martial artists and musicians practice, because practice is the basis of their mastery. Beyond talent, aptitude or physiology, practice is how we achieve whatever level of skill we aspire to – from ordinary to exceptional.

How to Practice? With Purpose and Structure

My casting practice, research and writing are all interconnected in the sense that I don’t preach what hasn’t been meaningfully practiced. After finishing the piece on Sensory Motor Learning I got a recommendation to read Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov et al so I bought the book, read it, and decided to re-jig my practice regime.

Now, I won’t go into detail about the book but a key message from the authors is that the best coaches and elite sports people analyse their sport for the required skill set in two ways. First they determine the essential and fundamental skills and then they break those skills down into simple components and practice them intensively.

This kind of structured approach is a good fit with my other research (and the trend line of my own practice). It is also focussed and rigorous. To put it in two words – it is purposeful and mindful. Consequently, everything in a practice session becomes intentional. Time is not for wasting.

This is the very opposite of heading down to the park and banging out a whole lot of casts, mostly at maximum distance. Yeah, I know, this level of structure might sound a bit anal but try it and see. My somewhat sceptical expectations were proven wrong. I now make a point of practicing with a specific purpose – sometimes to learn something new and sometimes as a general tune-up to maintain and improve existing skills. Either way it’s enjoyable work rather than drudgery.

Determining the essential and fundamental skills is concerned with choosing the 20% of things that really matter (most) and concentrating on improving their performance.

There is another aspect of structure I want to recommend and that is also to do with purpose in the more specific sense of setting and pursuing objectives. I could, but I won’t, give you lengthy and detailed accounts why this is extremely useful for organising and directing all sorts of activities. Trust me when I say, from extensive professional experience as a researcher and consultant, that clarity of purpose is extremely useful for individuals and groups organised at any scale to get things done effectively. Understanding why you are doing what you do and whether or not it’s working both makes meaningful sense of the work and enables navigational guidance on progress and performance.

Returning to the planet’s surface, for several years my overall objective for overhead casting practice has been to expand the zone within which I can easily and confidently make a covering cast from 60’ to 80’. When I go for a practice session I know in advance what, within my overall objective, I want to get from it – a fix or a fine tune. If some additional problem emerges then it too can get attention.

An outline of my standard practice regime will be provided later on. It might pay to mention now that it reflects my fishing bias toward fresh water impoundments and flats fishing in the salt. Somewhat different deal maybe if I mainly fished small streams. I’m not saying I only ever practice with strict adherence to the regime and never do anything else. However, it has worked well over the past year so I am sharing it with you (again) fwiw. Like cooking, use the recipe for ideas and make the meal your own.

How Practice Works and What Works in Practice

The Sensory Motor System (SMS) controls our movements, voluntary and involuntary. It is a wondrous and very complex thing, the exact workings of which are still not entirely understood despite significant research effort. The SMS is what enables us to learn, perform and refine voluntary movements – including fly casting. To get the best possible results from casting practice it helps to understand how that system learns best in terms of both effectiveness and efficiency.

I’ve have tried without much success to come up with a simple shorthand version which is accessible and which makes sense of how we optimise our learning of casting movements. The best I can offer is that learning to move better is about shifting more and more from consciously thinking about a voluntary movement to performing it unconsciously – without thinking about it.

Unconscious control uses neural patterns and channels of command and feedback which are much faster and more efficient than conscious or cognitively driven movement. We might all remember learning to ride a bicycle. At first we are clumsy and a bit uncoordinated but eventually we can ride fast and smoothly over all sorts of terrain without much or any conscious thought about what we are doing and what to do next. A far more detailed account of these processes is available in Sensory Motor Learning for those who want to go there. Learning to do something “without thinking about it” is the result of automating most if not all of the processes involved. That is the end game of practice.

What we can also say about practice and sensory motor learning is that we can do certain things which optimise the learning process – that facilitate the shift toward doing things without having to think about them. All these are explained in greater detail in the article linked to above. Here is a brief account of some things known to optimise learning movement.

Focus of Attention

Sports science divides where we put our learning attention into two: internal focus and external focus. Internal focus concentrates on the body movements we should be making. Fly casting literature and traditional instruction is full of this stuff. Do this and don’t do that; hold your arm up in the ready position, don’t break your wrist, don’t grip the rod too tightly, slow down, stop suddenly, and on it goes.

External focus concentrates on what we are trying to achieve, that is, on the intended effects of our movements. Peer reviewed publications support performance gains in accuracy, efficiency and even maximum power production – in a variety of skill acquisition contexts, including sports – using an external focus.

I’m not saying you can stick a fly rod in a beginner’s hands, tell them to make narrow loops and stay smooth and they will be experts in no time. Of course, beginners need to know and be shown the basics of what to do and how to move. What I’m saying is that an external focus leads to better performance sooner. It gives you a learning edge. My very strong suspicion is that it does so because the movements become less conscious and more unconscious, sooner.

The “Just Right” Feeling

Getting, noticing and remembering the just right feeling is very important. You probably know what I mean already but it’s that cast or golf shot or serve or pitch or whatever that felt special because it was surprisingly easy and effortless. This is what you want your new normal to be.

Once experienced, my suggestion for memorising it is to conjure a word picture that evokes that just right feeling as a metaphorical sensory experience rather than a literal cognitive one. Effectively, you are giving the feeling experience a name so that it can be remembered and recognised. Each of us will make up a different association that makes sense, pun intended. For example when I want to make a long cast, staying smooth and delivering accurately I tell myself to “cut the cloth”. This is my shorthand for treating the sky as a cloth that I cut with the tip of the rod as though using a very sharp knife. The idea of cutting smoothly, effortlessly, straight and completely works for me. If I use key words instead of the image the words are “straight, slow, smooth, full”. All of that process is an example of external focus.

The Comfort Zone

I’m a firm believer in and frequent user of, the comfort zone. That’s where my casting is more likely to be “just right” more of the time. For me that’s when I am casting to a medium distance. The movements are neither restrained nor strained – nearing the point where technique starts to falter. Gradual extension (or even reduction) of distance without losing the magic feel will work a lot better than continually trying to cast as far as possible.

It’s the place I go to learn something new – be that a new type of cast or the refinement I want to accentuate in a familiar cast.

It’s also a familiar groove that you can return to as necessary when things start to get a bit untidy as technique breaks down. Come back to the comfort zone and venture forth again when order is restored. In other words, returning to the groove frees up the conscious attention buffer because more of what is going on is being performed unconsciously.

State of Mind

Your state of mind and emotions are also part of where your attention is focussed and these also affect the muscle and tendon presets I have written about in describing the SMS. Anxiety, for example, will cause the presets to tighten, ie you will literally “tense up”. If, instead of being frustrated or worried about your performance, you are relaxed and confident that improvements can be made then you are more likely to make and keep those improvements.

If you are feeling uptight, mentally and physically, perhaps try a relaxation breathing exercise and have a bit of a shake out to loosen up. If none of that works consider coming back another time. What starts badly rarely ends well.

Giving Yourself Time – Slow and Slower Motion

It is also easier to capture the feel of good form by “casting” in slow motion instead of normal speed. Just as we can see more by watching a caster in slow motion so we can get a better, fuller and more accurate sensory motor “idea” by casting in slow(er) motion.

If you detach the butt section of the rod, reel attached, and give yourself some slack you can perform the chosen casting movements slowly, adjusting them (more easily) for accuracy, that is, making things move smoothly as and when they should. This is Fitts Law, the trade off between speed and accuracy, used to advantage. When we deliberately slow down, attention space is freed up to improve “accuracy” which in this case means conforming with correct technique.

A similar way of exploiting the speed accuracy tradeoff was suggested to me by John Waters. He recommends practice casting at a reduced speed, say 60 -70% of the standard rate, as a means of incorporating improvements to technique. Importantly, everything else stays the same, including stroke and haul length. This might require you to shorten the line up from maximum carry and distance casts. It may even mean making PUALD casts in one or both directions if turnover is badly compromised by reduced tempo of the movements.

As technique improves then from slow or slower motion we can pick up speed again to normal pace and repeat the process as required to capture, memorise and normalise the improvements we are after.

You can even pantomime the actions without a rod in hand. Simply rehearsing the movement in your mind will have benefits. Indeed some research has shown that improvements are made just by sleeping on it. During sleep the brain consolidates the learning and re-organises the neurons used to execute the movements.

Habits, Good and Bad

In everyday language the transition from the cognitive (conscious) to the autonomous (unconscious) stage would be called “forming a habit”. We have seen how it is possible optimise SMS learning to form habits faster. That was the good news. The bad news, of course, is that the process does not distinguish between good and bad habits.

We all know from experience that the longer a bad habit persists the harder it is to break. Bad habits can be broken but it takes focus, resolve, repetition, discipline and, you know, work. It means going back to where the problem started and forming a good habit to replace the bad one. Slowing your movements down as suggested above can help. It will take time. If all that means going back to being a beginner then so be it. Fixes? Yes. Quick fixes? No. Besides, it never hurts to go back to basics, for example by casting without hauling, sorting it all out properly and then adding the hauls back in.

If it makes you feel any better, I’ve spent several years ruthlessly getting rid of any unnecessary effort. It has meant finding ways to cast long and accurately without heaving, at all. The positives I accentuate are smoothness, the natural throwing sequence and staying with the just right feel. All these things facilitate casting in a mechanically and biomechanically efficient way.

What to Practice

It isn’t possible to come up with a single casting regime that will suit everyone. We will all have different objectives and different habits – good and bad – we want to either accentuate or get rid of. Of course many casters will share strengths and weaknesses but I can only offer a description and explanation of what I do and invite you to mine it for ideas that will help you achieve what you are after.

Ideally you would work with a competent instructor to devise a programme suited to your needs which will vary, obviously, with skill levels and achievable objectives. That said a thoughtfully designed DIY structure will very likely be better than none.

Objectives

In addition to having an overall objective for my casting practice I often have specific objectives for a particular session such as improving a new cast or casting on the backhand side or single hand spey casting from one or both sides. Time spent during the session will be adjusted accordingly.

Identifying the 20%

As mentioned above the best coaches and elite sports people determine which skills are essential and fundamental skills. They then break those skills down into simple components and practice them intensively. Some of these essential skills will, of course, be universal but what does and doesn’t make the cut for the 20% will vary a bit with the skill level already obtained. Each of us, alone or in concert with our instructor, will need to sort out the components and draw up a plan that includes them.

My Practice Regime

Here is my standard 45 minute practice regime. The terminology is my shorthand so it might not always make sense. I’ve added some explanations and hope they are enough.

The 20%

•   Be Straight (both planes ie tracking and Straight Line Path).
•   Start slow. Be smooth. Be full. (Power application).
•   Optimise Line Tension.
•   Optimise Loop Shape (size and form).
•   Optimise Hauls – timing, length and straightness.

Warm Up – 5 mins

String up, stretch (body), roll out line 50-60’. Overhead and roll casts mixed up – freestyle.

Back Cast Drill – 5 mins

Loop shape, tracking, hauling, no haul, line tension. 50′ carry slowly extended with good form.

Forward cast Drill – 5 mins

Loop shape, tracking, hauling, no haul, line tension. 50′ carry slowly extended with good form.

Dynamic Roll Drill – 5 mins

45′ casts slowly extended with good form.

Accuracy Drills – 20 mins

Targets set at 50’, 60’, 70’, 80’, 90’
Cast, Pick Up And Lay Down, cast, PUALD moving on when 80% land within:
•   2′ radius for 50-70’
•   3′ radius for 80’, 90’
(Beyond about 70-75’ a PUALD becomes more difficult so I start to shoot line.)
Go back and reset if 80% isn’t achieved then advance again. Repeat the back and forward cast drills as required to get back in the groove.

Odd spot – 5 mins

Choose spey, specialty or off shoulder casting.

A few last things. My targets are fluoro painted golf balls stuck onto 4” nails. I use my cell phone as a timer. I rarely use a measuring tape because I can accurately lay out the course with steps made at normal walking pace.

I chose 45 minutes to keep it tight. I might spend another 15 mins for less structured stuff but that time could also serve to expand or repeat any of the other sections.

For each of first four drills I focus on the 20% incrementally instead of everything at once – it’s really a question of what needs fixing or fine tuning. Don’t overload the attention buffer by trying to do too many things at the same time.

So far I haven’t been recording results for the accuracy casts as I have found it was enough to count the hit ratio out of 5 shots then move on or move back and then go forward again when the count is good enough – typically 80% which is 4 out of 5.

On my personal ten point scale where zero is no practice at all, practicing somewhat reluctantly, mindlessly and robotically is a one or a two. At the other end, practicing mindfully, purposefully and with a sound structure is up there around eight or nine. It gets up to a ten when I learn something surprising and meaningful.

One more very important thing. If you aren’t getting lessons the next best thing is filming yourself casting. All you need is your smart phone or tablet and a tripod with a suitable clip. Uploading to the big screen of a desktop also helps. My phone and iMac are all I need and use. Why? Because there is often a big difference between what you are doing and what you think you are doing. Frame by frame review of video footage is a fantastic tool and will pick up things even the trained naked eye might not catch exactly. This assumes, of course, that you will be able to recognise the things needing work but, watching yourself cast and watching an elite caster cast will almost certainly provide a few clues – overall if not specifically.

Lastly, work and play are not polar opposites. For sure work means being there and staying on task but that rigour doesn’t exclude enjoyment or play. Fun isn’t forbidden fruit ok?

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