Distance Casting – is it all that necessary?
by Nial Logan
Get a room full of flyfishers and apart from the differences of opinion regarding choices of rods, reels and lines, the other area of conjecture would be whether being able to cast long is an advantage.
Many will argue that distance is simply for spectator appeal and that most fish are caught within the 60 foot range so being able to cast over that is of little benefit and accuracy is more important. While accuracy is an important aspect of casting, I doubt that there is a fly caster, whether they want to admit it or not, who at times has wished that they could have added a few more feet to their cast.
On the surface it would seem true that when fishing in tight situations you don’t have to throw a long line however when conditions get ugly, it’s a new ball game. If your best cast is 60 feet under ideal conditions, you may have difficulties casting 30 feet in a strong wind. However, the skills and techniques needed to throw 100 feet in relation to control of loop size, line speed and trajectory become a big advantage to allow you to continue fishing and still throw that 60 foot cast accurately when the wind makes fishing conditions hard.
You don’t have to become a tournament caster, just increasing distance from say 60 to 80 feet will open up additional opportunities by allowing you to cover more water in varying conditions.
Understanding Distance Casting
In this article, the relative advantages or disadvantages of different brands of rods, lines and other speciality equipment is not covered primarily because this choice is a matter of personal preference. It is suffice to say that, when casting for distance using full length fly lines, rods with a medium to fast action teamed with long bellied lines will perform best (this excludes speciality shooting heads).
The first thing to understand is why some people, with what seems like consummate ease, can throw further than others. What do these casters do differently to other casters to get extra distance?
I recently got together with Peter Hayes, Gordon Lowe and Greg Jackson for a play with Greg’s 5 weight that was loaded up with an XXD line. Although all three could bring the 120 foot line up tight on the reel on a regular basis, their styles varied greatly.
It was noted that each of them had optimised their style according to body shape.
For example, Gordon is about 6.5 feet and built like a rugby union breakaway and consequently, to apply power, he uses his reach and size with very little body mass movement to propel the line.
Greg is also solidly built, but not as tall as Gordon and he relies on technique, great timing and some body movement to make the cast.
Peter on the other hand, the shortest and more slightly built of the trio, uses every method at his disposal …. long stroke (to compensate for less height, he reaches way back after the stop on the backcast), uses a distinct pulling action on the forward cast with a pronounced wrist flip to a stop coupled with maximum movement of body mass from front to rear.
Even though their styles differ considerably, the common thread was that they all obeyed the basic essentials of fly casting …. keep slack to a minimum, move the rod tip in a straight line, apply acceleration at a constant non jerky rate, perform abrupt stops to unload the rod, match the stroke length to the amount of line being cast and pause until the line has completely straightened before commencing the next stroke.
Following the get together, some research on the subject revealed an informative article by Al Kyte and Gary Morgan published in 1993 in the Fly Fisherman magazine where they compared the differences between what they described as good and elite casters. The study group included such personalities as tournament casters Rene Gillibert and Tim Rajeff and renound casting instructor Mel Kreiger. Their evaluation was structured along similar lines as those used for biomechanic research in sports training and included such aspects as the backcast loops, rod butt stop on backcast, rod bend/loading, rod tip path, path of rod hand, drift before the forward cast, casting arcs and stroke length, body weight shift, stance open or square, hauling technique, arm and shoulder motions, wrist movement and stop on forward cast.
In the final summary of the article they observe, “The elite casters were able to store more energy in the bent rod and were able to release the stored energy more efficiently to the fly line”. They go on to say, “The top distance caster bent the rod most, stopped it the quickest, used the most body lean, had the best rated backcasts, had the widest casting arcs, hauled line effectively, kept a straight rod tip path during acceleration, used weight shift and shoulder rotation and benefited from late and forceful use of elbow and wrist action.”
It was also noted that there was no “magic bullet” to delineate the major differences between the two groups. What seemed to make the difference was that the elite casters did everything a small percentage better.
Some thoughts on arm style.
There are generally three basic descriptions of the arm positioning that are also used by many of the very proficient casters.
- Elbow forward – This relates to a relatively vertical rod plane that is generally accepted as the best position for accuracy.
- Elbow out – This describes a style where the elbow to held out to the side about shoulder height. An ideal option for fishing out of canoes and float tubes as well as wading in deep water.
- Low elbow – often considered by many as the most powerful casting position and favoured by many saltwater fishermen using heavier rods because it facilitates casting on a more horizontal plane to keep larger size hooks further away from the angler.
Irrelevant of what arm style you use, you will need to open up your stance to allow your arm to move farther back to lengthen the casting stroke for distance casting. That is, stand slightly side on as opposed to facing square on to the target. This position will also make it easier for you to turn your head to watch the backcast to assist timing.
Another aspect you may have to consider is the way you grip the rod. On the backcast, if your grip is thumb on top, it is virtually impossible to fully extend the arm straight back without turning your hand so that it is palm up. If you are not careful, this action will cause rod tip tracking problems and lead to the end of the fly line kicking around. If your grip is forefinger knuckle on top, it is much easier to reach straight back as far as you can to achieve the longest possible casting stroke.
Adapt an arm style to suit your body shape and that feels comfortable. In reality, it doesn’t really matter how you cast as long as the basic essentials mentioned previously are adhered to and incorporated in your style.
Techniques to increasing distance
Just going out and trashing the grass to chaff or the water to foam in an effort to increase distance will have little effect. A far better approach is to use this information on the results of the study and break the big picture of improving your distance casting down into a few component elements and work on improving those specific aspects individually.
It’s all in the loops, line speed and stops
Small tight loops, between one and three feet wide, that have parallel upper and lower legs are the most efficient. They have less air / wind resistance therefore have the potential to travel further, provide greater line speed, have more effect on the rod tip as they straighten as well as produce better layout of the line and fly turnover.
When the rod is loaded (bent), the more abrupt the stop, the more effective the transfer of the energy stored in the rod to the fly line. Try it for yourself. Use a side-on stance as this makes it easier for you to see the results and make horizontal casts parallel to the ground with progressively quicker stops. Note how an abrupt stop (imagine your hand hits a brick wall) results in the same distance with a lot less energy expended in the execution of the cast.
Here is a setup that will allow you to improve your loop shape and sharpen the stop. The casting aids consist of two closed cell foam “noodles” (the closed cell foam cylinders about 3 inches in diameter kids use for floatation in the pool) about 4 foot long with a spike fitted to one end. These are fairly forgiving so will not cause damage to the rod if hit. Push the spikes on the noodles into the ground about three feet apart on the tape line or a line on a sports field. Stand between the noodles but about half a rod length back from them. Make sidearm casts stopping as close as possible to the noodle posts without hitting them and have the fly line unroll parallel to the tape or line. For variation, place the posts further apart or closer together to practice narrow and wide casting arcs as well as just using the rod tip for short casts and deeper loading of the rod for long casts.
Lefty Kreh in one of his many writings noted that, while many casters threw good loops during false casting, they tried too hard on the delivery stroke and blew it. I call this the “surf rod syndrome”. All form and technique relating to the essentials mentioned previously is lost when too much power is applied to the final forward cast in an endeavour to heave that sucker over the horizon.
Instead of trying to throw the line, maintain loop shape, increase the cadence (that is the speed of the stroke), to impart more monemtum to the line/loop and perform an abrupt stop (imagine your hand hits a brick wall).
Rod tip tracking
To achieve these tight loops with parallel upper and lower legs, a straight rod tip path is all important. This path must be as straight as possible in both the horizontal and the vertical planes.
The best way to visualize a straight path is to stand at the end of a room with half a rod in your hand. If you move the rod along the wall or the ceiling in a semi circle, it will be tracing a curve in either the vertical or the horizontal plane but will be a straight line in the opposite plane. To trace a straight line in both planes at the same time, move the rod tip along the point where the wall and the ceiling joins.
In the practical world of casting, the fly line will follow what the rod tip does so when the path is curved in the horizontal plane, the end of the fly line will kick around. Conversely, a curve in the vertical pane will result in a wider loop.
Pause and timing
For a few reasons, it is important that the subsequent casting strokes start at the exact instant the line straightens.
- Firstly….. the rod will not load (bend) until the line is straight behind the tip. Starting the next stroke before the line has completely straightened equates to having slack in the system. This means some of the effect of the next stroke or the haul is wasted in taking up that slack.
- Secondly……the momentum of the line as the loop straightens will pull on the rod tip. When the next stroke is commenced at this point the rod is already partially bent (referred to as pre-load in some references) Put simply, the weight of the fly line pulls the rod tip slightly to the rear as the loop straightens and this provides extra resistance as the next stroke begins and consequently contributes to more effective loading of the rod.
- Thirdly ….. if you wait too long, gravity will take effect as soon as the line straightens and it will begin to fall towards the ground. If this happens, bearing in mind that the forward and back casts need to work in a 180 degree line of each other, then the trajectory of the next casting stroke will need to be adjusted otherwise a tailing loop will result.
Virtually without exception, all elite casters will watch the loops on both the forward and the backcast to assist in timing the commencement of the next cast.
Slip line on final backcast
On the final backcast before the final presentation cast, shoot some line. This delays the turnover of the head adding more force as the loop unrolls and increases the amount of preload on the tip. Combined with perfect timing at the start of the forward stroke, it yields an additional early load on the rod. The importance of this skill is concisely summed up by Joan Wulff commenting on distance, “Shoot a little on the forward cast… shoot a lot on the back cast.”
Casting stroke – arm and wrist pull versus push
Many have described the casting stroke as being like throwing a ball. A more accurate parallel would be throwing a spear where, apart from any run up approach to the delivery, the basic actions bear a remarkable resemblance to fly casting.
Try this exercise to see for yourself the effectiveness of using a pulling action on the rod rather than pushing it. Start with about 30 feet of line out of the rod tip. Lay the line directly behind your casting arm shoulder with your hand and rod at the position of the completion of the backcast. Bring your hand forward leading with the heel of your hand and still maintaining the rod pointing to the rear (this starts the line moving). Hold this position until you reach a point where it starts to become uncomfortable, then rotate your wrist forward and fully extend your arm straight out in front, all in one movement. This has the effect of loading the rod deeply because the movement of the rod butt and the movement of the rod tip must conclude at the same time. The wrist only moves a short distance however the rod tip which is 9 feet away has to accelerate to complete at the same time. This translates to power. The action has a similar effect as the wrist snap used by baseball pitchers and cricket bowlers to impart that extra bit of speed on the ball.
Carry more line
As a basic rule of thumb, you can shoot an equivalent of about 50% of the length line being carried in the air. For instance, if you can carry 50 feet of line outside the rod tip while false casting then you should be able to shoot a further 25 feet. It naturally follows that if you want to throw 100 feet, then you need to be able to carry 70 feet.
Learning to haul is not the magic bullet that will suddenly turn an average cast into a great distance cast. However, a correctly executed haul is estimated to contribute about 15% to the overall distance. A few of the more direct benefits of hauling are seen as:
- directly increasing line / loop speed.
- increasing rod bend / load.
- tightening the shape of the loops.
- reducing the effort required by the rod arm.
- helping to reduce the number of false casts.
- useful for removing slack.
An incorrectly timed haul will be more of a hindrance than assistance. The general consensus of opinion on the starting point of the haul is at approximately the same time as the start of the casting stroke. By far, the finish point is more important …. it must finish at or immediately after the rod straight position (RSP). For example, completing the haul after the RSP and after the loop has formed will pull on the line and in fact shorten th cast.
Some aspects to concentrate on to improve the haul:
- Co-ordinate the fastest part of the haul with the fastest part of the casting stroke. A simple way to look at the action is to mirror the movement of the rod hand.
- The haul should be smooth. A jerky movement will cause the rod tip to dip resulting in a tailing loop in a majority of instances.
- The presentation haul is the maximum length that you can muster.
Body Weight Shift
Shifting your body weight forward and backwards in time with the movement of the casting stroke will allow the casting arc to be widened and add power to the final delivery.
- Improve the loop shape and abruptness of the stop.
- Pull rather than push the rod and use a wrist “snap” action to apply the final punch of power.
- Watch the backcast to improve timing and avoid slack.
- Develop the ability to carry more line in the air.
- Learn to shoot line on the final backcast.
- Co-ordinate the movement of the line hand haul with movement of the rod hand and use a long haul for the presentation cast.
- When practicing, start with a shorter distance and only add further line when that distance is perfected.
Distance casting is about control. Learning control of the rod and line to achieve a long distance cast will serve you well in many of the other aspects of fly fishing…..whether it be short accurate casts or curve casts in awkward situations, all will benefit
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