Fly casting techniques have changed markedly over the past hundred years and this in many ways has been influenced by rod manufacturing developments.
In the early part of the 20th century when fly rods were predominantly made of cane the fly casting mantra was to use the wrist more than the arm, straight up and down, 10 to 12 on the casting clock with the elbow held tight against the side. The standard rule was that the angler should be able to hold a book between the elbow and body while casting.
As time passed, this flexible wrist casting slowly morphed into arm casting which involved keeping the wrist stiff at all times. Stiff wrist casting was claimed to be more accurate and it also allowed more efficient transmission of energy from the arm to rod due to longer leverage. Casting still relied on a vertical rod moved through the same planes though, it was just that different parts of the arm were used to drive the rod.
As rod technology developed and blanks moved into fibreglass and then graphite anglers have been encouraged to alter their casting form. Now it is more tilt the rod from vertical, increase the casting arc and watch the back cast to ensure that loops were tight and following the rod tip. Much of this was necessary as the rods were getting stiffer and feel was being sacrificed for speed and distance. Slowly anglers started to rely more on sight to cast and rod feel became less important. Many new comers to the sport have never learned the joys of fishing with truly great rods that bend and flex as they should and thereby communicate back to the angler how the rod, line, leader and fly are performing.
Tom Morgan, the legendary USA rod maker (https://activeanglingnz.com/2015/09/03/fast-action-fly-rods-are-they-really-better/) recognised this and commented that:-
“How rods bend under a load and how the stored energy flows through the rod as it unloads in a cast is what we consider to be rod action. Great rod action is one of those things in life you like when you feel it, but it can be difficult to describe. However, from my experience, there are three attributes in rod design most prized by knowledgeable and accomplished anglers, regardless of rod material.
- The first is smoothness of action. This means the rod loads and unloads when casting in a uniform manner from tip to butt without any “kicks” or “hinges”. I have chosen the progressive action with a good balance between the tip and butt for all of my rods to provide this smooth action. For graphite rods, another important aspect of this smoothness of feel is the ferrule design. Many of today’s graphite rods have a thin-walled tip fitting over a smaller diameter, thick walled butt. Although this design allows for good production efficiency, it doesn’t let the rod transmit the flow of energy in a smooth and continuous manner.
- The second attribute is that the rod has the right amount of bend for its rated line size. It is extremely important for a rod to bend sufficiently to communicate to the angler how the line is behaving during casting. If it doesn’t, the angler won’t have the feel needed to make the accurate and delicate casts necessary to gain a high level of angling proficiency.
- The third attribute in designing a rod is correct tip stiffness for each line size. Now graphite blank making technology has become very sophisticated and it allows the design of very small diameter tips. These small diameter tips have the suppleness needed to form loops correctly while casting.”
My father taught me to fly cast using a slightly more relaxed 10 to 2 on the casting clock as he wanted to see the rod to bend and flex. When things came unstuck he got me to watch the line loop behind and in front but he insisted that I faced forward and tried to visualise what was happening behind me during the casting sequence based on how the rod, line, leader and fly were behaving. He’d often use a line that was one size to heavy for the rated rod rating if he thought the rod blank was not developing a smooth loaded curve during casting.
At first, I struggled to understand what he meant but as time progressed it slowly started to sink in and take shape. We used to fish the evening rise predominantly back in the day so learning to cast in the dark, by feel, was a critical skill to learn. Now I never look behind me and just rely on feel to alter my casting form.
To illustrate this, several years ago I fished twice on the same day on my favourite estuary. A dawn session and a dusk session. The weather conditions for both were identical.
My casting in the dawn session was very erratic and I was plagued by a host of problems. I was watching the forward cast intently and pushing for distance. Most casts were acceptable but too many were slightly awry and I had a few issues with tailing loops (and knots) as I was pushing forward to early.
By comparison the dusk session was flawless. Two and a half hours of perfect casting form. The rod, line, leader and reel set up was the same so why was the performance so much better? Well, my theory is that in the failing light I started to operate by instinct and feel what was happening, as I had to. Taking sight out of the equation made a huge positive difference. This got me thinking about how the endless quest to stiffen rod action is altering the feel of fly rods and making it harder to cast using the full gamut of senses.
Learning to cast in the dark is a key skill to learn if you want to develop an innate feel for fly casting and hone your skills. If you find that your rod is too stiff to transmit what is happening during the casting strokes then Tom Morgan suggests:-
“There are usually two options to make the rods load enough to help bend them to provide a better “feel”.
- Shop owners tend to recommend weight forward lines over double taper. In line sizes 2-weight to 4-weight I think double taper lines provide more load and make better presentations and making it feel more like traditional action rods should.
- In lines sizes 5-weight and above for floating lines I think the long belly weight forward tapers provide the best combination of short to medium performance while offering greater distance if wanted as they provide more load.”
There is another thing that I’d like to touch on briefly to conclude this post and that is how far behind you the rod tip should go in the casting arc during the back cast. Feel will tell you this but from side on the rod blank can almost appear to be nearly parallel to the ground when you are casting a long line. The line does not touch the ground because the upper edge of the loop is still well above the ground as you move into the forward cast and the rod tip is arching upwards before the loop straightens to follow the rod tip forward. The video below shows this.
Hopefully this encourages you to get out and learn how to cast by feel. Fishing in the dark is a great way to do this. You should notice a difference once you get the hang of it.