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Here's a humurs take on casting by NZPFGA guide and IFFF casting instructor Derek Grzelewski.
A couple of days before the season’s opening I was doing a talk at the local library. When you write trout books for a living, these kind of gigs come with the territory. About 40 people turned up, some blokes already wearing their camo gear, burning with the opening-day fever, eager for some last-minute tips and secrets which the library staff had promised in their posters.
I did deliver on that promise though not in a way the crowd may have expected.
“You’ve probably come here hoping for some magic formulas and strategies, or catch-all flies which no trout can refuse,” I said, “but I have a tip for you that is by far more valuable than any of that.”
Pause. You got to love that kind of silence.
“If there is one single thing you can do to improve your fly fishing is to put some quality time into your casting.”
There was a palpable sense of disappointment in the crowd, a kind of “is that it?” deflation. But I ploughed on.
“When you’re a hunter, you wouldn’t dream of going after a trophy stag without putting in some serious shooting practice on the range, to get used to the trajectories and recoil, spreads and distances,” I said. “The whole action needs to become automatic, programmed into your muscle memory through repetition. I mean, you don’t want to be stalking the beast all day and then, when you finally get a clear shot at it, rising your rifle and going ‘where is the safety on this thing again?’ And yet in fly fishing this is really common.”
Strange as it seems, even many of the self-declared life-long anglers, people for whom fly fishing is the main and deepest passion, have never quite taken the time to learn to cast properly, I went on. In fact, until the fairly recent revolution and the arrival on the scene of people like Stu Tripney and Carl McNeil, the first two master instructors in this country, there was no real tradition of casting well in New Zealand.
In the true pioneering DIY spirit of this land, the most common scenario would have been that, during your introduction to the sport, someone – your father, uncle or a friend – showed you how to cast. “This is how you do it: hold the rod like this and just flick it out, and there, you’re fishing.”
From that moment on, it was assumed that you could cast. Sadly, this was also when your learning had stopped.
This is not only a New Zealanders’ dilemma. Ask any professional guide and they’ll tell you: their main, and often only concern is whether or not their clients can cast well enough.
Talk is cheap, assurances shallow, and “I’ve been fishing all my life” only rises eyebrows and suspicion. Those first few casts on a river are a tell-all, a decider whether a guide can relax into just being a guide, or whether he has to put on his magician’s hat and try to conjure up miracles.
From the expressions on the faces in the crowd I could see I was getting some traction. One guy even asked how to go about re-learning to cast.
Get an orange line, I told him, specifically for the practice, a long-belly distance line like the LOOP Opti 210 or an equivalent, so that you can see the shapes of your loops and learn how to change and control them. You may also consider investing in a yarn rod – it looks like a Warehouse toy but is in fact a precisely balanced tool, particularly good in learning how to make crisper stops and tighter loops.
Find some quality instruction, ideally in person. Books are good but videos are better, and the best of those out there are from our very own Carl McNeil. You’ll find free clips – excerpts about casting fundamentals from his DVD Casts that Catch Fish – on Carl’s “Bumcast” YouTube channel. It’s the biggest fly fishing channel in the world, with over four million views.
People were taking notes now, always a good sign.
Set up a practice rod, I went on, with that orange line, leader and brightly-coloured yarn for a fly (Glo-bug tying material is ideal). Above all, and most importantly, practice away from the river and the fish. You will not improve your casting by fishing, the way you don’t learn music by playing pieces, but scales and exercises. When you focus on those, with time you’ll notice your pieces improve. So do your scales with the fly rod on the grass: pickups and laydowns, stops and loops, slow and fast, forward, back, and sideways, hauls and no hauls, rollcasts and Speys …
In the front row an elderly chap – another life-long angler – cleared his throat and, with the air of finality, declared: “You can’t rollcast on the grass!”
I did not want to embarrass the old chap so I smiled and segued into the casting principals: no line slack, straight rod tip path, the timing of pauses, sizes of casting strokes and power application. If the guy was not open to new ideas and ready for change, it wasn’t my job to convert him. As a wise man said: “if you talk, you only repeat what you know; if you listen you may actually learn something new.”
So, where is your casting at? How accurate are you, how consistent? Can you lay down a straight line and leader every time at say 12-15 m range? Can you cast into a moderate headwind, know how to avoid hooking yourself when the wind blows across your body? Does your line land on the water like a spider web or more like a falling tree? Does it drag and if so, do you know what to do about it, and not spook the fish in the process?
Years ago, I hesitate to say how many, I was fishing the Tongariro with Paul Arden, Mr Sexy Loops and the self-proclaimed “most expensive casting instructor in the world.” Paul had cast to a sighted fish with impeccable accuracy, and the line was drifting down without a hint of drag, and towards a snag which protruded from the water like some witch’s crooked talon.
With perfect timing, Paul made the tiniest of flicks with his wrist and an omega-shaped loop slithered off the rod tip and travelled down the line, clearing the snag in just the right moment, gracefully dissipating. The line continued its perfect drift, the fly never moved. The fish took, ran, and promptly wrapped him around the said talon. It was fair game though, and the first time I saw just the kind of magic that can be conjured up with a fly rod in skilled hands.
With such inspiration, in my own fly fishing journey I have re-learnt to cast several times, most notably by spending several days with Stu Tripney, as I described in The Trout Bohemia, and most recently, by preparing for the international casting exams. I’m sure the trout do not recognise such qualifications, and in any case, sailing through the exams was only the proverbial cherry-on-top. What mattered most were the several months of steady and almost daily practice – sometimes only minutes, other times up to an hour or more.
What I can relate from this experience is that casting becomes a most enjoyable pursuit in and of itself, and it reveals its nuances to you step by step, and only when you are ready, when you start asking the right questions, begin to develop the finesse and the touch.
The journey is like climbing a mountain ridge: there are ups and downs and plateaux. There are false summits, too, milestones of accomplishment, which though satisfying, only reveal that there is further to go.
Can you ever get to the top? Few people had, and those who got near it, appear to embrace the old Zen credo: “when you reach the top of the mountain, keep climbing.” So the journey never needs to end.
Will it help you catch more and bigger fish? For sure, though only to a point. At first, your learning curve will be almost vertical but after a time you’ll reach a plateau beyond which you will only catch fish in better style, not necessary more frequently.
How do you know when you’re there? When on a sighted fish, you’re confident you can get a fly to it with the first cast. Or the second cast, if you made the first one deliberately short to judge the distance, angles and drift. To use the hunting analogy again, when going after a trout, you’ve become a sniper, and stopped being a hopeful machine-gunner.
I had one such epiphany while willow-grubbing in Southland last season. It was a perfect day, sunny and still, with a trickle hatch of mayflies and consistently rising trout. I’d picked off a few fish already and then came across the willow-grub “hatch.”
The grub fall from the trees, and the fish are almost always underneath the branches, and so you need to side-cast and with fair accuracy as the trout won’t move much out of their narrow feedlines. There is only one fly you need in such times – Stu Tripney’s “banana,” a sliver of yellow foam tied crescent-shaped on a #16 or #18 hook – so it all is down to casting.
I got a couple of easy fish downstream of the willows but as I moved up I became aware of another one, hogging the prime lie. I heard him slurping several times and it took a long moment of stillness and intense looking to locate him.
He was in an impossible position, only his nose protruding from a thicket of trailing willow branches and the window of clear drift was only a couple of feet long, with more greenery above and in front. But he was feeding with abandon, an irresistible sight.
I waded out slowly, mindful of the wake, measured out the line and cast. I don’t know how it happened, I probably could not do it again, but on that first cast everything went just right. The fish took, panicked, and swam forward couple of feet into the open, and with rodtip-to-the-knuckles side pressure I did not let him go into the thicket again.
I released him and stopped fishing for the day. It felt as if all the practice I’d ever done went into that one cast. It was my own glimpse of mastery, a “Paul Arden” moment, and I wanted to savour it, and make it last, even if more fish were still rising upstream of me.
If fly fishing is your passion, if you love trout and where and how they live, take a good honest look at your casting, and then get down to work on it. There is always room to improve. You will not only catch more fish, but enjoy the sport all the more, perhaps edging towards making it more an art than just putting some Omega-3 on the table. Watch some clips of the best casters, people like Christopher Rownes, they will redefine your ideas of what is possible with a fly rod.
Few words of caution from a fellow journeyman though: don’t try to figure it out by yourself. Get help. Some of the finer points of casting are subtle and may escape you unless properly explained and shown, so you may end up practicing mistakes. And bad habits are harder to get out off than new ones are to acquire.
Finally, don’t go for distance! When you get a few guys casting together, in no time more and more line comes off the reels and the practice becomes a messy competition in who can cast further, complete with fly lines landing in crumpled heaps and sore shoulders.
In New Zealand, you rarely need to cast far and it’s more important to be accurate than to lob out the entire flyline. Also, distance casting exaggerates all the faults so again, you may end up just reinforcing your errors. Pull in the line and see how far you can cast while maintaining good form. This is your starting point, and the distance will come in its own time. Experts make distance casting appear effortless. It definitely should not look like an exercise in shot put.
So, “you can’t roll cast on the grass?” Really? Want me to show you? How long do you want it? With haul or without? And have you seen a Snake Roll yet?”
Derek Grzelewski is an NZPFGA fly fishing guide and an IFFF certified casting instructor. He’s the author of The Trout Diaries, The Trout Bohemia and Going to Extremes, and a brand ambassador for LOOP Tackle in New Zealand. You’ll find him at fly-fishing-guide.net
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