Fly Casting Style, Substance, & Intent
An email from my friend Mark Huber in Alaska brought up some key points to revisit for me on the topics of fly casting style, substance, and intent. The concept of style and substance was conducted in California by Al Kyte and Gary Moran in the 1980s. This work contributed to the biomechanics for fly casting instructors globally. There have been several of these published on the FFI website over the years. The trick in applying these concepts will broaden your appreciation for fly casting pros and cons.
Firstly, there is not a singular style that may ever prove correct because everyone is different. What works for you might not work for your buddy. One of the biggest fallacies in the sport of fly casting is a universal technique that works for everyone. Physical attributes such as strength, fast-twitch muscle fiber, flexibility, and body types come to mind. Teaching fly casting for over 34 years now has taught me that everyone’s style is tweaked and self-optimized over time through practice. Well, at least for those that take up this great sport and actually practice because as you know, many simply do not fish or cast enough to be in the game. It all starts with you and what you want out of the sport.
Style is all about how you move your body when casting. As an instructor, we look at all of these attributes as advantages and disadvantages when teaching. It is not just a right and wrong type of scenario. Many have tried to sell folks on the concept of their style as being the “method” over the years. In other words, it is their way or the highway. This is egocentric teaching and it eliminates the tools necessary for the student to thrive. The more methods of style we develop as instructors the better prepared we are to assist folks in tweaking their style.
Most style descriptions address the casting arm movement in my youth. Luckily, we have moved ahead nowadays to include stance, grip, body movement, rod bend, stroke length, rod rotation, hand speed, trajectory, and various casting tilt (from vertical). Within each of these, there are many variations. For a concise reference on terms, you may check the casting definitions page. The idea of self-optimization works quicker when you watch an elite caster that is similar to your physical attributes. Steve Rajeff, by example, has thrown more loops I would imagine than anyone on the planet. If you are built similar to Steve then by all means follow his style as it would benefit you to at least give it a go.
In fishing scenarios as well as the journey as a “fly casting geek” we modify and change styles throughout the journey. It is the sampling of all these styles that really enriches our wisdom of where they offer advantages or disadvantages. This is the underlying reason that there is and will never be “a universal style”.
The casting substance entails all of the “mechanics” of the cast. Stand how you want, grip the cork however you like, move your body however you want in the process of casting with specific intent. For example, the intent may be a curve cast simply by using a wave during or after the stroke. The substance is where it begins to get creative for you the caster. The curve cast can be made by incorporating at least one of these or a combination thereof: rate of movement, the path of the rod tip before or after the stop, loop plane, or skewing the line mass. These attributes address the mechanics of what is needed to match the intent of a curve cast or any other cast for that matter.
The evolution of substance has progressed more in the last few decades than in the last one hundred years in fly casting understanding of the where, when, why, what, and how it works. Yet as a society we have the majority of folks wanting to remain self-taught and follow the disillusion that magic pixel dust and high-end equipment will make a world of difference in their skills. In the early stages, seek out the value of a real instructor. Check out the FFI website for finding a mentor to really jumpstart your journey with proper fundamentals of substance. It is the biggest value for your dollar and will be radically different than the free parking lot lesson from your local big brand store. There is real value out there and that usually comes with a price.
Casting Substance Results
One of the interesting results from the study that Al Kyte conducted was the fact that all of the casters still achieved a straight rod tip path for greater distances. Even though body motion style altered for a longer stroke, a bigger rod arc, and a longer pause. This is probably in part because the group studied were all accomplished fly casters, to begin with overall. This is referred to as tracking amongst instructors.
In teaching new to intermediate fly casters, tracking issues often show up. It may work great for really shorter casts such as 25 feet but catastrophic issues at 50 feet, by example. In other words, they are learning about what their body motions do to enhance or take away from a straight body motion. It is more difficult to remain straight over a long stroke versus a short stroke. The overall substance concept is a very useful tool for all.
One of the problems I witness in travels for classes and demos is that most basic instruction focuses firstly on just getting the line out there with no knots. In other words, the intent is to throw it and cross your fingers the dreaded “wind knot” does not occur. As a teacher, we want the student to be engaged in the realization that they are in charge. They are in control of the end result being a layout of fly line, leader and fly pattern. This injustice occurs frequently if the whole lesson plan alters to simply address get it out there with no intent. This is probably the reason that in America fly casting has succumbed to the regression of most guide trips using a bobber or tight-line euro nymphing lobbing only a few feet of distance from the oars. Not to say that these are not productive techniques.
“Style is not technique done poorly” – Al Buhr
Move ahead, because there is so much more! Mastering fly line control is one of the most rewarding things in fly fishing. There is much to be gained once the student on the journey desires something more. These include things such as fish in surroundings with obstacles, wind, and greater distances for success. The more we explore the myriad styles that exist, the better prepared you develop as an angler. Having the knowledge of substance (mechanics) is what makes it all come together. The substance is always at play for your time on the water. It is fact that the overwhelming majority of fly fishers use too much power. Immerse yourself in a quality program and then put in the work by purposeful practice.
Benefits for the Fly Fisher
One of the stages that makes it rewarding as a fly fisher is when we make it look effortless. Like the Taoist philosophy of action in inaction. When teaching this comes across by the description that “less is more”. This has to come through repetition of purposeful practice. Daniel Coyle’s book “The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How.” is an excellent resource. Coyle beautifully explains the use of myelin for development in any kinesthetic sport. It explains how the nervous system fires quicker with efficiency due to repeating a task. The more it is repeated, the more efficiency gained. Have a look at some YouTube videos of Maxine McCormick. Chris Korich has done an amazing job teaching her! Once enough repetitive drills occur then it becomes a part of you. This is the 4th stage of learning from the article I published in 2019 on successful training.
“Often Attempted, Rarely Perfected, Usually Neglected” -Mac Brown
There is some magic in understanding fly casting style, substance, and intent. Fly casting defines the sport of fly fishing. Loop control is attained by the tip-path of the rod. You the caster moves the rod. It is always back to you the caster. Make an investment in yourself by making a commitment. The main reason many plateau in their skills is a lack of developing repetition through practice with a purpose. How are you to identify faults without a coach offering direct feedback? That is a sure method to remain in the slow lane. It also trains the myelin with the wrong signal if it is a fault. This takes even more time for your progression. Firstly, you have to take out the garbage before filling up with good habits (fundamentals).
In summary, what we do during a cast is ruled by the substance. How you choose to do the task with intent is based on your style. The benefit to you improving your skills as a fly fisher ride upon your abilities as a caster. It is simple, fly casting defines our sport. What does all of this imply to you the fly fisher? Perhaps enrich you so that you are better prepared to deal with challenges as they arise and more importantly work out a solution.