In Search of Low Line Speed

Recently I spent a day testing new rods for one of the domestic rod companies.  As I was casting in my local park, a fishing friend stopped by to see what I was up to.  Naturally, I invited him to give the rods a try, curious as to what he would think.  After casting one rod in particular he got pretty excited, gushing to me about the high line speed he had achieved with it.  I replied that, unfortunately, high line speed was all that that particular rod could achieve.  He shot back a quizzical look, one that I knew required further explanation.

For quite some years, high line speed has been held in—forgive me here—high regard.   Something like a Holy Grail for those who evaluate fly rods.  Rods judged to produce high line speed are much feted.  Rods that don’t are considered substandard.  But here’s the thing.  In most fishing situations, particularly when trout are involved, we don’t need high line speed.  In fact, it can actually be a disadvantage, even downright dangerous.  Think about casting a couple nymphs, split shot and an indicator.  That’s not the kind of setup you want whizzing back and forth alongside your head at high speed.

Ideally, a fly rod should allow us to deliver our fly to its target using the lowest possible line speed commensurate with getting the job done.  It’s a simple question of efficiency, really.  Employing a higher than necessary line speed is wasteful, requiring more work of the caster.  Sort of like riding a bicycle with the brakes perpetually applied.  You can do it, but it takes more effort and isn’t nearly as much fun.

A brute fact about contemporary rods is that the majority of them aren’t capable of being cast with anything but high line speed.  How’s that, you ask?  Well, consider how a fly rod functions.  When a rod bends, it stores energy.  When it straightens out, that energy is delivered back into the cast, helping to propel the line.  The more resistant a rod is to bending—meaning stiffer—the more work required to force it to bend, to store the necessary energy.  More work from the caster means one thing—more acceleration of the arm and hand.  The consequence of this acceleration is higher line speed.

Indeed, casting a stiff rod requires a faster, more energetic casting stroke.  (If you doubt the veracity of this concept, string a line up on a rigid dowel and cast it.  You’ll immediately see what I’m talking about.)  An overly stiff rod is exactly what my friend was casting when he exclaimed about how much line speed he was achieving.  Damn right he had high line speed—it was the only possible outcome from that rod.

I believe that fly casting should be a pleasurable, rewarding experience.  Done particularly well, it’s a pursuit both graceful and elegant (even when casting weighted flies).  Ignoring or downplaying these aesthetic values begs the question, why flyfish at all?  To this end, a well-designed rod provides great aesthetic rewards.  One hallmark of such a rod is that it allows for the use of any line speed deemed appropriate by the caster—high, low, anything in between.  A good rod never dictates the line speed with which it must be cast; it merely responds to the desires and needs of the caster.

Low line speed requires low physical effort, and for most folks yields maximum casting enjoyment.  It certainly does for me, which is why for any given situation—freshwater, saltwater, anything—I’m always searching for the lowest line speed I can employ.  But there are other reasons for casting a slow line beyond concerns about aesthetics and effort.  A slowly moving line is easier to control.  Pinpoint accuracy is easier to achieve.  Yes, there are times when high line speed is necessary—think long distance casting or dealing with big wind—but in most trout fishing those are unusual circumstances.

I feel fortunate to own a few rods that allow me to cast comfortably at any line speed I choose.  They’re older rods, dating back to the late ’70s and early ’80s, rods that bend easily under their given line weight.  That kind of rod is harder to come by these days, but lately a few of the rod companies have begun making forays in this direction.  That’s great news, since it will offer many anglers their first chance to experience full control of their own line, on their own terms.

I suspect they’ll find that to be a lot of fun.