A Lesson in Semantics, and Casting

While visiting the fly shop yesterday, I learned that one of my young co-workers, recently back from college, would today be teaching an even younger group of students how to cast a fly.  I’ve always found my friend’s enthusiasm for our sport contagious, his willingness to help others admirable.  Since I’d worked with him in prior years on the principles of casting, I thought perhaps the moment was right for a brief refresher quiz.  I grabbed the shop’s practice rod and made several casts—casts where the line extended out in a wide loop, with line tip and leader waffling down to collapse in a pile.  I asked my friend to analyze and solve this problem, such that my ensuing casts would straighten out.  (The inability to cast a straight line, on demand, is one of the most common problems in flycasting, afflicting not only beginners but often those of us with many years of experience.  Truth is, how to cast a straight line is one of the first things we should all be taught.)

After thinking it through, my friend concluded that my casting stroke was too long.  That I was taking the rod too far behind me on the backcast.  “What should I do?”, I asked.  Boldly, he replied, “Stop your backcast at 12:00 o’clock”.  So I did.  And my next cast finished by slamming hard into the floor, line tip and leader still piling up on themselves, albeit with authority now.  I repeated the cast.  Same result—my line drove hard into the floor without straightening.  I looked at my friend.  Not expecting this, he seemed caught off-guard, unsure exactly how to proceed.

I stopped the exercise.  I told him that his analysis of the problem was correct—my stroke was too long, I was taking the rod too far back on the backcast.  But even as he had correctly diagnosed the problem, his proffered solution—”stop the rod at 12:00 o’clock”—condemned my casts to failure.  Here’s why.  The length of the casting stroke is a direct function of the length of the line.  The relationship works like this: Short line, short stroke.  Longer line, longer stroke.  So every time we change the length of our line we also have to change the length of our stroke.  Consequently, there can be no fixed backcast position.  The correct backcast position varies depending on the distance being cast.  Could be 11:00 o’clock, 3:00 o’clock, any time in between.  In my case with the practice rod, it turned out the right position was about 2:00 o’clock. So his proposed 12:00 o’clock solution wasn’t going to work, ever.

My friend ultimately came to realize that he was offering up a stock, fixed answer to a problem with infinitely variable answers.  When faced with this same situation myself when teaching, I said that I find it more productive to simply ask my students to not take the rod back so far.  By not verbally specifying a particular “time”, but instead watching the line unroll in front and adjusting to its behavior—lengthening or shortening the stroke, as required—students find the correct backcast position by feel, ingraining that position in their muscles as well as their mind.  My friend knew that my backcast was too long, he knew how to physically fix it, but his suggested correction fell short merely by the words he chose to communicate with.

Good flycasting instruction requires concise, thoughtful communication.  Knowledge alone, while necessary, is never enough.  In time, my friend is going to make an excellent teacher.  I respectfully suggested to him that he continue to refine his delivery, learning how to say exactly what he means, and learning to recognize when he isn’t.  That’s not easy, but it’s one of the things the best instructors always think about, one of the ways in which they stand apart.