I wrote this article in 2011, after attending a gathering of bamboo rod enthusiasts at the Railroad Ranch. As in many sports, the techniques an expert employs are not always obvious to the casual eye.
An Expert Casting Trait
Recently at the Railroad Ranch on the Henry’s Fork, I had the opportunity to watch upwards of forty people cast all variety of bamboo fly rods. Their skill level ranged from average to expert. As I’m very interested in the mechanics of fly casting, this was a good opportunity to study a wide range of casting strokes. In the process I couldn’t help but notice—as always—the different ways in which people employed their wrists during the casting stroke. Typical for these gatherings, some folks made more efficient use of their wrist than others. Proper use of the wrist is an important aspect of an efficient fly casting stroke (the wrist’s function is to accelerate the rod), yet it’s a topic seldom talked or written about.
First, some terminology. Hold a fly rod in hand, thumb on top of the grip. Position your forearm parallel to the ground. Adjust your hand and wrist so that the rod is also parallel to the ground. Notice your wrist position. This is the “neutral” position.
Now raise your arm as if making a backcast of thirty feet or so in length, keeping your wrist relaxed. Your upper arm should be almost parallel with the ground, and your forearm should be vertical. Your rod should now be pointing backwards, between the ten and eleven o’clock position. Look at your wrist. This is the “cocked” position. This is an ideal backcast position for average length casts in normal circumstances.
A simplified description of a fundamentally solid casting stroke goes like this: Begin with the wrist in the neutral position, line in front of you. As the backcast is made, the wrist moves to the cocked position. The forward cast follows, with the wrist returning to the neutral position at the finish. (Note that most casts start and end with the rod pointing anywhere from the two to five o’clock position, but always with the wrist neutral. My description of holding forearm and rod parallel to the ground is only to establish the wrist position, not to describe the casting arc. On the other hand, my description of the backcast position holds.)
Astute observers and fellow students of casting might wonder at what point the wrist changes position during the stroke. Should the change from neutral to cocked and then from cocked to neutral be metered out to occupy the entire length of the stroke? Should it happen in the beginning of the stroke? During the end? This is where things get interesting.
One hallmark of the expert caster is efficiency. Toward that end, any given casting movement is best accomplished by employing the largest muscles possible. If we employ the wrist at the beginning of the casting stroke, we are in part using small muscles to accelerate the rod—acceleration that could more easily be accomplished by using the larger muscles of the arm. The same thing happens if we meter out the use of the wrist throughout the casting stroke. In effect, we “waste” the wrist by using it to achieve acceleration early on that, again, could be gained by using the larger muscles of the arm. But if we “save” the wrist until the second half of the casting stroke, we can further increase rod acceleration without increasing our arm speed. And that’s efficient. Unsurprisingly, it’s what the experts do.
Two important points. When the wrist is brought to bear during the second half of the stroke, it should be done so with gradual acceleration. In other words, the wrist starts slow and finishes fast (the same way the arm moves during the casting stroke). Second, when final acceleration is achieved with the wrist as opposed to the arm, ceasing that movement abruptly—as must happen for an efficient cast—is much easier. After all, it requires less effort to stop our wrist than it does our entire arm (which is what we would have to do if we relied only on the arm for rod acceleration). Deceleration is a seldom discussed point in fly casting, but it’s as important as acceleration in making an efficient cast.
When I watch amateur anglers cast, they employ the wrist variously. Most of them spread the effort of their wrists over the entire length of the stroke. While less than ideal this is not a fatal casting flaw. Only less efficient. For many fishing situations you could even say it’s inconsequential. But it is one of the many refinements that separate amateurs and past masters.
You can analyze the use of your own wrist by paying attention to it as you cast, by video analysis, or by having someone knowledgeable watch you cast. If becoming a more complete fly caster (especially at distance) is important to you, this is a detail that deserves close attention.
(As a side note, I have purposely avoided discussion about “drift” and the role the wrist can play in it. This was done to keep the article shorter. Perhaps more on drift another time.)