Fly casting: a question of style?

By Fred Steynberg and Mario Du Preez

During the Master Instructor Certification Test conducted by the Federation of Fly Fishers (FFF) in the United States, candidates are required to show “intimate knowledge of the current popular casting styles” and be able to “distinguish between substance and style and show an ability to analyze different styles of casting”. Several international casting references also pay particular attention to casting styles. Perusal of South African literature on fly casting, however, reveals a paucity of information on this issue. What is classified as stylish in casting terms? What are the different styles of casting in the world of fly-fishing? How does one acquire your own casting style? Is style important for catching fish? The aim of this article is to shed some light on this often neglected element of fly casting.

Due to the fact that human beings are all different in terms of their physical make-up (i.e. differences with regard to joint arrangement, and levels of muscle development and suppleness), it would be presumptuous and downright arrogant for any casting instructor, or fly fishermen, to suggest that there is a universally correct casting style.    Given all the physical constraints, it is safe to say that there is an ‘optimal’ casting style rather than a ‘correct’ casting style. Optimal in this sense refers to a style that enables the caster to perform the most suitable cast at a specified distance with the utmost effortlessness. Most newcomers, and dare we say it, some of the more advanced casters, do not naturally migrate to their optimal style. Instead, they tend to embrace casting styles that limit them, that tire them out quickly, and that generally prevents any further casting development. Thus, casting becomes stylish when the caster performs the requisite cast optimally within the confines dictated by the said caster’s physical disposition.

We always hear “The English invented fly-fishing, but the Americans perfected it”. This is true to a large extent – two American fly fishers (A Kyte and G Moran) have even researched different casting styles by closely observing and studying elite-level casters. Casting styles can simply be distinguished from one another based on the position of the elbow relative to the upper body during and after completion of the backcast. Accordingly, casting styles are plainly grouped into the “front-elbow” style and the “side-elbow” style.

The former style refers to a situation where the elbow is positioned in front of the caster during the backcast portion of a complete overhead cast. Moreover, the elbow moves in an up-down fashion during the cast.

The latter style, on the other hand, refers to a situation where the elbow is positioned to the side of the caster during the backcast – in fact, the elbow is slightly behind the caster once the backcast is completed. Furthermore, upon completion of the backcast, the upper arm is aligned almost at a right angle in relation to the intended direction of the cast. Finally, the elbow moves in a horizontal direction during the cast.

There are, however, many variations on this theme – the two styles mentioned above can almost be viewed as polar opposites with a large number of varying arm/casting positions falling in between. The question arises: which casting style is better? The answer is simple – the one that suits the individual the best. The easiest way to determine the best style is to simply practice both and retain the style that allows you to perform the required cast optimally.

It is important to realize that the two casting styles are generally applied to different fishing situations. For example, the “front-elbow” style is most often used by those who mainly fish streams and rivers, where accuracy and shorter casts are the norm rather than the exception. The “side-elbow” style, on the other hand, is most often used by still water and saltwater fly fishermen, where less accuracy and longer casts are required. Please bear in mind that it is possible to execute long casts whilst employing the “front-elbow” style, and that it is possible to execute accurate and short casts whilst employing the “side-elbow” style. In the final analysis, it is probably prudent to practice and master both casting styles as this will allow you to comfortably and optimally cast in most fishing situations.

In developing your own casting style there are a number of issues that deserve closer inspection. These include the grip, the stance, and the use of the wrist. Generally, three grip positions are recognized by most instructors and fly fishermen: the thumb-on-top grip, the V grip, and the index finger-on-top grip.

As the name suggests, the thumb-on-top grip refers to a situation where the thumb is placed on top of the rod handle – the rod is in essence held by the thumb and index finger, and the remaining fingers gently wrap around the handle. Many instructors and fly fishermen, especially the so-called traditionalists, argue that this grip is the most stable, versatile and suitable for all fishing conditions. Joan Wulff, for example, presents a detailed study of the merits of this grip in her casting manual – see “Joan Wulff’s Fly Casting Techniques”.

The V grip entails placing the thumb to the side of the rod handle – as a result the rod handle dissects the space between the thumb and index finger. Jason Borger refers to this grip as the “Three-Point” grip and argues that it provides him with “the most complete overall level of control” (see Nature of Fly Casting: A Modular Approach).

The index finger-on-top grip simply refers to a situation where the fully extended index finger of the casting hand is placed on top, or on top and slightly to the side, of the rod handle. Many casting instructors argue that this grip is not as robust or comfortable as the thumb-on-top grip. The index finger-on-top grip is, however, often used by many fly fishermen around the world whilst fishing lighter fly-fishing equipment on small streams and rivers. The proponents of this grip feel that it provides them with a better pivot point for producing accurate presentation casts.

All the grip positions discussed above have their merits and demerits. As was mentioned before, it is up to the individual to discover the grip that works best for him or her. The authors prefer the thump-on-top grip for long distance casting on still waters and saltwater, but use the index finger-on-top grip for small stream and river fishing with light tackle. The thumb-on-top grip is “stronger” and allows longer casting periods with heavier rods (i.e. 5-weight and above) that are used for distance casting, whilst lighter rods can be accurately controlled with limited arm movement with the index finger on top when presenting short casts.

The stance adopted by a fly fisherman generally refers to the way he or she positions his or her feet. Three main stances can be readily identified: first, the feet are placed parallel to each other (i.e. a neutral stance); second, the left foot is placed in front of the right foot if the caster is right-handed (i.e. an open stance); three, the right foot is placed in front of the left foot if the caster is right-handed (i.e. a closed stance). Once again, there are a myriad of intermediate stances that can be adopted. One stance is not more correct compared to another – the correctness of the stance depends on the levels of efficiency (i.e. casting and fishing optimally) and comfort obtained from it. In most cases, the open stance is adopted by fly fishermen – this is also the stance that is taught at most fly-fishing and casting schools. The closed stance is mostly employed where accurate casts are required – with this stance, aiming is enhanced by partly or fully eliminating the angle between the angler’s line of vision and his or her casting arm. The neutral stance is often used as a remedial measure with beginners – placement of the feet in a parallel fashion prevents the caster from over-using or over-extending his or her entire arm and shoulder during the cast (over-use of the arm and shoulder often leads to the creation of very open loops or no loops at all).

  1. Over and above the stances mentioned above, there are other casting positions, which for all intents and purposes can also be classified as stances. For example, a sitting position is probably the optimal, if not the only, ‘stance’ whilst fishing from a float tube or small vessel. Bank conditions, low and clear water situations and ultra spooky fish may necessitate kneeling down to execute the cast. Sometimes anglers are also required to elevate one foot/leg onto a bank or rock in order to achieve the best casting position. In summary, the best or most correct stance is the one that maximizes efficiency and comfort.

The use of the wrist is one of the most complicated and misunderstood elements of fly-casting. In many cases, beginners use too much wrist (i.e. the wrist bends too much during the cast) – this leads to the formation of a very wide loop or no loop at all. In an attempt to prevent this from occurring, many casting instructors tell beginners to maintain a stiff or unyielding wrist position. This does not pose a problem initially, but becomes an issue when more power application and control is required as the skills of the neophyte improve.  Many of the ‘crack’ casters the authors have met use mainly the wrist to move the rod through the casting arc whilst fishing on small streams and rivers. As more distance becomes a requirement, these casters simply reduce the use of the wrist and extend the use of the fore arm. The authors agree with the firm wrist idea when teaching beginners, but, where short to medium casts are concerned, would encourage intermediate to advanced casters to incorporate more wrist movement into their casts. With short to medium distance casts the rod only needs to move a short distance, which can easily be achieved with the wrist only. Use of mainly the fore arm whilst fishing with light tackle produces a whooshing sound – this sound in itself is an indication that the caster is compromising casting efficiency. Longer casts and the use of heavier equipment will necessitate the use of the fore arm and shoulder. In many cases, casting instructors  neglect to check that the grip around the crock of the rod is tight enough and often the rod moves within the grip, creating the same effect as when to much wrist action is used.

What are the attributes of those casters who are considered to have a good casting style? Once again, there is no definitive answer. There are, however, a number of general style elements that are worth mentioning. First, a good casting style is inevitably couched in economy of movement – in other words, cast with a “quiet” body, especially where short to medium distance casts are concerned.  A quiet body sometimes demands the elimination of hauling (single and double) – in most stream and river situations, hauling is not required. The absence of excessive false casting is also an indication of good casting form – two to three false casts are enough in most situations. In most small streams a mere lifting and shooting of the line with one false cast to the desired area is sufficient. Second, a good casting style implies silent casts – one will never hear the rod of a good caster whooshing on the front and back casts. It is of primary importance to understand that it is the flex of the rod that carries the line and that limited power application can flex the rod tip for optimal performance. The rod should not be seen as an extension of the arm otherwise a waving motion of the rod with poor results will be inevitable.  Third, a good casting style implies balance – a well balanced angler automatically has better control. Fourth, with a good casting style the line hand’s role is understated in the sense that it does not move excessively during the cast – the line hand grips the working line and mainly stays in a stationary position just off the caster’s left pants pocket. Excessive movement of the line hand compromises balance and control, and might even alert fish to your presence. Fifthly, limited upper body and head movement, and keeping the eyes on the target area are essential. It is imperative, especially when accurate casting is of the essence, that ones shoulders face the target straight on and that they remain this way until the cast has been presented. If the shoulders move within the false casting or overhead casting process, the plain of the line in the air will not follow a true track resulting in an inaccurate presentation, a loss of power and often tailing loops. Finally, a good casting style is one where the casts are performed in a relaxed, slow and controlled manner – it almost seems dreamy to the observer.

Once a line caster understands the basic workings of a fly rod and masters the overhead cast to perfection he or she will be able to move comfortably onto other technical casts that will improve fishing results. A fly rod is a tool that can be used in numerous different ways. Will an improvement in or slight adaptation of your casting style make you a more accomplished fisherman, and will it make you catch more fish? You would be surprised! The authors are convinced of the fact that a satisfied fly fisherman is one that extends his or her boundaries and improves him or herself on a more or less continual basis. Serious fishermen sooner or later realize that fly casting is an organic process which develops with hard practice, dedication and time.