Your palm cradles the cork handle of the rod. Four fingers and that blessed opposable thumb curl around it almost involuntarily. You twitch the rod tip side to side, then run the entire length skyward through a series of increasingly broad arcs. You may have never held a fly rod before, but here you are, trying to cast. It’s innate, like throwing a ball or eating a cookie. I mean, what else would you do with this object? And how can you not at least dabble with putting the object to the task for which it was designed?
Far less instinctive is the textbook casting stroke–a precise, dynamic motion through time and space that creates “the loop.” Ah, the loop: rendered tightly, the Holy Grail of casting finesse. From the inception of our journey, the loop resembles a lasso, literally, as our first efforts at creating a loop almost always go awry and may wrap around us, and figuratively, as we are roped into an understanding that achieving a tight loop is the best thing we can do for our casting.
This is true. But it is only part of the story.
Urging a new flyfisher to strive for the tight loop is similar to encouraging a Little Leaguer to develop his or her swing on the tee. Without a doubt, kids can learn an idealized swing on the tee that includes, among other fundamentals, balance, muscle memory, good mechanical form, and forward weight shift that begets power. The same is true of mastering the tight loop, and this plateau in the learning curve produces a similar list of useful outcomes–form, control, power, etc. Should the young baller practice with the tee? You betcha! Should the new flyfisher strive for a tight loop? An emphatic “yes,” absolutely!
In order to actually play Little League baseball, a child will inevitably face a pitcher, and when a pitcher sets the game in motion on delivering the baseball, all of that practice on the tee loses a measure of its applicability, and in its place, new questions arise that must be answered–and quickly! Is the pitcher working from the wind-up or the stretch? Is the pitch a fastball or a changeup? Is the ball sinking, sliding, cutting, perhaps riding in as if on heavy turbulence if you’re (un)lucky enough to face a knuckleballer? Is it advantageous to hit the ball to a particular part of the field? And if so, how do you accomplish that given that the ball may enter any portion of the strike zone–or may miss it altogether? What is the count, how many outs, in what inning, and who is ahead? And not incidentally, is your head in immediate danger?
The tee is a teaching tool, and a fantastic prop for learning and practice. And make no mistake: if you cannot hit well off of the tee, you ain’t got a prayer against a live arm. But once the ump bellows “play ball!” it is your capacity to evaluate, adapt, and execute that will empower you to advance your team toward a “W.” If this requires you to stray from the sacred knowledge you acquired in the skinny shadow of the tee, enjoy a little sacrilege!
Likewise in flycasting, the tight loop is the essential starting point, but hardly the destination. When you move from the lawn or neighborhood pond to the stream, a host of new factors come into play, and how you adjust to their influence in real time will affect–perhaps even dictate–your success. For one thing, in casting across the current, you will find bands of water, varying in width, each traveling at its own unique speed. You have solid obstacles on the water’s surface like rocks, logs, and protruding aquatic vegetation. All of these inanimate objects seem not only animate but willful and injurious in their determination to impart drag to your presentation! Then you have obstructions suspended over or near the water that may alter your casting stroke or the path of your airborne line, like low-hanging branches or a steep bank behind you. You have wind that may toss your fly several yards from your point of aim. For particularly snooty fish, you may need to cast so as to present fly first, then leader, then tippet; any other order may put off the fish. Or you may be casting a big, unwieldy nymphing sequence or streamer rig that requires a slinging approach rather than the traditional purist casting stroke. These and other challenges are met only if you are comfortable with the fact that casting–true on-stream casting–is as much improvised as it is ingrained.
Learning tools like the tee and the tight loop casting model are indispensable. But disabuse yourself of the misleading notion that fish prefer the “10-and-2” cast. The cast which looks exactly the same front as it does back is a seductive mistress, but she will leave you largely wanting, stream-side. The truth is that when fly hits film, you are best served by cleverly profaning the orthodoxy. Your cunning creativity and physical prowess in casting ugly will be your keys to interacting with trout.