Casting Light On Substance and Style

As we learn fly casting, or any other discipline we learn that there are things we can manipulate and get the same result and things we cannot. In fly casting this is substance and style, or science and art as defined in fly casting, and may seem relative but will make sense as we practically apply them.

by Jeff Wagner

Optimal performance is often defined as the perfect union of art and science. True in business, sports, or a variety of other disciplines and fly casting is no different. Even exemplifying this characteristic, the caster innately adds their own movement to the cast, their style, their art, while adhering to the rules that have become second nature, the science.

Year’s back I was going through a guide school. I loved guiding and it was a chance to spend time with people and share a passion. As an added bonus it was an opportunity to teach; and fly casting was a necessary part of that instruction. During the week long school fly casting was discussed, and at some length. This was a first for me, to be in a group of like-minded individuals that shared a similar interest, a similar passion, and to have this be my method for financial gain.

My curiosity peaked as the leaders of this school put together a rather odd contraption that had a rope pulled between two vertical posts at about a 30-degree angle. A hand held device, the butt section of a fly rod, was then attached to the rope and used to guide the hand.

The idea was sound: to teach someone new to the sport how to fly cast. It is impossible to teach someone fly casting without imposing some of your style on them. Using this contraption taught the student the basic movements and helped them learn an upright style of casting. However, any student should be quickly taught casting in a particular way and then determine how they move best and most efficiently to perform to their highest potential. This is the use of biomechanics and the sign of a great teacher.

Admittedly watching a fellow guide strung up to some self help casting coach made me squirm in discomfort. Fly casting should be natural. Truthfully, when done well it should… no, it will, perpetuate an almost primal emotion like an arrow released towards its unsuspecting prey. It is our chosen delivery method and is the connection between us and the wild we seek to connect with.

As we learn fly casting, or any other discipline we learn that there are things we can manipulate and get the same result and things we cannot. In fly casting this is substance and style, or science and art as defined in fly casting, and may seem relative but will make sense as we practically apply them.

Substance: The path of the rod tip necessary to achieve the desired outcome of the cast.

Style: Anything that does not impact the desired outcome of the cast.

Default Style: That style that a caster uses under non-limiting conditions (no wind, obstructions, equipment issues, etc.)

In every day application it might look like this. If you are attempting to make a straight line cast to a fish at 40’ that would be the substance. You want the line to be straight and get the fly to the fish. This means the tip of the rod needs to travel in a mostly straight path so that the fly line follows and produces a nice loop and travels to the target. Said another way it is impossible to make a 40’ straight line cast without a straight path of the rod tip.

Style in this situation would be everything else. You can cast with the rod in a vertical orientation, a horizontal orientation, with lots of wrist, or no wrist at all. You could even make this cast lying on the ground, sitting down, or even kneeling next to the stream. The stance could be open, closed or anyway you want. The point is that none of these examples of style have an impact on the desired outcome. You can achieve the straight-line path of the rod tip in an almost infinite approach to style.

The most important aspects of determining what cast to make in a particular situation are:

  • Environment
  • Biomechanics

These two variables will impact your style and may impact your substance as you adjust from one presentation method to another.

Environment can dictate how you cast. Wind and obstruction are probably the most common environmental factors. Wind blowing into your casting arm is a challenge for many fly fishers. The environment will dictate that you need to have the line cast on the downwind side of your body. That is the substance. The style part is how you do that. Backcast as the delivery cast, casting with non-dominant hand, and cross body casting are all methods to achieve the desired result.

Leafy greens hanging over the lair of a fabled brown trout is cause for adjustment. If you have a great deal of overhang just above where you want to deliver the fly it will be necessary to have a low forward cast. Again, this is the substance; the style is how you will do that. Sidearm, high back cast, low front cast, and low curve cast could all be used in this situation.

Fishing from the deck of a boat to tailing carp at 30’ with a 15 mph wind to your casting arm (right arm) and fish at 11 O’clock. The caster has several options. The environment, in this case the wind, forces the caster to false cast with the line down wind (to the non-casting side). The substance says that the tip of the rod needs to travel in a straight line to make a 30’ straight line cast with no slack. However, biomechanically you can accomplish this by either tilting the rod over the head so the line travels down wind or by bringing the hand in front of the body. But, that may not be comfortable, and the caster also has the option of turning his back to the target and making the back cast the delivery cast. Of course other options might include making the cast left handed or even repositioning the boat.

If fishing a small stream on the left bank (left side, looking down stream) with obstructions behind and downstream a right-handed caster has several options. Single-handed the best option might be a roll cast. In this case it would be best to perform a cross-body roll cast. Basically a normal cast with the rod tip over the left side (non-casting side). In this case the substance is that the caster wants a 30’ cross body roll cast with line straightening completely. The environment in this case dictates that a cross body roll cast is necessary. Biomechanically you can perform that in several ways. The most common is to simply lift the rod a little higher on the casting side and tilt the rod tip over the head. Even this move can be done in a number of ways, all of which are style. You could tilt at the wrist or lift higher at the shoulder.   Additionally you could bring the hand in front of the body, this method can be more constrained. But, none of these are ‘wrong’, only different.

In this relativistic world of ours this appeals to many. The answer appears to be ‘it depends’. The statisticians in the audience are probably happy to hear that. And that is often the case. However, there may be a solution that is more efficient. Lets look back to the 40’ straight-line cast. The key is a straight-line path of the rod tip, the substance. If you do that a good loop (1’-4’) will form and the fly will present appropriately. 40’ is a short cast. It might be possible to do this with wrist only or by using the larger muscle groups of the shoulder and upper-arm and keeping the wrist more firm (less than 30 degrees of movement). Both will accomplish the task. But using the larger muscle groups of the arm will certainly prove to be more efficient and prevent injury over the long term. Fly casters are experiencing more and more sports type injuries from casting improperly. Using too much power, over exerting certain joints, and in general not maximizing their movement and allowing the rod to do the work for them as much as possible. You spent $700 on the damn thing; let it do something for you!

Exaggerated to a greater degree distance casting with 5 weight rods can show substance and style in a dramatic way. Casting to say 120’ is no easy task and the few that can do this all attempt to have a straight-line path of the rod tip and have excellent timing, power application, and tracking. However, two very distinct styles can be observed. On the one extreme are the ‘floppers’. Those crazy, often European, casters that move the rod 180 degrees (or more) from start position to stopping position and using the wrist in an exaggerated way flopping back and worth. The other group, I will call the ‘stoppers’, cast more upright and move the rod through a range of motion closer to 90 degrees (plus or minus). These casters have a very upright form and use a hard stop. Picking these casters out in a crowd is easy. Both can get the same results.

The way any casters go about finding his ‘style’ may seem somewhat random. But, in reality, is more a product of biomechanics and the casters strength, muscle type, flexibility, and other factors. At the end of the day don’t let anyone tell you what style you should have, only to help you accomplish your desired outcome in the most efficient way possible.