Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Some thoughts from the riffle

Journeys in two-handed casting

There is a riffle on my nearby river that I haunt as much as possible in the summer evenings. It is wide and shallow, and has a bit of gradient and flow to it (for here that is). I am not here to fish, but to learn. It is my testing grounds for rods and lines. I can cast from either side of the river depending on wind and conditions. It is the ideal place to practice spey casting, and watch the sun set. Owls, herons, osprey, falcons, hawks, kingfishers, and even snowy egret swoop or wade for their evening meals. The riffle supports a large hatch of caddis and mayflies, and every evening, swallows, dragonflies, bats, and cedar waxwings join me on the water. The large population of ducks seems to know me by now. They know I am a harmless fool, and no danger to them.

I wear cheap hip-boots, and carry a rod tube and a shoulder bag. In the bag are lines and reels and, most important, a little book to record thoughts, frustrations, and epiphanies.

I call this riffle my ‘Proving Grounds.’ I cast my first fly rod near here years ago, and my first two-hander nearby as well. For some reason, these workout or practice sessions give me more pleasure than just going out and catching a few small bass. Some think that because of this choice, I am mad. I prefer the word ‘Eccentric,’ thank you. I kind of like thinking about how far I have journeyed in angling and casting, just to return to the same small piece of river.

These sessions on the water are not just aimless. At first, they were intended to learn a couple of casts with the two-handed rod and a windcutter line to allow me to fish a western steelhead river. Many of these casts ended up in corkscrews, or hit me in the head. I used an actual fly, and embedded it in my arm. The things we learn…

As my ability and casting progressed (and regressed for that matter), I experienced the joys of learning: the first successful single spey, my first snake-roll cast, the time a seagull took my practice fly and flew off with it.

Not all was joyful. I can be a perfectionist, and am obsessive about casting a fly rod. I could have said “Good enough,” at any point, but I had a burning desire to make loops as tight as I could with a single-hand rod. That was and has been a heck of a long journey. Hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars were spent in pursuit of an ethereal dream: a pipe dream of a vision of a perfect outbound loop. Frustration was the daily bugbear. The casting came and went. I watched as others better than I effortlessly did what I wanted to do. I tried harder and harder, and failed more and more. 2004 was the year of the tailing and collision loop. Perhaps it was the gear. Maybe the line and rod were holding me back. I sort of knew that this was not the case, but the temptation was too great not to experiment with other styles and methods. Thus, I became one of the first practitioners of the Scandinavian style of underhand casting in the Midwest. Now I could make tight loops and cast far. I had arrived! Or had I?

On a large western river I discovered why running lines are better used to toss lures on spinning rods than play a part in spey-casting. A large steelhead took my bomber off the surface, while I looked at the huge tangle of running-line in my hand. I lost that fish. Rob said he had never heard a tirade of swearing like that before. Back to the drawing board. I still use a Scandinavian head, and enjoy casting them, but not at distance. All those damn loops of running line, inevitable tangles (despite what all those ‘experts’ say), and endless stripping just got to me. Back to the windcutter and the delta-spey for me. After all, as I thought, a 55 foot head is the best to learn on.

I was both right and wrong. After fishing with a short 55 foot head ‘spey’ line for several years, I switched to a 65 foot mid-belly line, and had to learn to cast all over again. I discovered flaws in my casting that had never been apparent before. Anchor-piling, tiny bloody-Ls, lack of body motion, over-emphasis on the upper-hand, etc. My casts came and went. The single got good, but the double-spey went to hell, or vice-versa. I also learned that practice casting and actually making casts while wading up to my chest in windy conditions are two very different things. Some may ask what I thought I was doing to myself out there on the river, obsessively casting four nights a week. Indeed, it was often akin to torture or self-flagellation at times.

This year I obtained a 15’ rod rated for a nine-weight line, and bought a double taper line. Now my riffle would become a nightly water-boarding area. Once again, I had to learn to cast all over again. When it worked, it was beautiful, when it didn’t, well… the nursery rhyme goes “When she was good, she was very, very good, but when she was bad, she was wicked!” That describes it fairly accurately. I could cast a delta-long fairly well, but again, not consistently. Turnover continued to be a problem, as well as trajectory. Why was I doing this to myself…? The simple answer is that on some of the waters I fish, a one-hundred foot cast is required, with proper immediate turnover, and in the wind, to get me into the holding buckets. This is not an all-the-time thing, but when one is in the storied waters of the guts and glory hole, one must make the cast or go home. The same thing applies to presentation in small spring-creeks for trout, or firing a laser-loop between or under woody debris for that huge smallmouth bass that you just know lives there in that heavy cover.

So, this spring and summer, when I had a few hours free after work, I continued playing with the casting, and got better. My single-spey, due to my watching way too many conflicting videos, ended up as an amalgam. Kind of like a soup which ten blind chefs added ingredients to. It may have started as chicken soup, but after the turnips and mushrooms were added, it sort of lost cohesion. It took over sixty hours to correct this. It was like learning to walk all over again. All my muscle memory was against me. My hands did the wrong thing at the wrong time, and would not obey orders. My arms seemed to betray me by applying too much power. I was at war with my own body.

Then after much prodding over the years, I finally bought a used long belly line: an original XLT, with a 100’ foot head, which after some trial, I chopped ten feet out of. I experimented with carrying 85-90 feet in my hands. Miracles of miracles, I could do it. It wasn’t often pretty, but I could do it. I have feared this line so much over the years. I read repeatedly from some of the greatest steelhead experts, authors, and guides how a 15-foot rod was like waving a telephone pole. My arms would get tired. It is overkill on steelhead, It is too hard, yada, yada, yada. I believed them, although deep down I doubted. I sipped their Kool-Aid, but just did not want to swallow it. I just wondered why all the old anglers casting two-handers on big rivers preferred a longer line and a longer rod? Were they supermen? Stronger than us modern wimps? Did they know something I did not? Or, was it all a shell game? Why did nearly everyone on internet forums comment that they were going with shorter and shorter rods and lines, saying it was so much easier? Was I wrong in my hunch, way back in the historical archives of my cluttered brain, that somehow, if this was done right, it was easy? After all, I had watched as I got my clock cleaned and my pockets picked by long-belly casters out west. They made it look easy too. I kept thinking, “This is just like all the students you teach, Erik. They all say how you make single-hand casting look so easy and effortless.” It just has to be a skill issue…

Then, earlier this month, it happened. The training wheels fell off my allegorical bicycle. It happened by accident. All of a sudden, with the proper body motion, timing, and power application, my single spey flew out and got stuck in a tree on the other side of the river. Then it happened again, and again. The amount of effort I was putting in was nearly non-existent. I simply loaded the rod and maintained the load throughout the stroke. I was amazed at the simplicity and ease with which 85’ could be held in my hands and then simply popped out there. A 70-90 foot cast was like falling asleep on the sofa: effortless. No stripping, and just a single small loop of line held in the lower hand to shoot.

Easy is a relative word. It may apply to the proper casting stroke and the result, but certainly not the journey to get there. “Ad augusta, per angusta” roughly translates as “To higher roads, by narrow paths.” I think this nails the journey perfectly. I now am at a point in the path where I can see where I have been, but also see how far I have to go. I also, through countless hours of analysis, mentorship by great casters, reading, and watching others, am now able to wade through the hidden under-water minefield of miss-information and pure horse-hockey. There is a truth out there. All those old anglers with their long rods were not trying to make it harder on themselves in some sort of protestant Victorian stoicism, instead, they were making it easy. That seems a hard concept to wrap your mind around, as you wrap your line around a tree or yourself, but there was a reason why these rods and lines were paired up.

However, the amount of time it took to finally realize this was not minimal. It took countless hours of fishing and practice, getting skunked, watching great casters like W.O. R.E. D.P. or B.S. knock one out of the park in order to even come to this point of realization. For most anglers, the journey will most likely be shorter, especially if you don’t drink the Kool-Aid.

That is not to say that shorter rods of 12 to 13 feet and shorter lines such as Skagit heads, windcutters, or scando heads do not have their place. They most certainly do. What I have found, hidden under all the debris and flotsam of videos, books, internet forums, etc., is that by going to a longer line, all the casting styles become easier. It may be a long journey, but even thru-hiking the A.T. begins with a single step. Lets call that step ‘curiosity.’ Now to get to the same point with my double-spey… 200 hours and counting…


Anonymous said...

What a journey! Congrats as I know the success is hard earned and the rewards are still to come.

caihlen said...


Anonymous said...


The journey has now just begun. Nearly unlimited 'tricks' are to be found by curious casters and anglers on how to maximize the efficiency of the long belly and long rod under circumstances where it 'makes sense'.

caihlen said...

"the efficiency of the long belly and long rod under circumstances where it 'makes sense'."

And I would argue that it always makes sense. Every single time I have left the long rod home in favor of something else I have been disappointed in myself.

my .02

Erik Helm said...

I guess that longer lines make sense under circumstances where they can be used. Here in the Midwest, there are runs so overhung with deciduous trees and hanging grape vines that anything longer than a 13' rod and a 55 ft head is impossible. I end up using 12' 6" rods at trimes. However, the ease with which a long rod can cast a long line vs. the difficulty of constant stripping and shooting with heads, makes it a great choice for floating lines and standard sinktip work where it is applicable.
And yes. It is a long journey. I have arrived at the middle of the path, and see how far I have to go, and will enjoy every single step!

trout chaser said...

I was thinking about you today...I was swinging the bottom half of Fishnet and thought "gee, maybe if I had a longer rod to lift an XLT or something..." Some places you can't cast too far.