Every June I attend a gathering of bamboo rod builders and aficionados on the banks of the Henry's Fork River. These gatherings are a chance to visit with friends, try out a variety of new and classic rods, and observe a lot of flycasting. This year's gathering did not disappoint. Some of the most interesting talk revolved around the question of casting styles.
It’s long been my belief that the word "style" is generally misused in reference to casting. All too often, "style" is invoked to describe what is actually flawed technique. That is, a kind of "style" is attributed to a caster as a way to explain the look of his casting, when what really explains the look is nothing more than poor technique. Truth be told, only those individuals that possess fundamentally sound technique should be assigned a “style".
Consider professional golfers. By and large, they all possess good technique (sound fundamentals), but close examination of their swings reveals that no two golfers look exactly alike. They all have slightly different ways of accomplishing the same thing. Indeed, they have different styles. Style always follows good fundamentals; you can't be said to have one until you own the other. For the majority of amateur golfers, the errors in their swings are not manifestations of a particular style. They are errors of technique.
The same is true for fly casters. The vast majority of us have fundamental flaws in our casting strokes. Consequently, we do not really own a “style", since our strokes are best defined by their faults. There's nothing wrong with this at all. Actually, it’s to be expected. Most of us have never taken fly casting lessons, and among those who have, many have been subject to questionable teachings.
Here are a couple examples of common casting flaws often chalked up to “style”. The first is moving the elbow parallel to the ground during the casting stroke, in a pushing and pulling motion. This causes numerous problems, among them tailing loops (a cause of wind knots) and a line trajectory that’s low on the backcast and relatively high on the forward cast. Casters offset this flaw by canting the rod to the side and incorporating a “flying elbow” or “chicken wing” motion at the end of the forward stroke, a contortion where the elbow flies up and out from the body while the forearm pivots down. This movement—physically taxing to the arm and shoulder—is necessary to prevent the line from running into itself or the rod when using this push-and-pull casting stroke. Another common flaw is flexing the wrist excessively during the stroke. Consequences of this include wide, aimless loops, a tired hand and forearm, and an inability to straighten out the line and leader.
You might wonder what a stroke that qualifies as fundamentally sound looks like. Watch the video below. It’s a brief, slow-motion video showing the stroke of Chris Korich, champion caster. Regarding the points I just mentioned, note the amount of wrist flex he employs (and when he employs it, a topic for another day) and also how the rod, forearm, and upper arm remain in one plane throughout the stroke. His elbow also moves up on the backcast and down on the forward cast, never parallel to the ground. These are all characteristics worth appropriating. If asked to describe Chris’s style, I’d call it very compact, tightly controlled, and powerful.
Harboring a few casting flaws doesn't necessarily mean our time spent fishing will be any less enjoyable than it would be if we were as skilled as Mr. Korich. Far from it. Casting comprises only part of the game, and in many places it’s not a critical factor. But I do think we're better off when we recognize our shortcomings and work to improve them, rather than shielding them behind the guise of “style". And I can assure you that improving your casting does go a long way towards improving your catching. So let's reserve any descriptions of style for those among us who deserve them—the fundamentally sound.