To wrist or not to wrist that is the question?
During the years that I have taught fly casting a very common problem I encountered with both newcomers and experienced casters is how much or how little wrist to use during a cast.
It has never ceased to amaze me how little arm motion I could encourage prospective casters to use when learning fly casting. Newcomers, especially the stronger casters seem unwilling to use their arm for the cast and experienced “fishers” who grew up using “spinning” rods like to use all wrist for the cast just as they utilized with great success in that phase of their lives.
So to sum up, lots of wrist and very little arm motion from either complete beginners or experience fishers is a common phenomenon. This is very strange when you consider similar common activities that utilize the arm, like throwing a rock or a dart which rely on good arm movement to produce the desired effect.
Fly casting is 90% arm and 10% wrist.
So let’s concentrate on the arm first, just how much arm motion is used when wielding a fly rod.
A fly rod should be considered an extension of the forearm and so to produce an efficient back cast one needs to allow full range of motion to move the rod from the “at rest” position to the end of the cast. To produce this movement the forearm should go through approximately 100-120 degrees of motion (tip travel). The forward cast requires less angle as it doesn’t include the “pickup” so 45-60 degrees of motion is common.
In my discussion on “Loading a fly rod correctly” we found that a fly rod needs to bend progressively to produce a good casting loop. To achieve this progressive bend during the back cast we need to begin the lift from low down and continue the movement to an almost vertical position.
Do this with your arm and without a fly rod to see the angles that I mentioned above.
So where does the wrist come into all this?
The wrist allows increased angle without arm movement although it is all too easy to allow the weak wrist muscles to take this movement beyond the desired angle. The wrist also causes us to add an undesirable “cock of the wrist” at the end of the back cast and a “flick of the wrist” at the end of the forward cast. The first will produce a D shaped loop without form and the second will often destroy the progressive bend we have produced and give a less than desirable casting loop, maybe even producing tailing loops by driving the tip below the casting plane.
A truly good fly cast can be described as a “speed up and stop” and each stroke should be produced with this in mind. Adding the wrist at the end of each stroke allows additional speed to the stroke although the wrist then has to produce the desired stop. All of this needs to be performed SMOOTHLY and with a good transition from arm to wrist to stop.
One way to establish the amount of wrist required is by using a simple practice session using the thumb and middle finger of the casting hand. This exercise is based on the most common fly rod grip where the thumb is on top of the handle, or thumb on top grip as its called.
Stand in your normal casting stance without a rod in your hand. Relax your arm to the front with the bicep hanging vertically in line with the trunk, the forearm below the horizontal and the thumb extended forming a straight line with the forearm.
Begin the back stroke maintaining this alignment till the thumb and forearm point vertically and stop. With the thumb vertical extend the middle finger and it should point slightly forward at an angle of approximately 30 degrees. Allow the wrist to open till the middle finger is in alignment with the forearm thereby giving “the finger” and stop again.
This is the range of travel for both the arm and the wrist when producing the back cast.
While all this is going on note what happens to your elbow. It shouldn’t move up or down in a vertical motion although it is quite acceptable for the elbow to move backwards. Lefty Kreh uses an elbow slide to promote this elbow motion although I would suggest you limit any lateral motion for now and concentrate on keeping the elbow in a steady position. The elbow doesn’t need to be locked to your side like the old days when we weren’t allowed to “drop the bible”. A relaxed elbow position is very important and it should be one you are comfortable with. The angle of the forearm out from the body can vary from vertical to horizontal although I would suggest that initially you try for a more vertical position.
If you have a video camera it would be good to film this action prior to adding the rod to the casting action. When you have gained some “muscle memory” for the action, grasp the fly rod and perform the same action to see if you can maintain the angles with the added torque of the rod. Film yourself again this time with the rod in the action to confirm you are maintaining the correct ratio between arm and wrist motion.
The whole action should be relaxed and smooth with a hesitation between the forearm pausing and the wrist being added to the final stop. The only abrupt action being the final stop at the end of the cast when both arm and then wrist have stopped.
When practicing the forward arm stroke using the thumb and forefinger exercise you should begin the forward stroke where the back stroke ended. That is with the forefinger in line with the forearm. Begin the forward stroke maintaining the forefinger and forearm position until the chosen stopping point. Then allow the thumb to drop into line with the forearm.
Try to reduce the amount of “cock” and “flick” during both casting actions to improve the smoothness of your casting stroke.
I am not a believer in wrist restraints other than maybe a strong elastic band between the butt of the rod and the forearm to make the wrist recognize the limited part it plays in the cast. Use of this should be restricted to practice only and should be discarded once the correct muscle memory has been achieved.
Don’t lock your wrist during your casting thereby producing a stiff arm cast without any wrist because the wrist should always be part of your cast to make the strokes comfortable.
You will be amazed how little wrist is required to produce good casting loops.