Fly Fishing Tips: Improving Your Casting
By Bob Hautala
Before talking about working on your casting, let's talk about your second favorite sport - golf. A common way to practice a golf stroke, or "fix" your five-iron, is to get a bucket of balls at a driving range and get that swing or that problem club into a "groove." By the end of the bucket, most golfers do have a groove, and can get that ball to go wherever they want it to go. The problem is that when faced with using that five-iron during a round, most golfers find that that groove seems to have disappeared.
Casting a fly rod presents the same dilemma. We often need to fix something in our casting stroke, improve our accuracy at a preferred distance, or learn a new technique, like the double haul. And, like our golfing friends, progress made practicing casting also seems to disappear, or at least fade away significantly, when on the stream. Often, it's as if we didn't practice at all.
We can both explain this problem and design a better practice routine by looking at the scientific concept of Contextual Interference. Contextual Interference (CI) simply looks at how much a particular skill is "interfered" with by other things that happen between performances. In golf, you drive, hit from the fairway, pitch, putt, walk between shots, etc., and constantly do them in varied orders. Several holes of golf often occur between five iron shots. Put another way, your five-iron occurs in a sport with a HIGH level of CI. Similarly on the stream, after you make a cast you mend, retrieve line, wade, the wind shifts, and hopefully catch a fish to name just a few of the things that can interfere before you cast again. If you hit a bucket of balls with one club, or stand in a spot at a casting pond to groove your casting motion, you are practicing at LOW levels of CI. The problem is, both hitting with only one particular club and casting are only parts of sports that are very HIGH CI sports activities. Research studies by me, and others, have shown that if the "real" sport has high levels of CI, then you should practice at high CI levels. Standing and casting at a pond, to groove your cast, is about as low in CI as casting can get. The fast improvements and skill gains that you make during this type of practice are wiped out when you have to find that casting groove with so many other things are happening on the stream.
I would like to suggest some ways to get around this practice problem, and will argue that these methods will make practicing your casting worthwhile. It is possible to have a high CI practice while focusing on and refining your cast.
First of all, it is a good idea to go to the casting pond to practice. There, you can focus on the cast that needs your attention without worrying about currents, overhanging tree limbs, or rising fish that you'd rather cast to. Go to the pond with a specific target cast in mind, be it the basic stroke, a specific distance that you want to "get down" with accuracy, the double haul, the sidearm cast, or whatever is your choice. Focus on that cast, but make sure every other cast is a different one. For example, using "30' to a teacup" as your target cast (TC), a very high CI routine may be something like - TC, cast to the right, TC, cast for distance, TC, sidearm cast, TC, cast to the left, etc. Be sure to vary the interfering cast their order, and your foot position as part of the interference. Walking to a new spot before each TC would also be a good interference to add or, you could just walk a few steps away and back between casts.
Practicing this way does have two problems that you have to accept. You have to make twice as many casts to get the same number in that you would make if you did them all as your target cast. If you're counting minutes, it will take at least twice as long to do a certain number of casts, and maybe longer, because you're also moving between casts. Hang in there. It is time well spent. Secondly, progress made when practicing this way is slower. You will not see as immediate or fast results, because the ability to get into that correct casting "groove" does not appear as quickly. Don't get frustrated.The progress that you make is less likely to disappear. It is much more permanent learning.
When you get out onto the stream, you'll be faced with situations full of interference, similar to what you've already practiced. Everything seems to quickly change on the stream, but you'll be ready. By varying your casts at the pond, you've already practiced under those constantly changing conditions, so you'll know how to adjust to them and will be better able to find the correct casting groove that is best for each situation. Practice does make perfect, and HIGH CI practice makes it even better. Give it a try!