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Fly fishers always have room for improvement

Sun., May 22, 2011, 7:38 a.m.

Area fly shops offer help to anglers

While fly fishing the Missouri River a few years ago, a friend of mine – close enough to be funny and frank at the same time – called from upstream and said, “Did anyone ever mention you cast like an old lady?”

“That comment is an insult,” answered another friend from downstream. “I don’t know any old ladies who cast that poorly.”

Funny, but basically true.

I’m adequate. I catch fish when I go fly fishing – sometimes more fish than my generously talented partners – but it’s not pretty.

I’ve simply never made time to learn and practice proper fly-casting techniques.

To make things worse, I’ve never paid close attention to balancing my rod and line to put physics, engineering and technology in my casting favor.

I’m the perfect candidate for casting lessons, or at the very least, a few visits to Two-Hand Tuesdays at Castaway Fly Shop in Coeur d’Alene.

As most of the region’s rivers are blown out with runoff, this is prime time to tap the shop guides’ slow time during their free, low-key casting practice sessions on the Spokane River along the North Idaho College campus.

“They started as two-hand Spey rod sessions, but we work with single-hand casting, too,” said Rial Blaine, shop manager. “Everybody can benefit from taking time to cast a little and tune up.”

Joe Roope, store owner and veteran guide, said the No. 1 pointer he offers any struggling fly caster is to start the cast with the rod tip at the water.

The idea is to load the rod with the weight of the line and the friction of the water on the line on the pickup and back cast.

“That’s where the energy is generated,” Blaine said. “It’s like archery. The bow is what releases all the energy and delivers the arrow.”

Blaine tries to get anglers to understand the dynamics of the cast so they can see it in their heads.

“If you time it right, the cast doesn’t take all that much effort or motion,” he said, noting that the weight of the fly-fishing line performs a function similar to the weighted lures or sinkers in a spin-casting setup.

“Most people work way too hard. It’s not so much how you power your arm forward and back as it is about how you stop your arm to load and release the energy in the rod.”

Roope’s No. 2 tip for initiating a good single-handed cast involves picking up the perfect amount of line.

“Every line-rod combination has a different optimum place to start the cast,” Roope said, noting that it could be 10, 15, 20 feet or whatever, depending on the stiffness of the rod and the weight and taper of the line.

“You experiment by putting out different lengths of line in front of you and picking it up for a back cast. Pretty soon you find the right swing weight of line so the rod loads perfectly on the pickup and the cast is effortless.”

Some anglers use a permanent ink pen to mark the “sweet spot” on the line where it meets the rod tip. “You just strip in to that point and cast,” he said.

Less-experienced fly fishers can benefit from a line on the heavy side of the rod rating because it will be easier to load the rod with each cast. Advanced anglers tend to prefer lighter lines for tighter loops in the air and softer presentation to the water.

Sooner or later, the Two Hand Tuesdays discussion drifts from single-hand rod “overhead” casting to Spey casting, a two-handed technique involving longer, beefier rods to roll-cast the line without back-casting to load the rod.

The technique was developed by Atlantic salmon anglers on Scotland’s Spey River, where they needed to present a fly across the stream while brush to the river’s edge precluded a back cast.

Even devoted single-hand casters should look into Spey casting, Blaine said.

Single-hand casters consider the roll cast a rarely used tool in their bag.

Spey casting focuses on the roll cast and launches it to a high level.

“There are numerous Spey casting techniques and many of them can be very useful to the single-hand caster for things like changing direction of a cast with limited room behind,” Blaine said.

“Spey rod fishing is not a fad.

“It wasn’t that many years ago you rarely saw a two-handed rod on the Snake or Clearwater during steelhead season. Now it’s getting to where the one-hand rod fishermen are in the minority.

“Spey casting has so many advantages and ways to expand your range and ability. You can cast farther, deliver big bugs with ease, avoid false casting to save time, energy and wear-and-tear on your shoulder and elbow. And there’s virtually no place on a river you can’t cast with a Spey rod.”

On the downside, the bigger, heavier Spey rod leaves the angler with less feel for the fish he’s catching.

The fly line also enters the discussion at Two-Hand Tuesdays.

“A lot of people focus on the rod, but 90 percent of fly fishing is not the rod, it’s the line,” said Art Collins, a Castaway staffer.

New rod materials can deliver a good cast with a wider range of line weights, but they all have their limits.

“I travel with a wallet of different lines to use on a single rod for different applications, whether it’s delicate dry fly presentation or punching into a big wind,” Roope said.

For example, a short weight-forward line casts easily but doesn’t mend well for dry fly fishing on a bigger stream.

Said Blaine, “And I always have at least two rods on a trip rigged for casting dry flies, nymphs or streamers.

“It’s like golf: you can get around a course with a 7-iron, but you’ll do a better job and have more fun with an assortment of clubs.”

The bonus of investing time at a small fly shop or a Two-Hand Tuesday is the personal attention you can get for matching the line with your rod.

At Castaway, Blaine will use the Internet – or even telephone manufacturers – to match factory specs for lines and rods when needed.

When I walked in the shop, Blaine was custom fitting a line for a rod. He used a heat gun and special tubing to weld a seamless loop at the end of the line for a factory-like finish.

“We just figured this out,” he said. “This is really sweet.”

An average caster can improve significantly and instantly on the first cast with a newly balanced rod-line setup.

“Don’t handicap yourself from the start by being out of balance,” Roope said.

Beyond that, efficient fly casting is a journey of learning and evolving, the same way a doctor “practices” medicine.

“I’m never going to master fly fishing,” Blaine said. “There’s always something to learn. That’s what I love about it.”

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