Researching my new Trout Bohemia book I spent a few days with Stu Tripney in Athol, looking at the casting: his and mine.
At heart, Stu is still a Glasgow punk-rocker, with tats and studs, and the choice of wardrobe colours and music that go with it. He is perhaps best known for his innovative flies – realistic, slim and robust, and well thought out. Like his pogo nymph: a foam-body mayfly larvae imitation which, when held down by a heavier fly, bounces merrily near the bottom, looking and behaving just like the real thing.
But Stu is also the country’s most qualified fly casting instructor. Behind his tackle shop in Athol there is a grassy casting area with brightly-coloured hula-hoops set up on stands to challenge the size of your casting loops. Tight loops are all the rage these days, unless you’re using bamboo, but in “casting according to Stu,” the secrets of expertise are in understanding the mechanics of a good cast and then having the ability to adapt it to your requirements. Once you do that, you can cast any loops you want at any plane – vertical, sideways or off-shoulder – and that is imminently applicable in fishing.
“People often come to me psyched up for big trout and action-packed fishing,” he told me. “I look at their casting and say: ‘well, I can take your money, drag you around the river all day and show you the big fish but, casting like that, you haven’t gotta show to catch them.” This can be humbling for the clients and not the best self-marketing strategy for a guide but it keeps things honest, and it shows the clients for who they are, whether true fly fishermen, albeit beginners, or just shoppers for trophy experiences, interested only in the results and not the art itself.
“It’s common for guys to buy these expensive rods believing that this’ll fix their casting,” he said. “I say to them: ‘if you spent the same money on yourself, on learning the skills, you’ll cast better with a broomstick than you can now with this Ferrari of a fly rod.”
I had the Ferraris already, and no desire to go back to the broomstick.
“So how about it Stu?” I said. And so we began.
He asked me to cast, short, medium and long lines, and as I did he walked around taking in my performance from every angle. After a while I began to wonder: was it a frown on his face or was he just squinting into the low autumn sun? I thought I could cast reasonably well. Most people I fished with told me that too. Clearly though, Stu did not share that opinion.
First he corrected my grip. For short and medium casts the rod should be held like a hammer, with a slight kink in the thumb. For distance casting a key-grip was more efficient, holding the rod handle the way you would a key when you turn in a door lock. The length of a casting stroke – how much the rod moved back and forth – had to be matched to the amount of line out in the air.
“Most anglers I see have the same casting stroke regardless of the distance they are trying to reach,” Stu said. “That’s why their cast is usually quite good at one particular distance, when the length of the line accidentally matches their rod action, but it falls apart at both ends, when they go short or beyond their usual length.”
Another common mistake was that the rod was never properly loaded, that no matter with how much vehemence it was being waved back and forth, it stayed more or less straight.
“It’s like having that Ferrari and only driving it in the first gear,” Stu said, and it was clear he had seen many of those.
Whatever you hand did the rod tip would do as well, and so it was imperative for the hand to travel in a straight line. This was called tracking.
“Best way to get that is to imagine you’re painting a low ceiling with a brush or even better, with a roller,” Stu explained. “Nice and smooth, back and forth. Short strokes, long strokes, practice both as the action is the same, only the length changes. As you get better at that, you may start adding the wrist snap at the each end.”
This power snap of the wrist, a smooth acceleration to a crisp stop, is the most important ingredient of all. This is what gives the line its tight loop and the arrow-head aerodynamic profile which cuts through the air, and the wind, and which is much more efficient than a wide and slow “elephant ear” loop that can get blown around and lacks accuracy.
The power snap is not a natural movement and so it needs to be practiced diligently until it becomes an unvarying habit. A good training tool for that is Tim Rajeff’s micro practice rod (MPR.) It looks like a kids’ toy but is in fact a precise teaching aid, and the bright-coloured macramé yarn which acts as the fly line is so finely balanced it “anchors” on the carpet like the line on the water so you can use it for roll and
spey casts as well. Only when the power snap is firmly ingrained into your muscle memory, can you start thinking about hauling, double-hauling and all the other fancy stuff.
I had two full days of this MRI analysis of my casting. My power snap was too fluffy, Stu had diagnosed, and so I practiced it obsessively in every spare moment, while walking the dog along the river during our lunch break, and again in the evening when, sprawled out on big leather couches, we drunk dark beer and watched hours of fish porn from Stu’s extensive library. At times it felt I lost it altogether, that everything I did was wrong, and how on earth did I ever manage to catch fish casting like I had. But this was all good news because I knew from a similar progressions in learning to ski that when it was all falling apart the most, the greatest improvements were being made.
On the third day we went fishing on a little Southland creek, full of brown trout and with not another angler in sight. We had discarded the teacher-student roles by now, and were but two friends on a river, drinking in the last of the season. Only then I realised that, living his dream lifestyle as he was, Stu had actually extremely little time to fish for himself. This added to the rarity of the moment. He was like a little kid again, just happy to be on the water.
Stu, for once not guiding or teaching but just fishing for himself, was soon lost in the joy of casting, of laying out perfect loops into most fishy places, forgoing the sight-fishing because in that mode he wouldn’t get to cast anywhere near as much as he wanted to.
“These two guys from Turangi came into the shop once, both nearly at the end of their tether,” Stu said. “They go: mate, we own a house on the Tongariro. We have a fish smoker in the backyard, we live on fish back home, and here we can’t touch a thing. I says to them: brothers, I feel your pain. Years ago, it happened to me too. Come, let me offer you the cure for your problems.”
The two old trout dogs both had #8 wallopers of the rods and casting strokes of backwoods axemen.
“It only took half a day to fix their casting and they couldn’t believe how quickly they progressed to catching the difficult Mataura fish once they got their technique sorted. They thought I was a magician or something.”
Well, if he is then the rod is his magic wand.
Next time you think you need a better rod, consider a casting lesson first. With a bit of proper tuition the magic you seek is not that hard to conjure.