On Accuracy

It’s a habit of mine that when I watch people flycast, I perform mental analyses of their casting. I deconstruct their strokes to determine whether the parts are technically sound, or if they wither under scrutiny.  I ponder what suggestions for improvement I’d pass along to each caster if asked, and how I might phrase the words of those suggestions. Properly addressed, many flaws of technique require a wholesale rebuilding of the casting stroke.  Others are more easily fixed.  Among these is off-plane movement of the rod, a common reason behind the struggles of many fishermen to place their fly where they aim it.

Moving the rod in a single plane from the start of a cast to its finish (curve casts excepted) is a real key to accuracy.   Because the fly line always follows the rod, restricting the rod to a single plane forces the line to follow in that same plane.  The line scribes a perfectly straight path, facilitating accuracy. Anytime our rod veers off-plane, curves and waves appear in the line. Figuring out where to aim a wavy cast so that the fly ends up on target is no mean feat, usually requiring some guesswork and a good dose of Kentucky windage.  Much better to simply keep the rod in one plane.  As long as that plane lines up with the target and the distance of the cast is controlled, the fly will land where it’s aimed.

When I say to keep the rod in one plane, note that I’m not specifying at what angle to the ground that plane should be. That’s for you to choose.  Typically it will be somewhere between straight overhead (90 degrees to the ground) and sidearm (parallel to the ground).  Casting in the straight overhead plane provides the greatest accuracy (it’s my recommended default position), but particular fishing situations often call for something else.  The critical thing is for the rod to travel in one plane, regardless of the angle that plane is at relative to the ground.

To see how this works in practice, grab the butt section of your rod.  Stand next to a wall so that the shoulder of your casting arm just touches the wall.  Simulate the casting stroke, keeping the rod butt parallel to the wall and a couple inches from it.  This is how it feels to be on-plane (in this case, in the vertical plane). Now step away from the wall and angle the rod 45 degrees to the floor.  Simulate the casting stroke again, taking care to keep the rod in the same plane through the entire stroke.  Try this exercise at all angles.

Inaccuracy isn’t always fatal to success, but it proves fatal often enough.  Minimize those times by becoming a more accurate caster.  It’s not difficult to do, and the way to start is by keeping your rod on-plane.

—John

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Notes on the Sage Circa

A number of folks have asked my opinion of the new Sage Circa rods.  Seems the rods have been garnering some nice reviews since their introduction.  As I’d heard quite a bit of talk about them prior to their release, it was with great curiosity that I got my hands on an 8′ 9″ 5-weight Circa when they became available last September.  I spent a fair amount of time with the rod, but passed on writing a review of it since the fishing season was still in full swing.  I’m still bowing out on a full review, but here are a few notes.

The Circa rods, according to Sage, are designed with an “advanced slow action”.  Ignore this phrase; it's vacuous and likely the product of an overly enthusiastic advertising agency.  The action of the 8’9″ 5-weight I tested is best described as moderately fast.  Because of this, the rod lacks communication with the caster at close distances (10-30 feet or thereabouts, fishing distances the rod was intended to address).  This is nothing new for Sage; most all of their rods are deficient in this regard. However, the Circa does bend to a greater degree and much nearer the hand than other Sage rods, so some communication with the caster is evident.  It’s not ideal, but it is a clear improvement for the company.

From 30-50 feet, the rod casts more efficiently than any recent Sage model.  Don’t get too excited; that’s not saying much.  The rod is still underloaded at these distances, its stiffness requiring more work from the caster than should be necessary.  (Remember that power and stiffness are not the same thing.  Conflating the two is a major mistake made by rod reviewers.)  By no means is the underloading at these distances fatal to the rod.  In fact, for anglers used to modern rods—and therefore used to working hard—this rod will actually come as a pleasant surprise.  Easier on your arm, and reasonably fishable.

At distances of 60-100 feet, the rod turns into an outstanding casting instrument.  It takes this amount of line to efficiently load the rod (yes—a rod should load from the weight of the line, not just from the caster’s efforts; a somewhat novel concept these days).  When so loaded, the Circa contributes to the cast as a fly rod should.  Casting is pleasurable.

Only thing is, from what I can gather, this rod wasn’t designed for distance work.  So the Circa is somewhat of an anomaly.  For what it was designed for, it’s only moderately successful.  At what it wasn’t designed for, it excels.  In fact, for distance casting I rate this rod right up near the 9′ 5-weight Sage ZXL (a superior distance rod).

On the whole and in consideration of its stated purpose, I think Sage did okay with the Circa.  If they didn’t exactly hit it out of the park, they at least made a rod that is more efficient and pleasurable to use than any other of their recent models.

—John

Readers may find that my comments are at variance with other Circa rod reviews, and wonder why.  I suggest that it has to do with how a rod evaluation is conducted.  I have written here about a methodology that I believe prevents rod evaluations from devolving into statements of taste and opinion. Though this post doesn’t constitute a full-blown review, my comments are made with this methodology in mind.

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Words to Avoid when Critiquing Fly Rods

I can’t recall exactly when I first saw the words “track” and “tracking” used in the evaluation of a fly rod.  It’s been awhile.  I remember thinking at the time that their use by the reviewer was suspect.  As time passed, they cropped up in more and more reviews.  Today, they’re practically ubiquitous. Just yesterday I was reading some rod reviews in a magazine, the authors gushing on about so-and-so rods “tracking really well”.

The term “tracking” refers to the ability of a rod to remain in a single plane as it is moved through the casting stroke.  A rod with perfect tracking would never veer off-plane, and the fly line cast by such a rod, viewed from above, would unroll in perfectly straight lines.  Nothing wrong with that; it’s a recipe for efficient, accurate casts.  A rod that doesn’t “track” well would demonstrate some sort of off-plane movement, perhaps side-to-side wobble.

This all sounds well and good, but for one small problem.  No fly rod quality exists that is usefully described by “track” or “tracking”.  Let me repeat that.  No fly rod quality exists that is usefully described by “track” or “tracking”.  What reviewers think they are describing when using these terms is actually nothing more than describing a fly rod’s stiffness.  That’s it.

Pay attention to today’s rod reviews and you’ll see this is true.  Rods alleged to “track” well are of an ilk. They are all stiff.  Rods that don’t “track” well flex otherwise.  I have yet to see a moderate or full-flexing rod praised for its “tracking” qualities.  Using “track” and “tracking” serves no purpose other than to confuse consumers and demonstrate the reviewer’s own lack of knowledge about fly rods and how they work.

How a rod moves through the casting stroke (on or off-plane) depends entirely on the skill of the person using it.  The best casters keep rods of any action on-plane. Less skilled casters do not.  Because so many of the important concerns of fishing—and how well they can be addressed—depend on the stiffness (action) of a rod, it is this quality that should be a primary focus in rod reviews.

So if you wish to sound knowledgeable when talking about fly rods, I recommend avoiding the words “track” and “tracking”.  To merely masquerade as knowledgeable (fooling some people, but certainly no one with real knowledge), use them at your leisure.

—John

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A Lost Line-Weight

A friend stopped by the other day to ask me about fly rods.  His brother-in-law, recently transplanted to Montana, is showing some interest in fly fishing, and my friend would like to gift him his first rod.  So he had a few questions regarding rod action, length, and price—concerns common to most rod buyers.  As we talked, line-weight was failing to surface as a topic.  I finally inquired as to his thoughts on the matter.  I think my question caught him by surprise.  In a manner suggesting that I should already know the answer, he said, “five-weight”.

It’s impossible to pinpoint the time when the five-weight usurped all other lines as the de facto standard for western trout fishing.  I only know that it has.  I know also that it shouldn’t have.  It’s been this way for quite some time.  Years and years of rod and line sales at the fly shop confirm it.  So, too, do my on-stream observations and discussions with visiting anglers.  Tellingly, five-weight lines outsell all others combined.

I told my friend—rather emphatically—that he would do well to consider a six-weight rod instead of a five.  That’s because I believe a six-weight rod is a better all-around choice, especially for a beginner.  I told him it’s better for casting in the wind.  Better for casting two nymphs, split shot, and an indicator.  Better for chucking large dry flies like salmonflies and hoppers.  Better for blind fishing attractor dries.  Better, too, for throwing streamers—of any size.  In short, a six-weight line is better suited than a five for every kind of fishing out here, save for some specialized, expert-level situations.

Forty years ago, this was conventional wisdom.  (Heck, even seven-weights were considered standard trout gear.)  Perhaps it all changed with the advent of graphite rods.  Lighter rods beckoned lighter lines, even when those lighter lines didn’t make good fishing sense.  Today, we’d be wise to heed the wisdom of the past.

I don’t know if my friend found my case compelling.  I hope so.  I’d hate to see his brother-in-law handicapped right out of the gate.  I’ve seen it too many times already.

—John

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On Whose Schedule do you Fish?

Over the last thirty years, I’ve done almost all of my fishing according to the fish’s schedule. When I think that the fish will be active and feeding, that’s when I’m on the water. As the fish’s schedule is largely controlled by the schedules of the insects they feed on, I pay close attention to the hatches. This requires thinking about the weather, water conditions, time of day, temperature, and sundry other factors related to insect emergences. Once I’ve done that, I make a decision about where to go and when to go there. It’s an approach that makes perfect sense to me and one that has proven itself over time.

Only problem is that, in addition to planning, it also requires an ever-changing schedule. Sometimes I fish early. Sometimes late. Sometimes in the dark (on either end of the day). I might fish through the middle of a scorching summer day. And I certainly fish when it’s very cold. And rainy. And snowy. All told, this way of fishing can be really inconvenient to other parts of your life.

There is another way. It works like this: You go fishing when when you feel like it. You go when it’s convenient. You go when you are good and ready, and to hell with the fish’s schedule.

This is an approach that I can’t embrace. My psychological makeup won’t allow it. Nonetheless, it’s an approach in which I have great interest, chiefly because a number of close friends—good anglers all—utilize it almost exclusively. Yes, they fish according to their own schedules. Occasionally, they meet with great success. Other times not so much. Either way, they don’t seem to mind. I think that’s a beautiful attitude—taking what Mother nature gives you, and living happily with it.

I confess that there are times I wish I could fish this way. October, with its steadily declining weather, is one of those. I mean, wouldn’t it be nice to fish just on warm, calm, sunny afternoons? Indeed, it would. And how nice would it be to hunker down indoors when the hard rain and snow start falling? Well, very nice. Unfortunately, I can’t get beyond the fact that at this time of year the best fishing generally takes place in the worst weather. Even though catching fish isn’t always my primary concern, I’m still compelled to go out during the times I think opportunity is greatest and to sit out the periods when it isn’t. Try as I might, I can’t do it any other way.

So if you’ll excuse me now, I’ve got to go check the forecast for incoming storms. It’s the only way for me to know when I’ll fish next.

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