FORUM: Casting Overhand

Emigrating from Virginia, I was an eighth-grade student in Huntington Beach (HB), California—home of the US Open of Surfing. Whenever the opportunity arose I fished for Bonito at HB pier in the morning bite. When I arrived at the pier I saw surfers most mornings—wearing wetsuits, sitting on their boards in water not far from the pier, waiting for a ride. I waved from the pier and wished them a big ride; they waved from the ocean and wished me a big fish.

To promote public safety, HB pier restricted anglers to using underhand casting to prevent spectators from accidentally being hooked. Anglers fishing for Bonito did the best they could to cast into deeper water where larger fish were usually hooked.

After multiple visits to the same place, at the same time, for the same reason—just as happens at morning mass, anglers begin to recognize other “regulars,” especially the regularly successful anglers.

Fishing the morning bite at HB pier is where I met my first nighttime anglers. They told me that on any given night a handful of anglers would come to the end of the pier by nine or so at night, and that reaching fish cruising along the far side of the reef required a 200-yard cast.

I was uncomfortable with the idea of coming to the pier alone at night, and I hadn’t ever even tried overhand casting my Jigmaster reel. I decided I’d continue fishing for Bonito from HB pier, and practice overhand casting in the cabbage field behind my house until I could clear 200 yards. I had no idea that learning to reliably make such a cast would require a year of sustained practice.

Like other strokes—such as a bat in baseball or a club in golf, a long-distance cast requires a fluid, accelerated, technically accurate stroke of the fishing rod.

After pointing the rod tip at the intended target to set a reference point, the first phase of the stroke, “loading up,” involves dynamically rotating the human-rod unit beginning with toes, successively transferring and integrating through feet, knees, hips, waist, trunk, shoulders, arms, neck and finally head–but keeping one’s eyes on the target. The tip of the rod reaches its maximum back-position when the human is maximally rotated.

The second phase of the stroke, “unspringing,” involves fluidly accelerating through the reverse process. The thumb is released, freeing the line, when the rod is pointed at the target. Ignoring wind direction and speed, Newtonian mechanics reveals that a 45-degree angle of presentation achieves maximum distance.

Timing is everything. Aiming is in part a function of the final direction one’s body is facing when the spool is released. Experts habitually take practice swings in baseball and golf—and in casting—to make sure relevant parts of one’s body are in tune with each another.

To cast a conventional reel, several fundamental principles must be followed.

  • The line must be wet. Keep a bucket of water and a ladle nearby in practice: drizzle a little water over the reel spool, holding the rod mount facing the ground. Never immerse a reel in water. After a cast is made, before winding the line back on the reel, ladle some water on the line on the reel: in this way more line will be wet as casts increase in distance (as naturally occurs when casting into the ocean).
  • After each cast, when winding the line back onto the reel, don’t tightly wrap the line. Wind the line on the spool leaving some space between adjacent wraps. The idea is to prepare the line for an orderly but extremely rapid departure from the spool. The top row of line on the reel should be wraps of line spaced approximately an eighth of an inch apart and going from left-to-right (or vice versa) viewed from the top of the reel. The second wrap of line (beneath the first, top wrap) is an identical wrap but going from right-to-left (or vice versa). In this manner the line forms a series of “figure X’s” on the spool, reducing the likelihood of line pinching (lowering cast distance) or fouling (creating a witch’s nest).
  • For me to make a 200-yard cast using 20-pound monofilament line requires that I remove my thumb from the spool completely for most of the duration of the cast. Whereas developing coordination between rod, thumb, and reel enabling reliable 200-yard casts is an athletically elite accomplishment, this distance is about half-way to being a casting distance world record.
  • “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” (Coach Lombardy, Green Bay Packers). One can’t step up to the rail and make a perfect 200-yard cast on their first attempt. Like any other racket/club/bat/glove sport—or any learned behavior, one has to establish fundamental principles from the start, and then add speed and strength successively over increasing expertise.

When one is learning to cast a conventional reel there will be many backlashes. Anglers with a half-century of experience casting conventional reels occasionally get backlashes. The differences are: (1) experienced anglers have less extensive backlashes (they recognize the problem and stop spool rotation more quickly), and (2) they more rapidly restore the line (untangle the backlash), compared to less experienced anglers. Practice improves an angler’s ability to avoid, detect, limit the extent of, and restore inevitable backlashes rapidly—skills which can mean the difference between the “catch of a lifetime,” or the opposite.

In large part for me the reward lies in learning to operate the reel at maximum capacity. The first time (and every time) I unleashed a perfectly stroked 200-yard cast, I felt ultrafast vibration in the reel harmonically permeating into the rod, and I heard the high-pitched moan of line vanishing from the spool, lowering in pitch as spool rotation slowed.

A mega-cast is a qualitatively different experience than an average-cast, for everyone who is within earshot and/or watches the ballistic path traced by the weight as it vanishes from sight and later enters the water making a minute yet discernable splash.

Like riding a bike, long-distance casting is a skill which is remembered over a lifespan. Of course, unfortunately, remembering and accomplishing are not necessarily isomorphic. One particularly memorable anecdote is apropos.

I was an angler on a renowned long-range fishing boat in the San Diego Fleet, on which I’d already been on many trips. We were on a 5-day trip to Mexico’s Cedros Island, hoping to catch yellowtail. My favorite Captain in the fleet, and Ross—the best angler I’d ever met, were both aboard. We were anchored 200 yards from a beach. Anglers caught limits, lunch would be ready in an hour, and it was a beautiful spot. Captain Drew, Ross, and I—good friends—stood quietly together at the rail, looking at the beach.

I recalled my days in HB long ago, and I told my friends I could once cast a 2.5-ounce torpedo weight 200 yards using my 7-foot fiberglass rod and Penn Jigmaster reel with plastic spool and 20-pound monofilament line (which I took along on voyages just in case I ever needed to make a 200-yard cast). The Captain—who has seen legions of excellent anglers, and Ross—who fished with excellent anglers for many decades, simultaneously told me that what I said I could do—was not possible.

I got my rod and reel, and began to demonstrate long-distance casting: the Captain on my left, and Ross on my right. First I dropped the weight into the water to wet some line, then “figure-Xed” the line back onto the spool.

Next I put 10% energy into a cast—arm only, got a little nest. Splash goes the weight into the water. Both guys chuckled. I undid the nest in seconds and wet and figure-Xed more line. Ross said I took my thumb off the spool. I told him it was essential.

This continued another eight times—each attempt ended with a splash into the water, a backlash which I released immediately, and ever-heartier chuckles. Each time Ross mentioned I was taking my thumb off the spool, and I agreed with him. By this time many anglers and crew were watching. We all laughed at some pretty funny jokes.

The tenth cast was the ticket. It was qualitatively different than the prior casts. Anglers silently listened to the ultra-fast whining of the spool: one rarely hears such a beautiful mechanical noise. The rhythmic oscillating deceleration of the spool was mesmerizing. The reel sounded like a dynamo winding down.

Then nothing! No backlash? No splashing water? Nope—just a little thud as the weight landed on the sand of the beach.

After a pregnant pause, Ross said to the Captain: “Well, he’s a PhD, you gotta figure he’ll eventually figure it out.” …One of the nicest things any angler ever said about me.

To demonstrate this wasn’t a fluke, my next cast sent the weight deeper, and my final cast sent the weight deeper still. Point proven.

Years later, Ross took a photo of me on the bow of a slowly moving boat, overhand casting a wooden plug using a spinning reel, fishing for reef predators in Panama. The forward part of the casting stroke has begun so the rod tip is “loaded-up.” My weight is shifting forward as my waist begins pivoting toward my target—upon which my gaze and forward foot is fixed. As momentum increases my trunk, shoulders and finally arms—fully extended, face squarely at the target, as does the rod tip, at the moment the line is released.

Fire One!

Casting Overhand

Paul R. Yarnold, Ph.D.

May 26, 2021

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