Fishing is very simple. Take a rod, attach a reel spooled with line, tie on a lure, and commence casting to a likely looking spot. In no time at all you’ll be filleting your prize catch for dinner. Ahhh, if it were only that easy. For the record, as a fishing guide, I’m very glad it’s not that easy or I would have to get a real job.
But why isn’t it that easy? After all, fish have little bitty brains and great big mouths; how hard could outsmarting them be? Well, it goes beyond outsmarting them. Catching fish is a combination of smarts and mechanical skills. Smarts, in the form of fishing knowledge and the application thereof, is the topic of volumes of literature. Mechanical skills, well, not so much. Mechanical skills are the areas that I constantly see in my guiding with lots of room for improvement.
I’m not sure why the mechanics of fishing are often overlooked or taken for granted, but I do know for sure that an angler with great physical prowess with his or her tackle will catch more fish and lose less tackle. Many anglers spend literally thousands on high modulus graphite rods, fancy reels, and the latest in “super lines”; then take them to the lake or river without ever really considering the act of physically using them. It’s sad in my opinion, because that high end tackle that someone (or likely a team) spent so much time developing deserves to be matched with high end fishing skills.
On the flip side, a fisherman with phenomenal physical skills will catch more fish with crappy tackle (no, not “crappie” tackle – the really cheap gear) than an angler with a million dollars in gear and miniscule physical skills, assuming equal knowledge of course. And he might even overcome a knowledge deficit.
Think about golf; give me the best golf clubs and balls in the world and I still can’t score like Tiger Woods can (no pun intended) playing with pawn shop specials.
It all comes down to practice and choosing equipment to match your presentation style. Fishing practice sounds dumb you say? Then let’s talk about mechanical skills and how to practice and apply them.
The obvious skill is casting, but that is an enormously broad topic. To make it manageable, I break casting with conventional tackle into the various styles and applications for my practice – while always focusing on accuracy regardless of style. Accuracy is absolutely crucial much of the time and being too accurate is never a problem. I always practice casting with a small target so that accuracy becomes second nature.
What do I mean by casting styles (or strokes) as they apply to conventional tackle? Simply, the stroke is exactly how I deliver the lure. It can be overhand, sidearm, underhand, or backhand. Or some variation of those basic strokes, such as pitching, roll casting, skip casting, or flipping (which isn’t really casting at all, yet still delivers the lure). Each of these strokes has strengths and weaknesses and choosing a stroke for a given fishing situation is part of the process.
For instance, let’s say I need to get a Rat-L-Trap way, way out there while combing grass flats. An overhand cast gets me the most distance so it’s a good choice. If it’s really windy (a common scenario when fishing a lipless crankbait), I’ll choose a sidearm cast. The distance isn’t quite as good, but the lure will maintain a lower trajectory and thus will be more accurate and will have less “bow” in the line upon splash down.
Now let’s say we’re working down a rock rip-rap dam face with a crayfish style jig. Long casts here equals snags and missed hook-sets. While ultimate accuracy isn’t paramount, shorter, sidearm roll casts allow for reasonable accuracy, quick execution, and excellent line control. The roll casts may be forehand or backhand depending on which direction I’m working down the structure in relation to my casting arm.
Fishing in tight confines or with close range targets as in a small stream is best accomplished with an underhand cast. Fishing around wood cover like lay-downs or stumps is often best handled by pitching (a version of underhand casting). When fishing very heavy cover like grass mats or flooded bushes, it may require flipping a heavy lure with no real casting at all.
In the first scenario (combing grass flats), how the lure hits the water is irrelevant, but in the later scenarios a subtle water entry is key. Accuracy follows the same line of thinking
As a general rule, overhand casting is the least accurate yet achieves the best distance; great for long bombs or powerful casting. Sidearm casts are more accurate and best suited for mid- to close-range use and moderate subtlety is required. Roll casting is still more accurate, subtle, and best for a closer range. Underhand casting or pitching is both a very accurate and subtle short range tool. While flipping is the ultimate in short range accuracy and subtlety.
Knowing the stroke is one thing, executing it is another. A key to consistent accuracy and distance control with both spinning and casting tackle is the use of a two handed grip. Try to hit a golf ball with one hand on the club and you’ll see what I mean. Very rarely, if ever, do I make one handed casts - and when I do they are underhand with spinning tackle or pitching with casting gear. Today’s best rods are designed with “split grips” which force two handed casters into the best possible fulcrum grip for maximum power and control. Incidentally, this design aids rod balance as well.
Author casting a split grip rod
Another key to consistent accuracy and distance is managing how much line is left dangling out the rod tip as your prepare to cast. It’s not so important exactly how much is dangling, only that the amount be consistent for the stroke you’re applying.
As a rule, underhand casting requires two to four times the amount of line out as does overhand or sidearm casting. The path to control is to be consistent. If have 12 inches of line out on one cast and 24 inches out on the next, the lure will behave completely different even if your stroke is exactly the same. Practice until you have a feel for how much line out is best for your casting style, and then keeps it reasonably consistent.
When using an open faced spinning reel, use your free hand to “palm” the spool as the lure is on its way out. This is the best way to control distance and slack line. It takes some practice to develop a feel for it, but controlling the line coming off the reel at the end of the cast is paramount to avoiding line twist issues, and will keep your lures out of the bushes and trees. You can use your palm, thumb, or forefinger to gently feather the line against the leading edge of the spool for supreme control. Combined with two handed casting, this technique makes a spinning rod an extremely accurate and reliable tool.
Casting styles will differ amongst angling methods and with the individual manning the rod. Your rod selection itself should vary accordingly. Rod power ratings refer to how much weight and what line-size the rod is designed to deliver. These range from “ultra-light” to “extra-heavy” covering most freshwater applications. Select your rod based on the weight of the lures or baits you intend to cast.
For a given power rating, a rod blank can be anywhere from “slow” to “extra-fast” action. To ensure optimum performance, select the rod’s action rating to match your casting needs. A slow action rod bends deep into the butt on a cast. It is less accurate and sensitive than a fast action rod but is more forgiving to cast. In general faster action rods are better for lure presentations while slower action rods are commonly associated with live baits. Live bait fishing may require a soft lob beginning with the rod in the back cast position, while firing a spoon into the wind requires an aggressive snap beginning with the rod pointed at the target. Both are accomplished with a two-handed grip and an overhand or sidearm cast, but how the rod “loads and unloads” (i.e., stores and releases energy) is completely different. The bait is best cast with a “slow” action rod while the spoon is better suited to a fast action rod.
A rod’s length is also a major factor in its applications. The trend is towards longer rods these days, and that’s because the advantages of long rods (6 to 8 feet) include increased casting distance, better hook-sets, easier line control, and a more forgiving fish-fighting nature. Short rods (say, 4.5-6 feet) are maneuverable in very tight confines and are extremely accurate.
The rod’s ratings are printed on the blank ahead of the fore-grip. If they are not, the rod is likely a low end, general use product best suited for those who don’t take their fishing seriously enough to investigate getting better at it.
Check the rod's ratings
To this point I haven’t said much about casting tackle versus spinning tackle. Each has their place yet the vast majority of anglers use spinning tackle. Casting tackle is great for heavy baits, about 3/8 oz and up, is very efficient to use, and it handles heavy lines well. It’s also considered by many to be the most accurate. Casting reels do not have inherent line twist as spinning reels do. However, it takes longer to master casting tackle.
Spinning or casting, both have advantages
The advent of modern super thin and limp braided lines has allowed spinning reels to deal with lines upwards of 20 pound test easily. So rod manufacturers have stepped up their blanks to handle heavier lines. With spool palming as noted above, spinning gear is nearly as accurate as casting gear. These two features have blurred the line of where casting tackle is the best choice. Spinning gear casts farther, especially against the wind, and will cast light baits much easier.
If you want to really make a difference in your angling, take your well chosen rods to a grassy field. Place some Frisbees at various distances. Put some around obstacles, under overhanging features (tree limb), upwind, downwind, across wind; in short, whatever scenario you can recreate from your angling, then practice, practice, practice, and practice some more. Work to make the lure land softly on target every time. Practice all the different strokes, both forehand and backhand, until they become second nature. Don’t practice where there is any possibility of catching fish or your inner angler will take over and you’ll think more about catching fish than practicing.
There is no better time than the present to improve your mechanical skills. After years of guiding anglers of all sorts, I feel confident in saying that improved mechanical skills combined with well balanced tackle will make more of a fish-catching difference for most folks than all the fancy lures and gear they’ll buy this year.