Cast in a not altogether perfect light

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Rarely is it possible to identify so many similarities and, at the same time, so many disparities between two sports as with fishing and golf.

Actually, I’m not sure that angling can be fairly described as a sport. With the exception of match fishing, it lacks the formal boundaries of competition. This is not to deny the competitiveness of anglers. “How many?” followed by “How big?” must be the questions most asked of all anglers.

Both activities have their etiquette but in golf it seems to be more sharply defined. I know golfers who would think nothing of fiddling a company expense claim at the office but will scrupulously uphold the rules on the course.

Where golf falls down is that, when all is said and done, it is a game. Fishing, on the other hand, is a way of life. While golfers know when to quit, anglers do not. How many suppers have shrivelled in the oven under the magnificent obsession that I would call the “one last cast” syndrome?

Loosely translated, “I’ll just have one last cast” means: “Yes you do have time to watch Gone with the Wind, decorate the house, take a lover and do the Christmas shopping. I’ll be along presently.”

Yet again there are similarities. There is never one last cast, partly because there is rarely the perfect cast. Just as the golfer can take satisfaction on those occasions that swing, timing and the judgment of distance come together in a single satisfying sweep, so the angler can bristle with contentment at the perfectly executed cast.

There may not be a fish on the end of it, just as the ball might take a four-putt to find the hole, but when – swing or cast – this single significant part of the game feels right, then so do you.

Like a golfer trying to improve his swing, I’m always looking for casting tips. Two weeks ago I had the chance to see whether practice and tuition had done any good, putting my action through the Sage Casting Analyser, a rate gyroscope device designed by Noel Perkins, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, working with Bruce Richards, a US fly casting expert.

The Sportfish fly fishing centre in Reading, Berkshire, had one of the machines hooked up to the new Sage Z-Axis rod. On hand to explain the fundamentals of a good cast was Jerry Siem, the rod’s designer.

The first thing I learnt is that every angler has a “casting signature”. The squiggly line on the analyser graph that looked like the result of a badly presented fly was, in fact, representing the arc, symmetry and smoothness of the cast.

The casting report alongside the graph resembled the piece of paper I used to hide from my parents at the end of school term except that, amazingly, the bits described as excellent or good outnumbered the parts saying “needs work” by some margin. One weakness – a common one this – is that I was putting too much oomph into my forward movement.

The best way I know of describing a casting action is the flick you could give to a paintbrush if you wanted to spray paint both behind your back and on to a wall in front of you. Instead of the paintbrush, you are holding the rod that behaves like a spring responding to the jerk of your hand and arm.

To make the initial flick, you must stop your arm on its backward jerk after raising the line off the water. Equally – and this is something I need to improve – it’s important to make that same jerk, or stop, on the forward cast. Jerry Siem asked me to jump off the floor to find a natural position. My tendency had been to lean forward into the cast. Good casters let the rod do all the work and make their action look effortless.

Siem showed me how he dragged the line slightly when converting the backward load to the forward cast, improving the smoothness of presentation. He also showed how, when hauling line – pulling slack line back through the rings during the cast – you need to keep it taut all the time. Anything that allows line to go slack within the cast is going to spoil it.

Casting alone is not fishing. But in fly fishing, at least, it’s worth ensuring that your one last cast is a good one. If not, there’s always one more.

www.richarddonkin.com

More columns at www.ft.com/donkin

*Anyone interested in trying the analyser in the UK can contact the Sportfish Fly Fishing Centre, tel: +44 (0)118-930 3860

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