A Tale of Two Mules

My Dad told me a story that revolved around the untimely death of my grandfather. When Dad was eleven years old, my grandfather passed away while still a relatively young man, leaving my grandmother in pretty dire straits. It so happened the state was building a highway in front of the house at the time. Of course in those days, a highway was not what we think of now as a highway. I’m not sure what the highway might have looked like but my Dad said they were using mules to move the dirt.

In need of money to feed her family, my grandmother confronted the foreman in charge of the highway construction crew insisting he give my Dad a job. She was persistent and the foreman reluctantly agreed to give an 11 year old boy a chance at a job.

The foreman’s agreement with my grandmother was that in order for Dad to get the job, he would have to demonstrate that he could control a pair of mules to haul dirt. Growing up on a farm, Dad knew how to drive a team of mules, but the foreman had a trick in mind. Apparently mules that work together are always hitched up on the same side. They learn to pull together as a team and they are accustomed to always pulling on the same side. Well the foreman hooked them up backwards, putting the mule that normally pulled on the right, on the left and the left mule on the right. You can imagine the result.

Dad failed his test because he couldn’t control the mules and only found out about the trick from one of the workers that apparently had a good laugh at Dad’s expense.

I mention this story because in fly casting we have a situation similar to the left and right mules working together. During a cast, our arms usually play the same roles. The rod arm usually provides most of the power and speed while the hauling arm simply adds to the speed the rod arm provides. I have heard it said that 85% of the measurement in a distance cast is from the rod arm and 15% is from the haul. I think that may have to do more with style or whoever said it may have only been doing moderate or short casts. In my own casting, I have found that at some point the arms have to change roles.

Short casts are almost all rod arm, but gradually as the casts get longer, the hauling arm plays a greater role. A long cast has a lot of line in the back cast. I don’t think many folks realize that the weight of the fly line on the rod also pulls the rod forward during a powerful haul. At some point, primarily in a in a cast for maximum distance, the hauling arm may provide the primary line speed and the force against the rod. In that case, the rod arm must assume a lesser role, adding speed and force to that of the haul but in a controlled way, without compromising the primary impetus from the haul. This is changing the roles to which the arms are normally accustomed. Like two mules that always pull on the same side that are suddenly hitched on the opposite side, problems can arise.

Velocity is additive. Our two arms have to work together, one arm can’t simply stop while the other arm does its job, they must work together to smoothly and continually add force and speed without disrupting the other arm’s contribution. No mule should ever be pulling alone, or the result would be half-a–, well, you know, half as much. Like those moving sidewalks in the airport, if you stop walking and just step on the sidewalk, you are only moving at the speed of the sidewalk. If you keep walking after you step on the sidewalk, your speed is the sum of the sidewalk speed and your walking speed.

Constant acceleration to load the rod evenly and achieve a straight rod tip path is one of the first lessons of fly casting. Once a new student has learned to haul, they probably wonder just how to accomplish a constant acceleration in a long cast which includes a haul. It is a hard thing to feel in your arms and know that you are constantly increasing speed and power. Many people wind up starting fast and ending slow and never realize it. When I’m typing a word and I make a mistake, I can feel it through my fingers. I know I typed the word wrong just from the feel and I can feel a mistake in a cast in a similar way. I can just feel which arm was doing too much or too little and at what time.

In a short cast, it’s easier to accomplish constant acceleration because only one arm is providing most of the power and speed. Making a long cast using a haul requires sharing the power and acceleration, regardless of which arm is assuming the primary role. For some of us, the hauling arm becomes the primary source of power and speed in long casts. I can’t describe how others accomplish a long overhead cast but I can describe my own cast:

  • I end the back cast by drifting the rod slightly, loosening my grip to let the energy of the back cast pull the rod back in my loose grip, effectively increasing the length of the stroke, providing more room to spread the acceleration across.
  • My forward cast begins with the hauling hand. When I feel the weight of the line pulling against me in the back cast, I begin hauling which begins the loading of the rod.
  • As the rod starts forward from the energy of the haul, I begin squeezing the rod tighter, bringing the rod’s grip back to the middle of my hand.
  • I continue to add some speed from the rod hand, increasing the load.
  • As I feel the rod’s load increasing, I increase the speed of the haul.
  • As I get close to the end of the cast I accelerate the haul to the max and squeeze the rod hard, rolling my wrist forward slightly just before stopping the rod.

Or at least that’s what I’m trying to do. It all happens very fast and it’s easy for one or more of those steps to be out of balance which gives a less than desirable result. Letting the hauling arm provide most of the power leaves some of the power on the table from the rod arm, but smooth acceleration and straight tracking from controlling and sharing the power, counts more. I’ve often ended a cast thinking that I hadn’t put my all into the cast, only to see the line layout further than my other casts.

Whatever the style, practice is the only thing that’ll keep those mules working together in harmony.

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