Casting above the “Mendoza Line”
In baseball, a batting average of .200 is what is known as the “Mendoza Line” and is generally regarded to be the demarcation of acceptable and not acceptable hitting. There is some controversy as to whether it was named after Minnie Mendoza, or Mario Mendoza - both major league infielders, both unremarkable hitters. For our purposes, the term will describe the threshold of casting skills needed to reasonably expect success in a saltwater fly fishing situation. In my experience, most angling visitors feel more prepared than they actually are. Success on the trout stream or lake is great, but for saltwater fly fishing, additional skills are needed. Here is what I consider to be the saltwater caster’s Mendoza Line and some practice tips to boost your average.
While unloading a fly line to 100 feet is not necessary, a solid and CONTROLLED cast of 50 to 60 feet will suffice in most conditions, if it can be delivered with speed, accuracy and in a breeze. While it may be true that most fish are caught at less than 40 feet, a stiff headwind can quickly reduce your 40 foot cast to 30ft or less. The farther you can cast with control, accuracy, and speed, the more quickly and easily you can execute a shorter cast. Being able to cast a longer line simply improves your opportunities. Practice by throwing your tightest loops at a distance of 40 ft, then make the loops go faster - increase your tempo keeping the loops tight by increasing hand speed, which will increase the bend in the rod, then increase the rod arc to match the bend to keep the rod tip moving in a straight path. This will keep the loops tight. Then add 5 feet and get the loops tight again. Make them go faster by increasing the tempo. Keep adding 5 feet until you reach a plateau - the loops fall apart; then back off a few feet and work to gain control. Add a foot at a time, getting under control by adjusting rod bend, arc, timing, haul length and speed, and the casting angle (trajectory) until your loops are again 'tight'. Fine tuning of those elements of casting will allow you to reach out, gaining more distance with good loops, under control. It does no good to cast 90ft if the line does not go where it is intended - practice using a target.
2. Shooting Line
Freshwater fly fishermen tend to false cast more than salty casters. All false casting near fish increases the probability of the fish being spooked by the fly line, leader, and fly flashing overhead. Fish instinctively react adversely to anything flashing overhead - birds of prey are a major threat and the fish react accordingly. Minimizing false casting and shooting the line on the presentation cast helps avoid the possibility of the fish being spooked. Ideally, the fish will not see the line.
One of the most useful skills is to very quickly turn a short line into a long line. Practice picking up 30 feet of line, and with one back cast, shoot line to 50 ft. Remember to STOP, then SHOOT.
3. Controlling Slack
Slack must be removed from the line before starting the casting stroke, and not allowed to develop after the cast. In short, if you are not casting, the rod tip should be in the water or very near the surface.
4. Strip Strike
Raising the rod tip to set the hook introduces slack. A strip-strike is simply a harder strip with rod tip pointed at the line on the water. Practice by having someone standing on you line until you break the habit of raising the rod.
5. Wind Casting
Almost always an issue, the wind can turn a great day of fishing into complete frustration, unless you are prepared to effectively deal with it. For wind coming into your casting arm, practice casting side-arm with the rod traveling horizontally, parallel to the water - increase your tempo and line speed to avoid the fly and leader hitting the water.
If the wind is strong into your casting side, practice casting with the rod tip canted over your left shoulder and fly line moving on your line-hand side - your down-wind side, over your opposite shoulder (arm moving over your head, not in front of your face). With the same wind direction, also practice delivering the fly on your back cast, by turning opposite your target for a forward stroke, then delivering the fly on the back cast. Practice these techniques well before you get on the water and encounter the wind.
For a wind at your back, keep the backcast short and use the wind to shoot more on the forward cast. Keep your backcast low and your forward cast higher.
For a head wind, keep the backcast high and the forward cast lower, pointed at the water.
Practice in all wind directions.
6. Fly in Hand or Speed Cast
If sight fishing, this skill is mandatory. Practice by stripping 30 ft of fly line and holding the line coils in your rod hand and the hook bend in your line hand. Begin by making a “weak’ backcast and with one false cast shoot coiled line.
7. Double Haul
If you don’t know how, learn how. This skill will help with all of the above. A haul is simply a "tug" with the line hand, in the middle of the casting stroke, to load the rod further. Make sure that both hands come together at each stop of the cast.
8. Know the Clock System
While many anglers know that the bow of the boat is 12 o’clock, and the stern is 6 o’clock, if not practiced beforehand, confusion is almost guaranteed. Practice by calling out the number, pointing your rod where you are looking so the person on the poling platform can direct you to the correct location, and then cast to it.
Some serious yard practice before your trip can make all the difference in what kind of day you will have on the water. So grab a tape measure and a few targets, and start working to cast above the “Mendoza Line”.