Casting a fishing rod should be relaxing and fun. When pain joins the picture, something’s wrong.
And despite the annually anticipated river shenanigans from our “water influencers” (Bureau of Reclamation), great fall fishing begins now. Long fall hours on the water are more enjoyable sans casting pain. As a veteran of Tiger Balm, Voltaren and Biofreeze and gulping Aleve, I’m experienced in this situation.
A Vanderbilt University orthopedic study on fly casting pain and its causes offers a good start. Using this tool, behavior and equipment can be adjusted.
Sporting publications and medical journals thrive on wrist, hand, arm, elbow and shoulder agonies attributed to casting as well as tennis and golf swings. Focus on these common enemies may result from many doctors who enjoy fishing, golf and tennis. It’s similar to some engineers who must design a better fly reel after they begin fly-fishing.
Sports medicine and Vanderbilt Medical Center shoulder surgeon Dr. Jed Kuhn and his son, Andrew, an orthopedic surgery resident at Washington University in 2020, developed a recreational fly fisher study requesting the location of pain between hand and shoulder that responders felt after a day of casting. The national survey included age, left- versus right-handedness, orthopedic history and exact location of soreness as well as type of rod, its weight, lines and flies used.
Casting pain happens
Both Kuhns love fly fishing for its “rhythmic, coordinated movements to successfully cast a fly line.” Of the 162 study participants, exactly 59 (36.4%) felt moderate pain in the shoulder, arm, elbow or wrist that lasted anywhere from several hours to a week afterward.
“The Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine” published the study results on Oct. 21, 2020 (TinyUrl.com/mry2u9tp). The survey exposed three situations causing the most lasting pain and injury, beginning with rod grip, followed by overhead versus sidearm casting and then weights of rods, lines and flies.
Three single-handed rod hand grips were analyzed. The most painful hand, wrist and arm results were felt by those casting with their index finger on top of the rod grip. Pain was reported by 34% casters holding the rod with thumb on top of the grip. Only 30% of casters using the V-style “tennis hand” rod grip experienced later pain.
Overhand casting left anglers with less soreness than constant sidearm flailing. Overhand casting, when backcast conditions allow, requires less effort to accomplish accurately.
Continuous sidearm casting (useful in confined areas) is more often exhausting because it might transform into more strenuous, less defined (OK, spastic) arm/shoulder movement.
Finally, the Kuhn study designers weren’t too surprised when results proved anglers casting heavier rods and lines (often in salt water) as well as employing shooting head sinking lines, weighted flies and leaders with added weights also sustained more pain than average fishermen using lighter rods and floating lines.
Rod grip thoughts
Dad’s South Bend bamboo rod that I began casting in 1953 had a gold label on an indention designed for the thumb on top of the cork grip. That’s what I started with, and it’s the hand grip that I continue to use.
I notice many Eastern casters use the index finger forward rod grip, a choice perhaps fitting their shorter, lighter rods to improve close range accuracy on smaller streams. I can’t develop any power with this grip, but size large gents with baseball mitt hands I’ve watched, who also led with index fingers, surprisingly tossed 9- and 10-weight casts out of sight.
Rod grip diameter, either too thin or too thick, creates fatigue and painful cramping. Women may have grip issues often due to smaller hands. Grips can be enlarged with golf club tape or gently sanded to fit. Rods cast with gloves in cold weather may need slightly smaller grips to compensate.
Mel Krieger’s pain Rx
Well over 20 years ago, Mel Krieger gifted me great season-extending advice for minimizing shoulder and other pain while casting.
“Keep your shoulder and arm quiet when casting anything — plug, fly or a spinning rod,” advised the late fly-casting guru, author and FFI Casting Certification Program designer. “Hold the upper arm and shoulder next to the body, and don’t cast for the fences.”
Mel’s suggestion shortcut what would have been years of prolonged agony derived from football, desert dirt racing and ski injuries. But even better, keeping shoulder and arm close/tight limited the annoying helter-skelter backcasting strokes that regularly appeared when I decided to “jump on the power” for that big cast.
It’s almost guaranteed that the moment most casters attempt sinking lines, weighted flies or leader weight, they instantly juice up their effort. This sudden application of maximum rod power to make a T-shirt-ripping cast causes technique and timing to dissolve. Resulting line tangles on skewed loops lead to disappointing distance and accuracy.
Learn to lighten up
Everyone suffers casting fatigue. Ask fishing guides who watch in dismay as afternoon arrives and exhaustion creeps into their casters. First their accuracy goes out the window and that’s followed by faded reaction times. Eliminate feckless false casting, be more selective of targets and take a break to reduce the daily cast count and help yourself conquer the full day.
When I began hosting fishing float trips, I was surprised at how quickly clients tired of casting the rods I regularly used. I finally recognized my 30-year-old’s hands were accustomed to the heavier outfits, but that wasn’t so for older users who didn’t fly-fish every day. I also saw how veteran fly fishermen selected lighter Hardy reels than my Pflueger Medalists.
Clients responded well to my fitting lightweight, affordable Scientific Anglers System 1 reels on early Sage graphite rods. Newer graphite rods and the latest “ventilated” reels are less tiring to cast for lengthy periods.
Friends kid about the hand towel I wear folded over my belt. A handy towel mops spills and dries hands from fish handling. More importantly, pulling the first 30 to 40 feet of fly line through the towel several times during a fishing day removes an amazing amount of dirt. A cleaner fly line instantly improves ease of casting and accuracy.
Some rods are a pain
I recall a 2012 float with veteran Jackson outfitter Tom Montgomery, who’d borrowed a reportedly high-performance 5-weight TCR. Back then, Tom was considering this Technical Casting Rod from Sage as a possible asset for his hosted trout trips to Argentina and New Zealand. I was rowing and enjoying Tom’s casting. I don’t know a better hand with a trout rod, but even before he said anything I saw there was a problem.
“My wrist and forearm are really hurting all of a sudden,” Tom reported.
“It’s the rod,” I explained. “For whatever reason, that extra-fast, stiff action is punishing your arm. After a few casts my old 8½-foot, 6-weight Fenwick Eagle graphite would set my forearm on fire.”
Since then I’ve had several fly and conventional rods whose actions burned up wrist and arm muscles.
Solving that problem is easy: Use another rod.