At the Edison Fly Show long before he journeyed to fish the great beyond, Lefty Kreh was holding court at the Temple Fork Outfitters display talking about fly casting. Having suffered a torn rotator cuff that winter through an accident, Lefty was discussing physical problems that affect fly casters, and not just the old guys. My first bout with a damaged rotator cuff happened when I was in my 30s. Casting With Lefty Kreh had just been published (2008) with a special section dealing with shoulder injuries written by Lefty’s doctor, George W. Yu. It was then that I decided to start focusing on simple, beneficial exercises for fly fishermen.
As the fishing years slip by, the need to stay in shape and keep physically fit for fly casting increases; so too for surfcasting, kayaking, and offshore fishing. I’ve wanted to write about this for quite a while, but the timing never seemed right and, frankly, I figured a good fishing yarn is a lot more fun to read than a column about casting injuries. However, as we bring another season to an end, there’s an urgency to each fly-casting session and we push ourselves hard to catch the last bass of the season. And, some surfcasters may be recuperating from a summer of too much casting beyond their physical limits so the time feels right to, pardon the pun, elbow on in. Lefty’s problem was in the shoulder; veteran fly casters may also experience wrist, forearm, elbow and even back problems.
Poor casting-technique gremlins cause many injuries, but the Weekend Warrior Syndrome is more often the culprit, especially if you’re not in great physical shape before that marathon session at the beach or salt pond. Casting a 10-weight nonstop for an hour or two can quickly put you on the injured-reserve list if you’re not physically fit. An active younger guy will be in better shape than someone who is desk-bound in an office or an older caster dealing with weakened tendons, muscles, and probably a touch of arthritis. Since most fly-fishing injuries are caused by overuse, the happy news is that no matter your age, with rest, stretching, exercise, and common sense, these injuries can be overcome and controlled.
Rest, Recuperate and Repair
Pain is the body’s early-warning system and shouldn’t be ignored. That little crick in the elbow, shoulder, back, or wrist is the first sign you’re under stress and should take a break. If you feel pain – STOP! Rest for a few minutes. Often a simple stretching movement can help loosen up a tight area, such as stretching your back or rubbing the shoulder or elbow. If the pain quickly returns, won’t go away, or increases dramatically, it’s time to be smart and get off the water. Continued stress and strain will surely convert a small problem into a big one.
First aid should include applying ice from your drink or sandwich cooler. Aspirin, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen are essential to relieve the pain, especially if you have a long drive home from the beach or marina. Compressing the painful area (a wrist or elbow) with an ACE bandage or an elastic sleeve may help. If the injury is serious and won’t go away, see a doctor.
Professional advice is essential and much better than what you can get online. Once, while replacing all the boards on my dock, I overstressed my wrist, forearm, and elbow. I figured it took 13,000 hammer slams (120 feet, 3 boards/foot, 9 nails/board, and 4 hammer slams/nail), and it was dumb to do that much work in one weekend. For weeks, it would not heal until a physical therapist set up a treatment regimen, then it rapidly improved.
At-Home Exercises for Fly Fishermen
Remember the old saw, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” Regular exercise is essential to keeping your body tuned up and all its casting parts running smoothly. It doesn’t have to be complicated, time consuming, or expensive. Some anglers may enjoy visiting a gym with special machines and a trainer, but an effective do-it-at-home program requires only a foam mat, hand-squeeze ball, stretch bands, chair, light dumbbell weights, and an exercise ball. Total outlay is south of $200. There’s no membership fee, and no fashionable attire or commuting to the gym required – what a deal!
Capt. Ray Stachelek uses a more sophisticated universal seven-station weight machine to stay tuned up during the winter. He says, “At 75, I try not to lose the flexibility, strength, and limberness that I have now. Statistics say you lose six percent of your muscle every ten years, so I try to slow that down.” He focuses on a regimen of upper-body exercises like curls and butterflies, then adds some cardio with an elliptical step machine.
Lou Tabory uses resistance stretch bands to exercise and recommended them to his casting-school students. They come in several ratings and are a great way to use mild resistance to build up casting strength. Wrap the band around a spindle on a staircase as an anchor point and hold the two ends together in your casting hand. Face the stairs and pull away to imitate a back cast; turn around and push your arm forward to imitate a forward cast.
An at-home program saves money and time. Many exercises and stretches like leg lifts, hand squeezes, wrist rotations/flexions, and many others can be done while watching TV. A typical routine of stretches and exercises focuses on specific body areas such as the back, shoulder, arms, wrist, or elbow, with each taking only five to 10 minutes. In some cases, the entire routine may take no more than 20 minutes.
Choose exercises carefully. Some may cause more damage or delay your recovery, perhaps even compromise your long-term wellness. When I experienced lower back and leg pain from kayaking, I tried some online exercises, with no improvement, and the problem actually got worse. A week later, a physical therapist explained that two of the exercises were aggravating the problem and recommended a better routine, which brought dramatic relief.
DIY Stretching and Strength Exercises for Fly Fishermen
An effective long-term routine to stay in shape usually includes a blend of both stretching and strength. When you were a kid, your mother likely told you to, “Stand up straight.” She was right. Your spine is like a tower built upon a system of muscle, tendons, and ligament support. Many aches and pains, even in your legs, are caused by poor posture. Likewise, your shoulders also depend on muscle strength and balanced alignment. You don’t need to be a body builder with bulging muscles; just focus on strength-building exercises and good posture to help minimize many types of joint pain.
Whether you fly cast or play golf, baseball, or pickleball, stretching exercises keep you flexible and strong, and allow for a full range of motion. Stretching lengthens soft tissues like muscles, tendons, and ligaments, keeping them supple and relaxed when at rest. Soft tissues heal by rebuilding the fibers that were stressed, which caused the pain in the first place.
As the tissues repair, there likely will be some scarring that can become a future problem. Scarring tends to shrink and harden tissues, which retards range of motion capabilities. That’s why a stretching routine is so important. You may feel fine, with no muscle pain, but scarred tissue will leave you feeling tight and stiff. Stretching exercises have maximum benefit if done two or three times a day, although even one time will help.
A fly cast requires the coordinated performance of dozens of muscles, and to repeat the cast over and over requires strength and endurance. Making one cast is easy, making hundreds of casts for an hour or so at daybreak can be beyond a body’s capability unless finely tuned and trained for strength. Good posture is essential for optimum muscle function. Strong muscles protect against injury by providing stability to joints. Strong muscles work together to avoid injury by maintaining balance between muscle groups, such as in the shoulder, where if one or more muscles are weak, the others have to work harder and an injury can occur.
While stretching exercises can be done frequently, muscle-strengthening exercises are best done about two to three times a week. Overdoing muscle exercising can cause even more injuries or prolong a recovery. To build strength, you can increase the intensity of the routine by gradually adding more weight (or tension) or by extending the duration of a specific exercise. Instead of 10 repetitions, do 20.
To avoid problems while you’re fly fishing, get limbered up before the first cast. Just as stretching your fly line before you begin casting (you do that, right?), stretching some important muscles can also keep you physically comfortable. Flexing your wrists, stretching your calves, arching your back, warming up with a few shoulder rotations, and briskly rubbing your elbows and wrists gets you limbered up and casting smoothly.
Soreness and Stiffness Prevention Strategies
Does your 10-weight feel pretty heavy after an hour of casting? A switch to a 9-weight can bring relief. Unless you’re casting really large, wind-resistant bulky flies, a lighter rod and reel will add an extra dose of fun to the fly-fishing experience.
Do you practice-cast in between fishing sessions? Try casting an outfit one weight heavier. It’s similar to a ball player swinging a heavier bat before stepping up to the plate. Your usual 8-weight rod and reel will feel lighter after a short practice session with a 9-weight.
Trout fly fishers are less prone to casting injuries, and why not? Short casts with a 4-weight require minimal exertion compared to a caster working a 10-weight in the surf. Salty flyrodders use more body movement of arms, back, and legs as compared to a sweetwater fly angler. And freshwater fly casters have no need to raise their elbows while casting. Lefty covered this extensively in his later years at casting demonstrations, showing his audiences how to use more body motion and less arm motion to make effective casts.
A friend who casts 450-grain sink-tip lines for deepwater striped bass overcame his shoulder stress problems by switching to the Belgian cast. With only a few feet beyond the rod tip, he’d make a low lift parallel to the water, shoot the line low on the back cast, then roll his wrist to make the rod travel forward above the unrolling back cast. It’s kind of like throwing a baseball and uses considerably less motion to the shoulder and wrist than a conventional cast.
Some fly fishers rarely experience muscle or joint problems. Capt. Ray Szulczewski of Cape May is like that and says he’s never had a problem. Ray fishes frequently – several times a week – so instead of a gym he’s actually using an on-the-water exercise program to stay in shape. I like Ray’s plan.
I’m no doctor, so anything suggested here is offered only from personal experience and can’t replace the advice of a sports-medicine professional. What I can tell you for sure is that staying in shape can help every fly caster, young or old, gain endurance to cast with pain-free comfort. If those aches and stresses bother you as this season ends, now’s the time to work on an easy stretching and exercise program to be ready for spring.
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