Substance and Style -Revisited


By Al Kyte

I first saw the terms, substance and style, being applied to fly casting when helping Mel Krieger write his excellent FFF teaching pamphlet, Observations on Teaching Flycasting. Although this pamphlet proved valuable in certification seminars, I never thought the examples given there provided a well-conceived distinction between what is substance and what is style. Yet, the importance of having a clear distinction is evident every time you see an instructor teach his or her style as if it were non-negotiable substance or a caster being evaluated and penalized on style elements when taking a certification test. Although these problems still occur, I believe we are making progress—gaining sensitivity to, and even appreciation for, the use of different styles. I would go so far as to say that this is becoming a strength of our program. Yet, we still need a better way of differentiating substance from style.

In the bio-mechanics research that Professor Gary Moran and I did during the 1980s and l990s, we included an analysis of which dimensions of an overhead cast changed and which tended to remain the same across groups of skilled fly casters. I had previously done similar analyses of several other sport movements to separate “essential physics” from “acceptable variations.” I thought this might be a promising way of looking at substance and style and introduced some of this information in our article, Fly Casting: Substance and Style (in the March/April 2000 issue of American Angler).

We found that what changed the least during a successful overhead cast was the relatively straight path of rod tip and unrolling fly line. Everything else—stance, grip, arm and body movements, rod angle, rod bend, speed, stroke length—could be altered to help achieve this straight path. Yet, although this article on Substance and Style reinforced the importance of an emphasis on straight-path movements and provided a first attempt to describe styles, it may not have provided the most helpful way for instructors to differentiate substance from style. If not, what might be a better way?

First, we know that there are a number of dimensions in which we make choices in how to make a cast. The various choices you and I make come together to identify our own unique styles of casting. It would follow that the dimensions of the cast on which we make a choice might best constitute our substance. In short, what we do during a cast is substance and how we do it is style. This type of break down would look like this:


Substance Dimensions   Style Choice      (examples)


Open, Squared, Closed


Thumb on top, Extended Finger, V-Grip, Other

Casting Arm Movement

Low-elbow, Elbow forward, Elbow-up-to-side, (or other wording)

Body Movement

Body lean, Weight shift, Shoulder and hip rotation knee straightening, or none.

Rod Bend

Minimal tip-bending, deep full-rod bend, or something in between

Stroke Length                             

Minimal hand movement of a few inches forward to extreme movement of six feet or more

Rod Rotation Angle (arc)

From 30 to almost 180 degrees

Hand Speed  

From slow to very fast movement

Upward/Downward Tilt

Angle of aim from below horizontal to well above horizontal

Side tilt

Rod angle from vertical down to horizontal


I think this type of break down makes it easy for an instructor to get a comprehensive picture of someone’s casting style. If, for example, you had a checklist of such Substance Dimensions, you could watch a few casts and, as you do, write comments alongside each dimension to indicate the Style Choices you see being made. The more you do this, the more you would sharpen your ability to discern even subtle differences between casters. When there are so many elements or dimensions that make up a caster’s style, how can you describe that style in the fewest words? My approach is to initially refer to the type of arm movement I see. This is my basic style category because fly casting is a type of throwing movement and the part of our body that moves the most is our casting arm. I have observed three rather distinctive ways in which successful casters move the casting arm and described them in my recent book, "The Orvis Guide to Better Fly Casting".">The beauty of “style” is that an open-minded teacher can continue learning by trying to imitate the combination of style elements that someone new to the scene uses to make a great cast. The more we can understand why different styles or movement combinations are effective, the better position we are in to help that next student who exhibits unusual movement tendencies. Hopefully we have at least learned not to look at style choices as “right or wrong” but as having “advantages and disadvantages.”

Kyte is a former member of the Board of Governors. His original article is a classic learning tool. Also, check out his new book, "The Orvis Guide to Better Fly Casting".