Elbow Down

Let me be bold and say, really quickly, that this is not about fly fishing.

My dad brought me to a fly-fishing casting practice in the park, and it was my first time intentionally holding a fly-fishing rod. There were thirteen other people, all much older than me, all willing to help out. We lined up on the grass and cast neon lines into the air, aiming at cones.

When you pick up a rod and learn to cast, it’s very easy to swing the rod behind you, to feel the line whip with the force of your arm, and watch it arc back, before switching directions; the line snatches and flies forward. There is a basic arm technique: move your shoulder, raise your elbow and lower it, but these have no sensation to them immediately. I could not lower my elbow because I did not really feel the movement, so, instead, while using my forearm, I focused on another technique: stopping the rod with force and a wrist-flick, and the line wobbled but worked. I could practice the essentials at home, later.

The whole class, scattered across the park, circled around for a break. The “master caster,” as he is called, asked each person (many of whom had been casting for years) about the types of troubles they encountered. Immediately, someone spoke up, “I cannot keep the action in my shoulders,” or, “my wrist moves in spite of my effort to keep it still.” Most casters spoke of the problem of arm movement, so the master caster reminded them, “you will exhaust yourself if you do not use your shoulder. It’s impossible to fish for more than a couple hours otherwise. You will wear yourself out.”

And so, we broke from break, I grabbed coffee, and picked up the rod again. This time: a new technique to keep the line in the air with the same basic movement, requiring only a slight raising and lowering of the elbow. Up my elbow went, but no lowering, up again, and up, until my arm flailed and snapped large aerial loops of line to, really, catch only flies. And I felt it the whole way, the action in my arm, the motion controlled with my hand: I made the line fly.

This is when John, the volunteer who helped me out, pleased with my tightening loops but not with my arm, called over the master caster. He stared into my face, slung some pedagogical metaphor at me, and put his arm under my arm, structured my posture and moved my elbow in a demonstration of the movement. And there I learned: to move your shoulder and elbow, not your forearm and wrist, is to cast weightlessly. My line crumbled though, it lost its power and I need to re-learn how to stop the rod with power—now unfelt; it is a power contained solely in the rod now. Weightless arm, all rod.

I think there’s a certain amount of satisfaction that comes with effort, even wrong effort, because it immediately tells us that there is fruit to our labor. Actions seem to bear weight. There is obvious satisfaction in the feeling of doing something, even if that something wears you out and grinds you down. Maybe it isn’t actually productive, maybe it’s painful, brimming with anxiety, distracted and postponed to practice at home, in the future, or whatever. So that weightlessness, that non-effort, obviously it threatens the work already put in—the habits that feel meaningful, the reward of a flying loop—but that weightlessness also drags you into the long-run, the endurance of things, an arm that will not get tired, which is really more time fishing and, ideally, more fish caught. The destruction of the habits of our efforts, the habits of the mind embodied in action, only opens to an empty space where we relinquish work to the rod. Let you be you, let the rod be the rod; elbow down.