Training, Skill, and Experience

Training, Skill, and Experience

Carol Northcut | Wednesday, 19 October 2022

“You’re doing a good job,” he said to me. Feeling patronized I scoffed, “It doesn’t take any training or skill to pick up branches and stack them in the wagon. You asked me to do it because you don’t want to, and I don’t have to skill to use a chainsaw.” It’s probably a good thing I lack that skill because I’m more likely to cut off my own limb than the tree’s.

I watched a tree faller take down a 90’ tree and land it just where he wanted it within a few inches. He’s been doing it for 30 years, working in different situations. He initially learned his skill from different people but then developed it on his own as he continued to increase his expertise as he encountered a greater variety of problems and constraints. He’s now an expert and knows how to assess the tree’s size, lean, condition, and how to position and the straps to it and the truck to apply force vectors to pull it where it wants it to go. He knows how to cut the base with a chainsaw, use splitting wedges and mauls to coax it into the proper lean for takedown. He’s never had serious injuries because he pays attention and scrutinizes what he’s doing. It’s 30 years of experience encountering different problems, different solutions, and using different chainsaws and strapping. Hmm. Sound like fly casting?

It is a lot like fly casting. First the caster has to learn about the basic tool and basic cast and become comfortable with them: How to pick the right rod and line, for the job. That also comes with experience, but the beginner has none so they rely on others, hopefully scrupulous fly shop personnel.  And although a fly rod doesn’t have chains that have to be replaced and teeth to sharpen, it has a fly line that has to be kept in good working condition, cleaned and occasionally replaced.  (BTW, rocks are bad for both chainsaws and fly lines.)

Then the beginner has to learn to use the fly rod. This is where instructors and coaches come into play. What most beginners don’t realize is that they will unwittingly incorporate the habits and styles of the instructor as they develop habits of their own. Thus, a good instructor/coach is so important, especially for beginners. A good instructor can assess the physical limitations of the student, get to know their communication styles, and offer various ways of expressing concepts until the proverbial light goes on for the student.

Casters learn through repetition how to cast a rod optimally. It is only through attentive repetition (not mindless repetition), that they will progress, as they learn to scrutinize each cast. Eventually, as the student gets better, they learn to adjust different aspects of the mechanics to achieve the desired outcome. Adjustments have to be practiced until the neural pathways become myelinated with that movement which, like Bernstein’s blacksmith, will be slightly different each time but result in essentially the same outcome. Here, the coach is critical because the changes need to be verified to ensure that sub-optimal movements are not being myelinated. However, unlike the Bernstein’s blacksmith, the tool the caster is using is flexible and has a long string attached to it that has different diameters and densities along its length, the sum of which also affect the flex. The wind doesn’t affect a blacksmith, but it does affect the caster; vegetation doesn’t affect a blacksmith, but it does affect the caster; the blacksmith doesn’t have to stand sideways on a slope underwater, but a caster often does. You get the point that there are variables inherent in fly casting that aren’t forged into blacksmithing, or other activities for that matter. And we’ve not even mentioned the physical constraints a caster may have!

Once the caster is proficient, he/she will be able to expand upon their skillset as they look for solutions to different problems encountered (wind, lighting, current, obstacles, fish movement). But casters must first have a sufficient number of skills (casting motions) to adequately solve these problems. For example, the caster is stooping under an overhanging tree on the bank because the water is too fast to wade, but if they move up they’ll spook the fish, and if they move back down the water is too heavy to get a good drift. So how do they solve this? What cast(s)/mend(s) can they use? Well, that depends upon what casts they have learned and are skillful with.

We know that with proficiency comes confidence, and it’s only with confidence that we really start expanding the limits of what we can do.  Four years ago, I could barely cast. Now I’m comfortable combining casts and mends that I learned as a CI candidate: Roll cast (or roll cast pickup) into a reach mend; continuous tension cast into a wiggle reach mend. I am imagining the options that single-hand spey will offer once I learn it, and I’m imagining the types of combinations that some of you use daily! The point is that one has to learn casts well, using optimized movements before being skillful enough to start adding variety to solve problems. Casting on the grass is great for getting the movements and mechanics optimized, but thenthe student should go fishing with the instructor who then presents them with real-life tricky fishing situations. The instructor would show them what is tricky about the situation, and how a particular cast or mend is beneficial and what it looks like in reality, not just theory. In my opinion, that would go far in driving home the need to become skillful at a cast.

So the tree work is done and our very experienced tree guy took down a dead 90’ tall tree that was leaning toward the electrical box and among others, he took down a dead 50’ tree that was right next to the house. He knew how to use his equipment safely and skillfully. As a total sidenote, his assistant’s nickname is “Lightning.” Another cool name. He’s been wade fishing the Kootenai River (the one that intimidates us) for nearly 30 years and is, apparently, quite successful. Again, experience. He’s been tying flies for nearly that long too and has developed one that beautifully imitates the spruce moth. Again, experience that solved a problem.


[POD – North Fork of the Flathead]