24 Jul Local Knowledge: Brant Oswald, The Straight-line Path
Some years ago, when I was still new to fly fishing, my morning commute took me past the Yellowstone Angler, a fly shop south of Livingston, Montana. More often than not, if the weather was decent and the wind blowing at something less than a gale, I would see customers out on the side lawn, test driving rods before throwing down their plastic. A new five-weight Loomis, six-weight Sage, three-weight Winston. One of the shop’s guides and managers, a casting instructor named Brant Oswald, typically stood beside the customers, explaining the differences between the rods. Fast action vs. slow, pack rods vs. two pieces. Offering tips, answering questions.
The customers ran the gamut from abashed beginners (lines falling loose around their necks) to magazine writers performing for a crowd. Occasionally, though, and by way of demonstration, Brant would try a few casts himself. Driving past, I’d rubberneck. Watch as a small gesture sent 50, 60 feet of neon line unrolling across the grass. The good casters make it look easy. For me, a guy with a newbie’s skewed sense of his own abilities, it was a good object lesson. Here now, this … this was what could be accomplished with a fly rod.
It’s not much exaggeration to say that watching an artful cast of fly line is rather like reading a stanza from Keats. For the sentimental eye, it’s a study in transiency and fleeting accomplishment, a commentary on the ephemeral nature of truth and beauty. It’s divine aspiration unavoidably polluted by the flaws of the human condition. It’s as deceptively complicated as a golf swing, and as satisfying, when it’s done well, as a spiraling pass into the end zone. And while there are any number of elements that make for a good fly fisherman (reading the water and matching the hatch, mending your line and tipping your guides) the cast is the irreducible constant, the prime number. Without a serviceable cast, you can’t even begin.
And in this particular corner of Montana, as I came to find out—if you want a casting instructor to help you take it to the next level—Brant Oswald (for my money, anyway) is the go-to guy.
“I remember the moment I decided to become a good fly caster,” Oswald said recently. “The very moment. It was late fall in Oregon, and we took a break from steelheading on the North Umpqua to sneak in a few hours of trout fishing. Baetis mayflies were hatching at an inlet on a small mountain lake, but we couldn’t wade particularly close to them. All the trout were rising 10 feet further than I could cast. I kept throwing tailing loops and getting wind knots, everything, trying to reach the fish. It was very frustrating. And at that moment I realized that while I might be an A-minus caliber fly fisherman, I was only a C-plus caster.”
Self-taught as a kid, Brant used the springboard of his enthusiasm and youth (raised in Southern Idaho, he’s been a fly fisherman since he was 10 years old) to read the masters, study their methods. “I think back to that watershed day, and after that, I picked the brain of every good caster I saw, dissected their technique, made them critique my casting. I was working at a fly shop, and I also started casting as many different rods as I could. What I eventually learned is the same thing I try to tell my students now. You don’t need to be a great caster to have fun at fly fishing. But it’s so much more fun if you are.”
There’s no telling what small moments will end up defining a life. In March of 1983, Brant was hanging out at the Caddis Fly, a shop in Eugene, Ore., and was preparing to get a PhD in linguistics. “But then I found out that a guy who was teaching the Orvis schools in San Francisco was quitting. And so I cold-called Orvis. In the space of a week I went from linguistics to Orvis.” After five years in San Francisco — three with Orvis, and two more working with the great Mel Krieger (whom Brant considers a mentor) — in the fall of 1987 Oswald and his wife, Pauline, moved to Livingston. “I guided for one season for Big Sky Expeditions on the Smith, and then went to work for the Yellowstone Angler. I was there until 2004. Since then, I’ve been on my own.”
Being on his own means that in addition to his guiding services (he specializes in the area’s spring creeks), he also teaches a series of crash courses for the Bozeman Angler, and does the casting portion of the guide school for Sweetwater Travel. “Eight of those courses a year.” He also works as a casting instructor for individual clients.
When it comes to fly fishing and casting, few people know what they’re talking about the way Brant knows what he’s talking about.
“There’s a funny ego block about fishing. The syndrome I see as an instructor… Everyone gets one lesson, then they go fishing. That’s all. In golf, for instance, it seems like you have a tradition of lessons. Lessons are expected. But that never seems to happen in fly fishing. ‘Oh, I do okay.’ I hear that from clients all the time. But as long as there’s room for improvement, why deal with the frustrations of poor casting skills?”
His methods vary, depending on the student. Sometimes, to start, he’ll ask a fisherman just to rig up their rod. “You can learn a lot about a caster’s experience level by watching how they prepare their tackle.” But with others, he might begin with dry board illustrations. “The way you cast a fly is by creating an unrolling loop in a line. The loop is central to the whole concept. You have to understand how the rod tip and the line interact. Once a student understands how the rod creates a loop that takes the fly to the fish, then we can start figuring out how to do it all more efficiently.”
As opposed to certain schools of thought, Brant is something less than a dogmatist about form, body motion, stiff wrists, ten o’clock and two o’clock. “Some of the greatest fly casters in the world, the Mel Kriegers and Lefty Krehs and Joan Wulffs of the world, if you only watch their body positions, their hand and arm movements as they cast, you see that they have wildly different styles. They all have in common extraordinary loop control, sure, but they achieve it in different ways.”
Rather than the clock face, Brant prefers to talk about the straight-line path. “In order to get good loop control in the casting motion, the tip needs to go through something like a straight line. As you load the rod, you want to create enough bend such that rather than seeing an arcing path with the tip, you get a straight line. And then as you stop the rod, you create the unrolling loop. If the caster can visualize a straight-line path, then the mechanical stuff falls into place.”
In addition to the straight-line path, Brant is also an advocate for the simple notion of enjoying yourself, of having fun. “Mel always said, one of the most important things you can give your students is to instill in them a sense of enjoyment. Floating down the Yellowstone, it may be that fish aren’t eating my hopper, but if I can get that hopper in that one small spot where they might eat it, if I can challenge myself and rise to that challenge, man, now that’s fun.”
Fly fishing, of course, should be fun, but the sport nevertheless seems to attract its share of unpleasant overtones. At heart a solitary endeavor, it somehow lends itself to scorekeeping (the most and the biggest). The failures are rationalized away — “I just like getting outside, nice day like today, yeah?”— while the successes are taken in stride as just desserts.
But if you can separate the cast as a distinct element, set it aside and consider it as you might consider the next drive down the fairway, the next run down the ski hill, then no matter your past failures, each new stretch of water wipes the slate clean. If the cast is largely an end in itself, then you can look at the rod leaning in the corner and see it for its own virtues. It becomes a piano waiting for music. There’s all that potential energy, a muscle car’s worth of rev, just begging you to take it out for a spin. And all it needs from you? A good straight-line path.
FLY CASTING AROUND MONTANA
Find your go-to guide from this short-list of highly-qualified instructors throughout the state. These are but a few of the many in the region…
Bruce Richards: Bozeman-based casting instructor Bruce Richards offers individual and small group instruction for beginners to competitive fly casters. He also utilizes electronic analysis. He specializes in training fly casting instructors, and also does fly casting presentations and demos.
Dixon Adventures: In Florence this family-owned business is operated by Jay and Deb Dixon, Dixon Adventures offers fly fishing classes for beginners, intermediates and experts. They also offer a guide school and a class on boat rowing.
The Rivers’ Edge: The River’s Edge fly shop, based out of Bozeman, offers a variety of classes and instruction. Their “Basic Fly Casting Instruction” or “Casting Tune-Up” is available by appointment, and limited to four participants per session.
Yellowstone Fly Fishing School: The three instructors for the Yellowstone Fly Fishing School — Molly Seminik, Matt Wilhelm and Bill Toone — are all Master Casting Instructors certified by the Federation of Fly Fishers and are based out of Livingston.
The Bozeman Angler: The Bozeman Angler’s “Fly Fishing 101” classes (the head instructor is Brant Oswald) are offered on the second Saturday of every month from May through September. From choosing tackle and equipment to knot tying and casting, all the basics are covered. Most classes fill fast, so early booking is encouraged.
406.587.9111 or 800.886.9111
Montana Fishing Guide School: Based in Bozeman and Helena, for its inaugural year the Montana Fishing Guide School is offering two, seven-day sessions, in early March and early April. Students will learn knot tying, boat rowing, and river safety (as well as, of course, casting). There are also courses that will discuss the business side of guiding.
CrossCurrents: Based in Helena and Craig, Montana, CrossCurrents offers three-day schools from April to August. In addition to casting instruction, these schools also cover fly tying, knots, entomology and more.
Bob Jacklin: A Master Casting Instructor certified by the Federation of Fly Fishers, Bob Jacklin offers free summer casting clinics at his fly shop in West Yellowstone. He’s also available during the latter part of the year for other appearances.
Jacklin’s Fly Shop
Editor’s Note: In addition to the above resources, the Federation of Fly Fishers maintains a casting certification program, and offers an invaluable database by which interested fly fishermen can search by region for qualified instructors who have completed the FFF certification. For more information, go to: www.fedflyfishers.org/Resources/Locate/CastingInstructors.aspx.