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Elliptical Fly Casting

What oval (elliptical) fly casting is all about?

In the Unites States oval casting is known as Belgian Casting. It was only by accident that the Americans started to call it that way. Despite of that it is definitely the wrong term, because this way of casting was originally created and spread throughout Europe by late Hans Gebetsroither from Gmunden in Austria. He created this style during his time as a river keeper and guide at the famous Gmundner Traun (River Traun below Traun Lake in Upper Austria) in the 1930ies. He had to dry and grease the silk lines of his clients every night and found it easier and faster to do it by casting them in an oval. After the World War II he began teaching this style to one of his famous clients. The Irish Dr. Briscoe asked him to teach him, because he realized that Hans Gebetsroither was doing something completely new. Hans Gebetsroither, the simple shoemaker, river keeper and guide was a little bit ashamed because he was only used to serve the rich and well known, but now he was asked to teach them. He took the chance and within the following years he became well known throughout Europe. He created a new fly casting stile. In the next decades up to his death in 1986 thousands of people from all over the world learned from him. Famous fly fishers like Charles Ritz were among his students. A lot of people think Gebetsroither did not really know what the real advantage of his style was and he was definitely not the one to explain biomechanically why to do what and what for. He knew that his style had great advantages. He knew how to perform it from his intuition and he could tell everyone how it had to be done. Everyone admired him because of his modesty and he became kind of a legend in the Alpine countries in Europe. 

A sculpture in front of the Hotel Marienbrücke in Gmunden(A), where he taught, still remembers of this unique man. His style became the major fly casting style in the European Alps. In fact in Europe nobody talks about a Belgian Cast. It is high time that this fly fishing term is to be replaced in the USA by Gebetsroither Style or Austrian Style as it is called in Europe to give credit to its inventor.

Why is the Gebetsroither or Austrian Style known as Belgian Style in the States?

Read the statement of Guido Vinck from Belgium, EFFA Flycasting Board member and former fly casting world champion, on how it came that the Gebetsroither Style is called Belgian Cast in the USA:

"Albert Goddart was born in the town Bouillon (south of Belgium - Ardennes) just before world war one. After world war two he became a well know caster and fished a lot of times together with Hans Gebetsroiter and Charles Ritz (so he could learn the Gebetsroither style). At that time Goddart was one of the best flycasters in the world and was more or less sponsored by Hardy. I never met him because he died in the early sixties but met a lot of people who knew him. In the early fifties the first international (official) casting championships (CIPS) started and the world cahmpionships in Brussels in 1958 was his moment of glory where he won a silver medal. During this period he met a lot of Americans and visited also the USA. There he demonstrated the Gebetsroither style, that's why the Americans call it the Belgian Style."

The Pros of the Gebetsroither Style

After a short excursion into the history of this style I want to add some more information and give you some more reasons why in my opinion this style is that useful and important:

  1. the tension of the line is felt constantly (permanent line control) – no loss of control at the stops – therefore very easy to learn
  2. round movements are more harmonic than straight movements – no extreme breaks at the stops – better drift
  3. only one style for most of the situations - no change of the basic technique necessary (basic cast, roll cast, switch cast can all be performed with the same basic technique - no style switching!
  4. fits perfectly to the lighter and shorter tackle that is now available everywhere
  5. pointer on top grip enables you to do a long casting stroke and to cast very accurate
  6. as you cast in a 45° sideways position you can feel save what “self hooking” is concerned
  7. shoulder muscles are stronger - therefore shoulder joint (ball joint) is the main joint used for this technique.

Elliptic casting – only a European development?

Elliptic casting is not only but mainly a European domain. There are of course American fly casters like Lefty Kreh who recognized this technique to be very useful, too. Lefty Kreh for example has a perfect technique for saltwater fly fishing. He works with the oval too, although the reason for using it in his casting is another one (getting under the nasty wind). Hans Gebetsroither’s main intention was to aim a high back cast because of bushes in the back similar to Charles Ritzs’ High Speed High Line technique.

The main thing that made this style possible was the change in rod length. Hans Gebetsroither simply cut all split cane rods (he was a good split cane rod builder) down to 6-7 feet. A shorter rod (and therefore lighter tackle) made it of course easier to cast elliptically.
The same did late Lee Wulff in the States. If you look at some of his first fly fishing films taken in the Rocky Mountains you can see him casting nearly in the same way as Gebetsroither did (not always but in a lot of situations). The short rods (he was the first to catch salmon on dries with short single hand rods) he used made this possible. The development in the States and Europe what these two fly fishing capacities are concerned was a parallel one in another way too. The elliptic movement in combination with the use of light and short tackle favourized the pointer on top grip, because it is the natural grip in the 45° sideways rod position. While Hans Gebetsroither put only the pointer on top, Lee Wulff (pict. 1 and pict. 2) used the pointer on top with the thumb placed besides it like Hebeisen did first in Europe.

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pict. 1

pict. 2

pointer on top grip

While Hans Gebetsroither was mainly fishing for trout and grayling at his home rivers he worked only with his oval casting style and made it popular by optimizing his teaching. Lee Wulff on the other hand was an “allrounder” who fished for trout, bass, tarpon, sailfish, marlin, steelhead, salmon and lots of other species. Therefore he had to use heavier tackle, too, which made it necessary to change the grip and the way of casting (his pointer was often not strong enough). The matter of fact that he used different techniques and also that he was more a fly fisherman whose aim was to fish all waters for all species than a fly casting instructor was in my opinion the reason why the oval casting technique became not that popular in the States in former times. With today’s tackle (light, change of grip form) everyone can use this technique at least for trout fishing.

It is good to see this great casting style now being spread widely or at least discussed in a more open way. Of course there are also arguments against the oval casting(e.g. waste of energy flow), but do not forget that it is a fly fishing technique and was not created for long casts at casting championships. In fishing you often have to agree to a compromise. As soon as you cast big streamers or heavy nymphs you have to adapt to the situation. Right? The oval casting allows you to use the style for all sorts of fishing especially in fast running water. Gebetsroither used a high stop and a relatively narrow casting angle because he was not opening the wrist at all. "The rod ends at the elbow!", is one of his famous quotations. This narrow angle leads to the loading of the tip only and contributes of course to the casting of narrow loops. This was not a problem, on the contrary, as Gebetsroither was a dry fly fisher and an opponent to nymph fishing.

So Hans Gebetsroither was loading the rod mainly by the use of his line hand and an effective double haul. Softer rods with more sensitive tips made it impossible to perform his style well as their tips were continiously overloaded and ... sometimes broke. This was the reason why Gebetsroither shortened the rods of his clients especially from the tip.

As I do use a lot of wrist due to my favour for nymph fishing I had to adapt the Gebetsroither Technique to my needs. Long Magic Switches as well as Underhand Casts bend the rod from the bottom to the top so a narrow angle is not desired. The main element - the use of the shoulder as the main casting joint - stays and the oval casting is of course part of all water casts (my term for all casts with water born anchors).

In consequence my casting is a mixture of the two main styles plus some personal input but I use the main elements of the Austrian Technique in a lot of situations when fishing running water. Don't just discuss, try it!

Copyright © Günter Feuerstein