Monday, September 3, 2012

The Tao of Spey: A Workshop with a Master, Al Buhr

H: 13 from across the Northeast came to practice at Al Buhr and Jim Valle's makeshift temple of Spey on the Jersey shore: 4 CIs (casting instructors), 3 MCIs (master casting instructors), several veteran fresh and saltwater flyfishermen, plus 1 flygirl (yours truly ;). A few sought blessings before their THCI (Two-Handed Casting Instructor) exams. All came in search of enlightenment from a man who can only be described as a Master of Spey, Al Buhr ;).

It turns out there aren't very many THCIs in the world and just 1 resides on the northeast coast of the U.S.: Jim Valle. I had the pleasure of meeting Jim at the Salty Flyrodder's Conclave earlier this summer. I was on a mission to improve my spey casting in preparation for my first steelhead trip. Somehow, Jim (with an assist from easterncaster :) persuaded me to sign up for this 2-day workshop with his mentor, west coast spey guru, Al Buhr. Unfortunately, the workshop would be after my steelhead trip to the PNW. Looking back, I have no regrets. Well, maybe just one—that I was hesitant and self-conscious, rather than grabbing hold of this amazing opportunity forcefully with both hands—This is MY ROD!

The first evening, I sat in on an optional THCI practice test review for 3 workshop members preparing for their certification through the FFF. I went purely out of curiosity, to observe. But I soon found myself wondering, what the hell am I doing here? More than half of the workshop participants were CIs or MCIs (casting instructors or master casting instructors). Then there was me—the only woman (what else is new), a flygirl with barely 3 year's fly fishing experience under her belt, who's been struggling with the fundamentals of spey casting for the past 4 months. Needless to say, I felt inadequate and completely out of my league. As I drove back to my motel I was determined to start the next day with a clear unfettered mind.

I met the rest of our group at 6:30 the following morning during breakfast. Jim had asked for brief bios from all us beforehand. He went around and introduced everyone—several artists and designers, a professor, a teacher, an electrician, fly fishing guides, and instructors. After breakfast, we drove to nearby Wreck pond, our dojo for the next two days. Our first morning was devoted to fundamentals and we began with the overhead cast. After a short demo, we spread out to practice. Of course I walked as far away from the center of the group as possible, to the outskirts of the pond.

Al and Jim went from person to person, spending time with each of us to address our specific needs and questions. I thought I was overhead casting my switch rod decently–loops were reasonably tight and uniform. But Master Buhr must have seen something else. He gently grabbed hold of both my hands and led me through the steps of a circular spey dance. We started going through the motions of an elliptical (oval) overhead cast.

Al Buhr teaching me (Hyun) the circular movements of spey casting
Dancing with the Master of Spey, Al Buhr. Photo courtesy of P. Kolesar.

At first I was puzzled as to why he wanted to change my overhead casting style (was it really that bad?). But I decided to put my faith in him, attempting to mimic the motions, feel the rhythms, and put them to memory. To start, he wanted me to energize my lift, really own it. He asked me, "Who's rod is it?" I replied, "My rod!" as I pulled it authoritatively towards me against his resistance. As my dance partner and counterpart he demonstrated the pulls and pushes, ebbs and flows, actions and reactions in the elliptical cast. I realize now that he was starting to build the foundation of my spey casting.

After 2 hours of practice, 13 hopeful disciples reconvened to hear Master Buhr's sermon on the Constant Tension World of Spey (vs. the straight line world of single hand casting)—a world that is round (not flat), full of suggestion and flux (rather than commitment and stops), where one creates power, holds onto some of it, and contorts it (rather than creating it and then just letting it go). The Tao of Spey according to Master Al Buhr follows 3 basic rules: Rule #1: Effort and tempo are separate. Effort is the energy applied to move the line into key positions. Tempo is the pace at which the entire cast is done. A cast in the constant tension world consists of bursts of effort smoothed by tempo. Rule #2: Line follows the rod tip (that travels in the direction of momentum). This is the out of power state where we set the anchor or complete the forward cast. Rule #3: The rod is in one of two states—it's either IN power or OUT of power. Effort = IN power; Tempo = OUT of power. These rules are all interconnected and act together to make the constant tension world work.

Al Buhr explaining differences between the constant tension world of spey and the straight line world of conventional overhead casting

Al Buhr ready to demonstrate some spey casts
Master Buhr gives a whole new meaning to speak softly and carry a big stick ;).

I watched some great demos at Spey Nation two months ago, from several spey gurus including Simon Gawesworth and Topher Browne. But Al Buhr is on a different plane. He's part mad scientist/physicist, part poetic evangelist for the church of spey. Please excuse the overexuberance and over-the-top language employed by this smitten flygirl, but that's what passion inspires, and Al Buhr has a true passion for spey casting and for teaching it. He is the real thing! As you've probably surmised, I've developed a serious casting crush on Mr. Buhr. I'm positive most of the guys have, too (they're just not woman enough to admit to it ;).

Al Buhr showing how energy is held and contorted during a spey cast
Al Buhr, the magician, grabbing energy out of thin air :).
My first impression of Al Buhr: He's a big/tall man with a commanding presence. Yet he also came across as reserved, a private man (with a very dry, somewhat cryptic sense of humor :). He transforms when he's preaching the gospel of Spey ;). He's mesmerizing. Like a magician he reached out to grab energy out of thin air with his large hands, attempting to hold it and mold it to his will. He paced rhythmically back and forth, ready to spring into action, as he described how spey casting is based on bursts of power moderated by tempo.

He then used a 90 degree change of direction figure 8 cast to visually (+ vocally ;) illustrate the tenets of his constant tension world. Lift and pull hard (grunt! power up); sweep the rod (in tempo) towards the direction of anchor placement (line follows the rod tip); aim it then backoff (power off); circle up to form your D-loop (grunt! back IN power) then make the forward cast.

Al Buhr demonstrating the figure 8 spey cast to show use of power and tempo in spey casting
Al Buhr using the figure 8 cast to illustrate the principles of being In Power and Out of Power.

Inspired by Master Buhr's sermon, we spread out to practice both switch and 20 degree single spey casts, attempting to regulate our power and smooth it with tempo. I decided I wanted to cast with a real spey rod. Jim generously lent me his 14-foot, 9-weight TFO rod. It's a beast of a rod(!) but I felt I had a better feel for the moves using a bigger rod with a heavier line. As I practiced, I saw Master Buhr headed in my direction. I was curious what he had in store for me this time...

Well, we danced again at the waters edge, this time focusing on the forward stroke as well as the tempo. As we went through the movements of spey, circling up and pulling forward and down, Master Buhr started chanting (half-jokingly), "wax on, wax off..." But actually, that was exactly what I needed to do. I needed to wax the car (a whole fleet of cars!), then paint the fence, and sand the floor ;). My forward stroke is by far the weakest link in my casting stroke. Until it's corrected and the right technique ingrained in my muscle memory, my spey casting will always be sub par. So, I continued to wax on and off...

Throughout the day, Master Buhr made allusions to tai chi. The comparison is spot on. In tai chi, one attempts to harmonize the opposing forces of yin/yang, to use one against the other to reach harmony. In spey casting, the perfect cast is a harmony of effort and tempo, knowing when to apply power and when to back off. Martial arts comparisons are also fitting as it takes similar discipline (mental and physical) to master the techniques of spey casting. 

Jim Valle at Spey Workshop
The other spey master, Jim Valle, giving the group some great advice: Don't be afraid to experiment.

We broke for lunch then headed indoors to learn about spey line crafting. I was really looking forward to this (almost as much as the easterncaster :). I had done some research before purchasing my compact scandi versi-tip line for my switch rod and I was fortunate to be able to try it out on my rod before buying it. I think this is invaluable! (Thanks, Andrew). If your local fly shop doesn't support this practice then I would suggest you attend a spey clave where you'll have access to more rods and lines than you can hope to cast in a day. I had a basic understanding of the different types of spey lines, their pros and cons for different fishing applications, the importance of matching line grain weights to rod weights and action, etc., but never in my wildest ff dreams did I think I'd one day be customizing my own spey lines!

Al Buhr welding spey lines and loops
DO try this at home, if you want to be a serious line geek :)
Unfortunately, a few workshop members had no clue about spey lines so Mr. Buhr started with the basics. Before we knew it, time was almost up, so we rushed through the line crafting part. We watched Master (or should I say Dr. ;) Buhr surgically slice, dice, and splice together spey lines and weld new loops, using glues, shrink tubes, and fire... It was so much fun! (Honestly! :) I really wish we could have spent more time on it, tried it ourselves under the master's watchful eye, and learned more about why and when you would want to make these alterations. We each left with copies of Mr. Buhr's excellent books, How to Design Fly Lines, and Two-Handed Fly Casting: Spey Casting Techniques, a pamphlet on how to Practice to Improve, a tube of glue, and a whole new geek level of appreciation and understanding of spey fly lines ;).

By the end of the first day, I was exhausted, both mentally and physically, and a bit confused, reeling from all the information my overloaded brain was struggling to digest. After dinner with the guys, I drove back to my motel and immediately crashed. Never did get to turn on that 50+ inch flatscreen... I woke up late the next morning and rushed to the pond.

Originally, the second day was to be a fishing excursion to Sandy Hook. But the consensus of the group the day before had been to continue working on fundamentals at our dojo. We spent the day practicing a variety of casts including the snake roll and double spey, working towards mastering the principles of effort and tempo. All morning and into the afternoon, I worked on building my spey foundation cast by cast, repeating the key movements over and over again. I also tried to focus on using my whole body, especially the core muscles of the back, chest, and abdomen. Practicing with a bigger rod has made this more imperative. Eventually I found myself in better control of my power, using my top hand less and less, and getting into a good rhythm and flow. I sincerely believe that by day's end my cast was more solid, fluid, and consistent (well, except for my dreaded single spey ;). Thank you Master Buhr and Master Valle!

I've come a very long way these past several months. I've watched a lot of spey porn (some good, mostly bad) until my eyes glazed over. I've learned a great deal from some excellent casters and teachers (enough to catch my first steelhead last month in some pretty tough conditions), and now I've logged at least a whole week of actual spey fishing experience. But taking this workshop with Al Buhr has provided the missing key puzzle piece. It turns out there was a method to Master Buhr's madness. You need to lay down the foundation of a house before you can start putting up the walls. I had been trying to do both at the same time.

After 2 full days attending service at Al Buhr and Jim Valle's temple of Spey, 13 disciples left the Jersey shore armed with a wealth of newfound wisdom and techniques, well on the path to understanding the Tao of Spey. Ommm...... :)

Several disciples were staying another night due to long commutes back home (to Maine!) or to fish local waters the next morning. I stuck around for a bit to avoid the brunt of traffic back to NYC and I'm glad I did. Craig, like a proud father, brought out his babies—the angler's fly rod he had built and used to win a bronze at the ACAs last month, and a humongous (17 foot?), two-hand salmon fly distance rod (aka, the flagpole) which he adopted from a retiring ACA caster.

Al Buhr and Craig Buckbee casting two hand salmon fly distance rod
2 (not-so-serious) casting geeks: Craig Buckbee and Al Buhr.

Al Buhr casting two hand salmon fly distance rod with great success
The eagle has landed!

Most everyone took turns casting them. No surprise: Al Buhr can damn well cast anything in both the straight line and constant tension world. Master Valle did very well, too. He's now considering picking up competitive casting in the Senior's division ;). Needless to say, I did NOT want to cast in front of an audience but I eventually caved in. My curiosity won out over self-consciousness. It looked like so much fun!

Hyun Kounne casting two hand salmon fly distance rod
Flygirl casting a flagpole (This is crazy ridiculous! :) Photo courtesy of M. Gallart

Afterwards, we shared a few drinks before parting ways. Jim, ever the ambassador for the FFF, planted a seed, suggesting I consider becoming a CI. I bet he does this with all his students. But the more I think about, the more it intrigues me...


  1. Looking forward to reading about (or hearing) your experience, easterncaster :)

  2. Perfect time to learn this new stuff. Good for you!