Whenever a beginner asks for help in learning how to use a baitcasting outfit, everybody says "Practice, practice, practice!” But while practice cannot be overemphasised, if you don't know where to start, all you're doing is getting more and more frustrated. Trial and error may be OK for some people, but I think making all the possible errors before you figure out the right way to do it really stinks! I just hope the following material can help cut down the amount of time required to learn to use a baitcaster and maybe save a few reels from a watery grave.
I have a definite conservative bias as far as learning to cast is concerned: It's been my experience that if you start at the very bottom of the learning curve and try to master only one thing at a time your progress is faster and you run into less aggravation along the way.
A – INITIAL REEL ADJUSTMENTS:
These adjustments will NOT give you any kind of distance, but will just about prevent any kind of backlash if you keep your casts smooth and easy. Forget about using your thumb to control the cast for the time being, it shouldn’t be needed if you follow the instructions faithfully.
1 - Adjust the reel spool tension (using the small round knob on the handle side):
For now, tighten it to the point where you need to jiggle the rod slightly for the lure/weight to drop some, but without continuing all the way to the ground. (This is tighter than usually recommended, but the goal at this point is CONTROL, not distance)
2 - Adjust the brakes:
a. If your reel uses magnetic brakes: Use the adjustment wheel on the side of the reel opposite to the handle and use about 75-80% of the braking force available.
b. If your reel uses adjustable centrifugal brakes: Most reels require (part of) the side of the reel opposite the handle to be taken off to access the centrifugal brake "flower" on the end of the spool spindle. Pull four of the six tiny sliding blocks in the OUT position (away from the center) to turn them ON. The blocks usually "click" out of the locked/off position.
c. The Shimano Scorpions are a special case of adjustable centrifugals:
When you twist the side plate open, the most immediately visible thing is a set of three brakes in the typical radial pattern of centrifugals (identified as A). These three are the ones that you adjust manually to establish your basic braking range; you can use 0,1,2 or 3 blocks, for 4 possibilities. Block locked towards the center = OFF (A2); block unlocked so it can move towards the outside = ON (A1), just like the regular Curados. If you look carefully, you’ll see the tips of a second set of braking blocks sitting just behind the first set (identified as B). That’s the set that’s controlled by turning the outside knob. Use them to fine tune the basic braking range you selected above. Again, you have four possibilities, for a total of sixteen braking combinations.
d. ABU "C" series reels come with two centrifugal brakes that are not easily accessible and have to be removed and/or replaced with different weight brakes for adjustment. This is a special case where you'll be relying on the spool tension for adjustments instead of the brakes in everyday fishing.
e. Special cases of centrifugal adjustments:
Some ABUs use "flying arms" in place of the tiny blocks, but the principle for adjusting them is the same: the more “arms” are free to move, the larger the amount of braking that gets applied. Some reels (Quantum ACS II, for instance) use centrifugal brakes that may be adjusted from the outside in the same way as reels using magnetic brakes. There are also a few reels (some ABUs and Pinnacles) that use a combination of centrifugal and magnetic brakes where the adjustments are mainly made using the magnetic brakes.
B - YOUR FIRST OVERHEAD CAST:
Put on at least a ½ oz. casting plug (or equivalent). This will give you more of a feel of the rod and reel interaction and make everything easier. Keep the plug/lure snug against the tip of the rod – don’t let it hang down at all at this time.
Hold the rod horizontally in front of you. The handles should be on top of the reel, that is, pointing UP if you're right-handed (using a right-handed reel). This is similar to the way you would hold a tennis racket and gives the widest possible range of movement to your wrist.
Holding the reel
With your thumb applying pressure directly on the spool, unlock it, using whatever mechanism is used (thumb bar, pushbutton, etc.). The pressure of your thumb against the spool is what's preventing it from moving at this point.
Thumb bar spool release Pushbutton spool release
Bring the rod up over your shoulder to approximately the 2 o'clock position. Your upper arm should barely move for this; use your forearm and your wrist.
Now bring the rod forward as if you were trying to hammer a nail in a wall in front of you, but use a smooth motion; this is NOT the time for forceful movements! As the rod reaches the 12 o'clock position, take your thumb off the spool, thus releasing it to feed line out as the casting weight flies out... and falls far short of what you were hoping for.
Don't worry, this is to be expected... at least you didn't get a backlash!
C - EDUCATING YOUR THUMB AND INCREASING YOUR DISTANCE:
After you've practiced using the suggested adjustments and get a good feel of things, you will gradually be able to reduce the amount of tension and braking force, as you simultaneously "educate" your thumb.
This great article by Andy Galwey covers the thumb education process much better than I could do, so check it out: http://www.bassackwords.com/content/view/86/5/
Note: this article also contains plenty of other excellent advice for beginners as well as more advanced anglers.
As you'll see, the thumb's actually used only at the very end of the cast, just when the lure is about to hit the water. This is as it should be (in my opinion, using your thumb for anything but very lightly feathering of the spool at any other point only cuts down on your distance and isn't the best way to maintain control over the cast; that's what brakes are for). After a while, you can stop the spool turning just as the lure hits the water and you don't take any distance away from the cast. As you educate your thumb, you can cut down on the spool tension until it's almost completely off, leaving just enough to prevent the spool from moving side to side.
As you get comfortable with short casts, you can gradually reduce the amount of braking force (see section A-2 above) and achieve more distance, as required. Just remember, a SMOOTH, FLUID cast is what you want, except for rare circumstances.
You’ll also learn not to pause at the 2:00 o’clock position but time your movement to just let the rod tip “load” with the weight of the lure before you bring it forward. This way, you’re using the rod’s stored energy to make the cast, rather than your arm. Again, smooth and fluid are the keys.
Since you’re not stopping in the middle of the cast anymore, you can now let your lure dangle by a few inches from the tip, making it easier to load the rod and storing even more energy to be used for your actual cast (forward). Note: If you try this before you learn not to pause on the backcast, your lure will do all it can to snag your rod and make sure you get zero distance and a nice fat bird’s nest!
Advanced anglers will probably point out that I pay too much attention to distance and didn’t even mention accuracy. I’ve observed that beginners are much more concerned with distance than accuracy at first. This is particularly true if they’ve been using spinning tackle before. So this apparent neglect is purely strategic: once beginners achieve what they consider to be a reasonable distance, they’ll naturally change their focus to accuracy. Nothing like getting hung up and repeatedly missing your target to provide the motivation!
Finally, if you can master the basic cast, and achieve both control and comfort, then it truly becomes a matter of PRACTICE, PRACTICE and more PRACTICE for both distance, accuracy and versatility.
Ye Olde Fishingelbow