Bob Christmann: How to Fly Fish With a Problematic Back

I’m very grateful to Bob Christmann for offering to write this guest blog post. It is a topic many of us face today and all of us will face at some point.


As you get older, you find out that some body parts just don’t work as well as they used to.

When I was younger, I could go all-day and night fishing and have energy to spare. Nothing seemed to stop me. In fact, my brother dubbed me “The Energizer Bunny.” I could backpack eight miles into areas out West with a full 40-lb. pack and be raring to hit the river the next day.

The love of the sport has never left me, but The Bunny is now long gone, and I have had to adapt to a new reality to keep the fun coming.

I have long battled muscle spasms and back tightness. And, this has often kept me frustratingly off the river. It’s challenging enough when the fish aren’t cooperating with you, but when the back starts acting up, it becomes doubly challenging.

But, just as there are strategies to deal with fish that don’t particularly want to play with you, so too are there things you can do to help keep the back from making you call it quits for the day.

Here are some of the things that I’ve found helpful.

First and most important is the use of heat to keep the back muscles loose throughout the day. Standing a lot on uneven terrain, and the motion of casting all day,  can put a lot of stress on the back. I have found Thermacare Heat Wraps (link here) to be highly effective. They can be found in many stores. They’re especially nice to wear on cold days.

Once opened, the air-activated discs begin a reaction that delivers gentle heat for up to eight hours, keeping muscles nice and loose. It’s like wearing a heating pad all day (without the need for an extremely long extension cord).

You can position it anywhere there is a problem area, high or low. It has a Velcro fastener to keep it in place, and I also safety pin it. I put it on directly against the skin before I head out for the day.

Second, I wear a wrap-around back brace like you often see workers at Home Depot wearing. It has Velcro fastening and is elastic, so you can cinch it as tight as needed. It’s like having a giant hand gripping you, keeping everything well-supported. Wear it over your shirt or directly over the Thermacare.

I’ve found the ones that Ace Hardware sells to be the best quality and longest lasting. I cut the shoulder straps off, as they aren’t needed and just get in the way. It’s a life saver, even for mundane tasks like working around the yard and house when the river must be put on hold.

Third, consider how you are casting. I often watch people fully engaging their casting arm way back and forth, even sometimes swaying their torso back and forth as doing so. This is poor form, unnecessary, and puts undue stress directly transferred to the back.

Yes, there are times when the arm must be fully extended when making a very long cast or while double-hauling. But, this is the exception more than the rule.

You can effectively cast by keeping your upper arm mainly stationary by your side and engaging only your forearm and wrist to get the line out. Use slow, easy controlled back and forward cast motions to gently place the line where you want with little stress transferred to the back or shoulder.

If you don’t regularly cast this way, try it. You will be surprised at how accurately and far you can actually cast. It’s simple-and-relaxed line and rod control. Combine this with careful wading close to where you want to cast to, and you can cover most of the water easily enough. No need to beat yourself up.

Fourth, there are some stretches you can do right by the river if things start tightening up without even having to remove much gear.

For the low back, lay on your back and pull both knees up to your chest. You can get an even better stretch by moving your knees side to side but keeping back flat on the ground.

For the upper back, sit on the ground with knees pulled up, hook the inside of your elbow on the right arm over your left knee, then move the knee away from your body and feel the stretch. Then, reverse sides.

I also have found a small round rock along the bank and laid back down on it, letting it push into that one tight spot as a trigger point method to help work the spot loose. Stay there until you can feel the spot loosen up. But, you probably don’t want anyone seeing you do this. They might think you’re dead!

You can also press back up against a tree, working the tight muscles like a bear marking it’s scent. Let your surroundings be your own personal massage therapist. Note that a regular routine of stretching at home is really helpful.

Fifth, use a wading staff and spikes screwed into your boots. These greatly help to prevent that jarring slip that can wrench something real quick. Both are especially helpful on rivers that have very slippery rocks like the Deerfield.

Goat Head spikes work well, last a long time, and don’t work loose when screwed in with some superglue (link here).

There are many hiking poles available that are adjustable to your height. Get one with a pointed steel end that will knife through the water easily and a loop to secure it to you. (Editor’s note: here is one that floats, too.)

I carabiner-clip mine to my wading belt with a magnetic keeper and coiled cord. It pulls away easily, stays secured closely, and just drags behind until ready to use. The point digs through any weed or slime without any slipping and sets solidly onto any rock.

When standing in the river among rocks, I always find a spot where both feet can be level with each other. When one foot is on a higher rock, this can result in an imbalance to the pelvis,  which in turn can upset the whole apple cart.

Carry some Tylenol or ibuprofen. But, I caution against anything stronger (if you know what I mean) that can cause balance issues and slow reaction times. You need all your wits about you as you stumble around slippery rocks and strong currents.

This is at least what works for me. Hope this helps!

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5 thoughts on “Bob Christmann: How to Fly Fish With a Problematic Back

  1. My name is Chad from Fishriverlodge.com. I’d love to submit a post for publishing on Blog Fly Fish

    Are you still accepting them?

    Let me know what you think and I’d be happy to get started right away.

    Regards.

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