Spey casting is a traditional Scottish style of fly casting which utilizes long two-handed rods. Dating back to the 18th century, the original rods from the River Spey measured 16 to 20 feet long. However, modern Spey rods now range from 16 to 11 feet with an average around 13 feet or so.
While two-handed rods can be used for over-head casting, most anglers are using them with both traditional and modern Spey casting techniques. Similar to a roll cast, Spey casting utilizes water tension to load the rod. With that said, roll casting doesn’t allow the angler to change casting direction efficiently. However, Spey casts allow the angler to change casting direction with total efficiency. There are numerous different Spey casts which allow the angler to easily present their fly despite the fishing conditions.
There are many reasons Spey casting has become the dominate style of casting on Salmon and steelhead rivers of all sizes. To begin with, two-handed casting allows the angler to cast with very little back-casting room, a huge attribute on many tree lined Salmon rivers. More so, the distance one can obtain with a Spey rod is incredible. In the game of Salmon fishing, covering lots of water is critical for success. Furthermore, the quick set-up and casting cycle allows Spey anglers to get way more casts in during the day when compared to single hand casting. When you’re fishing for a fish that takes 1000 casts, this is key. Plus, Spey casting uses the wind to help load the rod during the cast. On big, open rivers, it pays to work with the wind. Additionally, modern Spey lines allow anglers to fish any style of fly line with far less fatigue to the body.
More importantly though, the length of two-handed rods allows the angler to control the presentation of the fly. Steelhead fishing is a game of line control…. Finally, Spey casting is a blast! Salmon and Steelhead junkies spend a lot of time between fish. Having the distraction of learning a challenging skill only adds to the enjoyment of the sport. Short Belly Spey Lines (50 to 60 foot weight forward head section)
Most casters will find these lines the most comfortable and versatile for a wide range of fishing applications. These lines perform at their optimum when all or most of the belly is out the rod tip prior to making the cast. If the conditions require a longer cast, the caster must shoot extra shooting line to achieve distances longer than the head length. So, if you’re fishing a line with a 50 foot belly or “head” and need to reach that boulder 60 feet out, 10 feet of shooting line will be shot into the cast during the forward stroke. The extra shooting line must be stripped in before making the next cast. With that said, beginners and experts alike will appreciate how easy these lines load the rod well even on shorter casts. For beginners, this makes learning easier. For experts, it allows for good line control in tight casting conditions.
Most of the short head lines come in a multi-tip version. With a loop to loop connection, the front 15 feet of the floating line can be replaced with one of the numerous sink-tips supplied with the line. While this gives the angler versatility, the line is limited to casting only moderate density sink-tips and medium size flies. If you’re planning on using your line for heavy sink-tip work and big heavy flies, check out the Skagit head lines.
Long Belly Spey Lines (60 to 90 foot weight forward head section)
Many anglers like long belly lines for the incredible casting distances which can be achieved. More so, little to no stripping of extra shooting line is required for long casts. However, these lines have their disadvantages. To begin with, if the caster has 80 feet of fly line out the rod tip at the beginning of the cast, substantial back casting room is required for your D-loop or backcast. More so, casting 80 feet of line takes more energy from the caster to move. Thus, the casting stroke is longer and requires more physical effort. This can fatigue the caster over a long day of fishing. Finally, casting sink-tips on long belly lines could be labeled as “cruel and unusual punishment”. Bottom line, long belly lines are great if you fish floating lines on big rivers with lots of casting room.
Skagit Head Spey Lines (25 to 40 foot shooting head)
Skagit heads have revolutionized sink-tip fishing with two-handed rods. They have made fishing sink-tips and heavy flies easier, more effective, and more fun. If you look at the tackle suggestions of the guides involved with this website, every one of them is using Skagit lines with their clients for sink-tip work. A Skagit head consists of a sink-tip, a short, thick diameter floating body, and a running line. (Although these lines where designed for sink-tips, some anglers are also using floating tips for surface presentations.) Most of the heads are looped to a separate running line giving the angler a choice in the material of the shooting line. (See running lines below)
The basic principal behind the Skagit head is the condensed mass of the floating body equates to easier turn over of the sink-tip and fly. More so, if the rod has the right weight fly line, the caster will feel even a fast action rod load well into the butt section of the rod. This allows for a nice, easy casting stroke with minimal effort. To cast the system, the back end of the floating body (where it loops to the running line) must be 1′ to 3′ outside of the rod tip before the cast is made. Typical fishing conditions require a longer cast than the overall combined length of the head and sink-tip, thus the caster must shoot line to achieve the desired distance. This line has been criticized because you need to strip in a good amount of running line to make a long cast. What these critics don’t realize is by stripping in, the fly and sink-tip raise in the water column. Because the fly and sink-tip are near the surface and closer to the caster, it’s easier to lift the business end out of the water for the set up of the next cast. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to have a steelhead grab the fly on the strip in. Bonus! If your fishing conditions require fishing sink-tips and big flies, do yourself a favor… Try one of these lines.
Scandinavian Shooting Heads (28 to 40 foot shooting head)
Scandinavian shooting heads are the European counterpart to the US. Designed Skagit heads. However, these lines offer a more delicate presentation though don’t perform well with massive flies. Like Skagit heads, “Scandi heads” are looped to a separate running line. Additionally, the short head requires shooting running line to achieve casting distances longer than the head length.
“Scandi” heads come in a variety of densities ranging from floating to super fast full sink. For steelhead, the floating heads are the most applicable although the full sink versions are becoming more popular especially in the Great Lakes. The element that separates Scandinavian heads from all other Spey lines is the leader and fly create all of the line tension which loads the rod. In other words, when the D-loop is fully formed behind the caster, the leader and fly are the only thing touching the water when the forward cast begins. With that said, this system requires a long leader typically one to two times the rod length. A good rule of thumb is the faster the rod, the longer the leader. Traditionally, these heads where cast on very fast action rods. This makes sense when you consider these lines where originally designed for Atlantic Salmon. Salmon anglers are more concerned with the middle of the river, not the softer insides where steelhead often rest. Most steelheaders prefer a little slower rod as they can expect better performance in the short game and tight casting conditions. Consequently, a shorter leader (1 x rod length) can be used as the slower action rods don’t require as much line tension to load as a faster action rod. Most anglers will prefer a 10′ to 14′ “Poly Leader” with additional tippet over a traditional extruded leader for Scandinavian heads. The poly leader creates more load in the rod and better turnover of the fly. Furthermore, Poly leaders come in a variety of densities ranging from floating to super fast sink. While these sinking leaders are NOT a full blown sink-tip, they will get the fly 1′ to 2′ down in the water column.
The advantage of a Scandinavian Head is the efficiency of the stroke. If you’re doing it right, long, graceful casts are effortless. Although the learning curve is a little steeper than a short belly Spey line, ultimately the caster can make longer casts with less work in tighter casting conditions.
Buying the Right Spey Rod
If you had to choose just one “do everything” two-handed rod, it would more than likely be a seven weight. With that said, there are a few things to consider when purchasing your next Spey rod.
To begin with, how big are the fish you intent to chase? A seven weight will easily handle steelhead in the 8 to 14 pound range. Matched with the proper line, a seven can handle anything from floating lines to sink-tips. However, if you plan on fishing rivers with large steelhead, you’ll be under-gunned with a seven weight. On some rivers, hooking a 15 to 20 pound fish is an everyday reality. You’d be better off using an eight or nine weight rod. Furthermore, if your faced with fishing conditions that require throwing heavy sink-tips and big flies, an eight or nine makes it easier.
The length of a rod equates to casting distance. Simply put, the longer the rod, the longer the cast. The shorter the rod, the more finesse it tight casting conditions.
A good all around length is 13′ to 13’6. This will allow the caster to reach a lot of water without fatigue over a long day of fishing. However, there are times where a longer or shorter rod comes in handy. For example, if you primarily fish large rivers that require monster casts, a fourteen to sixteen rod is the tool of choice. A 11′ to 12’6 rod makes life a whole lot easier when you’re limited on space. When selecting your next rod, base your decision on the rivers you indent to use it on the most.
Action can be best described by how deep the rod flexes during a cast. A slow action rod bends well into the butt section during the casting stroke. This allows the caster to really feel the rod load. A slower action stick is great for casting with limited back casting space because the rod loads with minimal D-loop or back cast speed. The disadvantage is you can not generate as fast of line speed as a quicker action rod. Furthermore, it is more difficult to lift heavy sink-tips and large flies out of the water. With that said, some hard core Skagit casting gurus, loves full flexing rods like the Dredger series from G.Loomis for casting heavy tips and big flies. You just need to take your time with slower action two-handers.
A medium action rod will suite most average casters the best. The caster can still feel the rod load with a medium action, while faster line speeds can be obtained. The Sage Z-Axis series, the Winston BIIx series, and the Burkhiemer Classics are all good examples of medium action Spey rods. Medium action rods will handle a wide range of casting strokes and line types.
Fast action rods are for the angler that demands high line speed from their weapon. Good examples of fast action Spey rods would be the Echo2 series and the Sage TCR series. These rods really shine with shooting taper style lines. While most folks will struggle with a fast rod, expert casters can command the water with one. That isn’t to say that all experts use fast rods. More times than not, most advanced casters still lean towards a medium to medium fast sticks.
Obviously, action preference is a personal choice. There is no right or wrong, only what fits your casting stroke and fishing demands the best.
Choosing The Right Running Line For Shooting Heads…
If you choose to fish a Skagit or Scandinavian shooting head, you will need a running line. The running line attaches to the rear end of the shooting head, and allows the caster to shoot the head a long distance. To be clear, this is not backing. Running lines are made out of numerous different materials. Like all fly line, each material has it’s strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few things to consider when purchasing your running line.
Extruded Plastic or Polyurethane Running Lines
Extruded running lines are the easiest running lines to handle and the best all around choice for beginners. They typically have a core strength of 20 to 30 pounds with translates to diameters of .024′ to .039″. The disadvantage to extruded running lines is the coating of the line is formulated to perform within a certain temperature window. To elaborate, the line may cast beautifully in spring conditions when the water temps. are 55 degrees Fahrenheit and the air temps. are 70 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the line may become sticky in mid summer conditions when both water and air temps. can be considerably warmer. On the flip side, the same line could feel stiff and retain memory in extreme cold fishing conditions. Bottom line, expect these lines to change properties as the weather changes.
Braided Running Lines
Unlike extruded running lines, braided running lines do not change properties with air and water temperature. Braids shoot faster than extruded lines and tend to tangle less. More so, the material floats well requiring the caster to hold less loops for shooting. The downside is the texture is a little rougher on the hand (mostly those of trout fisherman), and due to it’s slickness, it is more difficult to hang on to during the cast. Some folks have concerns about the braid damaging the snake guides on their rods. In our experience, we have never found this claim true.
Mono Running Lines
Mono is the least popular running line material of the group. Primarily because it tangles the easiest and is the most difficult to hang on to during the cast. With that said, if you take the time to stretch it out, it shoots faster and farther than any of the other materials. It’s biggest attribute becomes apparent in cold weather fishing. Both Braids and extruded lines carry a lot of water as you strip them in to make your next cast. The water collects as ice in the guides and can freeze your running line right to the rod. Winter anglers will find this line to work the best in below freezing temperatures.