A Beginner's Guide to Spey Fishing

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A Beginner's Guide to Spey Fishing for Steelhead and Salmon

a drawing of salmon angler, writer George Kelson, 1884.

Any discussion of fly fishing has the capacity to bring dogmas and instant experts to the forefront. The ideas printed here are backed up by supervising 19 Annual Sandy River Spey Claves. The ideas expressed here are a general consensus of the experts who presented their ideas at those events. When it comes to Spey casting there are a wide range of techniques to make it look pretty. That being said, "If you have a grin on your face, you are probably doing it right". If the grin is from a fish pulling on the line you cast to hook him, you are definitely doing it right.
Two-Hand fly rods come in two types; those designed for over head casting and those designed specifically for change of direction roll casting, ie. Spey Casting.
The first type is called an "Overhead Rod". The Beulah Opal Surf Rods are perfect examples. They incorporate a very fast taper and a stiff butt. This design excels when fishing wide-open water where there is plenty of room for a fully extended back-cast. Shooting head fly lines are most often employed. This type of rod is rarely used for anadromous fish, such as salmon and steelhead.
The second type is commonly called a "Spey Rod". These rods are designed with more moderate actions to facilitate timing and loading during Spey casting. Since our river banks are usually vegetated to the shoreline, Spey Rods, and Spey Casting have become very popular in here (Pacific Northwest, USA). 

In the beginning, a fishing rod was a stick with a line attached to the end of it. The line was approximately the same length as the rod. Longer rods enabled a fisherman to cover more water. This kind of setup was available when the first descriptions of fly tackle were written in the English language in the late 1400's. Fly reels were made available to English speaking people in the late 1700's or early 1800's and the longer fishing lines they carried allowed anglers to land larger fish. By the late 1800's anglers (such as George Kelson pictured above) were in pursuit of Atlantic salmon in the British Isles. By then fly rods, reels and fly lines had been developed to the degree that anglers could cast lines that were much longer than the rod they were using. Eventually some smart anglers figured out how to cast long distances with a roll cast, so that the back cast didn't have to be aeriolized. This allowed anglers to fish water that was bordered by natural vegetation. A river where this type of casting became popular was the Scottish River Spey, and this type of casting today is known as Spey casting.

Threes Spey outfits in a jet boat rod rack, with the Deschutes River in the background.

Two-Hand fly rods (now commonly called Spey rods) are powered with both hands. These rods are normally 12' to 15' long. This extra length gives an angler the advantage of being able to present and control the fly at longer ranges and greater depths than with shorter single-hand fly rods. For these reasons, two-hand rods are very popular with anglers who are fishing large salmon and steelhead rivers. Before WWII, all rods were made from wood. There are still rods made in this era from finely crafted sections of bamboo. Certain folks are in love with nostalgia, and bamboo rods have a cult following that has remained sustainable into the modern age. Today, most anglers fish with rods made from high modulus graphite. Graphite rods in comparison to bamboo rods are lighter in weight (by half or less), cost half as much, and produce more line speed for the average angler. Most are marvelous even to touch. Rod material technology is always in flux and the newest material is Graphine.

There are three distinct branches on the Spey Rod family tree. These are Traditional Rods, Skagit Rods and Scandi Rods. Each of these three categories has a cult following. In every one of the many and varied fly fishing methods (games), rods and lines become balanced components. Every rod must have a matching line to perform a its best. It is nearly as important to have a reel that matches both the rod and the line, in overall weight, and capacity.

Traditional Spey Rods are designed for long belly lines and because of this, Traditional Spey Rods are rarely less than 14' long. Currently 15' is the most common length in this category. Tournament distance casters and anglers who fish large rivers gravitate to this kind of tackle.

Skagit Rods and Skagit Casting evolved on winter steelhead rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The technique involves short heavy sinking tip shooting head lines to propel large flies and fish them deep in cold rain-swollen rivers. The Skagit style is the most popular approach to steelhead and Chinook (King) fly fishing along the Pacific Rim.

Scandi rods evolved on rivers Atlantic Salmon rivers in Scandinavia. Even though in some cases average larger in size, their run timing and habits are similar to summer steelhead. Both kinds of fish enter rivers during the warmer months and reach sexual maturity after spending some months in fresh water. Both summer steelhead and Atlantic salmon are prone to rise for small to medium size flies fished on or near the surface of the water.

A picture of a modern Spey rod/reel setup with a shooting head fly line installed.

Many types of fly lines can be used with Spey Rods. Double taper fly lines were most popular in the past. They still give the angler the ability to cast without having to adjust line length. With a double taper line it is easy to mend line at very long distances. However almost no one uses double taper lines any more because weight-forward taper Spey lines are much easier to use.

Modern graphite Spey rods shoot line better than older rods made from other materials. For this reason weight-forward Spey lines open up new fishing areas where back-cast room is very limited. These kinds of lines also handle larger flies and sinking tip lines, which opens up even more water. In recent times, the head lengths on the most popular Spey lines are getting shorter.
Spey Rods become most effective when combined with custom tailored "changeable-tip shooting head lines." These lines are designed to deliver a wide range of tip sizes and perform at both long and short casting distances. A complete system should allow an angler to fish from the surface to depths of more than five feet in steelhead currents. This type of line also allows an angler to carry a wide range of both floating and sinking lines without having to carry extra reel spools. Instead the tips are carried in a soft wallet. This system has a real advantage for saving weight and bulk when hiking or wading. Both Skagit and Scandi types of heads are made giving an angler a wide range of lines that can be used with the same rod/reel setup.

This is because in a shooting head setup, a head is attached to a shooting line with a loop to loop connection. The shooting line is attached to backing line, which is ultimately attached to the arbor on the reel. The same reel and shooting line will fit many different shooting heads. These heads will be changed as fishing conditions change.

There is some confusion about which line is best with which rod and in what situation. Listed within this "Spey Line Section" are the lines, which have become most popular in our region. Specifications are listed for each one. And our staff has tested each of them many days under field conditions.

 A picture of a large ccccccchinook salmon and the Spey setup it was landed with.

There is little doubt that there is a magic line which will fit your favorite rod and will suite your casting style better than all others. Such a line should help you adapt as fishing situations change on the water you are fishing. There is also no doubt that this magic line will perform better and better as you acquire good casting skills. There are a number of valid approaches to Spey casting. If you want to become proficient, study and practice are the surest procedures. Professional casting/fishing instruction is by far the easiest way to learn. The video tutorials offered within this site are fundamental research material. You can never know too much.
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