We make sure to pick the brains of the many guests who frequent our lodges on what topics they would like to see most on the blog. Whether in Alaska or the Bahamas, a reoccurring request is a more comprehensive explanation of spey gear. Modern rods, lines, tips and so on are constantly evolving and it can be confusing when attempting to make the transition to spey. Certain styles of spey fishing (particularly those most practiced in the United States) are still relatively young when compared to the traditional fly fishing most of us were brought up with, resulting in some inconsistency within the fishing world.
However, making the jump to spey does not have to be as overwhelming as it may seem! If you’re looking to pick up a spey rod, but are a bit confused by today’s many choices of rods, shooting heads, running lines, sink tips, and the like, look no further! Here’s your one-stop shop for everything you need to know to make the jump to spey.
A Bit About Spey
When most people think of spey, they instantly think of two handed rods. However, an important distinction to make is that spey is a style of casting, not necessarily a type of rod. A spey cast is deemed a spey cast when the fly line is cast under the rod tip on the back cast (as opposed to over the rod tip in a traditional fly cast), AND is allowed to anchor onto the surface of the water (near or slightly in front of the angler) before making the forward cast. We call this a ‘d-loop’ and it’s the same principle used when executing a proper roll cast. Think ‘roll cast without the pause.’
We can perform spey casts with both two handed and single hand fly rods. However, due to their effectiveness in both casting and fishing ability, two handed rods have become the norm for most spey fishing applications. Because of this, the fishing industry has adopted the term ‘spey rod’ to be used interchangeably with a ‘two handed rod.’ Therefore, for the purpose of this article, we will assume a spey rod to be just that, a two handed fly rod.
Spey casting was developed on the River Spey in Scotland, a river that has a strong current and heavy bank-side vegetation. Due to difficult wading and limited back cast room, it was apparent that a cast was needed that required little to no back cast room, while still allowing a fishable casting distance. Thus, the spey cast was created. This is one of the largest advantages of spey casting. Due to the fact that your ‘d-loop’ and water tension are used to load the rod on the back cast, very little back cast room is needed to cast, but great distances are within reach. This allows the angler to fish effectively regardless of obstructions or difficult wading situations.
Most often, spey rods are used to fish flies in a traditional ‘wet fly swing’ manner. In a very simplified explanation, this usually consists of casting downstream and across, and letting the fly swim across the width of the river or stream. Spey rods excel at fishing in this manner as their longer length allow better manipulation of the fly line at greater distances.
Spey Casting Styles
As spey casting has evolved over the years, a few different styles have emerged in order to adapt to the fishing techniques best suited for the fishery at hand. Each style was created to solve a particular ‘problem,’ and each requires slightly different tackle to work effectively. Here we’ll briefly explain the costs and benefits of each.
- Traditional (long belly): Traditional spey casting is the style of casting originally developed and typically consists of longer rods (in the 14-16 foot range) and long belly lines. These lines are created similar to a modern floating weight forward line, except the ‘weight forward’ or ‘belly’ section of the line is much longer than in other styles of spey casting. Due to this long belly, spey casts are performed in a ‘touch and go’ manner in that the fly line is allowed to quickly touch the water on the d-loop before making the forward cast. For the most part, a fixed amount of line is cast using the traditional style allowing your fly to stay in the water as much as possible. This style excels at casting very light flies with minimal surface disturbance. However, this is usually the most difficult style for anglers to learn.
- Scandinavian (Scandi): The Scandinavian style of spey casting was created where shorter rods were needed and even less back cast room was available. The line used in the Scandinavian style of casting consists of a shorter (but heavier) belly than traditional style and is meant to achieve distance by shooting line. The same ‘touch and go’ casts are mostly used as in the traditional style and due to a long front taper of the fly line, still allows a reasonably light presentation. Due to its shorter and heavier belly, modern scandi setups are usually paired with light sink tips or polyleaders to achieve greater depths than the traditional system.
- Skagit (Pacific Northwest): The Skagit style of spey casting was developed by steelhead anglers in the Pacific Northwest of the United States in order to cast heavy flies and sink tips with minimal back cast room. The belly of the lines used in the Skagit style of casting are even shorter (and heavier) than that used in the Scandinavian style of casting in order to throw the heaviest of tackle. When Skagit casting, distance is achieved by shooting line as well, however casts typically are executed in what’s called a ‘sustained anchor cast.’ In this style, the anchor is set and allowed to pause before the d-loop is made in a much slower pace than in other styles of casting. For this reason, Skagit casting is often the easiest for beginners to pick up and is by far the most commonly used method in the United States.
Still a little confused? Let spey casting champion and Alaska West guide Whitney Gould explain the difference between Scandi and Skagit styles, here!
All About Spey Rigging
Today, rigging a spey set-up is easier than ever, as almost every component is attached using loop to loop connections. Aside from the rod and reel, the typical components on most modern spey set-ups from backing to fly consist of the following; backing, running line, shooting head, sink tip (or in some cases floating tip), and leader. There are some exceptions however. For example on some lines (especially long belly lines) the running line and head are made as one connected line, denoted as ‘integrated’ by fly line manufacturers. Also, long belly and even some scandi lines are tapered down requiring no ‘tip,’ only leader. However, for the most part, most modern day scandi and Skagit systems incorporate each component to be attached separately. Nowadays, there are a wealth of options out there for each component, so we’ll break down each individually in the order of which they are rigged on the reel.
- Backing. Backing serves the same purpose as it does on a single hand rod, to fill the reel and provide the length of line needed to fight a fish when your fly line runs out. As with all realms of fly fishing, it is important to match the strength and amount of backing used for the fish you are pursuing.
- Running Line. Running lines (also known as shooting line) consist of nothing more than a level diameter line that is attached to a shooting head in order to shoot line great distances. To avoid confusion, the running line on a standard weight forward fly line serves the same purpose. The thin section towards the back of the fly line is considered the running line and the thicker (and heavier) part towards the front is called the ‘head.’ This is the same concept on a spey set-up, the only difference being we are able to change the head of line to adjust for different casting and/or fishing preferences. There are many types of running lines on the market – check out the link for a rundown of our favorites!
- Shooting Head: As explained above, the shooting head in a spey system serves the same purpose as the ‘thick part’ of your standard weight forward section on your single hand rod. It’s what makes the whole thing work. However, due to the nature of spey casting, the diameter of these lines are much larger than that of a typical fly line. Therefore, we do not use the same weight designations as a standard fly line, such as 5 weight, 6 weight, and so on. Some shooting heads might be comparable to a 20 weight fly line in diameter, so it was decided to change this numerical system by ranking them by their actual weight of the line using a unit called grains. Although this raises some confusion among beginners, grains are nothing more than a unit of weight, just like pounds, grams, and so on. Therefore, a 600 grain head is heavier than a 500 grain head, and is therefore matched with a larger rod. Most all spey rods nowadays are labeled with a weight such as ‘8 weight’ AND a grain window such as ‘510-600 grains.’ This way, the ‘8-weight’ offers some consistency in what fish species the rod may be up to tackle, while the grain window indicates which lines will best match the rod. Make sense? To take out some of the guess work, some rod and line manufacturers now offer line recommendations for various rods. Check out the spey compatibility charts from various rod and line manufacturers, here!
- Sink Tip: Most Scandi and Skagit casting systems require some sort of tip to complete the system. This tip could be a sink tip, a floating tip, or perhaps even a polyleader, but typically some sort of tip is required to aid in effectively anchoring the line during the cast. There are many options for tips out there, some which match better with different styles of spey casting. Check out the link for a great video on everything sink tips.
- Leader: Leaders on spey rigs are often times far less complex than your standard single hand fly setup. Particularly when using styles that incorporate a sink tip, such as Skagit or Scandinavian, our leaders can consist of little more than a straight shot of 3-4 feet of Maxima Ultragreen in the proper size for the target species.
Let Us Help!
We love chucking the two handed rod, and we do a lot of it. If you’re still a little foggy about spey but want to learn, while also experiencing some world class fishing, consider joining us at one of our lodges! Our guides are experienced and enthusiastic instructors of both single and two handed casting and would love to help! You might even consider some of our spey schools offered by some of the industry’s leading spey instructors.
Steve O says
I’ve been spey casting about 2 years and as a beginner found that learning to cast a Scandi line with floating polyleader was much, much easier than a Skagit set-up with T11 (or heavier) and a heavily weighted fly. There was just no comparison for me as to which was easier between the two, so I was surprised by your contrary conclusion. I think you have to try casting them fully rigged, as that’s the way you’ll be fishing them.
Ronald Apter says
Extremely informative. Thanks, Ron