Originating on the river Spey in Scotland in the mid-1800’s, Spey fishing is a type of fly fishing intended as a way to cast across the larger rivers with a long, two handed rod up to 22 feet in length. On the beaches, rivers & lakes of Vancouver Island, a Spey rod can provide an advantage, allowing Island Anglers to open up more water, cast further, fatigue less, and control line more.
Beginning with the fact that the Spey rod is about 3+ feet longer than your typical single hand fly rod, it automatically extends your reach, allowing you to cover more water. An increased mechanical advantage comes with the longer lever (rod), contributing to longer distance casts with less effort. The two hand cast also utilizes larger muscle groups, and disperses the casting force over a larger area of the body, making it less fatiguing than single hand casting over the course of a day and less taxing on the shoulder, elbow and wrist joints. Less space is required for the backcast, making it ideal for tight backcasting situations created by trees, brush, rock, and high, late fall waters. The length allows an advantage in controlling drift and mending line, and casts better in the windy conditions familiar to West Coasters. The only real disadvantage occurs in low, clear waters where the line ripping off the surface during your cast will scatter a pool before your fly even hits the water.
Modern Spey rods are 12-16 feet in length in varying weights and are intended to be fished with both hands, however another option is the shorter switch rod (11-12 feet), which can be fished one or two handed. Lines are ranked based on their weight, measured in grains and matched to the rod weight accordingly. Spey rods need far more weight to properly load the rod, and the lines are of a larger diameter than a single hand rod.
To provide a simplistic overview of a highly technical array of options, there are basically 3 line choices when it comes to Spey fishing and as a general rule, the longer the head, the harder the line to cast.
The first alternative is a full length, traditional Spey line, with a long head (over 50 feet), and an integrated running line. While it is the hardest to cast, it is the most versatile setup. The latter two options include a running line paired with a shooting head, tip and leader. The advantage to a shooting line setup is it is fast and easy to swap heads and lines to meet varying fishing conditions. Scandinavian (or Scandi) style heads are short, with a long front taper, and optional poly-leader, intended for delicate presentations, making it easier to cast light flies, but a challenge to cast when it comes to heavy flies and sinking tips. For large flies and sub-surface lines, the Skagit head is the solution. Developed in the Pacific Northwest, these heads are shorter and heavier than the Scandi head, require a front tip section, and are the easiest to cast as well as the best for tight casting conditions (although they are hardest to present the fly delicately with).
A Spey cast is essentially a roll cast with a change of direction, allowing an angler to make long casts without much casting room by using the water to load the rod. It begins with a rod lift that breaks the surface tension of the water, moving the “anchor” (fly/line) into position to fix the bottom of the “D” loop on the water to load the rod, followed by a forward stroke to propel the fly toward the target. When it comes to the “anchor”, it will either be waterborne or airborne. Airborne, or “touch and go” style anchors, are used in the switch cast, offering the fastest change in direction and least disturbance to the surface of the water, however waterborne anchors like the roll cast, are easiest to learn and most effective for chucking large flies. Most beginning Spey anglers will start out by learning the basic casts: the Circle C or Snap T (alternatives to the single Spey cast); the roll; and the overhand, before progressing to include the single and double Spey casts, switch cast, and maybe even the snake roll.
Although any fly can be used with a Spey rod, from a size 16 nymph to a size 4 intruder style steelhead fly; Spey style flies are tied on a lightweight hook and have a slender fly body, ribbed and palmered with long flowing hackle and finished with a wing.
There’s something I love about casting those long rods and lines, something pure and true, reminiscent of our fly fishing heritage. With Spey fishing, once your line lifts off the water and you start changing direction, there’s no turning back. And when you commit, the Spey cast is a thing of beauty, rivalled only by the paradise surrounding.