How To Get Speyed – Part 1

Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

I never thought I’d want to cross over to what seemed like the dark side…well, that’s not fair…department store doughballs dragged the length of man-made reservoirs via cannonball-sized downriggers are the dark side…and that’s not fair either…but I’m talking about my own ignorant preferences here. The point is that I never thought I’d gravitate to heaving gaudy flies the size of a goose with surf-length rods using both hands.

But a courageous Chinook who’d been around the world and had come home to challenge my little self-built 5-weight 9-footer changed all that. While I’ll never lose the fascination of tempting wily rainbows with tiny flies delicately offered, I know now that I need some artillery when the big boys cruise on home.

So I acquired a good Spey rod and am learning the strengths and schemes of that world. It’ll be years before I can claim expertise. Then why am I writing this article? Because there’s great strength in first impressions too. That’s what I have to offer at the moment, and it’ll fade quickly as the style becomes second nature, so I’d better offer it while it’s still here. I’ll share a lot of research and recount basics of making this transition. So with sincere apologies to serious Spey masters, I’ll try to cut through to the core points from a new arrival’s perspective. Right now I can still speak the new-arrival tongue, and should be able to touch on an epiphany or two that the experts have long forgotten were initially unclear. (Note that every reader of this article, including me, will absolutely welcome corrections, additions, differing opinions, recommendations, anecdotes or advice from accomplished Spey practitioners! Opinions are like fish-that-got-away tales–everybody has some…and some are backed by more first-hand experience than others. All of us would profit; so have at it, with my sincere welcome.)

First, why would anyone want to cross over? Isn’t it just a recent fad? Far from it–the casting style has been around since well before the American Civil War era, and probably much longer, although not in the New World. Named these days for Britain’s Spey river where (along with a few other rivers in the same vicinity) it has been practiced since its inception, it was also called “The Welsh Throw” and other local names. Key to its value to you and me, its originators developed it to deal with scenarios where the need to cast good distances forward existed but where obstructions–high cliff-like banks, trees, etc.–stood close behind an angler preventing any semblance of a back-cast. The Welsh Throw or Spey Cast found an ingenious way to load a rod all pretty much in front of the angler.

An author named Francis (actually named double-Francis), intrigued by the method–because it is indeed a visual wonder to behold–described it in text and drawings in the 1870’s; before that it was mentioned in literature once or twice only, and insufficiently to be able to learn it. I really don’t know how far back it goes in history, but it’s old and clever.

Figure 1: Casting Diagram

The point to note, though, is that this casting style of flamboyant grace is practical and effective. And that’s why the North American steelhead and Chinook junkies have taken to it like a hawk to a chicken. The style and gear lets them deliver large and heavy streamers to their favorite prey, to do it standing in front of thickly wooded banks, and to have a snowball’s chance when fighting those powerful fish. Specialty “branches” have arisen to skew capability toward some goals or others…and while good, that has also helped create a tangle of confusing terms, gear and advice that in my tenderfoot opinion unfortunately does as much to impede newcomers to the style as it does to evangelize and promote. So I’ll see if I can dissipate a couple of clouds.

In the single-handed world we’ve grown accustomed to standardized line masses each with its own number, and rod blanks crafted to work well somewhere along the line weight spectrum. That all starts to fall apart in the world of Spey–well, not really, because physics is still physics, but the many added technique variables complicate, as do the wide array of possible setup variants. One of the most confusing aspects of coming from single-hand fly fishing to learn this style is, naturally, jargon–the differences and especially many practitioners’ reliance on it. It amounts to a wall between anglers who have more in common than these jargon differences would let it appear.

And the gear industry is still in a revolutionary phase–a rapid state of experimentation and change, every rod and line manufacturer scrambling to figure out and offer products that’ll appeal and that’ll calm the uncertainties down. They smell a wave, a fad that will endure, and each of them wants a foothold–or even perhaps to dominate. With respect to line, there are many different sub-elements to consider; you can’t just go out and buy “a line” or expect to match gear at all without a wealth of colloquial lore from paid instructors or internet Spey forums (or both) helping you do so. Regarding lengths and weights of sub-elements of a line, even now the most common piece of advice is a financially costly and somewhat time-consuming one: “Try it and see how it works for you.”

Ya gotta need it; ya gotta want it.

But let me see if my own recent attempts to cut through the noise can boil some of the key points to the surface. (Shameless prophesy: A “how to” for the Spey cast itself is coming later in this article! Wait for it, wait for it….)

Step One: Line Type

Before ever acquiring any gear, I believe one must identify why one wants to “get Speyed” at all. What’s the application–the need–for making a transition? This is the first step because there are two primary branches of line type–Scandinavian and Skagit–and each leans capabilities in its own direction (and as often as not the colloquial advice you read doesn’t specify which branch it’s talking about). And there are two main branches of rod type too–full length two-handed Spey, and more compact two-handable “Switch”…a type that tries to split the difference so as to acceptably offer some double-handed abilities and some single-handed while perhaps being fully optimized for neither (although good “Switch” setups are really interesting and can do a fair bit in both directions; think of them as a “Spey Lite” approach).

Your reasons for “getting fixed,” for getting yourself Speyed, will lead you toward one type of line or the other. Many rods can handle both, and ultimately you don’t have to specialize, but we’re talking about transitioning from single-handed here, so you have to start somewhere. Technique and timing varies enough between them that mastery of either will take some time. So pick one, based on your primary interest:

A. Do you want to cast flies and streamers semi-large to small a long way (80+ feet, possibly more) without much back-cast room, and do it with delicate presentation? Scandinavian-style (or “Scandi”) lines and setups are adept at that. You can do quite a lot, and there are the most amazing screwball-esque cast technique roads you can go down with these setups. There are so many nuances of the Welsh Throw–artful beyond belief. Even a classical physics genius will have difficulty explaining the stages of these casts and the reasons why each is necessary. And sorry but I’m not the one to provide much more information than that about Scandi setups; give me 2 to 20 years.

B. Alternatively, are you coming to Spey because you need to cast flies whose mass and air resistance rivals that of a parachuted German shepherd, and you need to do it with your back a couple of feet from a forest or cliff wall? That’s my own motivation. In this case go “Skagit” as your first foray into the Spey world. Skagit lines are the more recent development–their taper is extreme, their mass is truly huge (with clothesline-like cross sections that eat up a lot more of your reel arbor than you ever thought a line could), and their length can be roughly half what a Scandi line’s length is. They’ll pick up and accelerate a soggy wool sweater if they have to. This is the path I’m taking because it gives me the most in the way of abilities I didn’t come close to having before. (And with some line element tricks the Skagit path can do quasi-similar things that a Scandi does, such as delivering smaller flies with at least an acceptable degree of finesse.)

Both line types are typically (actually I think always) floating lines; else the casts wouldn’t work.

Figure 2: Thickness of a Skagit Line

Step Two: Understanding Line Setups

You’re far from done with your line decisions, so don’t buy a thing just yet. In the Spey world, you don’t just start with backing, then add on a line, stick a leader on the end and flog away. Nowadays and for most Spey anglers, the fly line selected is short–around 50-ish feet tops for Scandi, and half that for Skagit. So you not only need backing, you need a running/shooting line between the backing and the line…in fact the fly line itself isn’t even called a “line,” it’s called a “shooting head” or just a “head” (so don’t quit when you get a head…sorry, couldn’t resist).

The expectation is that you’ll choose a slick (usually mono) running line to go just behind the shooting head, with the head/running line combo constituting the “fly line.” (There are heads seamlessly attached to running lines on the market, preferred by anglers who dislike the coiling that many mono formulations suffer from in cold temperatures; but not all mono has a serious coiling problem so many anglers recommend you buy head and running line separately so that if the running line abrades you can replace it without the expense of replacing the whole thing, and so that you can change out shooting heads without removing much from the reel. Shooting heads cost around $55 or so, and many people use slick mono, which is not expensive, for running line.)

For backing, some Spey practitioners don’t like spectra-like braids because their thin nature can cut through hands, but on the other hand your backing has got to both exceed the breaking strength of the tips/leaders/running lines, and also fit onto the reel in large yardage…do your own math.

So you now have decisions on backing, running line, and type of shooting head…with the backing and running line sized strong enough that any breakage will always occur up at the leader. Are you done? Not on your life; you haven’t even gotten to the business end yet, and that’s where the options start to explode your noggin.

Most Spey anglers add a sink tip to the front of the shooting head–between the shooting head and the leader. On a Skagit setup the leader itself is typically only 3 to 6 feet long, including the tippet, and to protect your investment of all the other line elements it should be the unmistakably weakest in breaking strength (and don’t forget to take into account knots and welded loops of those line elements behind te leader). Figure 3 simplistically illustrates the full line setup.

Figure 3: Elements of the Line

Sink tips help avoid the need for heavily weighted streamers, except perhaps in the fastest of water. And some kind of tip needs to be there or the cast won’t work! …so those who don’t want a sinking tip use a floating tip (or a tip that floats and partially sinks) so that the rod loading is quasi-equal to a sink tip setup.

At this point you can picture enough about your ultimate line setup that you should choose a rod; but don’t buy your shooting head, sink tips or float tips until you do…you’ll see why in Part 2 of this article, which will discuss Spey rods and line setups in a little more detail.

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