Lao Tzu once said, “The journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.” Well if I had my way, I’d go back in time to duct tape his mouth closed long before he ever uttered that phrase. Everyone in my life—from my dad teaching me to ride a bike to my high-school girlfriend trying to tell me it was too early to propose—has blathered that “1,000-mile” nonsense at me, and quite frankly, I’m sick of it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve grown up in an age with cheat codes for video games and “life hacks” being splattered all over the internet, but I’ve always been in favor of skipping the proverbial line and mastering new skills with minimal effort.
This is especially true when it comes to fishing. When I’m out on the water, I’m not above using electronics to find fish, fishing with offset hooks, or even casting a piece of bait or a lure into the water when I’m not having any luck on the fly. No matter the fishing discipline or technique, there always seems to be a quick and easy way to be successful. This ideal holds true even when learning something incredibly technical and notoriously difficult, such as when you first take up the art of Spey casting.
Spey casting is one of the most difficult fly-fishing techniques to learn. Unlike traditional, single-hand casting that relies on throwing the line back over your shoulder in a back cast to create momentum and energy, Spey casting is traditionally done without a back cast. Instead, the method is almost entirely reliant on using the weight of the line and water resistance to form a cast. Typically done with longer, 11- to 15-foot, two-handed rods, Spey casting can be a daunting fly-fishing method for new anglers. But, for those willing to make the attempt, there are few methods more rewarding.
First practiced on the River Spey in Scotland by anglers in search of Atlantic Salmon, Spey casting is almost a cheat code in itself as it’s designed to allow anglers to cast great distances with absolutely minimal effort. Popular with steelhead anglers on the West Coast, Spey casting is a beautiful and graceful art where master casters throw intricate and pristine loops of line out over the water in a poetic ballad of angling perfection—or, where amateurs flail frantically at the water like an elderly woman shooing cats off the porch with a broom. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Those trying to learn the art of the long rod can start hammering fish on Spey gear by taking just a few simple steps.
One of the biggest mistakes rookie Spey casters make is choosing the wrong rod and line to start practicing with. Jumping into the deep end with a 16-foot rod and five different styles of Spey lines will make you toss your whole set-up in the trash and go back to bait fishing. Instead, you’ll want to start out with one middle-ground Spey rod and one type of Spey line that can cover all your bases and get you in the game quickly.
If you’re exclusively Spey casting for trout on smaller rivers, you’ll want a lighter, more flexible rod. If you’re a mixed-bag angler targeting trout, bass, steelhead, and salmon on large rivers, a heavier action Spey rod is your best option. When choosing a Spey rod, it’s important to remember that the length of the rod creates more leverage, and therefore these rods are equivalent to single-handed rods 2- to 3-times their weight. For example, an 11-foot, two-weight trout Spey rod is equal to a 9-foot, five-weight single-hand rod. This means that anglers can use much lighter Spey rods compared to traditional single-hand rods on the same bodies of water. For smaller rivers and smaller fish, a one-weight to three-weight trout Spey rod will be more than sufficient. When targeting larger, harder-fighting fish on larger rivers with heavier currents, a six-weight to an eight-weight rod is the better option.
Rod length is also worth considering when choosing a first rod. Short 10-, 11-, and 12-foot rods are the best option when first getting started in the Spey-casting world. They’re perfect for fishing rivers less than 50 yards wide but can also be used on larger rivers when you first start out, as you can cherry-pick and quickly work tasty-looking runs. Additionally, shorter 10- to 12-foot rods are better for beginners as they are more forgiving, easier to cast, and much easier to mend, helping rookie anglers keep their flies completely under control.
Spey lines can be a complicated business. Options include long and mid-belly Spey lines along with Scandi and Skagit shooting heads, all of which come in different grain weights designed to be used with different flies and to pursue different species. It’s complex enough to drive you away from Spey casting entirely. However, if you just keep things simple and stick with one line—the Skagit head—Spey casting can become infinitely less complicated.
Skagit heads are great because as long as you get the grain weight in the basic realm for what you’re doing, you can use a Skagit line for pretty much everything. It can throw small flies on intermediate leaders, heavy flies on sink tips, and even floating leaders and dry flies if you’re feeling froggy. Skagit heads are also shorter and heavier than most Spey lines, making them much easier for rookie casters to manage. Skagit lines come in a variety of different grain weights, from long and heavy options designed for steelhead and pacific salmon to short and light options designed for trout.
If you’re looking to swing heavy streamers and sink-tip lines for big fish on a seven-weight rod or heavier, a 400-600 grain Skagit head is your best bet. If you’re looking for something that’s more middle-of-the-road, a five-weight or six-weight Spey rod with a 250-350 grain Skagit head gives you more options.
While all of this may seem unimportant to the uninitiated, the truth is that once you’ve got your gear squared away, Spey casting becomes less like trying to learn a piano concerto, and more like memorizing the chorus of a Mylie Cyrus song—once you go through it a couple of times, it sticks in your head forever.
There are a lot of different types of Spey casts, such as the “single Spey,” “double Spey,” “snake roll,” “circle C,” and the “snap T,” all of which can be used in different fishing situations with varying degrees of difficulty. However, these casts all stem from one place, the D-Loop, and once you understand how to form it, every Spey cast becomes much easier to learn.
All Spey casts begin with standing on the shore or in the river with the fly line down in front of you in the water. With your line aligned directly off your casting shoulder, lift the rod with both hands to break the surface tension and drop the tip of the rod back to just above your shoulders. This allows the belly of the Spey line to drop back slightly behind you in what is known as a “D-loop” because it should resemble the letter “D.”
A D-loop creates tension by slightly bending the rod with the weight of the line while lined up with the intended target. Meanwhile, the rest of the line should still be in the water in what is known as the “anchor point.” The anchor point secures the bottom of the D-loop to the water and should approximately be one full rod length away from where you’re standing. Once this is done, you can cast the line forward by pulling the handle of the rod sharply towards your chest with your off-hand and guiding the rod forward with your dominant hand towards the target. This is known as a “Single Spey” cast and is the foundation of all other Spey casting.
Spey casting is very similar to roll casting with a single-handed fly rod in that it draws power from a fly line anchored in the water. However, Spey casts differ from roll casts in that they involve a change of direction which overloads the rod by transferring kinetic energy from the anchor point on the water through the rod, doubling the momentum of the cast and allowing anglers to fire their lines great distances. If you’ve ever watched a Spey-casting video and seen those awesome slow-motion shots of anglers scything their line through the water, this is why they’re doing it. It’s known as sweeping the line, and when combined with a D-loop, it creates enough energy that you can hit any target on the river.
To start a basic sweep, turn your body so that your dominant shoulder faces slightly downstream and then flip the shooting head of your Spey line to that side. Let the current pull the line downstream until it’s tight. Then, keeping your rod tip low over the water, pull the line across your body until the middle of the rod reaches your opposite shoulder. Create water resistance and tension by quickly raising the rod chest high and sweeping it back downstream until the line just passes your shoulder before dropping the rod back into a D-Loop and making a cast. Ideally, the momentum from the sweep should carry the line back behind your shoulder quickly, overloading the rod and allowing you to fire line like a missile toward the target with a sharp snap.
Spey casting opens you up to a whole new world of fly fishing. It allows you to cast farther and cover more water than you ever thought possible. It also makes it possible to connect with fish in your favorite rivers in new ways. Additionally, Spey casting is another one of those old-school art forms of the outdoor world that, like hunting with a longbow or being able to make a fire by rubbing two sticks together, gives you humble bragging rights over friends who do things “the easy way.”
So, while Spey casting may seem intimidating and complicated to start, it’s totally worth the effort. However, while I’ve made it seem fairly simple here with the D-Loop and the sweep, the truth is that becoming a great Spey caster takes a lot of practice. So, get out on the water and give Spey casting a try. After all, “the journey of a thousand miles begins…” Wait…dammit.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.