There are a lot of reasons that people take up fly fishing. It’s an art with its own graceful casting methods and elegant techniques that take a seemingly limitless amount of challenge and advancement in skill in order to master. There’s dry fly fishing where you learn about matching the hatch and how to drift a floating fly serenely as possible on the surface of the river. There’s nymphing where you learn how to capitalize on a fish's natural feeding instincts and how and where to present a fly beneath the surface of the water. Then there’s streamer fishing where you use large and gaudy fly patterns to trigger predatory fish like large trout, pike, and muskie, into smashing your fly like angry aquatic juggernauts.
Every one of these fly-fishing techniques is a step you can take towards becoming a more complete fly angler and once learned, many believe themselves to be true masters of the art. However, there is another fly fishing technique that is often overlooked by your average fly fisherman. A technique that combines the best aspects of dry fly fishing, streamer fishing, and nymphing, that is an art form all its own. It’s a type of fly fishing that can take an angler's game to an entirely different level and open them up to a whole new fly fishing world—I’m talking about Spey casting.
Spey casting is a fly-fishing method that employs long fly rods and heavy shooting lines that allow an angler to cast great distances and cover massive amounts of water. The method lets you present your fly at a variety of different depths with control and precision, helping you find and catch fish on the fly that would be otherwise difficult to hook on your average fly fishing equipment.
Spey rods are long 11-to-16-foot dexterous fly rods with thick and heavy cores that are meant to be fished with two hands. Unlike traditional fly rods that are cast over the shoulder with fast hauls and hard throws to achieve distance, Spey rods are cast with long rolling sweeps that pull the line through the water, bending the rod and allowing you to fire the fly line a great distance with little to no effort. Fly reels and lines for Spey rods are specially designed to balance with the rod, with the fly lines coming in a variety of styles. These lines have heavy bellies and different thick shooting heads which can be mixed and matched depending on what flies you are using and what species of fish you are trying to catch.
Spey casting is typically used in rivers where you can use the current to assist in your casting and in presenting your fly. Typically you cast across the river at a 90- to 45-degree angle downstream, where the line is mended, and the fly sinks to the desired depth before being swung tantalizingly across the current.
Though traditionally used as a fishing method to cover a lot of water in search of difficult-to-locate and sparsely populated species like salmon and steelhead, once mastered, Spey casting is a fantastic technique for catching almost any fish out there. The once exclusively heavy-action Spey rods have been lightened and adapted from 7- to 9-weight rods to even lighter 5- to 3-weight versions so that anglers can use the technique to swing flies for smaller trout. This variety of rods has opened the door and means that you can use the Spey casting techniques to catch almost any river-dwelling species, from salmon and stripers to muskie and bass, and even less popular fly-fishing quarries like gar and even walleye.
With ultralight rod materials, a variety of different shooting heads, and sink tips, the modern era of Spey casting has adapted the game, taking the technique to a new level and far from its somewhat exclusive and humble origins.
Though Spey casting can be a very new concept for many fly anglers, the technique is actually one of the oldest fly-fishing methods in the world. It originated on the salmon rivers of Great Britain, particularly in Scotland on the River Spey, and in Wales where the casting technique is known as the “Welsh Throw.” It was first documented and introduced to other nations by Edward Fitzgibbon, who noted the technique in his 1850 book entitled The Book Of Salmon, though the mechanics of the cast weren’t detailed in writing until later in an 1853 article of The Field by famous British fishing writer Francis Francis (seriously that was his name). This British monthly newspaper was incredibly popular with the salmon-obsessed, aristocratic sportsmen of the time who quickly picked up Spey casting as a favorite method for pursuing migratory Atlantic Salmon on the large rivers of Britain.
After WWII, ex-British soldiers and sportsmen began to expand their world, traveling to vacation and even immigrating to foreign countries with excellent fishing opportunities, bringing the art of Spey casting with them. The technique was quickly picked up in Scandinavia where fly lines were made lighter in order to cast the smaller fly patterns and dry flies used to pursue the large salmon and sea-run trout found there. These lighter fly lines became known as Scandi lines.
Spey casting also rapidly became popular in North America, where the lines were adapted once again. They were made thicker and heavier so they could throw larger more gaudy flies and be fished with a sink tip that could reach fish in deeper water. These lines became known as Skagit lines which proved to be the perfect thing for catching the large sea-run rainbow trout better known as steelhead that populated the country's coastal rivers, as well as the gigantic chinook and coho Salmon who aggressively attacked the larger fly patterns.
These new fly lines lead to more advancements in Spey casting equipment, with reels outfitted with disc drag systems that can easily stop fast runs and control larger fish, as well as new, lighter, stronger rods made of graphite instead of the traditional bamboo. These new innovations have resulted in a Spey casting revolution, introducing a whole new generation of anglers to the joys of swinging flies.
Swinging flies on a Spey rod is one of the most technical yet rewarding methods of the fly-fishing world. It’s a method that consists of making long, booming casts down and across the river current so that the fly swims tantalizingly in the flowing water, triggering migrating or holding fish to smash them. This requires anglers to carry a variety of specially adapted fly patterns that have their own swimming action, with each pattern having its own unique characteristics that attract a variety of different fish.
Large gaudy fly patterns like the Artificial Intelligence, the Pick Your Pocket, and the Fish Taco, are fantastic patterns for larger species like chinook salmon, steelhead, and striped bass, while smaller flies like the Rusty Rat, the White Death, and the Ho-Bo Spey, can be adapted and used for almost any river-dwelling species including trout and bass. Additionally, there are several dry flies like the Waller Waker and the Green Machine which can be skated across the surface of the river, leading to some truly explosive takes from fish like salmon, steelhead, and even large trout. If you’re fishing in low water, it’s also possible to swing small nymphs that imitate swimming aquatic insects such as stoneflies, like the Stone Wiggler and the Stonefly Bugger which are great patterns for trout, smallmouth, and even steelhead.
No matter which pattern you’re using though, success in casting and swinging flies all comes from finding the right type of water to fish. Proper Spey casting means casting down and across the current and holding a tight line so that the fly swims naturally in the current. You don’t want to try it in fast-flowing rapids where the fly will streak across the water like it was fired from a cannon. Additionally, currents that are too slow, won’t provide enough tension in the swing, causing the fly to sink too far beneath the surface or to sluggishly ooze along in the current where it will be completely ignored by the fish.
Current traveling the right speed for Spey casting will be moving at roughly the same speed as a fast walk or a slow jog. While this may seem limiting, it’s actually quite effective in helping you to eliminate many sections of the river that don’t have a lot of fish. Currents traveling at a jogging speed usually have the right amount of oxygen and provide migrating and holding fish with easy-to-navigate feeding lanes. Places where the fish can sit idly in the current, resting and lying in wait for your fly to drift by and for you to get a grab.
While Spey casting may not provide as many visual thrills as dry fly fishing or produce as many fish as nymphing, it does offer a connection with nature and a challenge that no other method of fly fishing can provide. To be a good Spey caster, you have to do more than read the river, you have to feel it.
Rivers are constantly flowing and adapting, so in order to fish it properly, you are also forced to constantly adapt. Small micro currents, bankside, and underwater structures demand you to change and adjust your cast, but with enough practice these adaptations become almost automatic. When you get good at Spey casting, you almost become part of the river. Your casts become rhythmical and graceful and as you advance, the act almost becomes meditative. A sort of continuous flow that has you sending casts and stepping downstream as you cover the water in a peaceful reflection of the water’s movement that can send you into a trance, one you’re sharply and abruptly removed from when you get a strike.
Getting a strike on a Spey rod is like nothing else in the fly fishing world. With your line being tight the whole time everything that takes your fly, from the smallest baitfish to the largest salmon, is a jolting blast that feels like you just lassoed a bull. It’s such a contrast to go from slow thoughtful casting to a sudden explosion of chaos, and it is in that contrast that you’ll find the true beauty of Spey casting. It allows you to connect with the river and the fish in ways that no other fishing method can and takes your fly fishing game to a level you never knew was possible.