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The Basics of Spey Fishing

Two-handed rods are all the rage. Here's why.



Two-handed fly rods offer maximum casting distance with minimal effort -- even when there's no room for a back cast.

Alex Cerveniak

One of the most fun and interesting developments in fly-fishing in recent years has been the rise of fishing with two-handed rods – widely known as Spey fishing.

Most fly-fishing, of course, is done with a rod designed to be casted with just one hand. And most of the time, that single-hand rod is used for “overhead” casting – flinging the line back behind the caster to flex the rod, then flinging it forward over the water to deliver the fly.

The trouble is, there isn’t always room for a back cast. And salmon and steelhead rivers tend to be big, requiring long casts to seek out the fish.

Spey casting makes it possible to throw a long line with very little room behind the caster, because there’s no back cast. Instead, the caster flips the line into position on the water in front of him, then swings the rod back and makes a simple forward cast. It’s not as easy as it sounds – there’s a learning curve – but once you get the hang, you can send 100 feet of line sailing smoothly out over the river.

This kind of fishing began to catch on in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. Pacific salmon and steelhead trout run into the large coastal rivers of Washington, Oregon and northern California to spawn, and two-handed rods proved to be an effective watch to catch them. Spey casting has since become popular for salmon and steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes tributaries, and even for regular stream trout and bass – with long but light-weight rods -- all around the country. It can also be great for saltwater species like striped bass in coastal rivers.

“Spey” (named for the River Spey in Scotland) is really just one of two kinds of two-handed rods. It generally refers to rods that are 12 feet long or longer and are pretty much used only for Spey casts. The other kind of two-handed rod is the switch rod, which is generally between 11 and 12 feet long and can be used for Spey casts or for the overhead casting usually done with single-handed rods. (It can “switch” back and forth between the two styles.)

Spey casting is a fancy variation of the roll cast, a simple kind of cast often taught first in fly-fishing courses. As noted, it takes some practice to learn the various casts, such as  Snap T, Single Spey, Double Spey, Perry Poke and Snake Roll. Most Spey-casters think it’s worth the effort. Spey casting is a ton of fun. In the mostly-joking words of Nick Pionessa, owner of the Oak Orchard Fly Shop in Williamsville, N.Y., “It’s cool and chicks dig it.”

Spey casting also has some practical advantages over traditional back-cast/forward-cast fly-fishing:

  • As noted, Spey casting makes it possible to cast even when there are obstructions behind the caster that don’t permit a back cast.
  • With a nice long rod (Spey rods can be 15 feet long) and a line heavy enough to make the rod flex, it’s possible to make very long casts that cover a lot of water – perfect for searching for fish like steelhead or salmon on large rivers.
  • Because they’re long, two-handed rods provide good leverage against strong fish. Along with the heavier models for steelhead and salmon, there are two-handers designed for regular stream trout and smallmouth bass.
  • The length of the rods also gives great line control and makes for easy “mending” (flipping the line lying on the water upstream or downstream to compensate for intervening currents.)
  • Unlike single-handed casting, with all that laborious back- and forward-casting, Spey casting involves relatively small, controlled movements of the arms and hands. There’s less wear and tear on shoulders and elbows. (Of course, using too much force is one of the most common mistakes in single-hand casting – a light touch is best – but that’s a subject for another article.)

Another advantage to learning Spey casting is that many Spey casts can be performed on single-hand rods. Knowing those casts comes in handy when your back cast is obstructed, or when arm or shoulder problems make overhead casting uncomfortable.

The best way to learn Spey casting is to get some instruction. Due to its fast-growing popularity, Spey casting lessons are available in many locales. Local Spey fishing enthusiasts often put on “claves” (short for conclave) where manufacturers bring rods to try out, expert casters give demonstrations, and information and advice is freely exchanged in a friendly, low-ley atmosphere.

The next best option is to watch some video. A few examples can be seen here, here and here, and you can find many more online with little trouble.






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