Every Day is a Spey Day - Part 1
by Christopher Lessway
If you’re anything like me and you love to steelhead fish, you probably already know it's more than just a hobby. Steelhead fishing is an addiction and a lifestyle. Do you find yourself calling in sick to go fishing? Do you send your rent check in late, because you needed a new pair of waders? Do you find yourself waking up at 4 in the morning, just so you can be the first one to arrive at your favorite steelhead run? Do you obsessively check river levels? If you answered yes to any of these questions, admit it—you're an addict like me.
While there are many ways to fish for these silver-sided acrobats, fishing with a two-hander (more commonly called a spey rod), has become an increasingly popular way to fuel our addiction.
Twelve years ago, a friend of mine bought a spey rod. I thought he was crazy. Why would anyone want to learn to cast that behemoth of a rod. I was content with bouncing nymphs and egg patterns along the bottom. I caught plenty of fish this way and had fun doing so. I was set in my ways, and that was that. I figured I'd let my friend flail away with his new rod, while I caught fish, but a couple of years later, after seeing more and more people on the river using the long rod, I decided to attend a spey gathering to see what this craze was all about.
A spey gathering is where two-handed rod aficionados get together to exchange information, ideas and try new rods and lines. What I witnessed changed the way I viewed spey fishing.
I watched an elderly gentleman make a cast of about 120 feet with no effort whatsoever. He made it look so simple. Not a single false cast or back cast was required. The fly line sliced though the air in a tight loop that seemed to never end, before gently falling to the river below. I was awe struck. I needed to learn this style of casting!
I called my friend and told him I wanted to borrow his spey rod. After a barrage of heckling and unnecessary "I told you so’s," he eventually handed the rod over. I took it down to the river and made one battered cast after another. After thrashing the water and spooking every fish a mile up and down the river, I decided to buy a couple videos and books on spey casting. I put away the nymphs and egg patterns, bought my own spey rod, and totally dedicated myself to learning this method of casting. For the next year, I fished exclusively with my spey rod. It had become a challenging, exciting, and new way to catch these chrome torpedoes in which we spend our lives pursuing. My casts were not perfect, however, a fishable cast doesn't have to be perfect.
Spey casting is essentially an advanced aerial roll cast. It was named after the River Spey in Scotland. The origin of this technique of casting and fishing with two-handed rods dates back to the middle of the 19th century, where salmon anglers in Scotland were faced with the challenge of rivers that were wide, fast, and had trees and brush running all the way down to the rivers edge. These obstacles left no room for backcasts. To face these challenges, anglers used long rods from 15 to 20 feet long, and made of lance, ash, and greenheart woods. They were extremely heavy and wearisome to cast.
The first spey cast developed from a roll cast—and over time, it formed into "true spey" casts. These casts, known as the single spey and the double spey, are still commonly used today. To be a successful angler, one had to cover as much water as possible by swinging the fly at a downstream angle across the river, while keeping the fly in front of the line, as to not startle the fish. With these long two-handed rods, anglers, on a good day, were able to roll their line out 80 to 90 feet.
A gentleman named Alexander Grant, a native of the Spey valley, took the art of spey casting to an extraordinary level. Using a 21 foot rod, he had created out of greenheart wood, he was able to roll cast a mind blowing 65 yards. How about that for some distance casting?
It was about fifteen years ago that the "spey craze" came to the Northwest United States, Canada, and eventually the Great Lakes region. Steelhead anglers began to see the benefits of casting a two-handed rod. Long casts of 80 to 100 feet plus, could be made with relative ease and without any false casting, which in turn, meant the fly spent more time in the water. Anglers no longer had to worry about if they had room to make a back cast. With a longer rod, line control became that much easier. More efficient mends were made and longer drifts could be achieved. These advantages opened up water that was previously only accessible by boat. Fishing with a spey rod in the winter became invaluable. Anglers could set a fixed length of line and not have to strip any in, resulting in less ice build up in the guides, and warmer hands.
Since the invasion of the two-handed rod in North America, rod and line manufacturers have developed newer materials into their designs, which in turn, make spey casting more efficient and effortless. Due to these newer designs, more modern casts have been developed, such as the Snake roll, the Snap-T, the Wombat, and the Perry Poke, just to name a few. Salmon and steelhead anglers are not the only ones bitten by the spey bug. Trout anglers are using shorter and lighter versions of the two-handed rod while fishing with indicators, throwing streamers, and skating dry flies.
Nearly every rod company today makes some kind of spey rod. If you do decide to take up spey casting, talk to your local fly shop and find out what rod is good for you. I urge you not to get caught up in the technical jargon and semantics. Hire a guide and learn the basics. There are many great books and instructional videos also available. Study these and get out on the water.
By learning how to cast the two-handed rod, you will find that you've gained access to waters and fish that were previously impossible to reach.
To tell you exactly what gear to buy, without knowing where you want to do most of your fishing and what species you want to fish for, would be virtually impossible. So instead, I'll provide you with some information about the different styles of casting, the rods and lines associated with each, along with some factors to consider while choosing your new rig.
Currently, there are three distinct styles of spey casting—each lending itself to a particular technique and choice of rod action, length, and taper of the spey line.
The first style is Traditional, or sometimes referred to as UK. This style of casting works well with rods of 15 feet or longer, with very progressive slow to medium action, while using long bellied lines. Anglers carry a long fixed length of line while casting, which typically requires a lot of practice and skill. To achieve distance in the forward cast, little or no shooting line is used. This style of casting is often associated with floating lines and often used for summer steelhead. Typical casts for this style include the Single Spey and Double Spey.
The second style is known as Scandinavian or European. This style lends itself to stiffer, medium-fast to fast action rods, while using heavy shooting heads of 30 to 40 feet. Heavier heads are needed to adequately load the rod, given a shorter line is being used. The rod must be able to handle higher line speeds. Scandinavian casting is also called “underhand casting,” due to the great deal of power that is generated in the cast by pulling with the bottom hand. Scandi heads come in a variety of densities from heavy, full sinking lines to floating lines.
A third style of casting, called Skagit, utilizes rods of about 12 to 14 feet with progressive medium to medium-fast actions, and short to medium length belly shooting heads. The heads range from 33 to 60 feet long which are even heavier than Scandi heads. A general rule of thumb for matching Skagit heads to your rod is to have the head 3 to 3.5 times the length of the rod. Skagit casting goes hand in hand with heavy sink-tips and large heavily weighted flies. This style of casting is generally easier to learn and great for casting in cramped situations.
Skagit style was developed in the Pacific Northwest. In recent years Skagit has taken off and attracted loyal followers throughout the Pacific Northwest, and the Great Lakes region, as well.
Choosing a rod does not have to be that difficult. Ask yourself these questions: What species of fish do I want to target? What rivers will I mainly be fishing? Do I want a sinking line or floating line? What type of flies do I want to throw? Also, talk to your local fly shop and see what they recommend. Find a rod that feels comfortable in your hands and fits your budget.
More importantly than choosing a rod, is choosing a line to match the rod. I repeat, more importantly than choosing a rod, is choosing a line to match the rod. Think of it this way: putting the wrong line on a spey rod is like putting regular unleaded in a high performance race car. The car may still run, but you're not going to get the power needed to propel and drive the car.
Choosing the right line for the rod seems to be the most confusing aspect to new spey casters. It's not as simple as choosing a 7 weight fly line for a 7 weight rod. Spey lines are different than standard weight forward lines, in that, the head of the line needs to be heavier and longer to load the longer rod. Most spey lines are available in floating, intermediate sinking, and interchangeable sink tips.
If you're having a problem figuring out which line to purchase, call different fly line manufacturers to discuss what they recommend. Many of these companies have charts that indicate which lines work best with specific rod models. Take the time to choose your line correctly, since this is the key to a successful setup.
When choosing a reel for spey casting, there are a few important factors to consider. One, is the reel must have enough capacity to hold the backing and the fly line. Remember, spey lines are much thicker than standard fly lines.
Another important factor to consider is the weight of the reel. Many reel companies today are making extremely light reels, some of which are exceptionally light for a two handed rod. The rod and reel need to be balanced!
While shopping for a reel, I suggest bringing your rod with you and try out different reels to see how they balance.
A third and important factor is the reel must have adequate drag for the species you wish to target.
The most important thing to remember when choosing your gear, is choosing a rod suitable for the species and rivers you wish to fish.
Don’t rely on one person's opinion or advice. Seek different points of view. Again, don’t be afraid to call several line manufacturers. They're quite receptive to answering questions and providing information that can lead to appropriate selections.
Keep your eyes and ears open for spey gatherings in your area and be sure to attend, since they can provide opportunities to talk to spey gurus and manufacturers, which is, ultimately, a great learning experience. As you become more experienced, you will find you need different set-ups for different situations. Many experienced spey casters have an arsenal of rods and lines, because there isn't one “perfect rod and line” for all situations.
Take your time and do some research. Choose your gear carefully. Having the right gear will make your spey casting experiences more pleasant and enjoyable. And, who knows—maybe you’ll even out-fish your buddy who drifts nymphs and eggs along the bottom!
Visit my personal website, Outfortrout.com
Winter Chrome on Two-Handed Rods - Part 3
by Chris Lessway
With the onset of winter, many anglers put away their rods and start to think about the holidays or going somewhere warm. They may even tie up a few flies for next season. But if you’re anything like me, a diehard steelheader, you’re getting out your cold weather gear and getting ready for some winter steelhead action!
Cold blustery winds and bone chilling water temps of 33 degrees? Ahh, that’s just the life of a winter steelheader here in the Great Lakes! Yes, some say we’re a different breed, wearing layers of clothing and polar fleece while our fingers and toes go numb. Some describe us having a distinct look in our eyes. You might know what I’m talking about, that wild and crazy stare we get from spending hour after hour, day after day in pursuit of these chrome, bottom hugging denizens of the winter. We are a persistent bunch!
One of these typical days hit in the middle of January. The weather forecast called for partly cloudy skies and a high temperature of 24 degrees with little to no wind. Compared to the previous week and a half with temps in the lower teens and wind chills below zero, this seemed like the perfect day for a winter steelhead trip. I called up my buddy and we got the boat in the water by 11 a.m. I took a quick water temperature reading before shoving off. The thermometer read 33 degrees, which was about what I had expected. Since the days were short this time of year, we decided to motor upstream from the boat launch and spend the day concentrating on a few different runs, instead of floating the entire section. We were going to swing flies on two-handed rods and focus on a few certain runs that had been good to us in the past. I am a firm believer that fishing a few select runs, or overly crowded runs, two or three times will be far more productive than running and gunning as much river as possible. Many beginner anglers tend to make this mistake, forgetting that these more crowded runs earned their popularity for a reason, which is they contain features that attract and hold steelhead.
As we motored up river, we passed another boat heading downstream. The two men in the boat looked over and gave a friendly nod with that frozen steelhead stare. I really didn’t expect to see anyone up there, and they were the only other anglers we saw all day.
The first run we fished was a long, slow trough at the end of a riffle, about 6 feet deep and chock-full of boulders, a perfect run for swinging flies to winter steelhead. After two unsuccessful passes through the run we decided we would give it one more try, only this time we decided to change things up a bit. We used a more heavily weighted fly. By my third cast I had a nice tug on the end of my line, but did not hook the fish. This goes to prove that sometimes a small adjustment, such as getting down a little deeper or swimming your fly more slowly, makes a world of difference.
Two –handed rods can be a great asset during the winter. Rods in the 13 to 15 foot range meet most winter steelheader needs. They’re ideal for putting the fly in the zone with very little effort and great for handling heavy sink tips and casting larger flies, which tend to be the norm during the winter. These rods also have remarkable line handling capabilities. They will mend your fly line like no other and will maximize the time your fly is in the water. My rod of choice that day was a 15 foot, 9 weight with a Skagit line and about 17 feet of T-14 sink tip, perfect for the river conditions.
When swinging flies for winter steelhead, you want your fly to swim as slow as possible without hanging on the bottom. If I notice that my fly or sink tip start to catch the bottom, then off it comes. I go back to a lighter sink tip with a lighter fly. Some of the more popular flies I like to use for winter steelhead are Intruder style flies, or Marabou speys in brighter colors, tied on brass tubes with a little bit of flash in them. I believe the pulsating Marabou and brighter colors tend to catch their attention and trigger them to strike.
We continued to fish two more runs using the same approach with no success. We decided it was a good time for a lunch break. I fired up the propane stove and heated up some homemade venison stew. I often bring a hot lunch with me on winter steelhead trips. It’s a good way to stay warm and keep your spirits up on slow days.
After lunch we headed down river. We had a few more runs to fish and only a couple more hours of daylight. We fished each and every run methodically with nothing to show for it. We had only one more run left before the take out. If it was going to happen, it was going to have to happen there. We anchored the boat and waded out to the run. I headed up stream to the top, while my buddy started down lower in the run. After about 2 or 3 casts. I heard my buddy yell “fish on!” Not even two seconds later - Wham! I hooked up too! We had a double! Both fish came cartwheeling out of the water, chrome as chrome can be. I couldn’t believe it. That’s what it is all about!
When it comes to winter steelheading, patience is key. Sometimes you may cast for hours or even days between fish, other days you may hook multiple fish. Regardless, you need to be persistent.
While the winter steelheader is an indomitable breed, braving the harsh elements in search of elusive winter chrome, you must be prepared to tolerate the unpredictable weather and changing river conditions. A slight temperature change can be a huge factor in fishing productivity. As the day progresses, the surface water may warm up one or two degrees which can make the steelhead more active.
I’ve had many days steelheading when I went all day without a single tug and then, in that last magical hour of daylight, when the surface temperature of the water is at its warmest, my rod was nearly ripped out of my hands. A bright chrome steelhead came boiling out of the water. “Fish on!” Persistence pays off again.