Chad Agy Presents: Part 1 Spey Casting

I recently took up Spey casting in preparation for a trip to Patagonia, during which we planned to target large sea trout on the classic water of the Rio Gallegos.  I found the preparation frustrating, as it was difficult to find a singular source to educate me on this new technique.  The line set-ups were perplexing, the casting was mystifying, and even the equipment choice was confusing.  Chad Agy Presents: Part 1 Spey Casting, of a two-part article that aims to allow a beginning Spey angler to understand the equipment, casting techniques, and strategies behind Spey casting without having to scour the internet for hours like I did.  

Why Spey?

  • Spey casting requires minimal effort compared to double-hauling a single-hand rod all day.  For species that require meticulous carpet-bombing of runs–such as steelhead, king salmon, and sea trout–Spey casting allows anglers to fish all day without wearing out their arms.
  • Especially when there is a tailwind, Spey casting allows for longer casts than single-hand casting.  By the end of my trip, I was regularly casting 20-30 feet further with my Spey rod than I could ever hope to do with my single-hand rod.  In experienced hands, the difference is even greater.
  • Spey casting is genuinely enjoyable.  Clearly, many people enjoy casting a single-hand rod, but the practice of casting is well down the list of things I enjoy about this technique.  But I’ve yet to meet a Spey angler who didn’t enjoy casting a two-handed rod.

What to Buy

In general, an equivalent Spey rod will fish three sizes heavier than a single-hand rod.  For example, 7-weight Spey rods are popular for large anadromous fish like steelhead and sea trout.  Add three, and a 7-weight rod becomes the equivalent of a 10-weight single-hand rod.  Likewise, a 3-weight Spey rod is equivalent to a 6-weight single-hand rod, and would be a good tool for large trout in many western rivers.  Rods of larger weight are generally longer in length.  A 7-weight Spey rod is NOT compatible with or balanced by a 7-weight reel.  A rod of this size requires a 10-weight reel.

How to set up the line

The line configuration for Spey rods is a bit more complicated than it is for single-hand rods.  Several different line components must be purchased separately and then looped together.  I will start from the reel end of the line and proceed toward the leader.

  1. BackingThe backing is set up the same as on a single-hand rod.  Make sure whoever is setting up the backing knows that the reel will be used for a Spey line, as it will require less backing to appropriately spool the reel for the greater bulk of a Spey line compared to a single-hand line.
  2. Running (Shooting) LineConnected to the backing is the running line, which is bought separately from the other components of the line.  Most new Spey anglers will use a coated running line, similar to the running line on single-hand lines.  The alternative is monofilament shooting line, which will shoot with much less resistance, but will form devastating tangles if managed poorly.  Monofilament running lines are preferred by experienced Spey casters going for maximum casting distances.  Coated running lines will be marketed in diameter, strength, or both.  Monofilament or nylon lines will be marketed by strength only.  The size/strength of the running line is dictated by the size of the shooting head, the size of which is determined by the weight of the rod. This particular list of running lines includes the offerings from Rio.  Like many concepts in Spey fishing, there is no standardized list of options, and every company’s offerings will be slightly different.  This list gives a good rough framework for running line selection, which can be extrapolated to slightly different options from different companies.
    1. 0.026”/20 lb running line is paired with a 200-450 grain shooting head
    2. 0.032”/20 lb running line is paired with a 450-575 grain shooting head
    3. 0.037”/30 lb running line is paired with a 575-675 grain shooting head
    4. 0.042”/30 lb running line is paired with shooting heads greater than 675 grains
  3. Shooting Head The shooting head is the next part of the Spey line, and is attached to the end of the running line.  This part of the line provides the bulk of the weight that allows the Spey line to be carried across the water.  The grain weight of the required shooting head is determined by the size of the rod.  A line’s grain is literally a measure of its weight.  Bigger, stiffer rods require shooting heads of higher grain weight in order to load appropriately while casting.  The recommended grain weight for a shooting head can be obtained from any rod manufacturer, and these days it is often inscribed on the side of the rod.  For example, a typical 7-weight rod used for many anadromous fish will usually be paired with a 525 grain shooting head.  Most shooting heads are floating lines but sinking shooting heads are available for certain situations involving high, deep rivers.

Scandi vs. Skagit

These are words that even Spey neophytes have probably heard.  The nuances of Scandi vs. Skagit tips are beyond the purposes of this article.  Many good summaries on the internet delineate the differences between these two styles of Spey fishing much better than I ever could.  I simply wanted to point out that the shooting head is the main part of the Spey set-up that differentiates Scandi vs. Skagit fishing. 

In short, Skagit heads are shorter and contain a more abrupt taper than Scandi heads.  Skagit heads work well with sinking tips and larger flies, and allow for a shorter D-loop, which facilitates casting in close quarters with little room behind the angler.  In expert hands, Scandi lines provide more delicate presentations and longer casts, but require more room behind the angler for the larger D-loop that is required to cast these longer heads.

  1. TipsThe dizzying world of Spey tips is nearly impossible to digest in entirety except for maybe by the most dedicated of Spey fishermen.  A 10-15 foot tip is added to the shooting head to calibrate the depth that the fly swings through the water.  These tips range from floating to heavy sink of 10 inches per second or greater.  In between are many iterations of intermediate tips, and tips that contain both floating and sinking sections to allow the angler to obtain a moderate amount of sink.  The tips used for Scandi lines are slightly different than the ones paired perfectly to Skagit heads.  Personally, I like the complete set of Rio’s iMOW tips to pair with my Skagit shooting head.  These are amongst the most popular tips for those fishing Skagit lines.  Don’t get caught up in the nomenclature; iMOW is basically an abbreviation of the names of several Spey fishermen who came up with the concept. 
  2. LeaderFinally, the leader is the last and simplest part of the Spey line.  Most use a straight piece of fluorocarbon to suit the conditions and fish species they seek.  As with tippet used for single-hand rods, the leader will need to be longer and of smaller diameter for pickier fish in clear water.  When water is high and dirty, the leader may be short and stout.

Fishwest has a large offering of Steelhead/Salmon Spey Fly Fishing supplies.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, through which we will cover casting strategies and how to use a Spey rod in nearly all conditions!