Learning to cast a ‘spey’ or two-handed rod
Copyright 2010 Erik F. Helm
Note: This article is designed to be a simple introduction to spey casting, and how to best get involved in it. More in-depth resources can be found at the end of the article
One of the most common questions I am asked on the river, and one that is commonly seen on internet forums is “How do I learn to cast a two handed or ‘spey’ rod?”
Fishing with two-handed rods has exploded in popularity recently. New rods and lines have made it easier than ever to pick up spey casting, but the plethora of tackle available has also led to confusion among new spey casters regarding rod length, style, types of lines, etc., and can lead to a very frustrating learning experience. The entire language of ‘spey’ can be confusing as well.
Spey casting is essentially a form of aerialized roll cast with a change of direction. It utilizes a loop of line (often referred to as a ‘D’ loop) that is anchored in the water at the tip of the fly line or leader, thus providing enough resistance to allow the rod to load as it would in the overhead cast. It is mostly used in swinging flies in the water, which is accomplished by casting across the river and letting the fly drag back across to dangle below you. Drag in this case is good, as is a tight line to control the fly.
Before I cover the learning process, let us briefly examine the different two-handed or ‘spey’ casting styles and their equipment.
Traditional spey casting made its way to America and Canada via the British Isles, originating on the river Spey in Scotland. Typically using rods longer than 13 feet and up to 18 feet long, traditional spey casting is a method designed to defeat a lack of back casting room, and allow an angler to cover the river with a swung fly much easier than conventional tackle would allow. The rods are often, but not always, full or progressive in their flex. The lines used are usually quite long, with weight-forward tapers running from 65 to 90 feet. More traditional double-taper lines are also utilized. Due to the nature of using longer lines on long rods with slow to medium actions, the traditional method uses more body rock and pivoting motion, as well as exact timing. The caster often uses a short pause after the formation of the ‘D’ loop in order to allow the rod to load properly. Traditional casting is the most graceful form of casting with a two handed rod, and is often the most difficult to perfect. Traditional casting makes total use of both hands, the lower pulling back to the body, while the upper hand steers the cast by extension. Traditional casts include the single-spey for an upstream wind, and the double-spey for a downstream wind. Traditional casting is used mostly to deliver small to medium steelhead and salmon flies to distances over 65 feet. The lines are commonly of the floating variety or have a sinking tip. Some anglers cast full sinking lines using this method as well.
Often abbreviated as ‘Scandi’ and popularized by Goran Anderson, the Scandinavian style often makes use of stiffer rods than the traditional method. Many are shorter as well, although when casting great distances, rods up to 15 feet long are utilized. The lines used are in essence shooting-heads. Usually running from 30 to 50 feet long, these heads are tapered and attached to a running line of PVC or monofilament. A long leader of 14 feet or longer is utilized to anchor the cast in the water. A very strong use of the lower hand is emphasized in order to load the rod, as is a lower hand position on the rod. The upper hand extends very little, and the arms are kept closer to the body than the traditional style. The cast requires a minimum of effort compared to the traditional style, and some find it less fatiguing. For those of you coming from a single-handed casting background, learning the lower hand power stroke may be difficult. Casts that work best are the single-spey and snake-roll, both being casts that use a touch and go anchor. Other casts can be used as well. Scandinavian casting is used in full floating applications, as well as using sink tips, and even density-compensated full-sinking lines.
Modern Spey casting:
Making the most of the recent innovations in rods and lines, the modern style generally uses a shorter 50 to 65 foot head length in the weight-forward line. The rods are usually of medium length and generally run from around 12 feet to 14 feet long. The rod action is typically between traditional and Scandinavian: not too fast, not too slow. Popularized in the Pacific North West of the United States by anglers such as Jim Vincent, Simon Gawesworth, and Dec Hogan, the modern style is probably the easiest to learn. Less body-rock and pivoting is needed, and the casts are less apt to be sabotaged by improper timing. The arms are used in unison to power the rod, with the power stroke being delivered mostly with the lower hand. The progressive rod and heavy line does most of the work. Modern casting covers the full gambit from a full floating line to using heavy sinking tips.
The most recent style of casting is the Skagit style. Born by necessity on the Skagit River in Washington State, the Skagit style uses very short and heavy heads attached to a running line much like the Scandinavian style does. The difference is that the Skagit head is less tapered and heavier, being designed primarily for, but not always limited to fishing with a sink tip attached to the head. Rods for Skagit casting come in all lengths from 12 to 15 feet, but the rods purposely designed for this style have actions that are slower than in Scandinavian casting. The casting stroke-length is shorter as well. Most Skagit casting is performed with a sustained anchor cast such as the double-spey, the Perry poke or Armenian cast, or the snap-T. Deep sink tip work and large flies work well with the Skagit style.
Cast groups, anchor, water direction, and wind.
In the prior examination of casting styles, I mentioned some casting strokes and anchor groups. Let us briefly take a look at when and why to utilize them.
Wind is the prevailing factor in determining which spey cast to utilize. When your fly is on the water and off to one side of your body, a wind blowing into you will often result in landing the fly in your ear or somewhere else, resulting in an impromptu body piercing. Thus, the casts are divided roughly into upstream and downstream wind casts. In general terms, the single-spey, snap-T, and Armenian or Perry poke cast are used when the wind is blowing upstream toward the caster. The anchor and D-loop occur on the down-wind side of the body, so hooking oneself is less likely. Consequently, the double-spey and snake-roll are used when the wind is blowing downstream. The forward-spey is the one cast that does not change direction, and is effectively an aerial roll-cast. The forward-spey is less a fishing cast and is usually used to reposition the line downstream prior to beginning a spey cast.
Water direction plays a huge part too. The right-handed caster would use the double-spey and snake roll when the river is flowing from their left, and the other casts when the river is flowing from their right.
These casts can also be divided into two groups by how the anchor is achieved. The single-spey and snake-roll are ‘touch and go’ casts. The line is aerialized during the cast, and the anchor is only a kiss of the end of the line or the leader on the water. The line itself loads the rod. They are ideal for floating lines. The second group of casts can be referred to as ‘sustained anchor’ casts. The double-spey, snap-T, and Perry poke or Armenian casts all use the sustained or locked line tension of pulling against the line on the water to load the rod. While the touch and go casts use little or no pause depending on the length of line used, the sustained anchor casts use a slight pause between the set of the anchor and the D-loop stroke.
All these casts can be performed with either hand uppermost on the rod, depending on the circumstances. Some casters prefer changing hands when appropriate, while others use the strong arm uppermost at all times, a practice that is commonly referred to as ‘cack-handed.’
Now that you have a basic sense of the casts, anchor groups, and styles of casting with a two-handed rod, we can look at the learning path to allow you to realize the joy of casting and fishing with them.
How to learn:
First things first. Before you go out and spend your next mortgage payment on a spey rod, line, and reel, think about the different styles of casting and ask yourself some questions. Will you be using the rod primarily for sink tip work, or will you use a floating line too? What types of rivers you will fish is important too. Using longer rods of 14 or 15 feet on small rivers with trees overhanging the banks can be frustrating and lead to a broken rod, and trying cast a 90 foot taper traditional line is probably not the best choice for these circumstances. Your fly has a higher chance of ending up in the overhanging trees above/behind you and the line will likely not fully load the rod at these distances. Likewise, trying to use short rods and lines on vast rivers may also lead to frustration. In general, the longer the rod, the farther one can cast, especially when wading deep. There are a lot of considerations here.
Once you have a rough idea of what style you want to learn, get some professional instruction. I didn’t, and it took years to correct flaws that could have never have occurred in the first place if I had instruction. The lessons do not need to be weeks long and cost an arm and a leg. Many instructors are available at gatherings of spey casters known as ‘claves.’ One can get formal and informal instruction as well as trying out different rods and lines. The events are usually free, the more formal instruction may not be.
Now that you have fooled around with a dozen rods and a myriad of lines, had some formal instruction, and wrapped the line around every conceivable object including yourself and your poor dog, it is time to start kicking the tires at purchasing a rod. Get as many qualified opinions as possible, and utilize online forums such as the Speypages.com. Be careful. Frame your questions properly, and beware that just like belly buttons, everyone has an opinion. What works for them may not work for you. When you have some sort of idea what you want, visit a qualified flyshop where you can speak to someone who knows what he or she is talking about when it comes to two-handed rods. Keep in mind that the rod and line must perfectly compliment each other. Bad line and rod combinations ruin spey casting. Don’t break the bank at first, but buy a quality rod with a warranty. The longer the rod, the more chance it has of getting caught in car doors, or tangled in trees. A warranty can pay for a rod many times over.
Along with your first rod purchase, I recommend a DVD or two. Spey casting is dynamic, and the motions are not easily described in print. A video can make things much easier. Later, when you are analyzing your casting and correcting flaws, a book can aid in the learning process.
The Art of Practice
First, put that pretty fly away. Use a piece of yarn as the fly and tie it to your leader. You don’t need any accidental body-piercing at this stage.
Now that you have narrowed down your options to a rod, line, and casting style suitable for your waters and intended purpose, stick with it. Fooling around with different styles at this point can lead to disaster. Practice one cast at a time. Start with the easier casts such as the forward-spey, and the double-spey. Work on these casts until you can make the head of the line and the leader turn over cleanly. Use a floating line when beginning. Floating lines give you a better feel for your stroke. Start with just the head of the line out of the guides. Worry about distance and shooting line later. Just as in golf, we cannot start learning properly by trying to drive 300 yards. Cast in near slow motion. That way you can correct errors as they develop. Take notes. Keep a casting log recording errors, fixes, thoughts, and inspirations. This will prove an invaluable tool. At some point, you will need to determine if you want to switch hands or cast cack-handed. Some people are nearly ambidextrous, while others (like me) can’t get the hang of casting with the ‘other’ or weak hand on top. If the two-handed rod is too much at the beginning, practice with a soft single-handed rod. Spey casting is not limited to the long rod. Some people feel that adding the use of both hands, at the same time as attempting to learn a whole new legion of strange casts, is difficult to overcome. Don’t be afraid of the single-hander, the casts are the same.
As you advance and become competent with the various casts, begin to vary the depth of water in which you are casting. Cast both short and long distances. Have a plan to your practice, be methodical, don’t just go out there and flail around.
Above all, try not to get frustrated. Even the best casters in the world had to start just where you are now.
This list is far from definitive, instead it will point out the most commonly seen errors by beginners that lead to frustration as the line lands in a spaghetti-like pile around your head.
· Over emphasis on the upper hand. You will have to learn to use the lower hand to help load and power the rod.
· Hacking or chopping wood. Arms hurt yet? If they do it may be a sign that you are not stopping the rod high enough and positively on the forward cast. This leads to hacking or chopping, and downward pointing floppy loops of line.
· Too much line-stick on the anchor. The cast should be able to pull the line out of the water. If you hear a splash and slurpy sound on your forward cast, and the line goes nowhere, too much line is anchoring the cast. Set your anchor closer, and make a more positive D-loop stroke.
· Casting too fast. This is the cardinal sin. If there is one thing that you should keep repeating, it is “Slow Down!” Spey casting is a graceful waltz, not a break-dance.
· Using too much effort. Spey casting should be easy. When you are casting correctly, it should be a joy. Let the rod and the line do most of the work.
No matter how accomplished a caster you become, casting practice will enhance your enjoyment of time spent fishing by removing the process of working out kinks to your off time. Standing in a run full of steelhead or Atlantic salmon, while futzing with your casting, can lead anyone to snap their rod in two in frustration.
I have opinions too. One of these is that one of the best ways to learn spey or two-handed casting is with a medium length rod, and a short-head spey line. This would be the modern method covered earlier. A moderate action rod of 13 to 14 feet, and a line with a 50-55 foot head is a perfect learning tool. If the rod is too stiff, feedback is affected. You can always buy that super fast action cannon later… once you have learned to cast.
Using lines with heads shorter than 50 feet while initially learning may result in developing a casting style that does not allow one to easily move to casting longer lines.
If it all sounds too confusing, remember that we just covered a lot of information, and that every journey begins with a single step. That initial step could open up a whole new world of fly-fishing enjoyment.
Some select resources:
Spey Casting by Simon Gawesworth (book)
Modern Spey casting by Rio Products (DVD)
From Spey to Z (DVD)
The art of Speycasting (DVD)
Speypages.com: Informational site and online forums
Two-Handed Fly Casting: Spey Casting Techniques by Al Buhr (book)
Erik Helm is a fly-fisherman and writer based in Wisconsin. He has chased steelhead with the two-handed rod extensively in the Pacific North West as well as the Great Lakes region. Erik teaches fly casting to individuals and groups, as well as keeping a literary fly fishing blog. His work can be found at Classicangler.blogspot.com