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Spey Casting: Making sense of all these lines!

by John Larison   |  October 18th, 2011 2

More and more anglers are seeing the benefits of two-handed rods: trout, surf, steel, and just about any other fly fishing situation that demands long casts, big flies, and/or precision mending.  But each year, as the quantity of lines and rods increases, the prospect of getting started with spey casting becomes more daunting.

“Going Spey” is a new series of posts that will, I hope, help make sense of this complicated world.

The place to begin, strangely, isn’t with spey rods themselves but with spey lines.  Once you know which line will best match your needs, you’ll be ready to pick a rod.

Spey lines are best divided, I think, into two main groups, shooting heads and continuous lines.  Anglers new to the sport only need concern themselves with the shooting heads; the continuous lines are better matched to anglers who are already competient spey casters.

Within the shooting head group, there are three sub-categories of lines: Skagit (heads between 18 and 31 feet designed for muscling big flies and sink-tip material, at the expense of delicacy if not grace), Scandinavian (heads between 30 and 45 feet designed for sending smaller flies to medium and long ranges without a big D-loop, which is the spey casting equivalent of a backcast), and Others (mostly specialty heads that range from 40 to 60 feet and are often designed to allow an angler to fish a broad array of conditions without switching lines).

For steelheaders, Skagit heads are the easiest of the heads with which to learn.  Their shorter length allows for a smaller casting stroke; a smaller casting stroke means less possibility of error.  Additionally, these lines are designed to be cast in two phases (the placement and the D-loop), allowing a learning angler more time during the cast to consider his technique.

Skagit heads can be divided into two more groups: summer lines and winter lines.  In my opinion, those Skagit heads that weight less than 475 grains are better matched to summer conditions, while those heads over 500 grains are best matched to winter situations.

Whereas single-handed lines are rated by the standard “(number) weight” system, as in “5 weight,” spey casters prefer the precision of using a grain-based system.  Rod manufactures continue to sell their rods, however, on the traditional (number) weight system.  475 grain heads usually match a 7 weight rod, while 500 grain heads usually match 8 weights.

If you plan to fish smaller summer rivers, you might prefer the grace of fishing a lighter head, something in the realm of 400 grains.  If you plan to fish bigger winter rivers, you might prefer the muscle of fishing a heavier head, say a 600 grain.

If you plan to fish small rivers, you’ll want a “compact Skagit” head (usually between 21-27 feet).  If you plan to fish bigger rivers, you’ll want a standard Skagit head (usually between 27 and 31 feet).

Once you’ve selected the head that is most likely to match your needs, then you can think about rods.  Which will be the subject of our next Going Spey post.

In the meantime, check out Airflo’s excellent line chart: http://www.rajeffsports.com/spey_chart.pdf  This document will allow you to start thinking about which lines will dovetail with which rods–an essential resource when purchasing a line and rod.  Unlike single-handed rods, two handers require a precise line and rod match.  Selecting a line even 20 grains off perfect can lead to a tough to cast rod in some cases.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask them in the comment box.  I’m happy to help however I might.

Addendum: Surf anglers are picking up two-handers in droves.  Most of these anglers are looking for a longer rod with which they can overhead cast.  Except in a few rare situations, Scandinavian heads will be the best match for surf anglers.  If you’re looking to throw striper flies during windy conditions, be sure to select a Scandi line over 500 grains.  Lighter lines will have trouble delivering the goods.

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