Google "spey rod" and you'll get 300,000 results. Read the product descriptions written by rod manufactures these days and you'll learn every rod is perfect for "novice and expert casters alike." So how is a person to pick a spey rod?
First let me say, very few two-handers are perfect for novice and expert casters alike. In fact, most two-handers aren't perfect for anyone. With demand for two-handers sky rocketing, some companies have rushed rod designs to the marketplace that should probably have been left on the drawing board. My first piece of advice: don't believe the product descriptions. My second piece of advice: more money does not necessarily mean a better rod.
If you read the first post in the Going Spey series, you'll see that the place to start isn't with rods but with lines. That first post will help you select which line is for you. Once you've settled on a line, then you can move on to rods.
Surf anglers have it easy: they will want a two-hander with a progressive taper and fast recovery. These rods allow a caster to generate fast line speeds and long casts while overhead casting a Scandi line.
River anglers (steelhead, salmon, trout, etc) aren't so lucky; selecting a rod is a bit more complicated for us. When learning to spey cast, you're looking for one feature above all others: easy timing. So much of a spey cast depends on the sweep into the D-loop; if you time that correctly, the line will do the work for you.
Most two-handers are not easy to time. Most two-handers, I believe, are built to feel as if they possess a deep reserve of power. Probably because most of us long to be able to cast a mile and think a powerful rod will allow us to cast our farthest. The irony is a mis-timed cast won't go anywhere, no matter how much power the rod applies.
In my experience, you can wiggle a rod in a fly shop and get a good sense of whether it will be easy to time or not. The trick is to swing the rod instead of shake it; make that rod flex back and forth. As it flexes, notice where in the rod's length that flex occurs.
Most rods will flex some in their top 1/3 and most in their middle 1/3. A lot of rods will seem to flex only in their middle 1/3. Keep swinging rods until you find one that you can feel flexing in the cork, literarily under your finger tips. Rods that flex in their bottom 1/3, in my experience, are those rods that will be easiest to time.
As you cast a rod like this, you'll have more room for error as you sweep into your D-loop. A little too fast or a little too slow, don't sweat it: the rod will correct your mistakes. Easy to time rods will have you casting fishable loops in no time.
A quick note on distance: Many features affect how far a rod will cast, but maybe the most important is recovery time, especially when looking at rods that flex deep into the blank. Recovery time is measured by how fast the rod returns to a straight, settled position after the fast. Rods that recovery quickly have transferred more of their energy into the line itself, meaning the line will fly farther. In general, rods with higher modulus graphite recover faster than rods with lower modulus graphite.
Ideally, you end up with the best of both worlds: a rod that is easy to time--and that recovers quickly.
(By the way, I've been field testing rods like these this fall, and will offer product reviews in the coming weeks of those with which I was most impressed. Stay tuned.)