One of the most complicated aspects of two-handed rods is line selection. There is such a wide variety of choices for switch and Spey rods that the process often leaves fly fishers feeling confused and discouraged. And if you don't have the right line, the best two-handed rod in the world won't do you a bit of good.
There has been a rapid evolution of lines for two-handed rods in the last ten years. Historically, Spey lines were designed with a long belly and a taper that was similar to a double-taper line. This style of line was mainly used to fish a fly on or near the surface, and to be cast using a long two-handed rod with slow, methodical casting movements.
Today, lines are manufactured for more specific fishing situations. Head lengths are generally shorter and designed in a manner similar to a weight-forward taper.
Modern Spey casting techniques involve shorter, sharper movements when casting, creating tighter loops and significant line speed. Most lines on the market today are used to cover long distances by developing speed with the front end of the line, and shooting loose running line previously peeled from the reel. And the trend toward shorter heads has also greatly reduced the learning curve for Spey casting since the casting technique does not require such precise movements as in the past.
The evolution of Spey lines has occurred along with significant changes in fly rod development. New rod technology has resulted in powerful two-handed rods ranging from 12 to 14 feet. Today's rods are generally shorter and lighter, creating a fishing tool that is less fatiguing and more fun to use. Gone are the days when two-handed rods were long, heavy, and cumbersome.
Switch rods have taken this trend one step further. Switch rods are generally 10.5 to 11.5 feet in length, and are designed to be cast with one or two hands. Switch rods are most often used for Spey fishing and have the greatest application on smaller to medium rivers, or when fishing confined areas with only limited space for forming a casting loop. Switch rods built for 5- or 6-weight rods have also allowed Spey fishing to cross over to fishing for trout and bass on rivers and streams. In recent Spey line design, most focus is given to the taper and weight of the head of the line. The head is the thicker part of the line that is normally outside of the rod tip while casting.
Line design can roughly be grouped into three types. Medium to long-head lines fall into a range of 50 to 75 feet in length and are characterized by a gradual taper capable of creating a tight casting loop to propel the head. However, shorter head lines have rapidly gained in popularity in recent years among Spey fishers.
A Skagit line setup is comprised of a very short head only 25 to 35 feet in length. This is often combined with an 8- to 15-foot section of sink tip for a total head of 35 to 45 feet. A Skagit line has its mass condensed into a short length, so the head itself is thicker in diameter with greater mass than a typical Spey line.
Another type of short-head Spey line is the Scandinavian or Scandi head. A Scandi head has a much longer and smoother front taper than a Skagit head. This style of line is designed to generate significant line speed and in the right hands, you can cast it incredible distances. Scandi heads are typically 30 to 45 feet in length and require a 12- to 15-foot light tip or leader in order to establish an anchor point.
Medium to longer heads have their best application on larger rivers. A full floating version of this style of line is a good match for fishing on or near the surface. However, a more versatile approach is to use a medium to long head that has an exchangeable tip system. These line systems have a manufactured loop on both the main line and the tips, which when tightened properly allow the line to cast without hinging. Well-constructed loops slide easily through the guides of the rod.
The tip section can vary by manufacturer but most tips on medium- to long-head Spey lines are 15 feet in length. Most exchangeable tip lines are sold with at least four tips ranging from full floating to fast sinking. This style of line can generally handle tips up to a sink rate of about Type 8. Medium to longer heads can handle flies with some weight, but heavy flies can be difficult to cast efficiently.
Due to the length of a medium- to long-head line, casting requires more precise movements and technical proficiency. An advantage of a longer head is less line stripping at the end of each presentation for less fatigue and greater fishing efficiency.
Named after a river in Washington, a Skagit head is a versatile line that can help meet the challenges of difficult fishing situations. Early in my Spey fishing experiences on the Great Lakes, I came to the conclusion that a short, aggressive taper worked well for handling heavy tips and weighted flies. Before Skagit lines were on the market, I used an overlined pike taper to do exactly that.
Most Skagit lines are sold as just a head section and have a loop on the front end for the easy exchange of tips. A Skagit head needs an added tip to cast properly.
A loop at the rear of the head connects to the running line to complete the system. A loop in the middle of the line takes some getting used to, but the advantage of being able to make an easy switch provides for a more versatile approach.
The only issue I have had with the mid-line loop is it can cause difficulty passing through icy guides. Compact Skagit heads shorter than 25 feet are designed for switch rods and short two-handers.
The large diameter of Skagit lines creates a significant amount of mass capable of handling heavy sink-tips and heavily weighted flies. Also, the thick diameter makes it easier to bring the tip and weighted fly to the surface at the end of the swing.
Since Skagit lines are shorter than other lines, they create a smaller D loop requiring less room. This makes them perfect for areas where you are backed up near brush, or steep gorge walls. Compact Skagit lines create an even smaller D loop.
Another advantage is that they are easy to cast. The weight and bulk of the line loads the rod quickly, and the shorter head does not require precise movements like medium- to long-head lines. Its ease in casting often makes the Skagit my choice on windy days since I can handle a wide range of casts, especially when casting with my off hand. The short head is also an advantage in water requiring deep wading.
The Skagit setup requires its own modifications to the basic Spey cast. Heavy tips and weighted flies need a nearly continuous motion or "sustained anchor" throughout to keep everything at the surface and effectively complete the cast. With the weight of the head attached to thin running line, you can cast it great distances. But its ability to fish well at short and medium distance, and cover a wide range of conditions and situations, is the main advantage of a Skagit line.
Most Scandi lines are also sold as floating heads with loops at both ends, although there are a variety of integrated designs with integrated running lines. Since the Scandi design has a long front taper, they don't handle heavy tips and weighted flies as well as Skagit heads.
Scandi lines are a good choice when fishing near the surface or when getting a fly down in moderate depths and speed. Normally a floating, intermediate, or sinking leader is looped to the front of a Scandi head. A leader of approximately 12 to 15 feet balances everything out.
Scandi heads have a smoother feel than the thick diameter of Skagit lines, and are capable of casting long distances. They function best with a style of casting referred to as underhand Spey casting. This style uses a short, efficient stroke to maximize line speed. Underhand casting relies on the bottom hand creating power by pulling the butt of the rod into the midsection of the caster's body, and your hands are closer together than with other styles of Spey casting.
As the development of line styles continues, it seems like a normal progression to develop a short-head line that has the positive features of both a Skagit and Scandi head. While performing well from a fishing standpoint, some of the first Skagit heads felt heavy and almost clumsy to cast. In recent years the tapers have improved, resulting in a smoother feel, but still heavy compared to a Scandi head. Some good hybrid lines like RIO's UniSpey or Airflo's Rage can handle heavier tips and flies and have a much smoother casting feel.
Selecting a style of line to use is probably easier than selecting a specific line within that style. With lines for single-handed rods, grain weight is considered over the first 30 feet to determine the line weight. But with two-handed lines, the entire head is considered when determining the line weight designation. And this designation is a sliding scale, as the longer the head, the more grain weight a rod can handle. In other words, an 8-weight two-handed rod may comfortably handle a 540-grain Skagit head but also handle a 600- to 700-grain medium- to long-head line. The line might not even say "8-weight" on the box.
My favorite 8-weight rod balances with a 540-grain Skagit head, and with a 450-grain Scandi. Finding the exact line to balance a rod can be an exercise in trial and error. Some rod manufactures provide guidelines on which range of lines to use with their specific rods, and some line companies like RIO and Airflo do it the other way, and provide rod brands and weights that match their lines.
Fly shops with experienced Spey casters, Spey gatherings, and Spey websites are also good sources of information to help dial in a specific rod and line combination.
One last consideration is rod length. Long-head lines match up better with longer rods. I typically use 13- to 14- foot rods with medium- to long-head lines. But 13-foot and shorter rods work better with short heads.
A general rule of thumb for matching rods to short-head lines, is to look at the ratio of the head length to that of the rod. A rod generally handles a short head that is three times the rod length. This approach is only a basic guide, and it generally considers Skagit head length inclusive of the tip, and Scandi head length exclusive of the sinking leader and tippet. This is reflective of the casting style required for each head.
In order to provide more details on specific lines, I tested a selection based on a cross section of lines available on the market. The lines were reviewed from a standpoint of casting, but also by focusing on the characteristics that make for an effective fishing tool. Throughout this exercise it became very obvious to me just how far lines for two-handed and switch rods have advanced over the last five to ten years.
Rick Kustich authored the upcoming book Advanced Fly Fishing for Great Lakes Steelhead (Stackpole Books, 2013). His website is rickkustich.com.