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Spey Casting

Following in father's fly-fishing footsteps.

Spey Casting
Al Hassal Illustration

It was as perfect a September as ever. The temperature at night was cold enough to ice the deck of my boat, and hot enough during the day to make me sweat. Indian Summer as it's known here in the Pilgrim State of Bassachusetts. Before the sun was up I walked into my driveway and stared at the ice on the boat. Instead of slip-sliding my way around the deck until the frost melted, I decided to grab a pair of boots and head for the beach.

Lots of fish were around because it was fall and time for them to migrate. The coves and bowls were full of silversides, sand eels, and small menhaden, and several species of predators took their seat at the table. The striped bass ranged from schoolies to 35-pounders, there were pods of late-run shad, and a mix of bluefish, bonito, Spanish mackerel, and false albacore. Anywhere you looked there were fish. They were on the flats, on the beaches, in the rips, at the mouths of the salt ponds, and on the reefs. Labor Day was well behind us and the crowds were thin. I tossed my kit in my truck, fishtailed out of the driveway, and headed up Cape.

I turned left down an overgrown dirt road to the back of a salt pond. The brush slapped the truck, and somewhere not far away a covey of quail sang whoooo-whit, whoooo-whit. I tucked into a small opening, pulled on my waders, grabbed my rod, and trudged toward the cove, flushing several mallards from a nearby mosquito ditch. I marked the quail and the ducks, and in a few weeks when hunting season opened I would return with my setter and my 20-gauge. And if at that time I were lucky with the birds I might also pick ripe beach plums and rose hips for chutney and see if I could swap a mallard for a bag of cranberries freshly harvested from the bogs.

I chose a salt pond that would have bass and blues inside, and bonito, shad, and albies at the mouth. It was a large pond, the kind that would take an entire day to walk around, and it was protected from the wind. I would start fishing at the mouth, and as the tide flooded I would work my way back to the truck.

I first saw him from a distance. He was a tall, thin kid standing on the jetty. The rocks had shifted from decades of pounding storms and 12-foot tides, and they were slick with kelp, mussels, and barnacles.

The jetty terrain is second nature for most fishermen, I thought, but he moved awkwardly. I chalked it up to his youth. He wore a tattered T-shirt, a pair of swim trunks, and Tevas. Why anyone would walk on a jetty without Korkers was beyond me.

In his hands was a rod about three times his height. It looked like a fall-run surf stick, the kind long enough to toss a Goo Goo Eyes Big Daddy with a trio of trebles all the way into next week. Most of the kids on the jetty had shorter sticks, usually around 7 or 8 feet long.

It was odd. It was odd that this kid had such a long rod before the fall run had even begun. Odder still when I scanned the water and saw a long yellow floating fly line on the water.

He must have heard my cleats crunching the shells at the waters edge, because he turned, and I saw a large fly reel mounted on the grip.

I looked back at his fly line and it extended to just about the other side of the channel. This wasn't a particularly large breachway, but it had to be all of about 250 feet wide. If he had a nine or ten-foot leader it would have meant that this kid cranked out a 235-foot cast. I watched him knurl his line slowly, and when a big school of false albacore blew up near my feet, I didn't cast.

Instead, I studied the sand. There were cracked quahog shells mixed in with some razor clams and bay scallops. They were colorful shards of calcium with bright reds, lavenders, yellows, and oranges all mixed together. I don't think I ever noticed the beauty and texture of these ordinary shells. The scallops had their rippled surfaces, the razors were sharp and shiny, and the quahogs were blunt with their purple and black trim. I thought I would remember this moment for the rest of my life; I was about to meet the first kid who could cast farther than me, and a lot farther at that.

When I surf, I prefer a following tide. I look for a wave's steadiness and its consistency. I like the wave to grow, crest, roll, and run hard. I like it to roll over an offshore bar and go way up onto the sand. As I looked at that long line on the water, I bore witness to a rite of passage. This next generation, like the water, was passing through my previous one. It never much mattered to me before. Then again, the generation surpassed was never mine.


The water was flat, the sun grew increasingly warmer, the tide was running, and a pod of albies shredded anchovies and sand eels a rod's length away. I did not dare cast. Instead, I thought about the first trout I caught on a Squirrel Tail I tied when I was ten. And the first 20-pound Atlantic salmon I landed. The first bonefish that inhaled my Gotcha. Having my butt kicked by a kid would be just another memory that I would store in a closet with my sweatshirts, fly rods, and shotguns.

Perhaps I should learn from this master? He strip-struck twice, and raised his rod for the fight. The amount of line in the air resembled a tightrope in a circus act. I sat back down.

I thought about a fishing trip with my father decades ago off of Napatree Point. There weren't many bass in those days, and when the tide turned, an enormous school of bluefish moved in. I caught a fish and my dad didn't. Then I caught another and he still didn't. It went on like that all afternoon. We had a quiet ride back to the dock and a quiet time hauling the boat. We drove home in silence. Now, I just scratched my head.

I stood up, brushed the sand off my waders and walked out on the jetty. The kid's fly line was tangled in the rocks, and there was a small striper flopping at the water's edge.

"Need a hand?" I asked.

"Sure," he said. His hook pulled before I got down to the fish, and the schoolie dropped in the water. "I like it when that happens," he said.

"It's hard to release the fish with all this line out."

"Yeah," I said, "You're casting halfway to Falmouth."

"It's not hard," he said. "Sometimes it's tough dealing with the line, but the casting is a cinch."

I never suffered the woes of having 235 feet of fly line bunged up. I was happy with a 100 feet, and this kid more than doubled my best. He sought empathy from me, not sympathy, because his miles of fly line had tangled in the rocks.

I surveyed his outfit.

"That's an expensive rig you've got," I said.

"It's not mine," he said. "It's my dad's. He never uses it. He bought it a few years ago but he can't figure out how to cast it so it just hangs in the basement. This reel is sweet, but it's expensive, too."

"That's nice that he let's you use it," I said.

"Let me use it? If he knew I had this rod out here, he'd kill me. It'd be easier to land fish if I could set it down, but I don't want to get a scratch on it. This is my lucky rod. I catch all my fish on it."

"I don't know how to cast a Spey rod that well," I said.

"A what?"

"The rod you are using."

"What did you call it?"

"A Spey rod. They're used for salmon fishing. Named after the River Spey in Scotland."

"Oh. I didn't know that's what it was called. Why don't you use one?"

"I don't cast them well. Anyway, not like you. Why don't you show me how to do it?" I asked.

"Sure. It's really simple. I see that you keep waving your rod back and forth, but I just cast once. Just pull it back, wait for a minute, and let it rip."

"Let it rip," I said. "Please."

The kid pulled the rod back over his head and paused for a few seconds until the line quieted down and then he pushed the rod forward as hard as he could and stopped when the tip-top was at eye level. The entire line and much of his backing whizzed out through the guides and kerplunked nearly on the other side of the bank.

"That's all there is to it," he said. "That was my best cast today."

"Why is it splashing so much at the end?" I asked. "A piled leader doesn't make that much of a splash."

"It's the sinker. I can't go any lighter than a three-ounce pyramid with the current. The clam belly adds weight, too. Besides, the fish don't care about the splash."

illustration of pyramid, starfish, and fly rod cork
A pyramid sinker and a clam belly. (Al Hassall art)

"That's great," I said. "That's really great. Your dad would be proud of you."

"Thanks," he said. "I just have to be careful how much I tell him."

"Well, if I see you guys on the beach together some time I'll make sure I don't bring it up."

"That'd be awesome," he said. "I don't want to get in trouble."

Tom Keer lives in Wellfleet, Massachusetts.

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