April 28, 2020
This article was originally titled Two Hands on the Missouri: Spey Tackle and Techniques for Montana Trout.
At the start of my typical work day, the sun is just rising in Craig, Montana. The cooler is loaded down with ice, lunch is in the box, and where we are going to fish is undetermined. I pick up my clients from the fly shop in Craig—they are often two fly fishers interested in a day of trout Spey on the Missouri River. The “Mo” is one of Montana’s best trout fisheries, but it’s also a haven for two-handed anglers. With a gravel bottom perfect for wading, and a slow, easy gradient, it’s a river that was made for these techniques.
The longest river in North America, the Missouri begins at the confluence of the Jefferson, Gallatin, and Madison rivers, and meanders its way through seven states before converging with the Mississippi. It’s far more water than any guide could ever come to know well. I focus my efforts on the section from Holter Dam to the boat launch in Cascade, Montana. Cascade is the town my husband and I call home from April through December.
The simplest thing for me to do each morning is just head up to Holter Dam, but with all of my Spey-curious clients, I gather as much information as I can ahead of time at the fly shop. Are they salmon/steelhead anglers looking to improve their casting? Is this a day of practice, or are they interested in catching big trout with Spey tackle? The answer determines our entire day—where we fish and how we fish.
“Trout Spey isn’t a numbers game,” I often explain. “We can fish single-hand rods from the boat, or two-hand rods while wading. Both methods are equally valuable, but it’s best to commit to one or the other.”
The Missouri is an incredible dry-fly fishery, and on most days you will see rising fish. Single-hand rods are best suited for picking off one rising fish at a time, but if you truly want to play the Spey game, you can’t spend the day switching back and forth. With Spey casting it takes time to adjust, learn, and execute, and if you want to become truly proficient you need to put your time in.
Choosing a Trout Spey Rod
To beginners, choosing a trout Spey setup might seem more confusing than navigating Bloomingdale’s After Thanksgiving Sale. As trout Spey rods have evolved, they have developed their own classification systems. Shorter than full Spey rods yet longer than single-hand trout rods, each rod has an array of lines designed especially for their optimal use. So how do you choose?
Ultralight Spey rods—I affectionately call them baby Speys—are designed specifically for trout fishing in the Lower 48. They are sprightly compared to the full-weight Spey rods used by modern steelhead/salmon anglers. Because the rods are lighter, they require less line weight (also referred to as grain weight) than a full-weight Spey to load, and are they are designed to cast predominantly with both hands. Spey rods for trout are approximately 10'6" to 11'6" long, and they are made to cast lines weighing from about 175 to 305 grains.
In their usage, these baby Speys are equivalent to single-hand fly rods in the 4- to 7-weight range. For instance, a 1-weight Sage Trout Spey HD is for light, delicate work comparable to a 4-weight single-hand rod, and for practical purposes the 2-weight is most comparable to a 5-weight single-hander. I like to think of the 3-weight Trout Spey HD as I do a single-hand 6-weight rod—the do-everything, go-to workhorse rod. While soft enough to protect lighter tippets, it can also cast larger streamers and more robust sink tips with ease. It casts farther with less effort than a single-hand rod, all without having to worry about backspace and/or double hauling.
Different rod companies label and categorize their trout-specific Spey rods differently. For instance, Scott Fly Rods has a 4-weight T3H Spey rod designed specifically for trout and for 210- and 240-grain lines. Winston Micro Speys are labeled as 3-, 4-, and 5-weight Spey rods for suggested use with 190- to 270-grain lines, 240- to 330-grain lines, and 300- to 390-grain lines, respectively. G.Loomis IMX-PRO ShortSpeys are also labeled as 3-, 4-, and 5-weight rods, and designer Steve Rajeff suggests lines weighing 270, 330, and 360 grains, respectively. Other smaller companies like Echo and Gary Anderson Custom Rods also have baby Speys that are suitable for trout fishing.
From May through October on the Missouri there are prolific insect hatches, and warmer water temperatures mean the fish are actively feeding. It’s a perfect time to fish soft-hackles.
When I get home from a day of guiding, there are times when I find a note next to my dinner stating that my husband has taken the dog for an evening fish. Who can argue with that? The dog is fed and walked, dinner is made, and I get a little alone time.
It was on one of these occasions that my husband and fishing partner, Mike McCune, announced that he was done fishing streamers for trout. Henceforth, he was going to focus on floating lines and soft-hackles. He was “tired of moving the fly.” I took this news as odd, but Mike is a steelhead angler since childhood and he’s an avid fly tier. He had spent the previous month filling fly boxes with various patterns, sizes, and colors of soft-hackles, and he wanted to use them.
Sylvester Nemes’s book The Soft-Hackled Fly first clued me in to my husband’s thinking. Nemes points out that fishing a soft-hackle is not that much different from A.H.E. Woods’s approach to fishing a greased line for Atlantic salmon. The idea is to convey a natural presentation to the fly, using an upstream or a downstream mend to prevent the tightening of the fly line. According to Nemes, a “soft-hackle applies to a class of wingless, sub-aqueous flies, the hackles of which come mostly from birds such as partridge, woodcock, grouse, snipe, and starling.”
Mike is quickly mastering soft-hackles. They are impressionistic flies, and the variations that have sprouted from Nemes’s classic review of the genera are endless.
When you choose your fly, it’s wise to match the color scheme of body and hackle to the predominant insect, but it isn’t critical to have an in-depth knowledge of hatches and hatch cycles. Soft-hackles work incredibly well during hatches on the Missouri when the trout are binge feeding, but they also drum up trout when nothing is hatching.
As water levels drop on the Missouri at the end of the runoff, the fish rise just short of midriver. I fish soft-hackles with Spey rods to get more distance with less effort and better line control. Spey rods also allow you to fish in backcast-constrained locations.
Prolific hatches of stoneflies, mayflies, and caddis bring pods of fish to the surface, perfect to let a soft-hackle pattern drift lazily on top, or sink subsurface and then rise to the surface in the last quarter of the swing. Caddis hatches in particular create perfect situations for soft-hackle techniques, and the Missouri has massive populations of these aquatic insects. When caddis are hatching, use a Partridge and Orange or a Partridge and Yellow soft-hackle with a wire or tinsel-ribbing body. The subtle shine from the tinsel or wire gives the impression of gas bubbles as the insect rises toward the surface and transforms from the aquatic to airborne aspect of its life cycle.
Early summer mornings and evenings are perfect for soft-hackle fishing with two-hand rods. The sun is at a low angle, most of the boats are off the river, the bar hatch has begun, and the chance for rising fish is higher than during the high-sun hours. We often have the river to ourselves.
The excitement of the early morning risers nourishes us through the hot afternoons when the fish are tight-lipped and obstinate. I use afternoons to work with my clients on their casting skills, catch the occasional maverick, and take in the glory of America’s longest river. When the sun drops, the action often picks up again.
However, if the water temperature is below 35 degrees F., I suggest using streamers, since the trout feed less frequently and look for larger meals. If you are my husband, you’d head home and grab a book, or tie another soft-hackle.
When swinging soft-hackles, it’s best to present the fly perpendicular to the current (A.H.E. Woods called this a broadside presentation) for as long as possible throughout the swing. Use upstream and/or downstream mends to control the direction of the fly and maximize the amount of time the fly is presented broadside to the fish. However, at the end of the swing, try not to rush your recast, as it is not uncommon for fish to strike at the end of the swing or on the retrieve. Be patient. Wait and consider just pulsing or twitching the fly in the current.
Streamers are my go-to from November to April when there are fewer insects in the water, or during times when I feel a larger meal is warranted. A huge benefit to fishing streamers is that they are effective anywhere in the water column. They imitate a wide range of forage including small fish, crayfish, sculpins, and—more specific to the Missouri—leeches. With a two-hand fly rod, I typically default to smaller, easy-to-cast patterns—sizes 6 to 10. Woolly Buggers, Thin Mints, Pine Squirrel Leeches, Carey Specials, and Sparrows are a few of my favorite flies. On this river, there’s no need to complicate things with outlandishly sized, jointed streamers.
One advantage of Spey rods are the shooting head systems that have developed along with them. It takes mass to move mass, and Skagit-style fly line systems make streamer fishing easier. The weight of the fly line allows you to cast heavier sink tips and streamers with a positive turnover. Skagit lines use a loop-to-loop system for attaching the sink tip to the belly of the fly line. This allows you to switch between sink tips with remarkable ease, and match the tip with the water you’re fishing. Single-hand rod systems just don’t offer this type of flexibility.
On the Missouri I carry a sink-tip wallet loaded with RIO MOW tips with various sink rates. I tend to use MOW Light (T-8) tips with a full 10 feet of T-8 in January through April to deal with cold water and sluggish trout. In these water conditions, I focus mostly on the inside seams of large bends. In May and June the trout get more active, and I can sometimes use 10-foot MOW tips with a shorter sinking portion, but I keep the heavy tips close at hand to deal with peak runoff.
[MOW tips are named after originators Mike McCune, Scott O’Donnell, and Ed Ward. FLO Tips from Airflo come in 10' and 12' lengths and with sink rates of 7, 8, 9, and 10 inches per second through the entire tip. Third Coast Textured Spey Tips from Scientific Anglers are available in lengths of 8' (80 grains), 10' (120 grains), and 12' (160 grains) and are multi-density sinking tips. The Editor.]
From July through October, I use floating lines and smaller streamers to fish riffles and drop-offs. Angle the cast appropriate to the water you are fishing, wait for the fly to come tight under tension, then move the fly.
As the water cools down again in October, I go back to longer sinking tips and heavier flies. As water temperatures drop, the fish move to slower and deeper water. On the Missouri, we call these slow, deep holes “tanks.”
In these fish tanks, it’s important to get your fly down to the trout, as they aren’t likely to move very far to take the fly. In these conditions my favorite tip is an iMOW or MOW Light (T-8) tip with a 5-foot sinking section. A common mistake is to go too long or too heavy with the tip, but 5 feet of T-8 is often all you need. It’s better to fish above the trout rather than below them, and carefully control your swing to achieve the right depth. That slight pull you’ll feel on the fly is not always the bottom. Set on anything—you’ll often be pleasantly surprised.
When I first fished streamers with a two-hand rod, I defaulted to my old-school habits of tossing a large fly from a boat. I hit the banks and retrieved the fly. I’ve since learned that wading is the best way to take advantage of a two-handed rod, because you swing the fly into the feeding lies and you can more accurately control the speed and depth of the fly.
Moving the Fly
When you swing a soft-hackle, you allow just the current to move the line (and the fly) through the water, but with a streamer you often want to add a little action. It is important when you retrieve the fly to have your non-dominant hand on the fly line for line control. Choose a running line that is comfortable and that you can easily hold onto. Super thin stuff is often difficult to manage, so look for something with a larger diameter.
Here are some of my favorite retrieves for big trout water. I use these on the Missouri, but they work just as well on the Yellowstone, the Madison, or the Sacramento.
Twitch. Cast across stream at an angle, mend, and soak the fly. Jig and twitch the fly by using your non-dominant hand to pull and release the tension while maintaining contact with the fly. This is great for retrieves in slower water. It’s important to control the speed of the jig action and the depth of the drop to account for the water speed and temperature. In cold water, take your time and allow the fly to sink deeper, and then follow with smaller twitches. In fast water you don’t have to move the fly much, the current does it for you.
Rod tip. Cast across stream at an angle, mend, drop the rod tip, and then bounce it up and down. In faster water, move your rod tip a little quicker to give the fly some action.
Stripping. Cast the fly across or even upstream, and strip it back under the index finger of your dominant hand using a varied retrieve. Casting upstream at an angle is great for warmer water and for when you are casting back toward the bank or through a fast, shallow riffle. A common mistake is to make strips that are too long. Short, sharp strips give the fly better action.
End of the swing. Using a two-hand rod makes it easy to just pick the fly up at the end of a swing and cast again, but don’t be in a rush. Instead, experiment with different retrieves. A lot of times the fish follow the fly to the dangle, and some extra teasing is required. This is especially important when you’re making longer casts, and you have a lot of fishing space directly below you.
Hand twist. Sometimes the best retrieve at the end of the swing is a slow and steady figure-eight hand retrieve (also called a hand-twist retrieve). If the water below you is featureless and shallow, by all means pick it up and recast. But if the water downstream is thigh-deep with some contours and holding water, it makes sense to keep your fly in that zone as long as possible.
Getting Into the Swing of Things
Fly fishing isn’t about catching the most fish. If it was, none of us would be fly fishers to begin with. It’s about catching fish on your own terms. Spey tackle offers a different perspective on traditional trout fishing. It challenges you to come up with new solutions to old problems. Spey has become the means of targeting trout that I not only find the most rewarding, but also the most interesting.
*Whitney Gould is a fly-fishing guide at Headhunters Fly Shop in Craig, Montana. She has won seven consecutive Spey-O-Rama world championships and holds the female world record with a Spey cast of 150 feet. Follow her on Instagram @whitneygouldspey.