Getting Started with Spey Casting
Perhaps you're in the same fly casting bind I was in. You often don't have enough room to make back casts, and at your age casting a 7-weight fly rod for three or four hours leaves you exhausted and sore. Spey casting, you read, will save you a lot of energy and ibuprofen.
So, you wonder, should you delve into your pockets and shell out the big bucks for a spey rod and line?
Eventually, I did, and then I immersed myself in spey casting articles and DVDs, until I felt ready to give spey casting a go.
I headed to my local park, and plunged in—right into an incoming disaster.
I couldn't set up an anchor. My forward casts, therefore, died before they were born. I felt I just needed more practice—a lot more—but instead of relief in sight, I saw blown anchors and stillborn casts.
I didn't need the grief, but I couldn't let go.
Finally, after about two fishing seasons of practicing and experimenting with spey casting techniques, my predicament came to a resolution, and I saw myself as a competent spey caster. So, to spare you a tsunami of frustration, I'd like to share what I learned. What follows, however, is not an in-depth analysis of spey casting, but rather a starting point.
SPEY RODS, LINES AND LEADERS: It's vital that we match them to each other, and to our fishing situation. I believe that we should start by choosing the right line. Here are our basic choices: 1. Long-belly lines are, for most anglers, the hardest lines to learn how to cast. Their advantages are they allow us to make long casts, without having to then retrieve much, if any, line—great if we're fishing a wide river and want to pick up and cast as soon as our fly finishes its drift. We will, however, need enough room behind us so that we can form a long D loop. 2. Mid-belly lines are easier and less tiring to cast than long-bellies, so they're a better choice for fishing smaller rivers, especially when we have less room behind us. 3: Skagit lines are short-belly lines that make it easier for us to cast sinking lines and heavy flies. (With a 6/7 Skagit line, for example, we can cast up to about size 2 flies.) These lines are also great when we have limited casting room behind us. Because these lines are heavy, they're good for casting into a strong wind. Some casters, however, feel that Skagit lines are a bit noisy on the water. Also, we'll often have to retrieve a considerable amount of line after each cast—a plus if we're fishing stillwater. (For short spey rods—11½ feet or so—there are now short Skagit lines.) On the front of a Skagit line we'll have to add a floating or sinking tip and a monofilament or a fluorocarbon leader. We also might have to add a Skagit Cheater. (The longer the spey rod, the longer the cheater.) 4: Scandinavian lines are light short-belly lines that are quiet on the water, but somewhat limited to casting smaller flies, about a size 6 with a 6/7 line. On the front of a Scandi line we'll have to add, along with monofilament or flourocarbon, a polyleader: 10 foot leaders for rods shorter than 14 feet (most Scandi rods), 15 foot leaders for longer rods.
We can also use polyleaders as part of our overall leaders when we're casting a mid- or long-belly line.
We have to experiment to find what length leaders work for us. Here's some general rules for mid-, long belly and Skagit lines: If we're casting a floating line, our leader—including the tip if we're casting a Skagit line—could be up to about 1.5 times the length of our spey rod. If, however, we're casting a Scandinavian line, our leader could be up to 2 times the length of our spey rod. If we're casting a sinking-tip line or a heavy fly, our leader could be up to the length of our rod. If our leader is too short our anchor will probably land too far behind us and be too short. If our leader is too long, we'll have trouble lifting the fly off the water during our back swing—more about that later—and our anchor will be too long. An anchor that is too short will not have enough water tension to load our spey rod at the start of our forward cast. An anchor that is too long will have too much tension and grip the spey line. In either case, our cast will be underpowered.
Now that we've chosen our line, we must choose our rod. Some spey casters use the rule of 5, meaning that the length of our spey rod shouldn't be more than 5 times the length of the belly of our line. I, however, prefer a little over 4 times. For example: If my spey rod is 12½ feet, the maximum length of the belly will be about 52 feet.
Finally, we must choose a reel. Because spey lines are thicker than traditional fly lines, we must use much larger reels. For my 6/7 Scandinavian line, I use 8/9 large arbor reel. Before buying a reel, I suggest trying on the line.
Now that we've chosen our line, rod and reel, we must turn to the techniques of spey casting. Yes, there are many spey casts: Single Spey, Double Spey, Perry Poke, Snap-T, etc. I believe all of them become, to some extent, dependent on being able to correctly execute a Single Spey (often referred to as a Switch Cast if we're not changing casting directions).
To make my casting descriptions clearer, I'll assume we're casting right-handed, with our right hand on top. Let me begin by saying that there are many different opinions about spey casting techniques. In the end, therefore, we'll have to experiment and see what works best for us.
THE STANCE AND GRIP: Most right-handed spey casters begin with their right foot forward. This closed stance helps prevent us from rotating our hips too far during the back swing. If we put our right foot too far forward, however, we will lock our hips during the forward cast and make it impossible for us to generate maximum casting power. I like to cast with the front of my right heel in-line with the front of my left foot. I slightly bend my knees and shift my weight to my front foot. (The longer the belly of my line, the more weight I'll shift.)
We hold the rod lightly with our top hand near the top or the middle of the rod grip. When casting shorter rods some casters hold the bottom grip with just their index and middle fingers. Our elbows are close to our body. We point the rod parallel to the water or slightly downward, with the rod tip close to the water. We tightly hold the line against the rod grip with our index and middle fingers, or with all four fingers.
THE LIFT: It doesn't start until we retrieve all slack from the line; then the key is to use our arms, not our wrists, and execute the lift vertically, slowly and smoothly. If we want to execute a long back swing and form a long, narrow D loop, we lift the spey rod to about 9:30. For a shorter back swing and D loop, we lift the rod to 10:30.
If we have a lot of line tension because of fast moving water, we must apply more power early in the lift. As more line clears the water and line tension decreases, we apply less power.
After we finish our lift we immediately begin our back swing.
THE BACK SWING: Generally, the more line we have outside our rod tip the longer (and faster) our back swing and forward cast must be. I think one of the keys is to executing a back swing is to think of our lower wrist and our top elbow as swivels. This will prevent us from breaking our top wrist and sliding our elbows sideways, and thereby ending our swing too far back. This casting defect might land our fly in a tree or bush behind us, a dreadful calamity called a "blown anchor."
We begin the swing by gently rocking back, and slightly rotating our hips and shoulders, and then shifting our weight to our back foot. If we rotate too far we might again blow our anchor. As we shift our weight, we keep our top elbow in place, and move our upper forearm in a circular motion, and pretend that we're using our rod tip to draw a big half-circle in the sky. We can draw in one of two ways. 1. We move the rod tip parallel to the water. 2. We slowly dip then raise the tip so that it moves in the path of a hanging clothesline. Either way, we finish drawing the half-circle by slightly raising the spey rod, without changing its angle. This raising, often called an up-kick, will aerialize our fly, leader, and line. (Unless we're casting a Skagit line or executing other spey casts like the Double Spey or the Snap-T, we ideally want
to aerialize our fly and leader and set up what is called an airborne anchor.)
If we raise the rod too much, we will widen and weaken our D loop.
To add energy to our D loop we should slightly accelerate our up-kick.
If we started our swing with the rod at 9:30 we should end our swing at 2:30. If
we started at 10:30 we should end at 1:30.
Five casting defects, however, will cause us to lower, instead of raise, the rod tip at the end of our swing, and then prevent us from lifting our fly, leader, and line off the water. Also, these defects might cause us to land the anchor too far behind us and then to hit the rod tip with the fly during our forward cast. 1. Rocking our back shoulder down at the end of the swing. 2. Moving our left elbow and forearm too far up and away from our body. (Keep in mind: The lower we execute our lift and swing, the farther up and away we lift our elbow and forearm.) 3. Breaking our wrists too far back. 4. Executing our up-kick by moving our bottom arm before we move our top one. (This will force our top wrist to break.) 5. Breaking our wrists during the lift.
Finally, we end the swing when we have moved the rod 180 degrees. If we don't quite finish the swing, or swing too far, our anchor might not land in a straight line. Also, we might execute our forward cast by changing planes. These two defects will cause the top of our loop to swing and prevent our fly from turning over properly. Even worse, our fly might collide with our line.
At the end of the swing our top forearm points to between 12 o'clock and 12:30. Next, we must watch our anchor land without turning our shoulders any farther. The front of the fly line should be in-line with us or a little in front. If our anchor is too long, we probably swung back too slowly. If it's too short, we probably swung too quickly.
THE FORWARD CAST. After we complete our back swing we usually pause a split second—unless we're casting a Skagit line—to allow our D loop to form. (Some casters will argue that there no pause.) Ideally, we want our floating line, leader, and fly to land flat and kiss the water. Pausing too long will cause our D loop to start to collapse and weaken, and our anchor to get stuck on the water. To avoid this when casting long- or mid-belly lines, we can begin our forward cast just before our anchor touches down.
We begin the forward cast by rotating our hips, and shifting our weight forward. Aiming inside the fly, and applying about half the power with each hand, we slowly tighten our top-hand grip and begin our forward cast.
(What plane should we execute our forward cast? Some casters execute it with the spey rod pointed slightly outward—not quite vertical. Other casters, however, execute the cast in the same plane they executed their back swing. Experiment and see what works best for you.)
We increase acceleration. Finally, we abruptly stop the rod, let go of the line and loosen our top-hand grip, without lowering the rod tip from the target line. If we stop the rod too late, it will prematurely unload, and our cast will not have enough power.
One of the most common faults is "creeping" our hands and arms forward before we
begin the forward cast.
Other common faults are applying too much power too soon and forming a tailing loop.
TO CHANGE CASTING DIRECTIONS: Before we begin our lift, we turn our body and point
our front foot at the target. That way when we finish our swing our anchor will point a little to the right of the target. When changing directions, some casters find it helpful to finish their lift a little higher.
SCANDINAVIAN LINES: With these light lines we want to execute a shorter, faster forward
cast, applying about 70 percent of the power with our lower hand. To help us do this, we place our top hand in the middle of the rod grip—this is often called underhand spey casting—and begin our forward cast with our bottom hand, and then stop our cast with our top hand.
Because these lines are light and short, they're prone to blown anchors, so during our back swing we make sure to keep our hip and shoulder rotation to a minimum and our bottom elbow close to our body. (When executing a Scandinavian Cast, most of the circle we draw in the sky will be ahead of us. Also, if our anchors are landing too far behind us, we can try drawing a smaller circle.)
Finally, many Scandinavian casters keep their fly and part of the leader on the water during their back swing. While this will help prevent them from blowing their anchor, it will also prevent them from executing the longest possible cast.
To cast sinking flies we want to form a shorter anchor—this will help prevent too much water tension at the start of our forward cast—so, during our back swing, we slightly increase our acceleration and/or slightly raise our spey rod.
MID- AND LONG-BELLY LINES: Based on our skill level and/or the length and action of our spey rod, we might want to begin our lift with some of the belly inside the rod tip. The longer the belly of our line the more we'll have to rotate our hips and shoulders to generate more power on our back swing. To do this, some right-handed casters start with their left foot slightly forward. (This is called an open stance.)
SKAGIT LINES: With these heavy lines we want to execute a continuous, waterborne cast,
which means that up to half our sinking- or floating-tip maintains contact with the water during our swing. (This is called a sustained anchor.) Because there's less chance of blowing a sustained anchor, many Skagit casters also use open stances.
IN CLOSING: Please wear sunglasses and read up on wading and spey casting safety
before you go.
FOR FURTHER SPEY CASTING READING AND VIEWING:
Fly Fishing for Striped Bass, by Rich Murphy: Wild River Press, 2007.
Fly Casting Scandinavian Style by Henrik Mortensen: Stackpole Books, 2010.
Spey Casting by Simon Gawesworth: Stackpole Books, 2007.
Two-Handed Fly Casting: Spey Casting Techniques by Al Buhr: Frank Amato Publications,
Rio's Modern Spey Casting DVD.
Skagit Master Featuring Ed Ward DVD.
Scott MacKenzie's Spey Casting Masterclass DVD
About the Author
I'm a native New Yorker. My writing has appeared in many publications, including The Flyfisher, Flyfishing & Tying Journal and Fishing And Hunting News. I'm also the author of the historical, and recovery, novel, Te Fly Caster Who Tried To Make Peace with the World, and the e-stories The Bad, The Good and Two Fly Fishing Women, and The Second Fly Caster: Fatherhood, Recovery and an Unforgettable Tournament.
Much of my writing is about the techniques of spin and fly casting and about the spirituality/recovery of fly fishing. I often fish the streams of Westchester, the piers of New York City and the lakes of Central Park.
My website is: www.flyandspincasting.com.
Northern Pike Fishing