Spey Casting
by Floyd Dean,

FFF Certified Master Fly Casting Instructor
©Floyd Dean 2002

Spey Casting 101

In recent years, a ‘new’ term has been added to the lexicon of casting: Spey casting. Named for the Spey River in Scotland – where the river is wide and the rocks and trees make a conventional back-cast virtually impossible – it is a great technique to have in your repertoire whenever you encounter similarly challenging geography. From its mother-of-invention beginnings, Spey casting has today evolved to include a variety of styles and techniques far beyond the original Spey cast.

Before we get into technique, a brief discussion of equipment is probably in order. Now, the original Spey rods were heavy beasts made of greenheart wood from South America and topped out at well over 20 feet; today’s Spey rods are considerably lighter and shorter with a 14 footer being ideal for our western waters. But you don’t have to own a Spey rod to learn Spey casting. You can practice with any fly rod that has a fighting butt. Usually, that will be a 7 wt. or greater (of course, your hands will be closer together on this shorter rod). If you are practicing with a Spey rod, you should begin with a weight forward Spey line to match your rod. For the beginner, the Spey line should have a belly of about 50 feet. And of course, in all double-handed fly-casting you must have a leader and fly. (While a hook is not necessary for practice, it is especially important to always wear eye protection while fly-casting.)

Let’s also dispense up-front with the confusing matter of the ever changing and growing language of Spey casting. Some of the terms I have heard used include: True Spey Rod, Underhand cast, Overhead Cast or Overhead Rod, Single Spey, Double Spey, Snake Spey, Skadgit River Spey, Forward Spey, Circle Spey, Snake Spey, Scandinavian Spey, “C” Spey, Snap “T”, Snap “C”, Snake and Roll, “D” Loop, Wedge Loop, Perry Poke, Cut Cast, Thatcher Whacker, Chop Cast, Overhand Cast and Switch Cast. Then, there are the Stick, (too much or too little) Anchor and Kiss. And, you’ve got the bottom hand power or the top hand power, along with fulcrum low and fulcrum high. There are the unseemly references to white mice and the bloody “L”. And, there is the wonderful old Scottish expression, “Left hand to ye’re hearts, me laddies”. The problem is that many of these terms refer to the same thing. To move forward in learning to Spey cast it is necessary to avoid getting stuck in the semantics. As you are learning it will be helpful to actually see the cast so you will be able to clarify in your own mind the technique that is actually being referenced by a particular term. This is more of an art than a science.

So, what is Spey casting? I like to think of Spey casting as two-handed fly-casting. It is basically a series of controlled loops. While many people think that a Spey cast is simply a roll cast, it is unlike a conventional roll cast because in the roll cast there is too much line making contact with the water for a successful Spey cast. A Spey cast is more like an advanced aerialized roll cast since the back portion of the D loop must not drop to the water. Only the fly, leader and a small portion of the fly line are needed to anchor the cast.

Learning about double-handed fly-casting can be a challenge, even to an experienced caster.

Recently, a whole cottage industry seems to have been churning out books and videos on Spey casting. The problem is that each author, instructor or even region of the world presents different terminology in reference to double handed fly-casting. I have worked hard to distill this glut of often confusing and contradictory information into a straightforward, step-by-step process. Now then, on to technique:

Let’s start with the grip. There are many effective ways to hold a two handed rod. I have tried most of them and found few that didn’t work to some degree: eventually, you will discover which grip you like the most. The first method (this is a good beginner’s grip because it’s neither too wide nor too close) is to place your hands on the rod at about your shoulder width. Your bottom hand will be on the butt of the rod; your top hand will be at or near the top part of the cork handle. The top handgrip is the free wrist, or key grip, which is similar to the bottom hand in golf. The “V” between the thumb and forefinger points along the shaft of the top of the rod, or, you can put the thumb on top if you like. The grip of the bottom hand can be the same. You can move your top hand up and down the cork to adjust for comfort.

As you become more proficient, you may want to experiment with either a wider or a closer grip. I like a British import called the ‘Thatcher Whacker’ where the hands are placed on either side of — actually touching — the reel. It’s sort of like holding a baseball bat or an ax, but it gives you a more positive stop than any other grip. You simply can’t over rotate the rod tip with the Thatcher Whacker!

Regardless of which grip you use, when not shooting line, use the middle finger of your top hand to lock the line against the cork handle. When shooting line, I like using the middle fingers of both hands because the line is so slick and heavy that it is difficult to hold with just one finger.

Strip what you need off the reel and lock it under the middle fingers of both hands. If you run the line from the middle finger of your top hand over the reel and pinch it with the middle finger of the bottom hand to the cork handle, you will have a good grip on the rod when you shoot line. When you make the stop to shoot line, you just stop the rod and point your middle fingers to release the line. Just remember to hang on to the rod, though.

The timing of the release to shoot line is critical in Spey casting since you have to hang on to the line and hesitate before the release. Just say to yourself, “Nice loop”, then point those two middle fingers and shoot the line. You need to feel the loop pulling the line before you let go.

While it’s best to begin practicing double-handed fly-casting on moving water if possible. , still water will work and you can even learn on grass if you use a grass leader (the grass leader, however, will not work on water). On the water, you should have a conventional leader of at least 9 feet with a 1.5 inch piece of yarn tied on the end. Or, you could use a real fly and cut off the bend of the hook.

Thanks to a Mr. Al Buhr, we now have a technique for creating a grass leader that makes it possible to learn Spey casting on grass. Here’s how it’s made: you’ll need 20 feet of 20-25 lb. test monofilament. Make your first cut at 24 inches and then tie the two ends back together with a blood knot (do not trim the ends, leave the little whiskers sticking out). This leader will look like barbed wire when you are finished. Then, continue cutting and tying at 7-inch intervals until you have tied about 12 to 14 knots; there should be about 6 inches between each blood knot. Each whisker should then be trimmed to about .5 inch long. Make the last cut at 36 inches; this will be your butt section. Finally, tie a piece of heavy yarn, 1.5 inches long, to the other end. Attach the 36-inch end to your fly line. The total length of your leader will be about 12 feet. The grass leader will catch on the grass and anchor your cast. And remember, the grass leader will not work in water.

Two-handed fly-casting requires that you limit the contact of the line on the water to just the fly, the leader, and if anything, a very small portion of the fly line. Most of the line is aerialized into what is referred to as a “D” loop in the back cast. The shape of a capitol D is formed with the line being the curve and the rod the straight line. I have found the following coaching cadence helps students understand the timing of the cast: “LIFT, SWEEP, ANCHOR, DRIFT, STROKE.” While there should be a very slight hesitation after each step, the timing should be smooth and fast enough to execute the cast.

While you are learning the basics, try to place your fly in exactly the same direction from whence it came. What is presented here is known alternatively as a Switch Cast, Forward Spey or a Practice Spey Cast. This practice is in preparation for the true Spey cast, which you will have achieved when you learn to change direction on the water.

To begin the cast, hold the rod directly in front of you at about waist height with the butt of the rod off the left hip. Have 50 - 60 feet of fly line on the surface of the water (you should be standing about knee deep). The rod should be pointing downstream at the fly and about 2 inches off the surface of the water. Now, to minimize slack, strip in about 4 feet of line. Lock the line to the grip with the middle finger of both hands with the line between your hands stretched over the reel. Your left foot should be pointed in the direction you want to make your cast. Since the purpose of the LIFT is to clear most of the line from the surface of the water, the height of the lift should be only enough to break surface tension on the water with a very smooth, semi-vertical lift upward of the rod. The rod tip lifts 2 to 6 feet in front of you, and to the right. You are now moving into position for the SWEEP portion of the cast.

The SWEEP begins with a slight, (1 - 2 foot) downward and to the side movement of the tip of the rod, which sends the fly toward the anchor point of the cast. The tip of the rod will be 1 - 2 feet above, and parallel to, the water; the butt of the rod will be at about waist height or a little above. The rod tip then moves back 8 - 10 feet. Imagine you are drawing a saucer shape (cut in half vertically) with the tip of the rod and the top hand. This brings the fly upstream and readies you for the ANCHOR portion of the cast.

At his point you add a little KICK to the rod by either pushing forward with the bottom hand or pulling backward with the top hand (although some people also produce the Kick with a quick twist of the upper torso). This is just a quick movement of an inch or two that sets the fly moving in a downward motion so that the ANCHOR point can be achieved. But remember, finesse is the key: if you kick it too hard the line will crash into the water. Just a little Tap or Kick is all you need. This also turns your “D” loop into more of a wedge or arrow shape, which will give you a better load on the rod so you can make a better cast.

The ANCHOR of the cast (which consists of the kiss of the fly, the leader and a small portion of the fly line on the water) is set as you complete the half-saucer and begin to draw 1/2 of a soup bowl, (a soup bowl cut in half vertically). So, the top hand and the tip of the rod draws the shape of 1/2 of a saucer connected to the shape of 1/2 of a soup bowl. Tracing the saucer shape and adding the ‘kick’ sets the anchor. Tracing the half of the bowl creates a rising loop in the back cast. This is the “D” loop.

The ANCHOR is the key to the success of the Spey cast. The position of the ANCHOR should be about one rod length to the right of the right handed caster. From that point, the fly, leader and line may lie anywhere between three or more rod lengths forward and one rod length behind depending upon the length of line to be cast and your back cast territory.

You want to avoid too much anchor or the cast won’t lift. You’ll know you have too much anchor if you see little splashes of water behind the line as it attempts to lift against too much surface tension. This is referred to as ‘little white mice running.'

If you are not getting enough of an anchor, your fly will never touch down: it will just skip along the surface of the water. It is the downward tip movement along the edge of the imaginary saucer that leads to a well-anchored fly. The fly should stick as if it was glued to the water and only lifts when the forward loop pulls it free.

The ANCHOR, may need only the fly touching the water — or as much as all the leader and 5 or more feet of fly line touching the water — for a good cast. This will very from fly to fly and length and weight of line to be cast. The speed of the current will also make a difference.

You'll need to find your own ‘sweet spot’. The ideal is to have the least amount of line, leader and fly touching the water as possible: you want just enough to hold. If you have too much anchor you will end up with ‘white mice running’ and your line will not lift. If you have too little anchor, your fly will skip and bounce over the surface of the water and you’ll end up with an aerialized back cast instead of a well-anchored Spey cast.

As you execute the kick, you will begin to raise the rod tip tracing the outer radius of the imaginary bowl. As your rod tip drifts back and up, the rod lifts into an almost vertical position. This is the DRIFT portion of the cast.

The DRIFT is to allow you to move the rod high and far enough back to achieve a good casting angle, (between 1 and 2 o'clock, not 3 o'clock). We need enough tip travel to maximize the efficiency of the forward stroke and raising the rod maintains a rising loop in the back cast. It also moves your hands up and back into position for a powerful forward stroke. Now, your bottom hand is at about chin level and your top hand should be a little above your head. As you become more proficient you can modify your hand position for comfort and style.

At this point, you STROKE forward. The STROKE should be a downward and forward smooth acceleration to a positive stop at about 10 or 11 o’clock (not 9 o’clock). You can accomplish this either by pushing forward the top hand at 60% power and pulling the bottom hand back at 40% power or vice versa depending on your preference. Be careful not to “over whack” the rod by applying too much power as this will create tailing loops. You can use either a push/pulling motion or a chopping motion. However, if you choose to chop, it’s more of a downward chopping motion than an outward chopping motion. You can stop the butt of the rod at your belt, heart, or armpit, but it must stop to form a good forward loop. If you find you are throwing tailing loops, try holding the rod gently with the thumb and forefinger of both hands. This will prevent you from overpowering the rod.

Most people using a single handed rod, attempting to shoot line with a conventional double haul, release the line too late. The trick in a Spey cast is not to release the line too soon. In order to shoot line in a Spey cast, you should hold the line a little longer to form the loop that will carry the line. Here is a good learning cadence to help you know when to release the line: as you make the stop and you observe the loop unrolling, say to yourself, “Nice Loop!” and let go of the Spey line. That’s, “Stop the rod, Nice loop, Let go.” The excess line will shoot through the guides for a nice long cast. Timing of the release is critical.

To continue your practice Spey casting, strip the line in until the rear taper of the weight forward line enters the tip-top of the fly rod and begin again with the cadence, LIFT, SWEEP, ANCHOR, DRIFT, STROKE.

As with anything, it takes good practice to develop good casting. Because you may be on either side of the riverbank (and the wind direction is variable), it is necessary to be able to cast with either the right or left hand on the top of the rod handle. So, while you are practicing, change your hand position. You will find it very awkward at first but the practice with both hands will give you the flexibility to meet any fishing situation. And remember, the measurements used in this article are just references to get you started: as you gain proficiency in Spey casting, your measurements will change.

The Forward or Practice Spey cast will give you the skill to launch a line. You now know how to load the rod, make a forward cast and form a D loop in a straight line — basically, you know how to cast one direction. The easiest change of direction cast to learn is the Double Spey.

To fish, we need to make a cast 45 degrees across the river so we can sweep the fly through the fish. For our purposes, the river is running left to right. For the right-handed caster, this is a Double Spey situation. Keep in mind as you learn this, you are working on becoming ambidextrous.

The above Spey casting cadence will be altered slightly for Double Spey casting.

In the Double Spey, as you grip the rod, right hand on top, THE LIFT becomes a lifting of the tip of the rod from downstream to up stream. Basically, you just cross your arms at the forearms as you move the rod tip in a 180-degree arc from the downstream to the upstream side. You will have 50 to 60 feet of line out. You start with your top hand palm up and as it rotates over in a big arc it becomes palm down and your forearms are crossed in front of you. The fly should land about 20 feet down stream from you on your right. This is your ANCHOR point.

As soon as the line off the tip of the rod hits the water, you immediately move the tip of the rod out in front of you and parallel or a little above parallel to the water. That’s where you resume tracing the bottom of the saucer into the bowl. Your left tfoot should be pointing in the direction you want to make the cast. Now, go into your cadence beginning with the SWEEP, DRIFT, and the STROKE. Remember you have to do this fast enough so that the water doesn’t sweep your fly back down the river.

So that you can make a double Spey cast with both hands, go to the other side of the river, (it’s now running from right to left). Put your left hand on top and make the double Spey. Point your right foot in the direction that you want to make the cast. simply reverse and repeat the process described above.

Be patient with yourself because this is the most difficult cast to learn in Spey Casting. It is the most graceful cast and disturbs the water the least. And, it’s important because there are rivers in the world where using anything other than the Single Spey is frowned upon. Executed correctly it is the most efficient and effective Spey cast since it only requires one smooth motion into the ”D” loop and a smooth acceleration to a stop forward. To be effective on any side of the river and in any wind condition, you need to be able to cast the Single Spey with either hand on top.

To begin, straighten 50 feet line out on the water downstream with the river running right to left. The butt of the rod should be at your left hip. Point your left foot, which should be slightly ahead of the right foot, at about a 45 degree angle across the river in the direction you want to cast.

Go into your LIFT, SWEEP, ANCHOR, DRIFT, STROKE cadence. The LIFT remains the same. However, the SWEEP part of your stroke has to be greater and more powerful because your saucer has now become a plate. You sweep the top of the handle of the rod through an almost 140 degree angle. This sets you up to make the little kick, which is also now a little bigger. As you make the kick, that drives the fly and leader to the ANCHOR point which should be at least 5 feet upstream from you and pointed in the direction you want to cast.

The fly has to be as least 5 feet up-stream to avoid a collision of fly and line. Otherwise, the tip of the rod crosses the fly line during the forward stroke and tangles. Now, the rest of the cadence remains the same. That’s DRIFT and STROKE, then, shoot some line. If the current is very fast you may need to ANCHOR the fly 10 or more feet above you. The fly should remain upstream as you make the forward STROKE.

So that you will be able to fish the other side of the river, reverse the process. Straighten the line out on the water downstream with the river running left to right. The butt of the rod should be near your right hip. Point your right foot, which should be slightly ahead of the left foot, at about a 45 degree angle across the river in the direction you want to cast. Go into your cadence and make the cast.

You’ve no doubt seen ‘Tai Chi’. Think of this as ‘Spey Chi’. As you make the smooth graceful movement with your rod and hands, you will be shifting your weight from back to forward while rotating at the hips. This grace becomes crucial as you progress into change-of-direction Spey casting.

The snap “T” or Cut Cast can be used in place of the Single or Double Spey. To begin, assume the river is running right to left and your right hand is on the top of the rod handle. You are standing knee deep in the river. Let 50 to 60 feet of line out and point the tip of the rod at the fly, 2 inches off the water. You should have stripped in 4 feet of line to minimize slack. The butt of the rod should be at your left hip. Your left foot should be pointed at a 45 degree angle to the flow of the river in the downstream direction. Here we will alter the above cadence slightly. The cadence for the Snap “T” is: LIFT, CUT, ANCHOR, SWEEP, KICK, DRIFT, STROKE.

Begin with the LIFT to clear most of the line from the water. The lift should be high enough so that only the fly, leader and about 1 to 2 feet of the fly line remain on the water. Drive the tip at a slicing angle back down river a little past the fly in the direction of the bank behind you. This is the CUT. The palm of the top hand should be up at this point so that you will be cutting under the fly. This will form a loop that will drive the fly upriver. This is your ANCHOR point.

The fly must ANCHOR at least 5 to 10 feet above you so that the fly remains up river through out the cast. Then swing the tip of the rod around horizontally at about 2 to 3 feet above the water level. This is your SWEEP. Now it’s time for a little KICK. The movement of the KICK is described above under ‘SWEEP’. The KICK is to drive the “D” loop 180 degrees in the opposite direction that you want to make the cast. If the kick is east the delivery will be west. Go into the DRIFT portion of the cadence as described above. Move into the STROKE and finish with shooting those 4 feet of slack.

There is confusion in the labeling of the Snap “T”, Cut Cast, and “C” Spey. Here, I refer to any straight line cut or snap as a Snap “T” or Cut Cast. I try to avoid the term, ‘Snap “C”’, because when you make the snap you will lose your “C” shape. When the tip of the rod draws more of a curved “C” in the air, I refer to it as a “C” Spey cast. This should be an elliptical or egg shaped loop. Sometimes the “C” is backwards depending upon the side of the river on which you are casting. If a “C” were painted on a store window you could look at it from inside or outside of the store and, it would still be the same shape but from a different point of view.

The “C” Spey is accomplished anytime the tip of the rod or top hand traces that curved elliptical shape in the air in place of the cut or Snap which moves in a straight line. This can be done from either side of the river. If the river is flowing left to right, your left hand should be on top, and the “C” should be drawn over and under in the counter-clockwise direction. The cadence is: LIFT, SWEEP, “C”, ANCHOR, DRIFT, STROKE. If the river is running right to left, your right hand will be on top and your “C” shape will be drawn in the clockwise direction.

This cast is sometimes called the Snake and Roll or the Circle Spey. Begin with the river flowing from left to right. The right hand is on the top of the rod handle. The butt of the rod should be at your left hip. Your right hand will stay on the right side of your body as you make this cast; the fly is hanging down river. The cadence for the Snake Spey is: LIFT, CIRCLE, SWEEP, ANCHOR, DRIFT, STROKE.

Begin with the LIFT to break the surface tension. The CIRCLE occurs when you draw a large, counter-clockwise elliptical circle reaching out and up with the tip of the rod in the direction of the target area. Your arms will be almost fully extended as you reach to the side of you and across the river at about a 45-degree angle to the bank. When you have reached out as far as you can, draw the rod down and back into the SWEEP. This will bring the fly from downstream into the air and into position for the ANCHOR, which will be in a straight line to your target area. The rod tip will be nearly parallel to the water or a little above during the SWEEP. This will lead you into the ANCHOR, DRIFT and STROKE as above. Initially, this will be an exaggerated movement, but as you gain refinement with the Snake or Circle Spey, your movements can become more compact.

Unlike the Snap “T” or “C” Spey, in the Snake or Circle Spey the fly should always land in the direction you want to make the cast. The ANCHOR point should always be 10 to 20 feet down river and 20 to 30 feet in front of you towards your target area for the final delivery. This is the easiest cast to learn because it requires less movement and because you are also aerializing most of the line, there is less disturbance on the water than in the Double Spey. For these reasons, I recommend this cast as a good one to use in place of the Double Spey.

While fishing on the Dean River in British Columbia, I was able to fish the far bank of the river, running from my right to left. Since there was absolutely no back-cast area because of overhanging trees, I had to use a modified Snap T. What I did was more of a side-arm cast and the D loop was low, short and arrow shaped. Since I had to fire the forward quartering cast down-river prematurely to avoid the bushes behind, I let it drift to the fish. Hook up! The Dean River Steelhead was on! Now, there is no way I could have caught these fish without the Spey rod. Even so, I had to modify the conventional two-handed cast (because of the total lack of back-cast area and imposing bushes and trees) by shortening the D loop to less than 5 feet behind me and then rushing the forward cast.

Another time, on the Good News River in Alaska, we had plenty of back-cast territory so that wasn’t a problem. My buddies and I watched three guys fishing one evening with single-handed fly rods. They were only able to cast about 60 feet, so they had to be close to the fish. They would each catch three or four fish and then, due to all the false casting and lines ripping the water, they put down the fish. These were bright chum salmon fresh out of the ocean, a very underrated fish. They jump and dance as much as any Silver Salmon. And they’ll throw your fly in a heartbeat.

The next evening, two guides and I decided to attack the chum hole with Spey rods. However, we were standing about 90 feet from the hole — nowhere near the fish. As we made our Spey casts (with just the flies dropping into the hole since we weren’t false casting over them at all), all the fish saw were our flies raining down on them. They didn’t even know we were there. We hooked up on virtually every cast in the course of an hour. We didn’t even count the single or the double hook ups, just the triples. In an hour, we had 6 triples: that’s 18 fish not counting the singles or the doubles. We must have caught 40 or more fish. It was awesome. The poor guy who was downstream looked like he was tied up in macramé — he had lines all over him. I do believe we could have fished all night, but the dinner bell rang and by then we were tired and hungry.

By learning the techniques of Spey casting or two-handed casting, the fly fisher will gain access to waters and fish that were previously impossible to reach. With a little Spey casting practice, the average fisher can cast 80 to 100 feet — or more — with ease. To reach that distance with a single-handed fly rod takes years of practice and still requires lots of false casting and back-cast territory that wastes valuable fishing time. Spey casting will open up a whole new world of fishing to those brave enough to try it because the fly stays in the water longer — and that’s where the fish are.

Tight Loops, Floyd Dean
©2003 Floyd Dean