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:
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.
THE GRASS LEADER
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
THE SINGLE SPEY
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”
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.
THE “C” SPEY
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.
THE SNAKE SPEY
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.
ON THE WATER
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