What is Spey Casting? Part I - Fly Fishing Forum
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Old 02-27-2005, 02:28 PM
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What is Spey Casting? Part I

What is Spey casting?
(Extract from "Spey Handbook" j.mukai @2004 available to students as class text)

By now we know that all fly casts have a backward and forward motion. In an overhead fly-cast we start by pulling the line backward flinging it over the rod tip with enough mustard to lay it out straight backward opposite the target. Just before it unravels and falls to the ground in exactly the wrong direction, we suddenly reverse it 180 degrees to cast the line toward the fish. Suffice it to say that since there is no terminal weight (sinkers, lures, etc) the opposing motion of the back-cast is essential to making things work in fly-fishing.

A Spey cast also has two motions, but itís back-cast is different. Itís made by folding the fly line in half below the rod tip, lightly touching just the end of the line and leader on the waters surface at the moment of the forward cast. This is referred to as the D-loop and creates a surprisingly effective opposing force for making forward casts.

figure 1: The D-loop

This combination of folded line and surface tension provides enough resistance so a backcast doesnít need to be laid out straight to produce a strong forward cast, sometimes as long as 150ft or more. Longer fly rods with two-handed grips are ideal, but any rod can make the cast as long as it can form the d-loop. The forward cast is similar to an overhead cast, yet with subtle differences discussed in detail later.

What Problems Does This Solve?

Spey fishing techniques help you (1) overcome a lack of back-casting space while allowing full forward cast distances, (2) gets the fly back out into the current from the dangle with much less time and effort and (3) improves line control which is one of the most important tools for the river angler.

Letís do the math Ė if a 20ft backcast yields a 100ft cast, the return was 5:1. Some techniques, like the Skagit system (casting and line design combination) can return as much as 10:1 ratios of distance to back-casting room. This casting technique originated on the namesake river Spey in Scotland where riverbanks are brushy, steep or otherwise offer little room for a back-cast. Where an overhead caster much choose certain spots where the cast can be made, a Spey-fisher covers all but the most restricted water.

When river fishing for salmon and steelhead the number of fish you hook is relative to the time the fly spends swimming in the best water. The faster and easier you can return the fly from the ďdangleĒ to the middle of the river again, the more likely you are to get lucky, hence the advantage of changing direction using what is often a single continuous movement.

In addition, mending and applying line tension is enhanced by the longer two-handed rod designs. Some rod/line combinations mend so well that one must learn to subdue the motion to prevent skittering the fly.

Finally, upon reaching a level of proficiency the economy of the caster's energy lets the angler fish longer per day, less tiresome per trip, and most importantly less troublesome per lifetime in terms of shoulder, elbow or wrist ailments from aggressive overhead casting. It could be said that good casting of any sort provides this benefit, however I would argue that Spey casting emphasizes these economies of effort for the application - river fishing for salmonids.

Form and function

Although any flyrod can make a Spey cast, optimal Spey casting tools are much longer with two-handed grips and have a variety of flexing actions that complements the anglerís Spey casting preferences and angling situations. Lengths from 12ft to 18ft are the most common, with lengths in between being most commonly used in fishing scenarios (13-15ft).

A rodís balance can be important not only while casting but while holding the rod through the swing of the fly. A reel should provide a complementary weight so that the rod tip does not feel heavy or light as the fly swims through the lie. The balance weight is best measured with a working length of line out of the guides Ė this is the actual fishing scenario. In fact for me the swing balance is far more important than the casting balance, but I pay attention to both.

Mechanics of Spey Casting Ė A First Introduction

Spey casting always involves 3 or 4 basic parts, depending on the situation. The 3 most basic movements are (a) the lift, (b) the back-cast (D-loop) and (c) the forward cast.

Additional movements are used to 'set-up' the cast to compensate for wind, current direction with respect to the dominant hand, etc. These adjustments are the most variable elements and are key to dealing with fishing situations like wind, current direction, etc. All this will be covered in detail under the respective fishing situations in later chapters.

Not only is each movement critical, but the transition between each movement is very important. The final forward cast varies very little regardless of the cast, although it is sometimes executed on the opposite side of the body to deal with cross-winds.

In Summary, Spey casting is a fly casting method that excels for fishing on moving water with restricted back casting space. Rather than throwing the whole backcast in the air behind the angler, the backcast is kept folded about in half with the last portion of line lightly gripping the water to provide enough load to make a full distance forward cast. Line control is dramatically improved as well. Aside from the mechanical advantages, itís a centuries old technique that is fascinating to learn and found to be highly addictive to those who take it up.

Brief History

Spey casting is a centuries old technique from the Spey River region in Scotland that solves the same angling problems as effectively today as it did in the days of itís origin. Spey initially (historically) seems to have skipped over the Northeast and Canadian Maritimes probably due to the use of canoes, and the disposition of local guides. However there is a Ďrenaissance periodí for spey fishing in the pacific northwest today, and itís thriving in Europeís salmon rivers to this day. The salmon and steelhead anglers of the Great Lakes and the northeast are catching the Spey bug and adoption is increasing at a good rate east of the Rockies today including the salmo salar rivers where the adoption seemed less enthusiastic the first time around.

Evolution and Current Trends (Overview)

Traditional to Modern casting rods, lines and styles:
Long full-flexing rods (up to 18ft) smoother, longer strokes; longer lines, etc. (S. Gawesworth, D. Brown, N. Nodera, I. Gordon, S. Choate, etc)

Underhand / Scandinavian styles and equipment:
Shorter lines, longer leaders and compactness of stroke with emphasis on lower hand power - evolved in very steep Scandinavian river cliff situations where shooting heads excel (G. Anderssen, N.& T. Syrstad, L. Stavmo, H. Mortensen, etc)

Pacific northwest / Skagit styles:
The integration of sinking and floating materials originated in the Pacific Northwest. Skagit casting requires the least back casting space (E. Ward, M. Kinney, etc)

Overhead saltwater applications:
Fast powerful two-handers in shorter lengths used to throw high grain lines and large flies overhead in rough conditions. Large fish are often the target.

Trout Spey:
Increasing interest in trout spey fishing is getting rod makers to produce shorter spey casting rods in 5wt and 6wt


Copyright 2004 - Juro Mukai, All Rights Reserved
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