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 you're casting right-handed, with your 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 you from rotating your hips too far during the back swing. If you put your right foot too far forward, however, you will lock your hips during the forward cast and make it impossible for you 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.)
You hold the rod lightly with your 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. Your elbows are close to your body. You point the rod parallel to the water or slightly downward, with the rod tip close to the water. You tightly hold the line against the rod grip with your index and middle fingers, or with all four fingers.
It doesn't start until you retrieve all slack from the line; then the key is to use your arms, not your wrists, and execute the lift vertically, slowly and smoothly. If you want to execute a long back swing and form a long, narrow D loop, you lift the spey rod to about 9:30. For a shorter back swing and D loop, you lift the rod to 10:30.
If you have a lot of line tension because of fast moving water, you must apply more power early in the lift. As more line clears the water and line tension decreases, you apply less power.
After you finish your lift you immediately begin your back swing.
THE BACK SWING:
Generally, the more line you have outside your rod tip the longer (and faster) your back swing and forward cast must be. I think one of the keys to executing a back swing is to think of your lower wrist and your top elbow as swivels. This will prevent you from breaking your top wrist and sliding your elbows sideways, and thereby ending your swing too far back. This casting defect might land your fly in a tree or bush behind you, a dreadful calamity called a "blown anchor."
You begin the swing by gently rocking back, and slightly rotating your hips and shoulders, and then shifting your weight to your back foot. If you rotate too far you might again blow your anchor. As you shift our weight, you keep your top elbow in place, and move your upper forearm in a circular motion, and pretend that you're using your rod tip to draw a big half-circle in the sky. You can draw in one of two ways.
1. You move the rod tip parallel to the water.
2. You slowly dip then raise the tip so that it moves in the path of a hanging clothesline. Either way, you finish drawing the half-circle by slightly raising the spey rod, without changing its angle. This raising, often called an up-kick, will aerialize your fly, leader, and line. (Unless you're casting a Skagit line or executing other spey casts like the Double Spey or the Snap-T, you ideally want to aerialize your fly and leader and set up what is called an airborne anchor.)
If you raise the rod too much, you will widen and weaken your D loop.
To add energy to your D loop you should slightly accelerate your up-kick.
If you started your swing with the rod at 9:30 you should end your swing at 2:30. If you started at 10:30 you should end at 1:30.
Five casting defects, however, will cause you to lower, instead of raise, the rod tip at the end of your swing, and then prevent you from lifting your fly, leader, and line off the water. Also, these defects might cause you to land the anchor too far behind and then to hit the rod tip with the fly during your forward cast.
1. Rocking your back shoulder down at the end of the swing.
2. Moving your left elbow and forearm too far up and away from your body. (Keep in mind: The lower we execute your lift and swing, the farther up and away you lift your elbow and forearm.)
3. Breaking your wrists too far back.
4. Executing your up-kick by moving your bottom arm before you move your top one. (This will force your top wrist to break.)
5. Breaking your wrists during the lift.
Finally, you end the swing when you have moved the rod 180 degrees. If you don't quite finish the swing, or swing too far, your anchor might not land in a straight line. Also, you might execute your forward cast by changing planes. These two defects will cause the top of your loop to swing and prevent your fly from turning over properly. Even worse, your fly might collide with your line.
At the end of the swing your top forearm points to between 12 o'clock and 12:30. Next, you must watch your anchor land without turning your shoulders any farther. The front of the fly line should be in-line or a little in front. If your anchor is too long, you probably swung back too slowly. If it's too short, you probably swung too quickly.
THE FORWARD CAST.
After you complete your back swing y pause a split second—unless you're casting a Skagit line—to allow your D loop to form. (Some casters will argue that there's no pause.) Ideally, you want your floating line, leader, and fly to land flat and kiss the water. Pausing too long will cause your D loop to start to collapse and weaken, and your anchor to get stuck on the water. To avoid this when casting long- or mid-belly lines, you can begin your forward cast just before your anchor touches down.
We begin the forward cast by rotating your hips, and shifting your weight forward. Aiming inside the fly, and applying about half the power with each hand, you slowly tighten your top-hand grip and begin your forward cast.
(What plane should you execute your 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, you abruptly stop the rod, let go of the line and loosen your top-hand grip, without lowering the rod tip from the target line. If you stop the rod too late, it will prematurely unload, and your cast will not have enough power.
One of the most common faults is "creeping" your hands and arms forward before you begin the forward cast.
Other common faults are applying too much power too soon and forming a tailing loop.
TO CHANGE CASTING DIRECTIONS:
Before you begin our lift, we turn your body and point your front foot at the target. That way when you finish your swing your 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.
With these light lines you want to execute a shorter, faster forward cast, applying about 70 percent of the power with our lower hand. To help youdo this, place our top hand in the middle of the rod grip—this is often called underhand spey casting—and begin your forward cast with our bottom hand, and then stop your cast with our top hand.
Because these lines are light and short, they're prone to blown anchors, so during your back swing we make sure to keep your hip and shoulder rotation to a minimum and your 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 your anchors are landing too far behind you try drawing a smaller circle. To do this you can either make a higher lift, or slightly raise out rod tip during the back swing.)
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 you want to form a shorter anchor—this will help prevent too much water tension at the start of your forward cast—so, during your back swing, you slightly increase your acceleration and/or slightly raise your spey rod.
MID- AND LONG-BELLY LINES:
Based on our skill level and/or the length and action of our spey rod, you might want to begin our lift with some of the belly inside the rod tip. The longer the belly of the line the more you'll have to rotate our hips and shoulders to generate more power on your back swing. To do this, some right-handed casters start with their left foot slightly forward. (This is called an open stance.)
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 your swing. (This is called a sustained anchor.) Because there's less chance of blowing a sustained anchor, many Skagit casters also use open stances.
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, 2006.
Rio's Modern Spey Casting DVD.
Skagit Master Featuring Ed Ward DVD.
Scott MacKenzie's Spey Casting Masterclass DVD