To Spey Or Not To Spey...
One of the more prominent questions that comes up every winter Steelhead season is:
"Do I have to use a Spey rod or can I fish with my single handed rod.?"
And my answer is always: "Yes!".
My own introduction to fishing with the two handed salmon rod came one sunny autumn day in upstate New York, on the Salmon River, during an unexpectedly early and heavy run of King salmon that had caught just about everyone by surprise. I had just that weekend arrived home from an Alaska guiding season and I was ready for some fishing time of my own. I knew that I was early for the fall run, but I expected to find a few early fish, as we did most years. And if I got there by Monday there wouldn't be any real number of fishermen on the water. But what I did not count on was that they had held a whitewater race weekend at the same time, and this meant releasing water from the dam at Altmar, to increase the river flows from a late summer trickle, rising to technical Class III through raging Class V+ flows. One of the racers was tragically lost that weekend. And they had closed down the dam release early to facilitate the search and rescue effort. So by the time I had gotten to the river at sunrise early that week, and worked my way on a trail downstream to a favorite run, the river was coming into perfect fishing shape. And there were King salmon everywhere! The huge release of cold water from the dam had acted to move the Kings upriver, almost a month early. And there were Coho in there with them, and even a few Steelhead.
It was more than a little ironic to be standing knee deep in a river so teeming with running King salmon that they would panic and rush at my every movement, some of them crashing into me, making it nearly impossible to wade, and my seeing easily several fold more fish in that one morning than we had seen return for the entire King salmon run back on the river we fished in Alaska that season. But as a fisherman and Guide I had grown accustomed to irony. And I knew a good thing when I saw it too. At that time I was using my Sage RPLX nine weight, nine foot rod, the same one that I had used in Alaska for salmon, and on the Atlantic near shore waters for Striped Bass, Bluefish, Sea Trout, etc., my favorite rod. I found that using a moderate length leader, a smaller fly at size #6, and a floating line, my casts were very short and my presentations were brief and sweet. A big, deep, slow wet fly swing simply would not have worked. I could sight fish to these huge chrome looking fish. I caught a lot of fish that day. More than I had in Alaska all season. And my casting arm was wearing out, and I had tweaked my back hauling in those big Kings. That's when I found out that there is actually a medical term called "King Back", at least in that region. Something to do with badly irritated discs in the spine and strained muscles etc.
Just a few dozen yards downriver, and over on the other side, there was a man using a Spey rod. One of the very few anglers I saw there that day. A few things immediately stood out to me in this scene. He was very obviously good at it; his relaxed form, spare movements, effortless casts, artful line control, were all the hallmark of a good caster. And he calmly played the big salmon with a low diagonal rod angle, almost perpendicular to the river, easily leading the fish to the shallow water at the edge, where he would deftly slip the hook from their jaws and just let them swim away. This was impressive in it's simplicity. And though I had watched Spey casters before, and even been introduced to a few simple strokes by Andy Murray, Hardy Rodmakers World Champion Spey caster, when he visited the Catskill Flyfishing Center and Museum one spring, Spey casting was still something of a mystery to me. But there was something about the way that this man was casting so easily, with such command over the line and the fly, each cast landing so cleanly and deliberately that it was humbling to witness.
At the end of the afternoon, when I found myself sharing the hike back up to the parking lot with the Spey fisherman, I had a chance to ask him all about it. And by the time we made it back to the trucks he had convinced me of the utility of Spey casting for salmon and Steelhead. And like so many others before me, I went right home and ordered a Sage 9140 rod- a 14 foot, nine weight, four piece, medium action rod- and a Rio Windcutter spey line and backing. One thing I had learned from single handed fly rod fishing was that it was very easy to become very good at casting badly. At the end of fifteen years of self taught fly casting, I had reached the zenith of my mediocrity in casting skills and abilities.It had taken me several years of concerted effort to lose most of my deeply ingrained, bad casting errors, and I had not done it alone. Much to their credit, if not a testament to their sainthood and patience, FFF Master Instructors Floyd Franke and Joan Wulff had helped me to turn my fly casting and fishing life around, and they set me on a new course of adventure. It was not easy. It took a lot of practice, repeated sessions of correction and frustration, and I ate a lot of crow. I gave up most of a fishing season just working on my casting. But by then I was guiding and I wanted to become the best caster, and the best teacher, that I could. (I was later certified in casting instruction by Joan Wulff, and I also became an FFF Certified Instructor myself.)
I didn't want to follow the same grim path in learning to Spey cast. I began seeking out instruction immediately after getting my new rod. I was fortunate to have found some very good and generous teachers in those first years, who helped me to set a solid foundation in the basics of the Spey cast right away. This enabled me to get into Spey fishing competently, quickly, and it made it a lot safer and more fun too. Of course there were some videos back then, not many but a few. Mel Krieger had a gracious way of conveying the Spey cast. And Dereck Brown's classic, Old English form, was perfect for my sensibilities, and for my slower action rod. And for a few years I favored that old school approach. There were a few teachers around who still taught those methods as well.
But through the 1990's, and well into the 21st century now, there were serious Spey casters and rod makers in the Pacific Northwest who were working to improve the tackle, the lines and the methods, in specializing the the two handed rods to our regional waters. The greatest fundamental change came with the advent of the Skagit Style of casting, which included the use of shorter and faster rods, typically around 13 feet, casting shorter and heavier line heads, and sink tips, with greater ease and efficiency. What began with a cadre of serious fishermen and guides who simply loved the life; who worked out the line designs by hand tying them themselves, by modifying the rods themselves, by working countless hours and years to create a better way, who did not care about making a dime on it all, has become a major industry that extends to numerous manufacturers of fly lines, reels, rods etc. And over the last twenty years what had begun as a novelty- to Spey fish for Steelhead and salmon in the Pacific Northwest- has become the most widely accepted fly fishermen's method. No one thinks twice at summer salmon fishing on the Puget Sound beaches today with a two handed rod.
Using the two handed rods we can cover the same water, and indeed more water, as any single hand rod caster can, with greater ease and efficiency. I am now especially fond of the shorter and faster Skagit rods and lines, now available in a stunning range of options. The line control is easier with these rods, and the work is divided between two hands all day, with fewer issues of fatigue or stress. If you are casting properly you should not be sore or injured. Two handed rod casting makes this less of an issue- if you are doing it correctly. Once you get the basics of spey and Skagit casting under your belt, you can grow in this game at your own pace. And don't miss a chance to try the Switch rods too! The opportunities to find good quality instruction are now widespread. And there are numerous gatherings of these casters, called Spey Claves, around the country. Manufacturers representatives, fly shops, instructors and casters gather at these events, most of them free, some of them are now huge multi-day affairs, to share equipment, ideas, techniques and fellowship.
So there is no reason to miss out on learning how to use these rods, to get solid instruction, and to have an opportunity to thoroughly try any rod and reel and line combination you may be interested in. Spey fishing has turned out to be far more fun than almost anyone knew it would become 20 years ago here, and all over North America. You can't visit a B.C. Canada Steelhead river and not see Spey fishermen everywhere you go. likewise, on the Atlantic Coast, from Cape Hatteras to Montauk, to Cape Cod, Martha's Vinyard and Nantucket, Spey fishermen are using these rods on the surf thrashed beaches to successfully fish for Striped Bass, Bluefish, Bonito, Albacore etc. And of long standing tradition, the Atlantic Salmon fishermen of the Atlantic maritime provinces of Canada have used the Two handed salmon rods.
So again I say "Yes"! By all means, bring your single handed rods if you like. And if you want to try Spey casting, or Skagit casting, and exploring this uniquely simple and effective method on our Steelhead and Salmon rivers, I welcome you!
Mid January marks the beginning of the wild winter run Steelhead season here on the Olympic Peninsula, though there have always been quite a few caught through the earlier winter season every year. February and March are famously considered to be "the heart of the run" here. These are the prime months for your wild winter Steelhead fly fishing opportunity. I will be guiding fly fishermen only, Fair Chase, Catch & Release Only, through the season. We walk and wade on the Olympic Peninsula coastal rivers and streams. Advance reservations are required.
Contact me for further details.
Toll Free: 866-793-3595
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