March 21st, 2005

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Spey Rods and Local Trout
By Zach Matthews, TN

There is a very wise saying that all of you have probably heard: "In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is King." Very few watersheds in the country, our land of the blind, have so much as seen a spey rod. Many of you have probably heard the term "spey" without being quite sure what it means. Others of you know exactly what the "spey" style of fishing is, but would never dream of applying it to anything less than steelhead or salmon. Well, I am a spey fisherman, but I don't have the luxury of your big anadromous species. I spey fish for trout.

"Spey fishing for trout?" you might ask. Sure. And I will tell you something: this is a very good way to catch fish. Now, I do not profess to be an expert. There are very few experts at trout spey fishing anywhere, and most of them are primarily very good steelhead or salmon anglers who dabble in the off season. This is a new discipline for me, and I hope, as you read this and other articles on spey fishing, that you will come along for the ride. Because, new as I am, I have learned that little thing: this is a very good way to catch fish.

Technically, the term 'spey' is all wrong. Scots, who live near the actual River Spey, will point out that the two-handed style is in use on many rivers, including the Dee, the Tweed, and all over the world. "Spey," they maintain, is a style of casting, not a type of rod. However, language being what language is, the name stuck in the US at least, and if you look today you will find "spey" rods, reels, and lines.

I came to spey rods for the casting. Spey casting is beautiful. I mean it. The line swooshes and whirls on a playing field three times as large as a single hander's cast. It sounds good. Even the terminology is a little bit more poetic: the snake roll, the white mouse, the rising loop.

Spey casting is a completely new field for me. After several years of serious casting practice and a fair degree of skill with one handed rods, I thought I would pick spey casting up like nothing; just a couple more tools in the bag of tricks. In a sense, I was right. It does help to know how to control loop size. It is nice to be able to shoot line on the roll cast. But on a greater scale, I was dead wrong. Spey casting starts with the film on the surface of the water and never really breaks that bond. The surface is the central axiom, and the cast is quite literally anchored to it. The anchor point is all important. However many ways you manipulate it, at its core, the spey cast is a roll cast, and you need water to roll cast. For a student of casting, this style is a new, wide open country.

How does a trout fisherman get into spey? I don't mean how did you hear of it, or want to do it; I mean literally, where does one begin? Well, chances are good you can start already. Spey casts can readily be applied to single-handed rods. All of the casts, the double spey, the single spey, the snap T, all of them, can be done on single handers. So if you happen to read this article and think, hmm, sounds nice but I don't have the set up, don't worry. Even without a double-handed rod, the spey casts are very useful.

If you really mean to fall into this like I did, though, a double handed rod is a must. Think about it. All that cork. Thirteen feet long! Midlife crisis? Forget the sports car: try spey! But where does one begin?

A lot of manufacturers produce spey rods. Some of them are sponsors here. The critical thing when choosing a trout spey, at least as I see it, is to stay close to the 'traditional' action. Spey rods, like one handed rods, have undergone a transformation into fast action thundersticks in recent years. A fast spey rod is great for throwing shooting heads, and one day you may want to try it. For basic trout fishing, though, the softer the action the better. After all, on many trout waters 6x tippet is not so much a plus as a necessity.

Some manufacturers are creating what are called "switch rods." They are named for the switch cast, which is a sort of ongoing roll cast with no pause. Often they resemble one handed rods with extra long front grips, sometimes with odd bulges to the cork, allowing the angler to combine spey and overhead casting. While these rods might very well be appropriate for trout, the trend in the industry is to provide the trout angler with a true spey.

I confess I hope this trend continues; there are many advantages to a true spey rod. What is a true spey? First and foremost, it is long: from eleven to eighteen feet! For trout purposes, look for a rod in the five to seven weight class. Stick to traditional action, which will mean a soft tip and a mid or even full flex. I prefer a rod with at least five or six inches of lower grip and at least a ten-inch upper grip. Points of balance are very important with spey rods, and the more lower grip you have, the easier it will be to afford an appropriate reel, because the extra grip adds weight below the balance point. Spey rods look a little different from standard trout rods. Many have ceramic-insert tip tops, like a bait rod. They (should) all have a fighting butt that can be set on the dirt. None of them come in two pieces. For most purposes, a trout spey of twelve feet long, on up to thirteen feet, six inches long, would be a good place to start. Rods shorter than twelve feet allow easier overhead casting but make sacrifices in line mending and long-line nymphing ability, the key advantages of fishing the spey in the first place.

The rod I chose as my personal stick is exactly within the parameters above. It is 13' long, in 3 pieces, and it is traditional action. Although it has enough power to overhead cast 100' and more of line, I can feel the rod flex into the cork.

A word about reels. A spey reel is a big piece of work, but it doesn't have to be complicated. Many of you already have saltwater or bass kits with reels that can do double duty. I simply chose a large-arbor, heavy saltwater reel I already had and bought a spool for the spey ine. The reel balances the rod right underneath my top hand when I hold the rod comfortably, with a fishing amount of line out. Don't worry if you don't have access to a top end disc drag reel. This is a trout reel, after all, and Pflueger Medalists (a fine choice) have probably landed more trout than any other reel in this country. Keep in mind, however, that a spey line is huge. You will need a reel capable of holding at least a WF8F to contain the spey line even on the trout spey. Most anglers feel spey reels begin at the four-inch diameter, with a standard (not large) arbor, just to have the capacity. Trout spey anglers can fudge a little, and I have found a Ross Canyon Big Game Number Four will hold a 5/6 weight Rio Windcutter spey line.

Spey lines are a different animal. Originally spey anglers simply used very large and long double taper lines, usually floating. As spey fishing evolved, many anglers began to experiment. Today you can find shooting head systems, sink tip systems, lines capable of unrolling for one hundred and twenty feet and then some without shooting line, plus others, among the well-heeled spey angler's arsenal. However, keep in mind that a trout stick by definition lacks the power to do some of the things a steelhead angler might need to do.

Fortunately, most trout angling can be accomplished with a standard floating spey line. Although a DT is an appropriate point to start, especially on a budget, most anglers find a shorter headed spey line like the Rio Windcutter or the Hardy Mach I to be appropriate. Weight forward spey lines have extremely short rear tapers, almost like a shooting head, which allows the D loop crucial to all roll casting, spey or otherwise, to carry most of the weight of the line into the air, where it can be shot forward.

The spey fishing manufacturers have only just recently agreed on a new set of line standards. Until those lines reach the market (still two to three years off), most of us will have to make do with the guess-and-check system. My 13' 6/7 weight spey rod is perfectly lined with a 5/6 Rio Windcutter. At least the "six" weight designations match with this particular line. The rod will also handle an 8/9 Hardy Mach I! This is because European manufacturers tend to stick closer to the AFTMA line standards, which are measured from the first thirty feet of line. Spey lines, however, are extremely heavy animals to load these big rods, often two to four line weights heavier than their one-handed equivalents, and their heads are substantially longer than 30 feet. Thus, the Hardy line, rated for a number eight or nine, is well suited to my trout spey! Be sure to consult your rod's manufacturer or try a line yourself before purchasing. For most trout fishing, the Windcutter is a good place to start.

I use my spey rod for a variety of techniques, including streamer fishing and dry fly fishing, but most often for nymphing. I have found spey rods to be excellent tools for controlling extremely long drifts, and they offer remarkable control for fishing from boats, in high water, and in bad conditions in general. I encourage you to attempt some spey casts the next time you go to the river, and if you do decide to get a double handed rod, try long-line downstream nymphing.

Just remember, the next time you see a two-handed rod on a trout stream: this is a very good way to catch fish. I hope you will join me. ~ Zach

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