To achieve consistently long casts over a long day of casting, many steelhead fly anglers in the Northwest have taken up two-handed rods and a technique called spey casting. Where traditional single-handed fly casting requires the angler to make a back cast before accelerating the line forward, spey casters use the tension of the water to load the rod and make an exaggerated roll cast.
I came to appreciate the advantages of spey casting after a frustrating (and largely fruitless) fall steelhead season on the Lower Deschutes River in north central Oregon. The Deschutes is powerful and its basalt bottom is notoriously slick; there is the sense that a false step might lead not only to a dunking, but to the big steelhead river in the sky.
As I tried to make the 60- or 70-foot casts that would reach the water where the fish most likely were, I became discouraged. My line was constantly becoming fouled in the tall grasses and/or cottonwoods that extend down to the bank in many spots.
On more than one occasion, my fishing partner, Peter Gyerko, hooked fish from runs I had just fished; the extra 10 or 15 feet he could muster made all the difference. Sufficiently unnerved, I sought assistance in the form of a 14-foot spey rod. The longer spey rod — generally 12-16 feet in length — allows the angler to cast the fly as far as 100 feet. Highly proficient spey casters can toss a fly nearly 200 feet. (The world-record spey cast is 295 feet, by Steve Rajeff.)
Twenty years ago, two-handed rods were almost unheard of in North America, though they were the weapon of choice on Atlantic salmon rivers in Britain and Scandinavia. The rods’ ungainly size was certainly one reason for their lack of popularity here.
“When I was introduced to spey casting in the U.K., some anglers were using a rod called the Double-Built Palakona, manufactured by Hardy,” said Simon Gawesworth, one of the world’s pre-eminent spey casting instructors. “It was 18 feet long and weighed 54 ounces — a rod for real men.” (Nine-foot single-handed rods weigh about five ounces.)
Thanks to advances in rod-building technology, my 14-foot rod weighs in at about 10 ounces, and costs less than $300.
“With the fly lines designed specifically for spey rods now available, I can have most newcomers casting 70 feet with just 15 minutes of instruction,” Gawesworth said.
Like any fly casting, throwing a line with a spey rod is not without its frustrations. In Gawesworth’s hands, the gentle sweep of the rod is effortless as it forms the “D-Loop” that is central to the cast; with a forward stroke, his line hisses through the guides. Yet a sweep that is too fast or too slow results in an embarrassing puddle of line.
There are even certain perils to spey casting: if you are casting over your right shoulder and forget to anchor your cast on your right side, you can send the fly hurtling at yourself at great speeds. Cases of anglers piercing their waders, their hats or their flesh with errant casts are not uncommon.
The benefits, however, far outweigh the pitfalls. With the two-handed rod, I can easily make casts far longer than I could ever hope for with my nine-foot rod, and I can do so with less effort — especially with the heavy sink-tips that are necessary to reach fish during the winter months. Just as important, I can control my fly line much better with the two-handed rod, throwing large mends upstream or downstream to slow down or accelerate the fly, depending on the situation.
After acquiring my first two-handed rod, I proselytized the benefits of the spey experience to my single-handed brethren, winning several converts — including Gyerko, after landing a steelhead behind him on the famed Camp Waters of the North Umpqua.
For spey-casting enthusiasts, the high point on the year’s social calendar is the Sandy River Spey Clave, held each May just east of Portland. The event was first organized in 2001 by Mark Bachmann, a fly fishing guide and fly shop owner based in nearby Welches. The two-day festivities (which attract as many as 1,000 devotees) include how-to seminars by some of the world’s leading spey casting authorities and the opportunity to try the latest equipment.
At last year’s Spey Clave, knots of anglers chatted as others took turns casting on the grass of a picnic ground that served as the event’s staging area. Nearby, a makeshift kitchen served free hot dogs and chili.
The real action was down on the river, where a procession of presenters demonstrated techniques from “Snap-Ts” to “Snake Rolls” to hundreds of onlookers. Most in the audience bore awestruck expressions as caster after caster easily landed their fly on the opposite bank, some 120 feet away.