Article: Spey Fishing for Trout
Spey Fishing for Trout
By Zach Matthews
First Published January 29, 2005
You have probably heard about it by now; you may even have seen it coming
to your area. Spey. What is it? Why is it on a trout stream? Who came up with
such a bizarre name? The development of Spey fishing began in Scotland, but
chances are it came to your area through the American Northwest. The style
is named for the River Spey, which begins in the Scottish Highlands and meanders
its way north east to its mouth in the Moray Firth, emptying into the North
The river is broad, the salmon in it are strong, and rods and styles developed to match those conditions. Typical rods in use on those waters are 15 to 18 feet long, rated for a #10 line, and two-handed. Traditional fishing demands the angler stream wet flies "on the dangle" through the current, hoping to entice a salmon to bite during its spawning run. How did such a muscular style of fishing ever come to be used on trout streams? The answer lies in America. In the second half of the Twentieth Century, anglers on both shores of the North American continent began using two-handed rods for their salmon fishing. At first, styles mimicked the Scottish roots: flies were dangled, rods were slow, the cast graceful.
Over time, American and Canadian pioneers began adapting the newer, lighter, graphite rods to spey use. And with that development, the possibility of a trout spey became a reality.Over time, American and Canadian pioneers began adapting the newer, lighter, graphite rods to spey use. And with that development, the possibility of a trout spey became a reality.
Technically, the term ‘spey’ is all wrong. Scots 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, and if you look today you will find “spey” rods, reels, and lines.
For the purposes of most American trout fishing, no spey rod above a #7 is light enough. The best (and only) trout speys on the market tend to be from a #5 to a #7, 12’ to 14’ long, with a soft tip and a rather traditional action. When choosing a trout spey, look for a rod with the proper length of cork on both upper and lower grips, preferably at least 6” below and 10” above. This will allow you to fit the rod to your grip and will help in finding a reel to balance without breaking the bank on a billfish reel. Balance is crucial in spey casting: be sure your reel is heavy enough and has enough capacity to contain at least a #10 line before attempting to purchase a spey line. For most purposes, Rio’s 5/6 Windcutter is an excellent beginner’s option, which will continue to serve just fine as you progress.
Casting a spey rod is a wonderful, eye-opening experience. However, it is not something you can pick up in one session, even for a talented one-handed caster. Purchase Simon Gawesworth’s new book, “Spey Casting,” or watch one of the Rio International Spey fishing videos. For the purposes of trout fishing, where one generally can wade, a combination of standard overhead casts, roll casts, and switch casts will do the trick, although the snake roll is a cast every angler should possess the ability to do.
A spey rod, even a light trout spey, is substantially more powerful than a one handed rod of like weight. Surprisingly, spey rods will protect tippet as light as 6x, although it is more important that fly size be correctly matched to tippet size with a spey rod due to the torque and power of the fly coming off the water. Where you might have gotten away with a #6 wooly on 6x tippet for one handed fishing, count on losing some flies with the spey if you mismatch.
Assuming a 13’ 5/6/7 weight spey, a word about line selection and leaders. First, spey lines have only recently reached industry standardization. European makers like Hardy have traditionally adhered to the old AFTMA standards, which are measured off the front 30’ of line. Hardy’s Mach I, accordingly, is rated an 8/9 even though it is an appropriate match for a 5/6 trout spey. American makers like Rio do a better job of matching line to rod weight, but appearances can still be deceptive. Match the line to the job you want it to do. A 6/7 Midspey, Rio’s middle length spey line, is a poor overhead casting line, even for a powerful caster, because it is intended for traditional spey casts. The Midspey head weighs as much as some billfish lines, and overhead casting all of it can (and, I learned, will) snap a light trout spey. Pay attention to the grain weights of a line and compare around before buying. For most purposes, the 5/6 Windcutter is a good place to start. Don’t worry about buying the tips kit for trout fishing, a floating line is sufficient.
The leader should be at least the length of the rod. For my 13’ rod, I typically choose a 12’ 5x leader, and I add 3’ of 6x fluorocarbon tippet. For nymphing fluorocarbon tippet is a good choice – it has a higher specific density than monofilament and will sink faster, keeping your leader from bowing as much in the water column. Strike indicators are a necessity. Choose an indicator that does not rely on being dry to float. Yarn is a poor choice, because so many of the spey casts leave the line on the water, dragging it through the film, and yarn will swamp. Palsa foam floats work for a few casts, but eventually they torque off the leader under the strain of spey fishing. I choose to use snap-on or toothpick indicators. On most trout waters appropriate for spey fishing, a larger indicator is just fine.
Where to use it?
Trout spey water can be hard to spot. Some locations are easy: Rim Shoals on the White River in Arkansas is a 100 to 300 yard wide, one to four foot deep shoal at low water – classic spey water. However, the Clinch River in Tennessee, which flows through the oldest TVA dam in the country near Norris, is also excellent spey water, despite its low gradient and slow current. Trout speys are appropriate anywhere a long drift is desirable, where water is deep enough to rig an indicator and nymph, or where current means mending and reaching the depths within 40’ is practically impossible. Many rivers in the country are appropriate for trout speys, even in the East.
Indicator nymphing with a trout spey can be a real joy. You have a number of options. Most seams can be approached from below, above, or the side, depending on water conditions. When you locate your foam line or current seam and spot your approach, you can choose which tactic best suits your needs. When approaching a seam from above, try carrying along a stripping basket and pulling 100’ or so of line into it before beginning the drift. (Yes, I said 100’.) Begin with a Czech nymphing style, reaching the nymph above you briefly to allow it to sink below its indicator. Rig your indicator so that the nymph bounces along the bottom but hangs up as little as possible. I choose to weight most of my leaders about a foot above the fly. When the nymph reaches the end of the Czech swing, lower your rod while feeding line. The spey rod is a significant lever, and it will give you plenty of drop time to get your line flowing smoothly. Keeping the rod tip close to the water, play line out of the basket while swishing the rod side to side to feed line. Mend line as needed with a left or right handed soft throw to keep your fly in the seam. Be prepared- takes can come at any point, and on a long drift it is difficult to read water. Concentrate on avoiding drag on the indicator and trust the weight on your leader to keep your fly bouncing smoothly.
What if you need to approach the same seam from the side? Conditions can dictate many of the situations we face on the river, and I know we have all been unable to reach that special spot. Try a stripping basket again. Pull out about 80-100’ of line and make an overhead cast upstream, aiming for the back of a rock or some structure if possible. Shoot line out of the basket until your fly turns over, then lower your rod tip. As the line comes back to you, strip into the basket so as never to create a loop at your feet. Hopefully you will get a take, and if you do, just raise your tip. The fish will be facing away from you and the hook should set itself. A little strip strike is also appropriate. When the line comes by your feet, switch to the Czech style again, dapping the line through your position and down the other side, then begin feeding line back out of the basket until you reach the end of your drift. Leave your fly on the dangle for a moment; takes often come as the fly rises.
When approaching the seam from below, simply apply the first part of the method above, again stripping line back into your basket and keeping just enough tension to avoid drag and still set hooks.
Other methods of spey fishing for trout include streamers, of course, as well as dry flies swung through the current. If you intend to do any dry fly fishing choose spun deer-hair flies or very heavily hackled strong water flies. Apply floatant liberally.
Rods and Reels
The current rod and reel market for trout speys is surprisingly slim. Sage makes a 12’ 5 weight in their traditional series, and it is probably the top of the market, but you will pay for it. For people used to one handed prices, spey equipment can carry some serious sticker shock. A $750 spey rod, with a $500 reel of appropriate size, and a $75 spey line can add up. Other options are available, however. A Japanese company called CND owned by former Daiwa-UK rod designer Nobuo Nodera makes excellent, cheaper speys. Their Expert series 13’ 6/7 throws a 5/6 Windcutter nicely and sports appropriate cork, a decent reel seat, especially nice internal ferrules, and quality wraps. CND emphasizes cork, blank, and ferrules more than most companies. A jewelry-bedecked trout spey does not currently exist. Another option is Temple Fork Outfitters rods. TFO offers a 12’6” 6 weight which will handle the Windcutter 5/6, but this rod is lighter and faster than the CND. If you intend to try a lot of nighttime overhead casting, or boat angling, the TFO would be a good choice. Both the CND and the TFO are under $300. Most reels capable of holding a #10 WF line are appropriate for trout speys. Ross’s Canyon Big Game 4 will hold a Windcutter 5/6, as will Redington’s Brakewater and Teton’s big game offerings. Because this is, after all, a trout reel, a killer drag is not required.
Spey rods carry some odd traditions, and it would be a shame to turn away from a rod just because you didn’t know why certain choices were made. Most traditional speys have an insert-style tip top, like a casting rod.Most traditional speys are downlocking, and they frequently carry a large metal and rubber fighting butt. Typical spey handle designs are full wells both on top and on bottom.
Whenever you fish a spey rod, you should “tape your joints.” Use high-quality electrical tape and lay a strip down one side of the blank, over the ferrule point, then down the other, then wrap the tape in a circular pattern up over your existing tape. Do this for every joint. The ferrule that loosens is the ferrule that explodes. Also use paraffin wax on the male end of all rods before inserting, and check frequently to make sure the ferrules are clean. If your wax becomes dirty, use a hairdryer and some cotton swabs to clean both male and female, then reapply wax. I will not cast a spey rod that has not been taped.
Also, as I stated before, points of balance are very important. If you find your reel is just too light to bring the balance point under your top hand, with a fishing amount of line out, you should consider applying lead tape directly on the arbor, under the backing, of your reel, until the rod balances. There is nothing more tiring than swinging an imbalanced spey rod all day.
Spey lines largely control spey casts. Most spey lines are a variant of the Wulff Triangle taper (or vice versa). Because a standard spey cast involves forming a D loop of line from the middle of the line and throwing it into the air, most of the weight of the spey line must be at that middle point. Accordingly, most spey lines taper gradually almost all the way from the back of the head, where they are very thick, to the front. Custom spey lines can be constructed out of different sizes of component lines using knotless splices, but thankfully most trout fishing will not require such complex maneuvers.
Spey lines are not widely available in all shops. A few online resources for spey equipment include the Red Shed Spey Shop in Idaho, www.redshedflyshop.com, and Dana Sturn’s Spey Pages, www.speypages.com. Members of the spey fishing fraternity in the Pacific Northwest are the best source of information about line development and custom spliced lines, and many of those original pioneers today serve as rod and line designers for the major manufacturers. Jim Vincent of Rio Line Company got his start designing spey lines, among other things.
Differences in Trout Spey Approach
The article you just read contains some key differences in my approach to trout spey fishing. Most spey fishers do not rely on stripping baskets except for ocean use, because most spey fishers even today swing a set amount of line in the current. The advantages of using the spey rod for trout largely are bound up in the ability to control line at a distance, and the best way to do that is to be able to control a variable amount of line at your feet. Letting a 50’ loop of line dangle downstream while you attempt the Czech Nymph pass portion of the drift described above would spook every fish in the lower drift. Instead, construct or purchase a stripping basket and learn to use it. L.L. Bean’s $19 beauty is the best deal on the market, and I highly recommend it.
Also, many traditional spey fishers will object to the use of the two-handed rod for dead-drift indicator nymphing. Let them. The method is more effective than single-handed nymphing and is highly fun. Give it a try.
For more information about trout spey fishing, check out the Bulletin Board.