Article: Spey Lines Demystified

When it comes to fly lines for Spey fishing, confusion is the order of the day.

Most new Spey casters are aware that these long, two-handed rods require a little something different from your average single-hand fly fisher’s line. Unfortunately, terms like “long belly” versus “short,” and especially region-specific names like “Skagit” or “Scandi,” have very little meaning to an angler looking to get into Spey fishing for the first time. as a result, he or she may be clueless as to which line will best help them learn to Spey cast—and eventually catch fish.

Spey Line Basics

Your most basic Spey line today (and indeed the very first Spey line invented) would be the double taper, which slowly narrows on each end to a point. At its core, all Spey casting is roll casting, and these lines are good roll casters because of their bulk. Unfortunately, they are very inefficient shooters because the thick middle section goes all the way to the back end of the line, forcing the angler to carry in the air almost all the line he wants to play out. Quite a while ago, smart anglers realized that a weight-forward profile, with a head in front of the line and a thin running line in the rear, would give them the ability to get the thick front part of the line moving forward so that it could pull along the thin running line behind it as it shot out across the water.

Of course, these same basic principles apply to single-hand lines as well. Where Spey lines differ is in the configuration of the weight on the forward end. Picture an arrowhead, with a thin arrow shaft running behind it. This is the basic diagram of a very simple Spey line. The weight-forward component (the arrowhead) thickens radically from the tip as it runs towards the back of the head, then suddenly drops off to the thin running line (the arrow shaft).

Why is this? again, because all Spey casting is a form of roll casting. “It’s all about the D-loop,” explains Tim Pommer, chief product designer for Scientific Anglers. When the Spey caster loads his rod by elevating a D-loop in his backcast (just like in normal roll casting), he will typically have about 20 to 30 feet of line out in front of him on the water, and another few feet actually in the guides or in the air loading the rod. In other words, he’ll have the tip of the arrowhead mostly sitting in the film, with the bulky back of the arrowhead actually loading his rod to give the most mass to pull against. The thin forward taper (the point of the arrowhead) will slip cleanly off the water as the roll cast comes by. Meanwhile, the thin running line—the arrow shaft—can then be pulled along smoothly behind the head as the whole line shoots forward.

When a line company designs a Spey line, the primary way its designers influence the behavior of the line is by changing the characteristics of the arrowhead. In fact, there is even an “Arrowhead” brand Spey line on the European market today. Designers can make the arrowhead longer, with a smooth gradual taper, or shorter, with a quick thick slope to the point. SA’s Pommer explains: “The longer the front taper, the longer turnover will be delayed, so the cast can shoot further before it unrolls.”

The problem here is that if a cast is overpowered and unrolls too early, the fly line will dump or crash down into the water before it has finished shooting out. Designers can alleviate dumping by tweaking the length of the head—and especially the length of the front taper. Most lines also incorporate bellies—flat, non-tapered sections, which give the head more mass. thus designers can choose to make the arrowhead heavier, or lighter, with longer or shorter front tapers, to make lines for different purposes.

Spey Line Types

Skagit heads are short, heavy segments of line, often with a very radical front taper (or in some cases no front taper at all), meant for a chuckand-duck approach, usually with sink tips of various rates looped to the front of the head to help the fly get down. Scandinavian or “Scandi” heads are not quite as short, and typically have a long, gradual front taper. Like Skagit heads, Scandi systems allow interchangeable tips, but with an overall more moderate casting approach (or in other words less “chuck and duck”). Finally, traditional or “long belly” Spey lines consist of a very long head—up to twice as long as a Skagit or Scandi head—and are most useful for the very longest casts with long, traditional-action Spey rods and traditional Spey casts like the Double Spey. Skagit and Scandi lines both come as both shooting head systems and “integrated” lines, while traditional “long belly” lines are almost always integrated; that is, a single uninterrupted fly line.

Skagit Casting

Simon Gawesworth, chief line designer for RIO products, explains that Skagit casting is a school of Spey casting developed on the Skagit river in Washington state and evolved in other Pacific Northwest watersheds. A number of anglers claim and deserve credit for the concept of Skagit casting, which like the automobile had many fathers. The basic idea is simple: take a short, extremely heavy section of line (your arrowhead) and fuse, glue, or loop a long, thin running line behind it. “We used to sell sixteen and eighteen-weight double tapers back in the 1990s,” Gawesworth says, “and Skagit anglers would cut them up to make extremely heavy shooting heads.”

Some modern Skagit lines made by manufacturers are integrated, meaning they have no breaks or loops in the middle of the line, while other models stay true to their roots and contain loop-to-loop knots so that various heads can be swapped out for different fishing conditions. If you’ve ever thrown a shooting head system on a single-hand rod, this should sound very familiar. Skagit casting is a shootinghead technique for Spey rods. Skagit heads are generally built to be only about twice the overall length of the Spey rod, and Skagit casters also use shorter, thicker and more powerful two-handed rods (typically from 12 to 14 feet) rather than traditional British-style Spey fishers (who still use very flexible rods up to 20 feet long). Usually, the short front taper on a Skagit line can also be swapped out (these are called “tips”) to change the fishing profile of the line, for example if you need the tip to sink faster.

Even a trout Spey is fairly substantial.

Why does there seem to be such focus on Skagit casting these days? Because it is the easiest way for a new Spey caster to get on the water. Skagit lines are extremely bulky, but the heads are short. This means a new caster can flub a few of his setup strokes, and still have enough mass in front of the rod to give him something to pull against, but not so much line out that he can’t pluck the head off the water. Any competent single-hand caster can pick up a Spey rod with a Skagit line and bomb out a roll cast of at least 80 feet, which is enough to get you fishing in most circumstances.

Of course there are downsides. Skagit casting was originally intended for anglers throwing large, bulky flies with heavy sinking tips, to get down fast to incoming steelhead. Except in very experienced hands, Skagit casting ain’t pretty. It is a brute force method which will turn the fly over hard—not exactly a stealthy presentation. “Because the heads are so short,” explains SA’s Pommer, “they can tend to turn over very quickly, making dumping an issue for longer casts, unless the angler adds length by using longer tips.” Further, many traditional Spey setup strokes, most notably the basic Single Spey, are difficult or impossible to execute with Skagit heads, especially for a beginner. “There’s simply too much mass,” Simon Gawesworth notes, “and it causes the line to lash around.” Nevertheless most new Spey casters in the United States today are learning to Spey cast with a Skagit line, and would likely note that they are also fishing quite well with it, thank you very much.

Scandi Casting

Skagit lines have a little sister. Smoother, more refined, less likely to spill beer in your truck, her name is Scandi. Scandi lines—actually named after Scandinavia, where they were developed—work on the same basic principle as Skagit lines, but the tapers are longer. As a result, the lines behave more like regular fly lines and less like a medieval ball and chain on a stick.

Granular Detail

The term “grains” gets thrown around a lot in Spey casting, but the name is simply a unit of measurement to help us tell lines apart. Fly fishers inherited the grain moniker from ammunition manufacturers. Just like with bullets, a grain is equivalent to 1/7000th of a pound. Because fly rods are so flexible, you don’t need that many grains to load the rod. A standard trout 5-weight can be flexed with about 140 grains of weight out. In fact, the designation “5-weight” denotes a line with about 140 grains of weight in the front thirty to fifty feet (depending on the line’s taper, the weight may be distributed over a longer or shorter distance). Spey lines are obviously much heavier. The grain rating similarly allows us to tell them apart, because simplified terms like “8-weight” may not make sense for a rod that can handle a wide variety of different loads.

Even though a Skagit head for an 8- weight two-hander is usually about 26 feet long and about 600 grains, the angler isn’t bound to use that exact head. If he was more comfortable with a lighter head, he could purchase one with less grain weight—this would not load the rod as deeply but might make for a smoother cast. Spey anglers adjust the length and grain weight of their heads according to the conditions and the action of their rod (just as a trout angler might fish a dry fly line one day and a distance taper the next).

A typical Skagit head for an 8-weight Spey rod would be about twenty two to twenty-eight feet long, and might weigh as much as 600 grains (see sidebar for more about grain weight). It would also be mostly belly, with very little, if any, front taper. Meanwhile an equivalent Scandi head would start at thirty feet long and run on up to thirty four or so. It would taper from the tip almost all the way to the back of the head, with very little belly. The Scandi line would also be lighter—topping out at about 560 grains.

In Spey casting, that thinner, longer, more tapered profile allows for a wider variety of setup strokes. The downside is that Scandi lines do not have the raw power of a Skagit system. They will not quite be able to turn over the same size of fly or pluck the same heavy sinking tip off the water. They also require better technique to get the most out of them. Nevertheless, these lines are becoming extremely popular with anglers who have a few weeks of Spey casting under their belts and are looking for more versatility. Because Scandi lines allow for more traditional Spey casting, Simon Gawesworth agrees, many anglers graduate to them as they get comfortable with the setup strokes and look to expand their experience. Scandi lines are also better suited for summertime fishing with low water and clear flows—both for steelhead and also for exotic Spey targets like stripers or brown trout. And of course, nothing says you can’t own both a Scandi and a Skagit system, to use as conditions require.

The Big Kahunas

Traditional Spey casting, as noted above, historically involved much longer, more flexible rods than those americans have come to use most routinely. To get the most out of these big rods, the manufacturers offer long-belly lines, such as RIO’s PowerSpey or Scientific Anglers’ Distance Spey. These lines live up to their long-belly name. In fact, their heads are so long they break the arrowhead metaphor because the majority of the line is in its head.

A typical long-belly Spey line’s head for our hypothetical 8-weight rod would be seventy feet long, with another fifty feet of running line behind it. In the hands of a competent Spey caster, these are truly distance lines—a one-hundred to one-hundred-and-twenty foot cast would not be uncommon. “In competition Spey casting,” Gawesworth explains, “no one uses Skagit or Scandi systems because you just don’t get the distance when you start with 30 feet of line out as opposed to a 90 or 100 foot head.”

Of course mega casts require good technique and the right equipment. Many long-belly Spey fishers are searching huge expanses of water on the big rivers of the Pacific Northwest, often with rods fourteen to fifteen feet long. This is the American equivalent of traditional Scottish salmon fishing, and convergent evolution has led to similar approaches.

The progression many American fishermen have hit on is fairly simple.

These huge lines are best cast with old-school setup strokes: Double Speys and Single Speys. Rough-and-tumble setup moves like the Snap-T are possible, but difficult for beginner Spey casters. Unsurprisingly, the long-belly lines represent something of the graduate school of Spey casting.

Moving On Up

What does all this mean for the new Spey caster? The progression many American fishermen have hit on is fairly simple: Start with a short Skagit-style system and get comfortable with the idea of the two-handed rod. As your skill improves (or conditions require), move to the more refined Scandi lines, expanding your Spey vocabulary and stretching your skill set with thinner, clearer water, more delicate presentations, and smaller flies. Finally, when you’re ready for the big show, grab a fifteen footer and a long-belly line, and schedule that flight to Vancouver.

There are certainly many other ways to skin the proverbial Spey cat, but this progression has become fairly common among North American Spey casters today, and though not the only way, it’s a good way to picture the available lines on the market and thereby get ready to get out on the water with a two-handed rod.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2013 issue of American Angler magazine.

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