Getting Started with a Spey Rod - Dealing with Double Handers - Part I

By Rene Vaz (reproduced courtesy of Fish and Game Magazine)

Fishing is full of confusing theories and no area is more complex and confusing than the area of double handed fly rods. I first learnt how to cast and fish double handers when living in the UK in 2000. It was an interesting time as double handers were undergoing a resurgence world wide on the back of being adopted in the US by anglers fishing for steelhead and Pacific salmon. Back in the UK there was a strong resistance to the talk of the new school of fishing double handers brought on by the Americans. In saying that most of the UK anglers fished with US built rods and whether they liked it or not were being swept along by the changes and advancements that were being driven by the new breed of two handed fly fishers.

Essentially two handed rods range from 12’6 through to 16’ in length. Due to their extra length and weight it is easiest to cast these with both hands. Although the rods can be cast overhead their longer length and fuller flexing nature mean they roll cast exceptionally well and consequently the roll cast is the basis of all two handed fly casting. For New Zealand anglers double handers have a number of attractions. Firstly two handed rods make it much easier to handle heavy shooting heads especially in rivers where fast currents make line control difficult. Secondly the longer length of double handers make mending and line control at distance much easier than their shorter single handed cousins. Thirdly for anglers who either struggle with the technique of double hauling and/or suffer from joint problems such as tennis elbow double handers offer a new solution for making longer casts with ease.

Sea Run Brown Trout, Two handed spey rod switch cast tube fly new zealand salmon canterbury rakaia

Canterbury's Simon McMillan with a trophy sea run brown taken swinging small matuka patterns on a double hander

Like all sectors of fly fishing the use of and theories behind double handers are constantly in a state of flux. In addition to the adoption by US anglers for the longer rod has been the development of the European underhand casting techniques. As a result there are three fundamental styles of casting double handers, traditional style, European style and Skagit style. As you can imagine each style has its own strengths and weaknesses and also associated tackle, consequently having a basic understanding of how each style works makes it easier to decide which way you intend to go when setting up your first double handed set up.

Double handers are often referred to as Spey rods, derived firstly from the famous Salmon River, the River Spey in Scotland. And also from the two traditional casts the single Spey and the double Spey that are the fundamental basis for Traditional Spey casting. Historically Spey casting has been done with long parabolic (slow action) rods between 15 and 18 feet and double taper lines. Although some slower action rods are still available for the purest, by and large the move for the traditional Spey caster is medium fast action rod between 13 and 16 feet long with a weight forward line. Advanced casters will tend to use long bellied fly lines although for someone new to Spey casting it is much easier to start with a shorter bellied fly line. The primary advantage of a traditional Spey set up is that the angler is able to make long casts without having to strip in lots of line before recasting. This makes it easier to keep your line in the water for longer, which results in your flies spending more time in front of the fish rather than the birds. The disadvantage of traditional style is that you require a reasonable amount of room to perform the traditional casts, it is perhaps the most difficult of the techniques to master and utilizing heavy sink tips off the end of a long belly fly line is not for the faint hearted.

European style casting or what is often referred to as underhand casting utilizes fast action rods and long leaders of between 15 and 20 feet, short shooting heads of around forty feet attached to thin running lines. The result of this set up is that the shorter head is used to create a D-Loop when casting and the leader is left as the primary anchor point on the water. The advantages of this style of casting is that very little room is required for casting due to the short head, the casts create very little water disturbance as it is only the leader the “kisses” the water, additionally it is much easier to handle fast sinking heads using a European set up as the weight is controlled easily in the cast. On the flip side as the European set up relies on shooting line to make long casts, before each cast the angler is forced to strip in all of the running line before the next cast can be made, the result of this is time spent stripping line versus fishing and also the difficulty in handling large amounts of running line without getting tangles.

Tube fly brown trout New Zealand trophy argentina spey rod double hander casting

Double handers make it easy to fish large flies like this tube fly

To make things even more confusing, anglers on the Pacific West Coast of the US have developed a unique style of casting with ultra heavy shooting heads. The Skagit cast derives its name from the Skagit River in Washington State one of the premier steelhead fisheries. The Skagit system was developed to handle big flies and heavy sink tips on rivers with limited room for back cast on relatively light weight double handed rods. In essence in the traditional system it would be easy enough to cast the big flies and heavy heads using a 10 or 11 weight rod, but these rods would hardly be sporting with a five pound steelhead. Consequently Skagit casting is usually done with six to eight weight rods between twelve and fourteen feet in length. The rods tend to be fuller in action than the European style rods with added stiffness in the tip for turning over the heavy heads. Like the European system a thin running line is used and at the end of this is an ultra short (thirty foot long) floating head onto which is attached a sink tip. As explained, the advantage of a Skagit system is being able to fish uber heavy heads on lighter rods and cast these in tight circumstances with little room for a back cast. The disadvantage of the system is that it is more difficult to cast long distances with this system and as you would imagine presentations are rather brutal. In saying that, there are often times when the key to catching is being on the bottom in the strike zone and in these situations the Skagit system produces the results.

In addition to the three casting and tackle styles a fourth sector has begun to gain in popularity in recent years and that is the switch rod. Essentially switch rods are built so you can cast them with either one or two hands. The rods are between 10’6 and 11’6 in length to handle lines from five to eight weights. They can either be fished with long belly weight forward lines or for actual Spey casting then lines like the 40 Plus where the weight of the line sits into the D-Loop of the cast work best (similar to a modern Spey line). Switch rods are excellent for controlling the swing of a wetfly in smaller rivers, where their added length over a single handed rod give them increased reach for mending and line control. Conversely compared to a full two hand rod they are much lighter and more sensitive.

The first thing you’ll notice when you look at a double handed fly rod versus a single handed rod is that not only is it much longer, it is much thicker also. This comparison also relates back to fly lines. Knowing that this is already a complicated topic, the easiest way to understand how the line ratings work is to realize that a #8 single handed rod and line bares no resemblance to a #8 two handed rod. In fly line terms a standard #8 fly line weighs 210 grains for the first 30 feet, in contrast most #8 Spey lines have head weights of around 500 to 550 grains. Consequently for me a #7 double hander is more than enough for my NZ fishing applications.

Two handers have been gaining in popularity here in New Zealand for a number of fishing applications. The reality of the situation is single handed fly rods are still going to offer the best solution for most of our fishing requirements, however there are a number of specific situations where the double handers will excel. What’s more once you’ve started to play around with a double handed rod or two you start to think about new things to do with them.

For me I think a switch rod fits into my range well for fishing wet flies such as woolly buggers and rabbit type flies in many of our classic river fisheries over summer. I fish a five weight switch rod for this, teamed up with a full sinking line and a handful of ten foot Polyleaders to get the flies down. It’s a neat alternative to upstream nymphing and I’m certain the larger flies help to account for larger fish.

Change of light spey casting switch cast two handed rod skagit european head new zealand salmon sea run browns trophy

Large expanses of water are often ignored by fly fishermen, double handers make all things possible

The second category is in the larger rivers such as the Tongariro for sweeping the large pools early winter for the large browns or for chasing sea run browns and salmon throughout the Canterbury river systems. For this I’ve chosen to fish a 13’6 rod for a #7 line. For the Tongariro I tend to fish European style with shooting heads and long fast sink Polyleaders. This set up enables me to make long casts with ease even when deep wading. For the larger Canterbury rivers, I’ve found that getting down is the ultimate goal and with that in mind I use the same rod but switch over to a Skagit system to ensure I get my flies down in front of the fish. To simplify the system what I have set up is one reel with a floating running line which is looped at the end, onto this I loop either a European head system or a Skagit system. The rest of the heads I carry on shooting head spools and in a separate pouch I carry a selection of ten foot and fourteen foot polyleaders. I do have a traditional line set up also, but to be honest at the moment that is just for casting demonstrations and practice rather than actual fishing application.

By and large I only use my double handers for down and across fishing although I’ve talked to a number of anglers who have successfully used their double handers for nymphing and although I’ve caught a few nice fish doing this I personally still prefer to nymph with single handed rods. In saying that, I may just need to work some more on my techniques.

I’ve attempted in this article to keep things as simple as possible, but in reality this is one of the most complex topics in fly fishing. One thing’s for sure, double handers open up new realms of the New Zealand fishing experience especially in their ability to fish large flies effectively in our bigger rivers. And what happens when you fish big flies in big rivers? Well I’ll leave that for you to find out.