Mike Maxwell: Lessons from the First Speyfisher

High water has its benefits, not the least of which is the shocking productivity it can bring back to a steelheader’s home life. Last weekend was a whirlwind of yard work, house cleaning and resumed projects, which inevitably led me to my dusty, neglected laptop computer. Browsing in the luxury of a lazy, spring-like afternoon, I clicked into an old, faintly familiar file entitled “Speyfishing.” I was surprised to find notes from a forgotten 2003 interview I conducted with Mike Maxwell–steelheading’s first Speyfisher. Mike passed away in 2004, but not before producing two important books and a series of instructional videos on his craft. As I read the interview, I knew it had to be shared. Mike’s irreverent, vital personality was refreshing in his day, and it was just a refreshing as I read it in the present. It occurred to me that modern Spey-fanatics could use a reminder that Speyfishing has roots that are wider and more inclusive than the strict down-and-across style that some folks cling to like an old-world religion. Some of the choicest bits had to be omitted, for fear of upsetting a few of today’s luminaries. But the essence of Mike’s message is as follows:


Mike answered the phone. I told him I was working on an article about Speyfishing, and that I wanted to get his thoughts on the subject. He let out a little burst of laughter, and jumped straight into the interview like he had something to get off his chest…

“You know I’m 79 years old,” Mike said, “and I’ve been Spey casting for 60 years!”

Before I could say “Wow,” he continued, practically beaming through the phone.

“I learned in England as a young man, then came to Canada in the late ’50s. When I got here, everyone was using these puny little rods. Like seven feet long or something. I just thought it was ridiculous!”

He explained how he brought a handful of his “Salmon rods” from the UK, and started using them on British Columbia’s famed steelhead rivers.

“People couldn’t believe it,” he said. “They just looked at that thing and they couldn’t believe it! ‘What the hell are you gonna do with that?’ they would ask me. Then I would make a cast, and their jaws would drop!”

Mike’s energy was intense, and I found myself smiling as he held court.

“One time, about thirty years ago, a great friend of mine who organized fishing shows in the States asked me to bring one of my rods to demonstrate at his show. Well, when I showed up with my Spey rods, people went nuts. They couldn’t believe it. Of course, the organizers gave me a little casting pond about eight feet wide by a hundred feet long. What the hell was I gonna do with that? Well, I had to cast like they did. I remember I grabbed this old woman who didn’t know how to fish, and I gave her the rod. I told her to make a simple overhand cast, and she threw it over 70 feet. Oh, you should have seen everybody go on and on! And from that moment on, rod manufacturers have all been about distance. Everything has to do with the distance a rod can cast.”

I didn’t need to ask any more questions for a while. Mike was on a roll…

“You know, when most Spey casters go fishing, they wade up to their ass in the river and cast all the way to the other side. I tell them, ‘Why the hell don’t you just go over there and fish, for God’s sake?’ It’s just ridiculous. You know, we have these brilliant float fishermen here in Canada. They are very effective–too effective! Believe it or not, most of these guys give it up because it’s too easy. Anyway, one of these chaps walks up to the river after some Spey casters have been standing waist-deep, casting to the opposite bank. He flips his float out about four feet from shore, lets it drift as far as he wants–these guys can drift a float over 100 feet–and in three casts has three fish! It’s just amazing.

“But the reason I bring that up is that the fish were there the whole time. They were just waiting for the Spey fishermen to move. Then they got back to their business. You see, a steelhead has two eyes, both of which can see up to thirty feet in either direction. One eye can be focused on something twenty feet away, and the other can be focused a foot or two away. But the fish can’t see a fly until it’s right over his head. So, you see, what we’ve learned from float fishermen is that steelhead like a downstream-drift presentation.

“Most people who Spey cast never learn how to fish. We–Denise and I–we teach people how to fish with a Spey rod. We start with the customer–that is the fish–and work up from there. You see, most people just flop out a roll cast at a 45-degree angle from the bank and let it swing. But if a fish sees a fly swinging quickly by, it will rarely bite. If, however, the fly is drifted right over his head, the fish is much more likely to grab it. We Spey fish for steelhead like float fishermen fish. We cast across and upstream, let the fly drift down to the end, and then swing across. Then we do it a little farther each time. We fish the water.”

I asked Mike about the title of his book, The Art & Science of Speyfishing. I explained that I had been warned by a few people to avoid the term “Spey” and to always use the term “Two-handed.” Mike chuckled knowingly, then began another story…

“Well, you know, in the UK they’re known as ‘Salmon rods.’ When I first came over and started making these rods–of my own design–I didn’t know what to call them. I couldn’t call them ‘Steelhead rods,’ because here in Canada a steelhead rod is a huge bait rod. Of course, I didn’t want to call them Salmon rods because I don’t fish for salmon.

“Then I wrote an article for the Atlantic Salmon Journal where I first called my rods ‘Spey’ rods, and I introduced the concept of ‘Speyfishing.’ Oh, the Brits went ballistic! ‘You can’t call them Spey rods, blah, blah, blah!”

Mike paused momentarily and took a few breaths. It seemed to me he was reliving an old scene, and I wished I could see into his minds eye. I asked him which of his lessons he would most like to impart to budding Speyfishers.

“Fish the water, and stick to your effective range,” he said. “An angler only really has control over his or her presentation within two to five rod lengths.”

I countered, “But Mike, I was instructed that your rods and lines were meant to throw lines of six to seven times the rod length.”

“That’s bullshit. Absolute bullshit! Whoever told you that was an idiot.”

I love this guy!

For more information on Mike’s books and videos, or to book a trip to his beloved Bulkley River in British Columbia, contact Denise Maxwell via email: info@maxwellsteelheadguides.net

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5 Responses to Mike Maxwell: Lessons from the First Speyfisher

  1. Kyle says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Rob.

  2. Ethan says:

    Awesome. Any more installments of the Maxwell interview?

  3. Matt says:

    What about Rodrick Haige Brown? I’m pretty sure he was Spey casting then as well.

  4. Rob R says:

    Eth: I’m afraid the rest of the interview is not fit for public consumption. But we’ll talk 🙂

    Matt: Good question! You should email Denise and find out–I’m sure she would have a story…

  5. Sam says:

    Some sage advice here….thanks.

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