Considering a spey rod? Big water, big fish, big rods

Considering a spey rod? by Rob Russell


The “Spey” or two-handed fly rod has become the tool of choice for steelhead and salmon anglers looking to swing flies on big rivers. Two-handed rods take the drudgery out of swinging flies by minimizing casting effort, maximizing swing time, and allowing for incredible mending and line control. Two additional benefits: 1) they can chuck BIG flies and sink tips; 2) they can chuck LONG casts. Best of all, Spey rods are fun. But with all the rod and line options on the market today, it’s hard to know where to begin. So here are some pointers for getting started with two-handed fly-fishing:

1. Commit to it. If you are considering a Spey rod, you need one. If you think you might need one, you probably need three or four. If you are destined to become a Spey junkie, you will probably end up with as many two-handers as you have single-handers. It’s time to get on the wagon. If money is tight, there are some excellent options out there. If you can budget $500 for your first outfit, you’re home free. If that’s too high, you can still find a way.

2. Start with a full-sized rod, not a “switch” rod. Budding Spey fishers often fall for the dainty switch rod. The shorter, lighter rods seem like a good transitional step between the old single hander and those really long ones. And switch rods are exceptional nymphing sticks, but they are not the best way to learn Spey casting, nor are they the right tool for most winter or spring fishing. Let go of your fear. The long rod is the way to go.

3. Buy two lines for each rod. You will need a Compact Skagit head with a suite of tips (intermediate, type 3, type 6 and type 8), AND you will need a Compact Scandi head for dry flies. Follow the rod manufacturers’ line recommendations to make sure you have the right grain weight to match your new rod. You might even get a couple of opinions on line size or weight before you buy. Experts often disagree as to the perfect grain weight for a rod. If two experts are quibbling over 10 or 20 grains, go with the lighter of the two, then ask the guy who made the lighter recommendation for a lesson. If you have two opinions and they’re off by 50 or 100 grains, get a third opinion.

4. Take a class and/or hire a guide. Spey fishing is not something to “dabble” in. Like golf, you will always suck at it until you get serious. You gotta hire a pro to teach you (some will work for beer and food), you gotta practice, and you gotta love it. Otherwise, walk away. Trust me.

5. Devote one morning or afternoon a week to casting. Hopefully it will grow to a couple days a week. But you need to fish at least once a week to make progress, both as a caster, and as an angler.

6. Debarb your flies and wear eye protection.
Until you become intimate with Spey casting, barbed hooks are not safe. I have personally escorted two people to the hospital, thereby cutting fishing days short, killing any hopes of a tip for the day, and flirting with tremendous liability. One guy got six stitches in his forehead–literally scarred for life. Advanced Spey casters are not safe either.

Even Mishler, one of the finest casters on the planet, stuck a fly in his eye socket. Thankfully the hook was debarbed and it missed his eye ball. My personal worst was a 3/0 Alec Jackson sunk to the hilt in my forearm. I will always marvel at the strength of human skin after that tug-o-war. Most Spey anglers have a grizzly story or two.

Big Water, Big Fish, Big Rods

Caption: Long Rods are the best tools for swinging flies on big water. Photo courtesy of Jon Jensen.

The bigger the water, the more helpful a Spey rod becomes. Big rivers call for a “long rod” in the 13- to 15-foot range. Long rods can be as light as a 6-weight and as heavy as a 10- or 11-weight. Smaller rivers or low-water conditions can call for shorter and/or lighter rods.

The bigger the fish, the heavier the rod. Summer steelhead call for 6- and 7-weights, winter steelhead call for 7- to 9-weights, and kings call for 8- to 10-weights. If you’re swinging streamers for trout, there’s a whole class of lighter two-handers just for you.

You want one rod that will do everything. But there is no such thing. There are a couple that come really close. My rod of choice most of the year is a 13’3″ 7-weight (7133). It’s a little heavy for small steelhead, a little long for small rivers, and a little light for big sink tips. But it has proven to be heavy enough to handle big fish, including kings, yet light enough to cast all day.

Every manufacturer offers rods in the 13-foot range for a 7-weight line. That’s the zone for your first rod. If you can spend $1,000 on the outfit, you’ll have a lot of fine choices (Burkheimer, Sage, Winston, Zspey). If you are strapped for cash, go with an Echo rod. Plenty of pros swear by them. If you can afford the Dec Hogan series, do it, but Echo’s traditional Spey rods are also excellent, especially for the money.

Caption: “A fool goes salmon fishing with one rod.” Hugh Falkus. Photo courtesy of Monte Ward.

It might be irritating to hear, especially if you are struggling to come up with the cash for your first Spey rod. But old Hugh Falkus was right. Always have a back-up rod. Rods are delicate, salmon and steelhead are big and feisty, and the fish gods can be cruel. Your new Spey rod will need a partner, either a single-hander of similar weight or another Spey rod.

Helpful spey casting videos:

RIO’s Modern Speycasting with Simon Gawesworth


Simon Gawesworth is a perfect caster, a perfect instructor, and an all-around gem of a human being. The other cats on this set aren’t bad either. This DVD set will help you for years to come–answers every question you’ll ever come up with. Kinda pricey at $49.95, but a worthwhile investment.

Modern Speycasting and More with Dec Hogan
Modern Spey-lg

My personal favorite for those looking for an introduction to steelheading with a Spey rod. Dec is the master of simplifying Spey fishing and getting casters to relax, slow down, and “let the rod do the work.”


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7 Responses to Considering a spey rod? Big water, big fish, big rods

  1. Rick Allen says:

    Nice post Rob.
    Very helpful.

  2. Ron R says:

    Great Guys…There goes the kids braces!

    Nice write-up – Time to make the leap to spey!

  3. Vince says:

    Great post – very helpful. This is why I keep buying items from your shop!

    Davis, CA

  4. Chris Chin says:

    Excellent write up. Thanks. … time to go shopping !!!

  5. Tim Boone says:

    I live in Dallas,Tx and thinking about doing some fishing at the gulf. Would a Spey Rod by a good chose for saltwater surf or jetty fishing? It seams to me it would be for casting farther with larger flies. THx

  6. Michael Konoby says:

    I am looking at using a spey rod for fishing The Great Lakes. Is there any educational material on how to go about fishing these lakes. I live in eastern ontario and there are no large river mouths that will accomodate a 13′ spey rods in this area.

  7. Jim Sebben says:

    Simple, straight forward instructions. Simplifies a lot of bull shit that I have been reading on other sites.

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