Trout Spey

Peter Morse explains the latest two-handed revolution.

Trout Spey is the lightest category of two hander rods, and the newest iteration of this sport. For all the scorn and criticism the world seems to love throwing at the US, they’re a most inventive nation, and their society is geared to tinkering with, and improving, most things it adopts. When the two-hander revolution hit the US and Canada some 30 years ago they grabbed it, ahem, with both hands, and then soon went about evolving it. Even relatively experienced two-hand fly-fishers can be confused by the plethora of technology and terminology within this branch of the sport, but here’s the lay of the land as simply as I can put it. Two-handed rods are built with two grips, one above and one below the reel, and we hold them and cast them with two hands, one on each grip. In so doing we’re using a first class lever to utilise the Spey family of casts, (named after the River Spey in Scotland); and put simply, a Spey cast is a change of direction dynamic roll cast. There are broadly three categories of these rods: traditional (the big sticks 12–18 ft), Switch (11–12 ft), and trout Spey, from 10' to 11'6", but usually defined as 4-weight and under. So two-hander rods vary in length from ten to eighteen feet, and throw lines from 150 grains to over 1,000 grains, but the one thing that unifies them is that two hands are used to cast them. To compare two-hander rod and line ratings with single handed rods is pretty simple, just add 3 to the line rating of any two hander and this will give you its approximate single hand rating — so a rod rated as a trout Spey #3, will be roughly the equivalent of a #6 single hand rod. Most trout Spey rods are between a #2 and a #4 Spey rating. Rods rated as a #5 are considered big trout Spey rods, or small Switch rods, take your pick. Although good on big trout waters (a great Tongariro mid-winter rod for example), in the US they’re used for summer steelhead, smaller salmon and big Alaskan rainbows. I do like the fives for the big rivers because you’re never going to be caught short with regard to the casts you need to make with the appropriate flies for the fish you might hook. So the generally accepted window for true two-handed trout Spey is below a #4 Spey rating — and they’re between 10' and 11'6" long. SO what is Switch and Skagit? For many years, longer single-handed rods (mostly 10 ft and 7–10 weights), loaded with shooting heads were used on the big anadromous fish rivers of the North American west coast — including Canada and Alaska. These were pretty stiff and would have required Popeye arms to cast all day, so two-handed versions were developed to ease the load. The original rods could be cast with one or two hands — you could switch between either — and the name stuck, they became Switch rods. Most Switch rods are Spey line rated #5 and up, and are between 10 and 12 feet long, but no one uses them single handed these days and really the only rods you can comfortably switch between one and two hands are the trout Spey rods. Because they’re simply shorter two-handed rods, most would like to see the back of the Switch classification. The Skagit is a steelhead river that rises in British Columbia and flows into Washington State. The evolution of very compact shooting head fly lines, and the modified Spey casts used to deliver them, are known as Skagit, and came out of this region. These shorter rods, lines and styles all evolved to suit the fishery, to deliver big, heavy flies a long way, often in tight space. Skagit heads are very versatile, effective, and relatively easy to cast, and if there’s one thing the Yanks like to do it’s to make things easier. Skagit lines vary in length to suit the length of the rod being used. TROUT SPEY — THE GEAR The need to keep fishing with two hands was satisfied through the summer months by going trout fishing with lighter, shorter two-handed rods, and was also seen by two-handers as an opportunity to work on your casting through summer. The US also has some very big trout rivers, and once again demand and supply came together, and out of this emerged trout Spey gear. It’s when we get down to fly lines that the mist of confusion can descend around this branch of fly fishing. In adopting the KISS principle the most useful lines for trout Spey essentially fall into only two categories — Skagit style, and Scandi style. A serious two-handed fly-fisher should carry both. They can be bought as relatively inexpensive, pre-looped shooting heads, and these are easy to use, and as circumstances dictate, to also change in the course of a day. Skagit lines are short and fat, usually floating, and for trout Spey are perhaps out to 18 feet long (plus tip). They are excellent in limited space because a small D-loop with a lot of mass is generated. Using a loop-to-loop system on the front end of the head, they’re designed to be cast and fished with detachable tips called MOW tips. These tips can range from floating through to very fast sinking with all sorts of configurations in between. Skagit lines are designed to carry bigger flies and sink tips easily — if you want to drive in a bigger nail, you need a bigger hammer and that’s a Skagit line. On the other hand Scandi (Scandinavian) lines are more refined. Originally designed to fish small Atlantic salmon flies in low clear rivers, they’re a tack hammer next to the Skagit mallet. They’re longer in the body than Skagit lines — out to 25 ft, and have a longer, finer, front taper. They generally land with more delicacy, and can also be used with tips such as Versi-Leaders, but for some fishing a long leader can be used instead of a tip. There’s a wide range of tips available for these lines (MOW tips, Versi-Leaders etc.) and some can be used on both lines, but as a primary rule the butt end of the removable tip should not be thicker than the front end of the head. Which line you use is going to depend upon the water you’re fishing and what kind of flies you intend using. Heavy-duty streamers are best thrown on Skagit lines: standard trout flies are best presented on Scandi type lines. THE HOW Primarily, fishing two handers is about covering the water with long casts across the river, and swinging flies back across the current in an arc. You slowly move downstream covering new water with each swing, but by manipulating the swing through angle adjustments, mends, fly and line tip densities and configurations, you can also cover the same water differently. It’s called angling for a good reason — there’s a lot to learn about angles, mending and line control in this game, and a lot about reading rivers differently, and about your inner reserves of commitment. Ideal swing water is not the same as ideal sight fishing, nymphing or dry fly water. It’s the water you probably wouldn’t usually bother with, and this has a lot of appeal to me. On big rivers there are a lot of fish going about their lives away from the edges. If directly downstream of the angler is 0 degrees, and directly upstream is 180°, then straight across is 90°, and most casts are made on the downstream side of 90°, usually between 70° and 50°. Once we know how to cast and have selected the line and tip, we need to learn to match the angle of the cast and subsequent mends to the water depth, water speed, and even the water temperature — bearing in mind what we’re trying to achieve with the flies we’re using. And this is where the skill lies. Ideally most of the time the flies should land downstream of the end of the fly line. As well as adjusting the angle of presentation, big mends and long reaches both up and downstream will help control the depth and speed of the swing, and the angle the fly is swimming at. Slow, deep, and under control is good sometimes, and at other times, high and fast is good — in comparison, understanding and executing upstream dry fly presentations is easy. THE FLIES Swinging flies still requires some elements of hatch matching. Streamers are usually not so effective in the summer months, unless the water is discoloured and coming off a spate. When the water is clear and there is plenty of insect life about, you can fish a rig of up to three small flies (check local regs) in all sorts of combinations — caddis in particular. As a broad guideline I like a larger tungsten bead-head nymph on the point for weight, a lightly weighted mayfly nymph on the middle dropper, and a more traditional soft hackle caddis pattern on the top dropper. This of course can be varied widely according to water depth, speed of flow, and the prevalent insect life. Which density tip to use will depend upon the same trio of considerations, but most of the time, with that rig, fish a floating or intermediate tip and rely on the weight of the flies, maybe some split shot, and some judicious mending, to achieve depth. But often, especially later in the evening, you can fish a floating tip with just one or two unweighted soft hackle wets, or perhaps a soft hackle and an emerger. The two great advantages of two- handers is your ability to cast a long way relatively effortlessly, and your ability to control and mend a lot of line. This style of fishing will teach you an awful lot about mending and line control. Getting an initial dead sink is the key to getting flies deep with a floating tip and I’ll often use a cast thrown slightly upstream of 90° followed by some healthy upstream mends and a high rod to minimise drag. Watch for drag during the sink phase, and monitor the drift during the lift and swing phase at the end of the sink. It needs to be slow and managed, not whipped out of the zone like a bullet. The plan is to have your flies reach what’s known by several names, but ‘the bucket’ describes it pretty well. It’s the zone where you think the fish will be lying, and the aim is to have the flies hang and slowly lifting out of that zone as they swing through it. This is when the hits usually come, but not always, and with these deep drifted flies, usually the belly in the line sets the hook. Fish will also follow the flies through the swing and then hit when the line straightens onto ‘the dangle’ — when it’s simply hanging downstream. This hang time on the dangle at the end of the swing is all important, and so often overlooked, and many hits come during those first few strips, so be patient at this point. Like all flies, streamers fall into a pile of different categories and represent a range of different ‘edibles’, from detailed imitations of real creatures to flies designed to simply get a reaction by being irritating. They’re more often a direct representation of a baitfish such as galaxiids, gudgeons, sculpins and even small eels. Fishing streamers leads to some very violent ‘grabs’; I’ve had more than one break-off or hook straightened on the strike. Swinging streamers is absolutely no place for light tippets; consider 8 lb to be a minimum. Many streamers used for swinging these days are rigged on shanks and tubes with hooks right in the tail to beat the picky tail grabs that so often happen. Streamers are going to be attacked as either a food item or a territorial intrusion and you’ll be in no doubt when a fish wants that fly. Line and sink tip selections really come into their own with streamers, and the permutations are extensive. Combinations of tips of many varying densities, mixed with weighted and unweighted flies (with the possible addition of split shot), manipulated by casting angle and mends, all make for an understanding of depth control that’s usually the realm of submariners. THE WHEN You can use two-handed trout Spey gear on any larger water, and at anytime, but if used at ‘the wrong’ time, and in the wrong way you run the risk of it being ineffective, and therefore discouraging. My own guidelines are to use it when it’s badly overcast and windy, when the water’s discoloured, when the rivers are big and there’s not a lot of insect life about, in winter, and when I feel that covering a lot of water is going to be more effective than peering into the water or waiting for a rising fish to show itself. Because it’s a downstream method it’s also a good one to use at the end of the day as you’re walking back downstream. There’s one definition of fly fishing that describes it as ‘a more expensive and frustrating method for catching fewer fish’, and two-handers can take this to another level. Personally, trout Spey has become a welcome challenge for me, a new way of doing things, and it’s forcing me to look at rivers in a new way as well. And then there’s the new ways of tying and rigging flies, and of fishing them. Additionally, a lot of what was old is now new again — soft hackled flies and downstream presentations are now back in fashion, even on single-handed rods. It’s like learning to fly fish all over again, and I’m revelling in that challenge. As one of the pioneers of fishing two-handers in North America, George Cook says, “Fishing this tackle is certainly more interesting, it’s more efficient, and therefore when we really learn how to use it, it’s more effective.”

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