From Spey to Skagit

This article was written by Ed Ward and first published on Dana Sturn’s Spey-Pages site about 10 years ago. Since then Skagit casting has begun to roll-over to Europe and Skagit lines and rods have developed further. Even if this article is now a few years old and refers occasionally to more-or-less obsolete items of tackle (in particular 2Hand double taper lines)  I nevertheless hope that you will find it as interesting as I did.

The evolution of a casting style:

FROM SPEY TO SKAGIT

By Ed Ward

In the twelve years that I have fished with a double-handed fly rod, I have seen its popularity and use increase dramatically, especially these last four to five years. The number of rods available now, along with specialty fly lines and videos on how to cast them, has at least quadrupled.

I have also seen an apparent but previously unrecognized divergence of methods used to cast these rods. These seem to have confused many anglers who are, or want to be involved in this aspect of  flyfishing. On one end of the spectrum is the traditional use of the double-handed rod, the Spey cast, and on the other is a newer technique that I call the Skagit cast, as that is the river  where it originated here in North America. I believe that part of the bewilderment about double-handed fly rods in the last few years can be attributed to the lack of distinction and recognition between these two styles of casting. Unfortunately, exacerbating this problem is the insistence by some anglers schooled in traditional Spey casting to either refuse to recognize the merit of the new style of casting, or even to malign its existence.

After spending more than a decade participating in, and watching this new method become established and refined, I feel that I can positively state that Skagit casting is legitimate and for real. I think that it is high time that something in-depth be said about a style of casting that was developed on our own rivers and our own fish, and how it compares with traditional Spey casting.

Therefore, I have been compelled to offer up my own personal observations, opinions, and conclusions on the subject. I fully expect to, and would, in fact, be disappointed if this did not encourage further discussion among anglers who have also used double-handed rods for a considerable length of time. I welcome constructive debate. I consider it to be one of the best and most impressive avenues for learning.

Here is a brief description of each style of casting followed by my explanation of their basic differences:

1. Spey: Traditional Spey casting employs the use of full-length double taper flylines that most commonly range from 80 to 120 feet in length.

Because of the extended amount of line involved in making long casts, (no line is stripped in prior to the cast) once the motion is started, to move the line from its initial or starting position, there is no hesitation or stopping of the now aerialized line at any point in time. This is true all the way through to the completion of the casting stroke. Contact of the line with the water, the “anchor” which allows for the cast to be routed in a different direction from that which the line assumes at the starting position, is brief and minimal and sometimes described as a “kiss” of the line to the water’s surface. Well known casts used in traditional Spey casting are the single Spey, double Spey, and the snake roll cast.

2. Skagit: This style uses manufactured weight forward, or homemade shooting head fly lines as its basis. The casting portions of these lines, or “heads” as they are often called, generally range from 32 to 56 feet in length. When fishing at distances beyond the length of this line, one is required to strip in running or shooting line until the back of the head is reached before making the next cast. There is a definite stop involved in this style of casting. It takes place subsequent to the “set” of the cast. After the line has been picked up from the starting position and then placed once again upon the water’s surface, that momentary repositioning of the line is the set of the cast. The momentum of the line, at this point of the procedure, has been stopped. This is then followed by the loading stage of the process, or “sweep” which forms the D loop and provides the energy for the actual cast. The casting stroke is the next step and final operation of this process.

For clarification, I will describe the most common casts employed in this style for a double-handed fly rod, as portrayed for a right-handed caster.

Double Spey, River flowing from left to right: Starting position, line dangling straight downstream, rod tip low and also pointing down river.

Rod tip is lifted from right to left and ends up pointing upstream off of one’s left shoulder. The majority of the line lands upriver and off the left shoulder, the fly and last few feet of line drop onto the water a few feet downstream and to the right of the caster. This is the set of the line and where the stop occurs in this cast. The rod is then swept out and around, from left to right, to form the D loop. The casting stroke is now applied.

Zip T and circle or C Spey, River flowing from right to left: Starting position; line dangling straight downstream to one’s left, rod tip low and also pointed downriver. Rod tip is snapped up and across, in front of the caster, and then back down again in a motion that mimics the letter “Z” minus the bottom leg (Snap T, or Zip T, ) or rod tip is raised to about a 45 degree angle and then scribes, in a constant speed, a large, reversed image of the letter “C” Rod tip ends up, once again, pointed nearly downstream and low to the water. The majority of the line and the fly end in a position describing a loose semi-circle that starts from where the fly is located, upriver and off of the caster’s right shoulder, to follow out and around in front of the caster and end at the tip of the rod. This is the set of this cast, and the point where the line comes to a stop. The next stage is the sweep, from left to right, followed by the casting stroke.

Perry Poke, River flowing from right to left: Starting position: line dangling straight downstream to one’s left, rod tip low and pointed downriver. Rod tip is rotated to a near vertical attitude, then thrust straight up and at the same time brought across the front of the body, from left to right, to end up on the caster’s right or upriver side. As soon as the fly passes upstream of the caster’s position, the rod tip is “poked” or “dumped” out in front of the caster and this motion effectively checks the upstream flight of the fly and also “folds” the line in half on the water out in front and trailing back off of the caster’s right shoulder. This is the set portion of this cast and the point at which the line comes to a stop.

Next, the rod tip is kicked back and up off of the right shoulder, the sweep, followed by rotating the rod tip around and over for the casting stroke.

These are the most common casts that I have seen employed in Skagit casting. The set and stop are the distinguishing characteristics of this style, and are crucial to making this cast work. The set and stop of this method maximizes line contact with the water, which is the total opposite of traditional Spey casting. It is this prolonged contact of the line with the water surface that sets the rod up for loading during the next stage of the casting process, the sweep. It is the friction created against the line as it is being unstuck from the water during the sweep that is the element that loads the rod in this style of casting.

Let me reemphasize; in traditional Spey casting, the line is picked up from its initial starting point, the rod is loaded, and all that is needed to complete the cast is just enough stick or contact of the line to the water, at the proper moment, to allow the line to change directions. Minimal stick is a requirement to make the cast work. On the other hand, in Skagit casting the energy to make the cast does not even exist until after one has set the line, stopped, and then, once again put the rod in motion for the sweep. Maximum stick is needed to make this cast work. I hope that I have made clear the differences between the two styles of casting.

How do these two methods influence one’s fishing or conversely, and perhaps more importantly, how do the requirements of fishing influence the development of these casting styles? These answers will also help to determine the results of the prior question, therefore I will tackle the latter subject first.

Remember that traditional Speycasting was invented for Atlantic salmon fishing, and Skagit casting for Pacific Northwest steelhead. First, let me sate that I have never fished for Atlantic salmon, and the knowledge that I have has been gathered from books, videos, friends and acquaintances who have fished this quarry, as well as from European and other world-traveled anglers that I have guided. However, the conclusions that I have drawn, as far as I can tell, are generally accepted facts.

The most important aspects that have a bearing on this subject are:

Atlantic salmon typically are caught in areas of the river that are consistent in flow, such as the main body of pools, and the smooth currents of tailouts.

A greater percentage of fishing for Atlantic salmon is accomplished with a floating line as compared to steelhead fishing.

Atlantic salmon generally prefer a fly that is moving faster in relation to the current of the river than steelhead do.

These facts determine presentation, the most important aspect of catching fish on a fly, and presentation establishes the angle of the cast, mends that are required and lines to be used. the traditional way in which an Atlantic salmon fisher introduces the fly to the fish is to cast down and across at a 45 degree angle and then allow the current to belly the line and thus add speed to the swing of the fly. There isn’t any mending involved. this translates into a distinct advantage for the Atlantic salmon fisher, especially when the need for a deeply sunk fly arises, as it means one can use a full sinking fly line, , a line that is at best difficult to mend once it is on the water, and the flow of the river acting against the belly of the line will actually aid in the presentation of the fly, not hinder it. This also translates into a benefit for the traditional Spey caster. A full length sinking line as well as a full length floating line are consistent in density and weight along the whole  of the line except for a small percentage on the gradually tapered ends. The are constant and congruous throughout their main body. The uniformity of these lines provides for fairly smooth, predictable behavior once they have been aerialized for the Spey casting process, and this allows for repeatable conduct on the part of the line cast after cast, a very necessary ingredient for Spey casting. One other important point worth noting is that, especially when using long lengths of line over 70 feet, traditional Spey casting works best when the casts are made at a 45 degree angle or less from the position where the line originally started. Think about the correlation.

Now let’s talk about steelhead and Skagit casting. Thee are the parameters of presentation that have the most influence upon the whys of the differences of casting methodologies that we are discussing.

Steelhead seem to have an affinity for lying in pockets or on current seams and other parts of the river that are generally composed of variable, conflicting currents.

A large percentage of steelhead fishing is done with sink-tip lines.

Steelhead usually prefer a fly that is traveling slower than the prevailing current speed.

Steelhead are not as apt of move long distances straight up in the water column to intercept a fly near the river’s surface, but will move great distances laterally in the river to pursue a fly, and can often be coaxed to gradually rise in the water column when engaged in a lateral movement.

These guidelines for presentation mean that the year-around steelheader often has to sink a fly quickly while still maintaining control of the line throughout the drift, from beginning to end, in order to adjust the fly’s speed and depth. Most of the time all of this has to be achieved under conditions of varying current. To accomplish this end, we steelheaders regularly employ the use of sink-tip fly lines and often cast these lines at angles far greater than 45 degrees upriver of the original dangle of the line. In some cases the cast will be upstream of the position that we occupy in the river. The presentation requirements that are so often encountered in steelheading thus usually rule out the use of the full length sinking line as a mainstay tool by most steelheaders.

For sunk line work, the sink-tip line is without a doubt the favored choice and, as in traditional Spey casting, the makeup of the lines used in fly fishing for steelhead can have a great influence upon the casting aspects of this type of fishing. Sink-tip lines are not uniform in density throughout the whole of the line but rather change density at the point where the floating portion of the line meets the sinking section. On the more radical sink-tips, not only is there a change in density, there is also a change in weight, with the sinking line actually weighing more than the floating line in grains per foot comparison. What this means from a casting standpoint is that sink-tip lines, when they are aerialized, can be very erratic and unpredictable in the flight behavior as compared to other types of flylines and therefore hard to control when kept continuously in the air. This characteristic is compounded if one adds to the equation a weighted fly. Attempting a traditional Spey cast with one of these lines and a weighted fly can be an exercise in frustration; one out of five casts achieves the momentary stick or kiss of the line on the water, while the other four casts dive into the river like a merganser evading an eagle. The solution is to be able to stop the line at a judicious moment, regain control and change the direction of the line and then proceed with the remainder of the cast. Skagit cast, anyone?

Now that we have established how the fishing environment has influenced the direction in which traditional Spey and Skagit casting were developed, let’s go back to the question of how this affects one’s personal choice for fishing. What follows is my opinion of each style based on what I have seen out on the river. Keep in mind, I am without a doubt biased towards and willingly plead guilty to favoring Skagit casting. However I also recognize that traditional Spey casting is in itself an effective and enjoyable means of using a double-handed rod, as well as being the origin of Skagit casting.

Traditional Spey works best with double-taper lines or extended length weight-forward lines in excess of 60 feet. Optimal lines for this style of casting are of uniform density whether they are designated for floating or sinking. Sinking-tip lines can also be cast well with traditional Spey if they are of a longer, more transitory nature, such as a 15 foot type, 1,2 or 3 sink rate. As one departs from these parameters casting ease and efficiency deteriorates. Also, flies weighted with barbell eyes do not seem to work well with this style of casting. Preferred rods are generally of fairly long length, 15 and 16 footers being common, to facilitate the movement of the great amounts of line involved in the casting process. The ability to work such long lengths of line minimizes the need for stripping which does save time during the act of fishing and also is very advantageous in periods of cold weather (no ice in guides, fingers stay dry). Mending capabilities are greatly extended when using floating double-taper lines. Traditional Spey casting definitely requires a fair amount of body movement and physical effort in the casting and handling of the larger rods that are employed. Swaying and rocking of the body and above the shoulder arm motion are characteristics of this style of casting.

Skagit is best accomplished with weight-forward or shooting -head lines measuring under 56 feet. Floating and sink-tip lines are what this method excels at casting but full length sinking lines do not work very well. Weighted flies, even bar bell eyes, are very manageable. Preferred rods are on the shorter side of the double-handed spectrum, with 13 to 14 footers being a very popular choice. When casting beyond the length of the head line does have to be stripped in prior to the subsequent cast but the shorter, heavier heads used in Skagit casting seem to produce higher line speeds with less effort on the part of the caster than does traditional Spey casting. The following is an example. In a situation where a traditional Spey caster uses a 15 foot 10 weight rod to produce casts of 100 feet with a standard 15 foot type 4 sink-tip and 2/0 fly, a proficient Skagit caster will achieve the same results with a 14 foot 9 weight rod and expend less effort in the process. Body movements are less vigorous than with traditional Spey and arm motions are fairly compact and tight to the body.

There is one more facet to be examined before stating my conclusions. If you are an angler just entering into the arena of fly fishing with a double-handed rod or if you have been involved for awhile but seem to be getting nowhere in the casting department then carefully consider all that you have just read. Based upon this information  choose just ONE of these styles of casting and learn that particular method and ONLY that method. Do not attempt to learn any part of the opposing casting style until you have become very proficient at the first. Choose your rod, line and instructional information accordingly. To mix or interchange the components of the two styles of casting will only be to your detriment. For instance, to buy a 14 foot 9 weight doublehanded fly rod outfitted with a 9,10,11 Windcutter line and then learn the Skagit style double Spey for your river right cast and mix that with a single Spey for river left cast is to introduce inconsistency into your learning equation.

The double Spey is a convertible cast. In other words, it is a cast that can be accomplished either Skagit style or traditional Spey style by changing one’s casting fundamentals. Even though both are called “double Spey” and appear similar during execution , they each work on different principles. Each requires a different timing, line placement and application of power, which all culminating in a completely different feel for each cast. The single Spey is not convertible, therefore to learn the Skagit style double Spey for river right and a C Spey for river left is to learn ONE casting foundation that applies to TWO casts. Makes more sense, eh?

In closing, my purpose has been to separate and delineate what I has seen as two distinctly different methods of casting that have not been formally distinguished from one another in the fly fishing community. My hope is to get the ball rolling within the fly fishing industry to recognize Skagit casting as a distinctly identifiable method of casting apart from traditional Spey casting.

Currently the fly fishing industry, as well as most anglers, consider traditional Spey and Skagit casting as being one and the same. I could not disagree more and believe that this article has presented clear and undeniable evidence as to the distinction between the two methods. Not giving due recognition to the differences of these two types of casting has, and will continue to confuse, frustrate and hinder the progress of those participating in this sport. I have I have seen irrefutable evidence of this in my occupation as a professional fishing guide in Washington, Alaska and Russia. The only effective remedy to this situation is a clear, well defined and undisputed recognition of traditional Spey and Skagit casting as two unique and separate methods.

Ed Ward

 

What is a Grain Window?

A grain window defines the engineered grain  [weight] carrying capability of a fly rod blank under line load.

The primary purpose of printing the grain window on two handed fly rods is to guide the caster in achieving a correct and balanced rod/line set up.

Dialling in to the lower end of the grain window:

The low end of the grain window defines the minimal amount of grains that will allow the rod to load efficiently.

  • The low end of the grain window would most often be applied by those fishermen wanting to use the power in the top 1/2 to 2/3 of the rod. Many experts often refer to this as casting off the tip of the rod
  • Casting off the top of the rod is often used by those casters that want to use light [grained] shooting heads combined with minimal anchor. This is typical of the Scandi style “touch-and-go technique”. This type of cast is best performed with an extremely compact economical stroke, minimal energy with the power coming predominantly from the “under” hand.

Dialling in to the higher end of the grain window:

The high end of the grain window defines the maximum amount of grains [weight] that  will allow the rod to load efficiently.

  • The high end of the grain window would most often be applied by those casters wanting to distribute power and grain load so as to utilise the loading capability of the whole rod; taking power way down into the cork. This is also known as fully or deep loading the rod.
  • Normally The type of casting stroke required to best load the rod deeply varies with the type of line used:
    • Skagit Style Heads: Skagit or sustained anchor casts are best accomplished with an extremely compact economical stroke, minimal energy with the power coming predominantly from the “under” hand.
    • Spey Lines: Classic or modern Spey casts are best accomplished with an open stance, long stroke with the power coming from a balanced combination between the upper and lower hand.

 

 

Skagit Casting a Short History

The casting method called “Skagit” originated in the early 1990’s to describe an offshoot system of spey casting methods used by U.S. steelheaders on Washington State’s Skagit River. This approach was developed to cast the relatively short shooting heads and heavy sinking-tip lines needed to to fish bulky flies up to roughly six inches (15cm) long in deep, fast water. The large flies proved to be enticing to steelhead when no other fly fishing methods would move them during cold winter flows and as an added bonus the take of a steelhead attacking one of these monsters was mind-blowing. Early disciples of the mega fly approach to steelheading included such legends as Mike Kinney, Scott Howell, Ed Ward, who developed the original “Intruder Fly”, and Dec Hogan who,  along with Tim Rajeff, developed the ECHO Dec Hogan Series of fly rods. The term “Skagit” describes a method of casting using a sustained anchor point rather than a “kiss’n-go” approach of a scandi or modern Spey cast. The theory behind the Skagit cast is to use the drag of the water in a continual motion during the D-loop, carrying the load into the forward stroke. The guys that created this cast used this method because it takes very smooth loading of the rod to deliver large heavy flies efficiently and safely. This type of casting and the slower rhythm employed proved to be less fatiguing than most other approaches. Some of the more popular techniques used in the Skagit method have interesting nicknames… the Snap-T, the Circle Spey, the Skagit Doublelspey and the Perry Poke. The casting stroke is precise and efficient, requiring the least D-loop space of all spey casting methods. Skagit casts and Skagit equipment has migrated far from the Pacific Northwest, and is now employed from the tip of South America, across the Baltic and out into the most remote fisheries in Russia and Mongolia.