Spey Casting 101
by Randy Kadish
Perhaps you’re in the
same fly casting bind I was in. You often don’t have enough room
to make back casts, and at your age casting a 7-weight fly rod
for three or four hours leaves you exhausted and sore. Spey
casting, you read, will save you a lot of energy and ibuprofen.
So, you wonder, should
you delve into your pockets and shell out the big bucks for a
spey rod and line?
Eventually, I did, and
then I immersed myself in spey casting articles and DVDs, until
I felt ready to give spey casting a go.
I headed to my local
park, and plunged in—right into an incoming disaster.
I couldn’t set up an
anchor. My forward casts, therefore, died before they were born.
I felt I just needed more practice—a lot more—but instead of
relief in sight, I saw blown anchors and stillborn casts.
I didn’t need the grief,
but I couldn’t let go.
Finally, after about two
fishing seasons of practicing and experimenting with spey
casting techniques, my predicament came to a resolution, and I
saw myself as a competent spey caster. So, to spare you a
tsunami of frustration, I’d like to share what I learned. What
follows, however, is not an in-depth analysis of spey casting,
but rather a starting point.
SPEY RODS, LINES AND
It’s vital that we match
them to each other, and to our fishing situation. I believe that
we should start by choosing the right line. Here are our basic
choices: 1. Long-belly lines are, for most anglers, the hardest
lines to learn how to cast. Their advantages are they allow us
to make long casts, without having to then retrieve much, if
any, line—great if we’re fishing a wide river and want to pick
up and cast as soon as our fly finishes its drift. We will,
however, need enough room behind us so that we can form a long D
loop. Also, these lines, as well as mid-belly lines, are not
designed for casting sinking flies. 2. Mid-belly lines are
easier and less tiring to cast than long-bellies, so they’re a
better choice for fishing smaller rivers, especially when we
have less room behind us. 3: Skagit lines are short-belly lines
that make it easier for us to cast sinking lines and heavy
flies. (With a 6/7 Skagit line, for example, we can cast up to
about size 2 flies.) These lines are also great when we have
limited casting room behind us. Because these lines are heavy,
they’re good for casting into a strong wind. Some casters,
however, feel that Skagit lines are a bit noisy on the water.
Also, we’ll often have to retrieve a considerable amount of line
after each cast—a plus if we’re fishing stillwater. (For short
spey rods—11½ feet or so—there are now short Skagit lines.) On
the front of a Skagit line we’ll have to add a floating or
sinking tip and a monofilament or a fluorocarbon leader. We also
might have to add a Skagit Cheater. (The longer the spey rod,
the longer the cheater.) 4: Scandinavian lines are light
short-belly lines that are quiet on the water, but somewhat
limited to casting smaller flies, about a size 6 with a 6/7
line. On the front of a Scandi line we’ll have to add, along
with monofilament or flourocarbon, a polyleader: 10 foot leaders
for rods shorter than 14 feet (most Scandi rods), 15 foot
leaders for longer rods.
We can also use
polyleaders as part of our overall leaders when we’re casting a
mid- or long-belly line.
We have to experiment to
find what length leaders work for us. Here’s some general rules
for mid-, long belly and Skagit lines: If we’re casting a
floating line, our leader—including the tip if we’re casting a
Skagit line—could be up to about 1.5 times the length of our
spey rod. If, however, we’re casting a Scandinavian line, our
leader could be up to 2 times the length of our spey rod. If
we’re using a sinking polyleader or casting a heavy fly, we
should shorten our leader. If our leader is too short our anchor
will probably land too far behind us and be too short. If our
leader is too long, we’ll have trouble lifting the fly off the
water during our back swing—more about that later—and our anchor
will be too long. An anchor that is too short will not have
enough water tension to load our spey rod at the start of our
forward cast. An anchor that is too long will have too much
tension and grip the spey line. In either case, our cast will be
Now that we’ve chosen
our line, we must choose our rod. Some spey casters use the rule
of 5, meaning that the length of our spey rod shouldn’t be more
than 5 times the length of the belly of our line. I, however,
prefer a little over 4 times. For example: If my spey rod is 12½
feet, the maximum length of the belly will be about 52 feet.
Finally, we must choose
a reel. Because spey lines are thicker than traditional fly
lines, we must use much larger reels. For my 6/7 Scandinavian
line, I use 8/9 large arbor reel. Before buying a reel, I
suggest trying on the line.
Now that we’ve chosen
our line, rod and reel, we must turn to the techniques of spey
casting. Yes, there are many spey casts: Single Spey, Double
Spey, Perry Poke, Snap-T, etc. I believe all of them become, to
some extent, dependent on being able to correctly execute a
Single Spey (often referred to as a Switch Cast if we’re not
changing casting directions).
To make my casting
descriptions clearer, I’ll assume we’re casting right-handed,
with our right hand on top. Let me begin by saying that there
are many different opinions about spey casting techniques. In
the end, therefore, we’ll have to experiment and see what works
best for us.
Spey Casting The
Start Position Horizontal
THE STANCE AND GRIP:
Most right-handed spey
casters begin with their right foot forward. This closed stance
helps prevent us from rotating our hips too far during the back
swing. If we put our right foot too far forward, however, we
will lock our hips during the forward cast and make it
impossible for us to generate maximum casting power. I like to
cast with the front of my right heel in-line with the front of
my left foot. I slightly bend my knees and shift my weight to my
front foot. (The longer the belly of my line, the more weight
We hold the rod lightly
with our top hand near the top or the middle of the rod grip.
When casting shorter rods some casters hold the bottom grip with
just their thumb and their index and middle fingers. Our elbows
are close to our body. We point the rod parallel to the water or
slightly downward, with the rod tip close to the water. We
tightly hold the line against the rod grip with our index and
middle fingers, or with all four fingers.
It doesn’t start until
we retrieve all slack from the line; then the key is to use our
arms, not our wrists, and execute the lift vertically, slowly
and smoothly. If we want to execute a long back swing and form a
long, narrow D loop, we lift the spey rod to about 9:30. For a
shorter back swing and D loop, we lift the rod to 10:30.
If we have a lot of line
tension because of fast moving water, we must apply more power
early in the lift. As more line clears the water and line
tension decreases, we apply less power. After we finish our lift
we immediately begin our back swing.
THE BACK SWING:
Generally, the more line
we have outside our rod tip the longer (and faster) our back
swing and forward cast must be. I think one of the keys is to
executing a back swing is to think of our lower wrist and our
top elbow as swivels. This will prevent us from breaking our top
wrist and sliding our elbows sideways, and thereby ending our
swing too far back. This casting defect might land our fly in a
tree or bush behind us, a dreadful calamity called a “blown
We begin the swing by
gently rocking back, and slightly rotating our hips and
shoulders, and then shifting our weight to our back foot. This
rocking back will help us lift the fly off the water, energize
our D loop, and help us finish our back swing in position so
that we can make a powerful forward cast. If, however, we rock
or rotate too far back we might again blow our anchor. Also,
it’s important that we move the rod in-sync with our weight
shift and body rotation. If we instead begin the swing by moving
the rod we will probably over rotate it and land our anchor
directly behind us. The fly might then hit us or the rod tip on
our forward cast.
As we shift our weight,
we keep our top elbow in place, and move our upper forearm in a
circular motion, and pretend that we’re using our rod tip to
draw a big half-circle in the sky. We can draw in one of two
ways. 1. We move the rod tip parallel to the water or slightly
upwards. 2. If we’re casting a long- or mid-belly line, we
slowly dip then raise the tip so that it moves in the path of a
hanging clothesline. Either way, we finish drawing the
half-circle by slightly raising the spey rod, without changing
its angle. This raising, often called an up-kick, will aerialize
our fly, leader, and line. (Unless we’re casting a Skagit line
or executing other spey casts like the Double Spey or the
Snap-T, we ideally want to aerialize our fly and leader and set
up what is called an airborne anchor.)
If we raise the rod too
much, we will widen and weaken our D loop, and our anchor might
not land flat on the water. (After I begin my swing I like to
watch my fly, that way after it comes off the water I stop
raising the rod.)
To add energy to our D
loop we should slightly accelerate our up-kick.
Six casting defects,
however, will cause us to lower, instead of raise, the rod tip
during or at the end of our swing, and then prevent us from
lifting our fly, leader, and line off the water. Also, these
defects might cause us to land the anchor too far behind. 1.
Rocking our back shoulder down at the end of the swing. 2.
Moving our left elbow and forearm away from our body during the
swing. (Keep in mind: The lower we execute our lift and swing,
the farther away from our body our elbow and forearm will be at
the start of the swing.) 3. Breaking our top wrist. 4. Executing
our up-kick by moving our bottom arm before we move our top one,
or by moving our bottom elbow farther away from our body. (These
defects will force our top wrist to break.) 5. Breaking our
wrists during the lift. 6 Lowering our top elbow. (We often do
this at the end of our swing.)
Finally, we end the
swing when we have moved the rod 180 degrees. If we don’t quite
finish the swing, or swing too far, our anchor might not land in
a straight line. Also, we might execute our forward cast by
changing planes. These two defects will cause the top of our
loop to swing and prevent our fly from turning over properly.
Even worse, our fly might collide with our line. At the end of
the swing our top forearm points to between 12 o’clock and 12:30
in the plane we are going to execute our forward cast. Our knees
should still be bent. If they’re not, we won’t be able to fully
use our legs to rotate and to generate power on our forward
Next, we must watch our
anchor land without turning our shoulders any farther. The front
of the fly line should be in-line with us or a little in front.
If our anchor is too long, we probably swung back too slowly. If
it’s too short, or blown, we probably swung too quickly.
THE FORWARD CAST.
After we complete our
back swing we usually pause for a split second—unless we’re
casting a Skagit line—to allow our D loop to form. (Some casters
will argue that there no pause.) Ideally, we want our floating
line, leader, and fly to land flat and kiss the water. Pausing
too long will cause our D loop to start to collapse and weaken,
and our anchor to get stuck on the water. To avoid this when
casting long- or mid-belly lines, we can begin our forward cast
just before our anchor touches down.
We begin the forward
cast by rotating our hips, and rocking our weight forward.
Aiming inside the fly, and applying about half the power with
each hand, we slowly tighten our top-hand grip and begin our
(What plane should we
execute our forward cast? Some casters execute it with the spey
rod pointed slightly outward—not quite vertical. Other casters,
however, execute the cast in the same plane they executed their
back swing. Experiment and see what works best for you.)
acceleration. Finally, we abruptly stop the rod, let go of the
line and loosen our top-hand grip, without lowering the rod tip
from the target line. If we stop the rod too late, it will
prematurely unload, and our cast will not have enough power.
One of the most common
faults is “creeping” our hands and arms forward before we begin
the forward cast.
Another common fault is
not aiming the cast parallel to the water or slightly upward. If
we aim too low, we’ll lower our top elbow and rod tip, and
weaken our D loop.
TO CHANGE CASTING
Before we begin our
lift, we turn our body and point our front foot at the target.
That way when we finish our swing our anchor will point a little
to the right of the target. When changing directions, some
casters find it helpful to finish their lift a little higher.
CASTING SINKING FLIES:
Spey lines, except
Skagit lines, are not ideally suited for casting them, though we
still can as long as the fly and tippet, especially after they
absorb water, are not too far underwater, and therefore cause a
lot of water tension at the start of our forward cast. (Our fly
will then lag and cause our loop to badly tail.) So, if we’re
executing an airborne anchor cast, we’ll begin our lift with a
mini-snake roll, and then we’ll begin our forward cast before
the fly touches the water. If we’re executing a sustained anchor
cast, we’ll increase the acceleration of our swing and the
height of our up-kick, forming a high D loop with a short
anchor. In either case, it’s important that we don’t lower our
elbows and the rod tip at the start of the cast and allow the
fly to sink.
With these light lines
we want to execute a shorter, faster forward cast, applying
about 70 percent of the power with our lower hand. To help us do
this, we place our top hand in the middle of the rod grip—this
is often called underhand spey casting—and begin our forward
cast with our bottom hand, and then stop our cast with our top
Because these lines are
light and short, they’re prone to blown anchors, so during our
back swing we make sure to keep our hip and shoulder rotation to
a minimum and our bottom elbow close to our body. (When
executing a Scandinavian Cast, most of the circle we draw in the
sky will be ahead of us. Also, if we are blowing our anchors or
landing them too far behind us we can: 1. Execute a lower lift
and thereby leave more line on the water at the start of our
back swing. 2. Draw a smaller circle in the sky. With either
solution we will slightly raise the rod tip during our back
swing so that we don’t end the swing with the rod pointing too
Scandinavian casters keep the fly and part of the leader on the
water during their back swing. While this will help prevent them
from blowing their anchor, it will also prevent them from
executing the longest possible cast.
MID- AND LONG-BELLY
Based on our skill level
and/or the length and action of our spey rod, we might want to
begin our lift with some of the belly inside the rod tip. The
longer the belly of our line the more we’ll have to rotate our
hips and shoulders to generate more power on our back swing. To
do this, some right-handed casters start with their left foot
slightly forward. (This is called an open stance.)
With these heavy lines
we want to execute a continuous, waterborne cast, which means
that up to half our sinking- or floating-tip maintains contact
with the water during our swing. (This is called a sustained
anchor.) Because there’s less chance of blowing a sustained
anchor, many Skagit casters also use open stances.
Please wear sunglasses
and read up on wading and spey casting safety before you go.
FOR FURTHER SPEY CASTING
READING AND VIEWING:
Fly Fishing for Striped Bass,
by Rich Murphy: Wild River Press, 2007.
Fly Casting Scandinavian Style by Henrik Mortensen: Stackpole
Spey Casting by Simon Gawesworth: Stackpole Books, 2007.
Two-Handed Fly Casting: Spey Casting Techniques by Al Buhr:
Frank Amato Publications, 2006.
Rio’s Modern Spey Casting DVD.
Skagit Master Featuring Ed Ward DVD.
Scott MacKenzie’s Spey Casting Masterclass DVD
By Randy Kadish
Link to new Casting book by Randy Kadish
The Fly Caster Who Tried To Make
Peace With The World, is available on