By Shane Stalling Guest EBS Fishing Columnist
A loyal customer came into a Big Sky fly shop recently, on a relatively slow day with what he thought would be a pretty simple question: “What’s up with this thing I keep hearing about called trout spey?”
He continued to tell me about a handful of trips to the Pacific Northwest, where he’d gotten his hands on a two-handed rod. He said he’d seen others more competent than he casting well and hooking some fish. Then he mentioned that he wasn’t able to make it west much anymore. The Gallatin and Madison are his waters now, yet he was still curious about two-handed casting.
Spey casting was developed on Scotland’s River Spey in the mid-1800s to help cover a large body of water while fishing for salmon. The first spey casters used 22-foot rods and casting was a tedious affair; accuracy was a bonus. Today, spey casting rods are typically between 11 and 16 feet long.
In the U.S., spey casting first became popular in the Pacific Northwest on large coastal waters like the Skagit River. The primary targets were steelhead and migratory salmon runs. Over the past decade, spey casting’s popularity has grown beyond coastal waters to include our local streams.
Trout spey or micro-spey are terms for lighter-weight spey rods ranging from 10 to 12 feet long and appropriately sized between two- and five-weights. They are able to cast a good amount of line while still being sensitive enough to feel the movements of a hooked fish. When choosing a spey rod, inquire locally to garner some insight; learning to cast with two hands is always harder than it seems, akin to patting your belly and rubbing your head at the same time.
Understanding the different lines used in spey casting is crucial. For trout, the two lines you need to know about are Skagit head and the Scandi head. In fishing, a line’s “head” refers to the end of the fly line. The Skagit has a shorter and heavier head made for casting heavier flies with sink tips and casting in tight spaces. A tip is required on a Skagit head to allow for length to make your D-loop. Don’t know what a D-loop is? Visit your local fly shop and they can educate you. The Scandi line features a slightly longer head that is great for throwing floating lines and smaller flies like soft hackles.
Soft Hackles and streamers swinging slowly through runs have produced some of my best days on the river. Yes, a dry fly eat is pretty exciting, and feeling the tug of a wild trout never gets old. Add a new casting method to the mix and you’ve got the joy of spey casting.
The Gallatin is a great local option for spey casting as there are plenty of trout willing to eat flies in winter. The Gallatin is thick with willows and overhanging trees that are responsible for hundreds of lost flies every summer—use a smaller rod with more control to minimize the number of flies lost. An 11-foot three-weight with a Scandi head works best in the summer; in the spring and fall, a Skagit head would be ideal.
The Lower Madison is the home river for most area spey junkies. There is good access to lots of great water, and swinging a crayfish on a Scandi line can be highly productive. A three- to five-weight rod is ideal for this waterway.
The Yellowstone River is a spey caster’s dream. From the park boundary to Billings, there is no shortage of swing water and streamer-hungry browns. While a bigger five- or six-weight rod is ideal for throwing the larger streamers that are common on the Yellowstone, a smaller rod works just fine.
As fly anglers, we’re constantly learning new ways to catch fish on the fly. Trout spey is a unique skill that comes in handy on most of our local rivers. If you’re curious about what type of water to fish, or would like to drill down into the best rod and line setup for you, stop into your local shop. It’s the slow season and shop staffers are willing and eager to talk fishing and help you understand this new technique.
Shane Stalling is a self-proclaimed two-handed swing addict and longtime Big Sky local.