Guest Blogger: Michael Vorhis, author of ARCHANGEL suspense thriller, OPEN DISTANCE adventure thriller & more to come

Part 1 of this article discussed Spey casting origins, benefits of the style, a sensible approach to entry into the Spey world, and a few very basics of line elements. This segment comments on rod technologies and line setups in more detail, in particular the tangled world of “tips.” (An echoing of the erstwhile shameless prophesy: A truly unique Spey cast “how to” description is coming later in this article! Hang in there….)

Step Three: Rods

Full-sized (non-casting-competition) Spey rods are usually in about the 12.3-foot to 13.75-foot length range. “Switch” rods are shorter (around 11 to 12 feet, very roughly) because of their goals and the difficulty in attempting to single-hand a mile-long rod; only goliath-esque hands and wrists could manage single-handing a 13-footer for very long. Both Spey and Switch rods feature prominent fighting butts, which double as the grip for the off-hand in a two-hand cast.

Rod weight is going to appear foreign to single-handed anglers: A #7 Spey rod may be something like a #7 single-handed rod in the top 9 feet of the blank, but the blank continues to get thicker as it moves down toward the handle…which is another 4+ feet away. So a #7 Spey rod is a stick with some noteworthy backbone, something that can accelerate a 500-grain Skagit head, another 120 grains of tip, and a really big/heavy streamer. A #7 classical trout rod couldn’t toss a third of that mass; I really don’t yet know the rod-blank “weight” conversion formula between the two worlds, but I know a #7 Spey rod is overall a pretty powerful rod. Go much bigger than about #9 and I suspect you’re chasing tarpon or something…just a guess. I acquired a #7 13.5-footer and although it’s on the light end of the salmon rod spectrum I can’t imagine it being too laughable to survive anything I might target in fresh water, although perhaps 40-pound Chinook might mock it as a toothpick. (And yes, I intend to find out.)

The reputation of the rod you think you want to choose is a vital part of your upcoming line decisions, because rods are very different. Here’s where those discussion forums come into play–read what line setups others find workable for that rod. The behaviors vary greatly; some are Skagit-focused, others Scandi, still others can go either way. Again, experimentation is rampant in these revolutionary days of Spey, and there are many theories on what makes a great rod–not the least of which is to defy previously accepted rules of rod blank flexibility.

See, we’ve become accustomed to progressive flex tapers in fine rods. Just like a smoothly tapering leader which transmits the energy of the unfurling line elegantly down to the fly and “turns over” that fly with just the right amount of energy left, so too a well-tapered rod releases energy stored in its load smoothly all the way to the rod tip. That energy flow is a “wave” much like the wave your child makes when sending an oscillation down the jump-rope to the child holding the rope’s other end. How that wave propagates depends on the natural oscillation frequency of the medium (the rod or line) at each point in the medium’s length. So fine rods have had smoothly tapered stiffness and diameter and modulus of elasticity for many years, to promote continuous and uber-smooth wave propagation.

And then along come some Spey rod designers, who realize that the rod’s job in the elaborate Spey cast is completed very early in the full travel of that wave. And they realize that the arms have put quite a bit of ooomph into that cast, and further, that the last thing the angler wants is to have the rod whipping up and down in underdamped fashion long after its part in the cast is done. So they build in a REgressive elasticity modulus (and perhaps in places even a slightly REgressive taper), so that the moment the rod goes straight it shudders instantly to a stop, letting the cast roll out a hundred or more feet on its own.

The feel of regressive damping is a little odd at first, but one’s ability to stop the rod tip precisely where one wants it for excellent loop control is a real benefit. The regressively damped design lets the mid-sections of the rod do the bulk of the load-unload job, and then the rod’s extremity puts an end to the wave propagation. It’s the stuff of master rodsmiths. I recommend that the reputation of a rod among the proficient be a strong factor in the decision whether to buy it–the anglers out there struggling to learn seriously difficult casts with mismatched gear, never getting it right until they abandon a purchase to try something else, are many.

The rod you acquire will also be wrapped in lore as to how heavy a tip technology you should employ, to round out your line setup. Take very strong note of that lore.

Step 4: Back To Line Setups–The Business End

Once you have the rod, its reputation, and the manufacturer’s advice regarding it (and hopefully you chose one designed to throw the flies you want to throw), a Spey newcomer should keep to the middle of the rod’s advertised line weight spectrum. Some casters out there go heavy, but their technique is mutated toward that extreme; don’t expect that yours will be for quite some time…or even that you should yearn for that. Many better “boutique” rod designers even spec and market their own shooting heads perfectly tailored to that rod, and their personal recommendation is worth its weight in high grade tungsten. When something is all wrong about your cast (and get ready for that because it’s coming), your choices are: (A) Setup is wrong, or (B) Operator error. If the setup is how the rod designer personally recommends, you needn’t waste time and money testing the veracity of Choice A.

On to the rest of the line elements: Again, backing and running line should be stronger than all of tip, leader and tippet (including concessions for loops and knots), else you stand to lose it all on a monster salmon or an unlucky snag. Attaching the line elements together has its tricks, including use of loop-to-loop connections with the loops being big enough to fit an entire reel through them (for example if you want to swap out your entire Skagit setup for a Scandi one weekend but use the same reel).

Figure 4: The Line Segments

From reel to fly, then, the progression is generally one of these:
— Backing – Running line – Shooting Head – Sink tip – Leader – Tippet
— Backing – Running line – Shooting Head – Floating tip – Leader – Tippet
— Backing – Running line – Shooting Head – Combo Sink/Float tip – Leader – Tippet
— Backing – Integrated Head/Running Line – any-kind-of-tip – Leader – Tippet
— Backing – Running line – Shooting Head – “Pigtail” – Thin Tippet

(A “pigtail” is a very short mono section with perfection loops on each end so that an angler can ensure the loop-to-loop connection to the expensive shooting head uses thick-cross-section mono, rather than thin tippet that can eventually cut through the shooting head’s welded loop. Pigtails are sometimes used when an angler wants to go straight to thin tippet off the shooting head, and unlike welded-loop-heads a pigtail can be made in minutes for a penny or two.)

Tips are part of the rod loading and greatly affect the cast; you cannot execute a proper cast without one attached. The reason is that the load which an in-the-water tip helps to put onto the rod and onto the rest of the cast is substantial and is assumed to be present by rod and shooting head designers. The whole world of tips is fraught with competing technologies, niche terminology and just plain lore–and here’s where the ol’ “try a few different setups and see what works best for you…maybe snip off a foot or two at a time and see what happens” kind of colloquial guidance seems to be most common.

For a line setup, it’s not diameter or sinkability as much as it is just plain mass that affects how a rod will be loaded (although here again a submerged tip loads a rod a little differently than does a surface one). Sink tips come in T-17, T-14, T-11, T-8 kinds of poly-materials, with the “T” emanating from the word “tungsten,” although as soon as you know this, you can forget it (as I’ll show you when we get to floating tips). Focus on the number: T-17 means its mass is 17 “grains” per foot; T-8 is 8 “grains” per foot. (A “grain” is a very small standard measurement of mass; 15 grains is just a snail’s whisper less than one gram.)

It might surprise you (like it did me) to learn that the “grains” method of categorizing these sink tips is exactly what we use in single-handed floating lines too…and this epiphany let me begin to ad lib in useful ways…maybe I was just dense all these years. A #6 floating line has a mass of 6 grains per foot. (Actually a floating fly line averages its grain profile over the front 30 feet of line to accommodate line taper, so if the first 30 feet of a DT floating line has a total mass of [30 feet x 6 grains per foot]=180 grains overall, then it’s called a #6 DT line…the tapered feet will weigh less per foot and the fatter portion will weigh more, but the average still makes it a #6.) Because the “grains” unit of measure categorizes all kinds of lines, a 10-foot floating tip for Spey made of an old #11 level floating fly line should load the Spey rod about as much as 10 feet of T-11 sink-tip material would. The T-11 sink tip will be much more narrow of course, causing it to sink at 7 to 8 inches per second (roughly the standard for T-11 sink tip material), but it still weighs the same as 11-weight floating fly line. Same comparison with a level piece of 8-weight floating line and level T-8 sink tip material (which sinks at around 6 to 7 ips)…they’d both weigh and load the same.

This familiar fact helps greatly to demystify the classification of sink tips.

There are small differences between “identical weight” sinking and floating tips, of course. Even though…say, T-11 level tip material…is as heavy per foot as #11 level floating line, how easily each one “rips” out of the water can be different. Remember, the Navy has many times demonstrated the increased drag effects of surface tension on materials moving through the water. So T-11 sink tip might not load a rod exactly the same as a float tip of identical mass would; it may depend on the kind of cast you’re doing and the size and depth of the fly when you do it.

And static mass aside, “mass at length” is also a factor, meaning that 9 feet of T-11 (weighing 99 grains in total) might still load a cast’s propagation less than 12 feet of T-8 (weighing three grains less than 99), even though the 99-grain T-11 tip weighs a tad more. The T-8 scenario has some mass further away from the rod.

Heavier tips will turn over bigger flies. A good rod should be able to handle a reasonable spectrum of tips, although which one you use on any given Tuesday–its per-foot grain weight, its length, and its sink rate or lack thereof–is going to depend on the fly being tossed. Shorter tips, as long as the rod and cast are loaded enough, will also turn over bigger flies, compared to longer tips.

Figure 5: Large Streamers

You can see how the “try stuff and see” advice can easily become the predominant. Much of the advice you’ll find derives out of unfiltered lore and is potentially less precise for doing so…since strength, height, goals, expectations and skills vary so widely between anglers.

This segment of this article discussed Spey rods and forayed into the confusing world of tip setups. The final part will continue the tips discussion, briefly mention reels, explore the “business end” elements of the line, and almost try to describe a cast.


  1. Mike

    Great commentary on the long rod world. It is indeed complex for the uninformed novice. But even once you have a decent setup, the casting itself takes a tremendous amount of practice. Having tried several years ago, even working with good casting instructors, I found the transition to spey casting techniques extraordinarily challenging. The more skill and muscle memory you have with traditional fly casting, the more challenges you have with spey casting. The one thing that helped me was watching the great number of YouTube videos about spey and switch casting. But as the wise sage of the streets of New York answered the curious tourist who asked “How do you get to Carnegie Hall”. — Practice, Practice, Practice. Spey away.

  2. Thanks Mike. It’s a tangle! To be clear, I’m learning it but intend to apply it to specific situations only. My first love and the style I dream about is the single-handed with a light rod and small flies.

    The spey cast is complex (wait for my “how to” at the end of the 3rd part, if you want a good laugh). There must be twenty or thirty different cast moves, each with its own reasons that depend on wind strength & direction, current, fly size, line and tip type, how deep the water is where you’re standing…and a lot more.

    But still, I found that if one stays with basic moves, one can have enough success to fish that fly for real fish on the first outing. Myself, I still lack distance and my tip setup isn’t so refined yet, but I can fish. Keeping it simple helps.

    YouTube videos are worth a LOT; you’re right. They don’t always say what kind of line setup they’re using, so the moves they suggest sometimes translate to one’s gear and sometimes don’t. We have to wade through a ton of colloquial lore to figure out what’s applicable to ourselves.

    Well, that’s why I developed the 3-part article–it should give newcomers a head-start and avoid some misconceptions and some tangential efforts & expenditures.

    I like what you called it: “The long rod world.” Perfect turn of a phrase.

    – Mike

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