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

Part 2 of this article discussed Spey rod and tip technologies. This final segment rounds out the basic tips discussion, mentions leaders, reels and flies, and then takes an irreverent stab at painting a verbal picture of the cast itself.

Many anglers make their own tips from level T-material (which is readily available in cuttable lengths of 30 feet), and a few make floating tips from old floating lines (like I’ve done; and if you’re going to try this, good luck finding new level floating lines in the weight you want anymore! …nobody seems to make level floating lines anymore, and store clerks will literally laugh in your face for asking…but never fear because DT lines will serve–DT floating lines give you a chance to make two tips that have tapers, plus six to ten more that are level…WF lines will be hard to make a tip in the weight you want because the line weight is averaged across that 30 feet of compound WF taper and you won’t know the true weight of any tip you make…plus you’ll waste a whole line making a single tip).

Anglers can construct the net effect of a partially sinking, partially floating tip by using loop-to-loop connections to string together tip segments of different materials. Others buy something called a ready-made “replacement tip” that touts the behavior they want. And then there are so-called “MOW” tips (yet another under-explained name that seems to do the opposite of illuminate, especially when you finally realize after a convoluted quest to figure out what they are that the letters of the acronym are just the first initials of three famous guys’ last names). This system does try to standardize with a simpler “light, medium, heavy” system, which might help with easy understanding except that it’s not yet standard across manufacturers…and it being a much needed simplification could really be marketed a little more effectively; it takes a lot of head-scratching and far too much digging to stumble onto the truth of it actually being a streamlined approach. (There’s that “jargon” impediment again.)

“Tips” tend to measure no more than a rod’s length and usually less (7 feet, 10 feet…depends on who trimmed what, and why). But some anglers throwing Skagit shooting heads add a section of less bulky floating line between head and leader that’s longer than a normal “tip” might be, to approximate a Scandi setup (since Scandi lines are longer and have a longer forward taper compared to the bullet shape of the Skagit head). It can allow for a more delicate presentation of smaller flies like the Scandi guys can do…if tuned and thrown well. It will not toss large heavy dumbell-eyed patterns with any grace…at least I haven’t been very successful trying…yet.

You can see why it’s impossible to describe the “best” way to set up and fish your Spey rig. At some point it’ll probably all settle out in industry standardization; but for now the manufacturers are vying to make their pet system take hold best in anglers’ minds. So just imagine the various line elements connected together (either integrated/fused, or loop-to-loop, or however…doesn’t matter…and then start in the right weight ballpark for your rod and application, and then trim and test tip and leader lengths as you go. And expect to waste a dollar or three figuring the fine-tuning out, but hopefully not four. If you ask a proficient Spey-caster to cast your rig now and then when you meet one out there, you might coax a few comments and be able to avoid paying top coin for lessons. (Okay, yes, I tend to lean toward the fiercely independent approach, but I admit that’s only one way to go. But it is absolutely a way to go.)

Have I simplified the whole topic of tips? I seriously doubt it, as that’s a tall order; there’s a ton of noise out there, but one out of twenty websites seems to do a decent job of explaining a couple of things, and little by little you put together a picture. Hopefully this article is filling in between a few lines.


A lot of Scandi casters use really long leaders (12 to 15 feet, maybe more!) to help load and stabilize their long casts and propagate energy to the lighter flies just right. Skagit casters (those who aren’t trying to approximate a Scandi setup) use only about 4-5 feet of leader, and many just use a piece of level mono or fluoro, since the whole leader is so short. They’re typically fishing streamers with these short leaders.

The Fly

Pretty much anything you can make on the vise—there are large salmon and steelhead streamers that can really only be cast with this style. Or just tie on that whole unplucked goose and heave ho!

Figure 6: Large Arbor Full Cage Spey Reel


As with other kinds of fly fishing, a reel is basically line storage; not a lot of specificity is needed. It should be something rugged, because you can use this rig in some serious backcountry battles; a full-cage reel will hold up far better against the abuse your quarry will bring to bear. It should have the capacity to handle up to ~60 feet of shooting head, a hundred feet of running line, 150 to 200 yards of backing, and 20 or more feet of tip/leader. It should have drag, again for those battles. There are highly recommended Spey reels out there including models that have been around a long time and have proven themselves over a decade or two, and there are #12 no-name large arbor fly reels too, if you hunt for them. Think rugged, big, drag, and…uh…rugged again.

Jargon and Technique

The various Spey casts that can be learned come with their own glossary, and we’re all well advised to learn this new language before expecting to have any luck. People will talk about the “single Spey” and the “snap-T,” the “water-borne anchor” and “splash and go,” the “snake roll” and the ever-present “D,” the end effect being that serious translation is in order before it’s possible to picture any of the moves. The “jargon forest” in this sector can be a seriously timbered mountainside. Most casts require what they call an “anchor” of one sort or another, which to my pilgrim’s mind may be a less than optimal word because nothing is really anchored. Rather, it’s a location-based phase of the line’s travel that utilizes some kind of smoothly dissipating resistance to keep the rod partially loaded, stabilizing the line’s path while not actually pinning it down anywhere. (And no, off-hand I can’t think of a better word for “anchor” except to try to denote controlled drag in some way.) Anyway, don’t let it throw you, because once you think you have the concept down it’s all but contradicted by some casts that instead use line momentum in the air (they call it an “air-borne anchor” which is really angular momentum resisting line slip and keeping some load on the rod–in this sense it’s related to single-handed’s backcast, which uses linear momentum to accomplish something loosely similar). No matter; Spey newcomers should adapt to the vernacular so as to have a decoder ring for the many bits of advice available in online forums.

With a decent setup you should have early success enough to chuck a big Intruder streamer around even on your first outing; after two or three or four you’re that much better. Start with your strong side (right side for right-handers) but periodically get in some reps of an off-side cast too, because eventually you’ll need it, and trying it actually helps ingrain the physics-grounded role of each stage of a cast. Watch and emulate any other Spey practitioners you see, whether you understand the reasons for their moves or not, because feeling it first-hand as you copy the moves goes a long way toward lightbulbs turning on. Myself, I’m keeping it simple, using single-Spey and double-Spey moves while I learn the rod and can sense the right timing and loop control. Seventy-foot casts aren’t difficult as a beginner with a decent setup, and the timing is improving (and that even though I still need more tuning of my tip lengths and weights…it’s kinda like those fiberglass river kayak clubs of old, who paddled rivers on weekends but had “boat-patching parties” every Wednesday night: Spey anglers have a third hobby besides fishing and tying flies, and that’s trimming and tuning and theorizing and messing around with their setups and various line elements on mid-week evenings). Other than for Chinook and Steelhead runs, I plan to use this style of fishing to get wooly buggers far out into a deep and wide waterfall pool I know of, where the bank is too steep behind for any kind of decent back-cast. Note that I still like a sweet single-hander; that fascination will never fade.

First time out on a river I brought both the Spey rod and the 5-weight. Picking up the smaller of the two after several hours heaving a 500-grain Skagit head was like hefting a piece of boiled vermicelli after whipping flagpoles around all morning. But a flagpole is a fun change! And gaining new capabilities is always a joy.

The Throw Itself…Drumroll Please….

Heaven help us now, because I’m going to dare give this description a go. With apologies to those who have mastered this art, I’ll do what I can to express the sensation it inspires in onlookers. I’ve learned that tension on the line throughout the gyrations is a good thing, although sometimes a pause of just the right duration is needed too. I’ve discerned that one must generally strip line in to at least where the shooting head comes near the tip guide before starting a new cast, and that finishing up the preliminary moves and beginning the throw itself from right-hand or left-hand side has less to do with one’s handedness or the direction of the current than it does with the direction of the wind…so to avoid hooking oneself in the ear, plan the final throw to come from the side of your downwind shoulder. I’ve learned that 13 feet of rod can make the line do a lot of things without imparting more than a tiny flip, so don’t overdo anything. I’ve learned that a tuned setup and timing will combine to earn distance more than just adding more ooomph–that is, avoid over-powering the throw and instead flex the rod and then let it do its job. I’ve learned that whereas a tight loop in back-cast-style fly fishing is recommended for accuracy, a tight loop in Spey means the difference between a chance at a good cast and abject despair. And I’ve learned that the predominant benefit of this style, in my greenhorn mind anyway, remains the fact that casts of usable length can be made with minimal room behind…and that the serious distances these casts can achieve is largely due to their ability, well executed and well timed, to shoot a lot of line.

Figure 7: The Cast

And Now…The Cast

So let me see if I can do this some tongue-in-cheek justice: First, go watch a bunch of old re-runs of McHale’s Navy and Baa Baa Black Sheep, carefully studying the gyrations of those semaphore flagmen waving WWII fighters onto aircraft carriers. Then grab your rod and go stand in actual water, since it won’t work well on grass. Get some line out, then lift the rod and do a big pretty curlique with it. Sweep it right then left then right (then maybe left), raising rooster-tails everywhere you can, then cursively trace the words “God Save The Queen” in the sky with the tip guide’s silhouette, then look straight ahead and imagine that fighter plane coming in and with a few more waves and moves just bloody well bring that baby home. Finally, applying your very best Bokendo front-strike thrust motion, let ‘er fly with a whoop.

That about cover it? The part about the grass was true. Suffice it to say I have newfound respect for those hardy steelheaders…not to mention the inventive Welsh…for their mastery of this complex skill. Rather than trying to make sense of my description above (duh), it’s best to just go drink in some videos, for regarding the beauty AND the execution of these casts, there’s a “fix” but truly there are no words.

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