Steelhead may be out of reach for many anglers, but that Spey rod is the perfect tool to close the gap on another local target.
[by Zach Matthews]
MY ROD SURGED AND BUCKED, and for a moment it threatened to shatter like dry spaghetti. That’s what happens when you are undergunned. I debated slamming my hand onto the reel to break off the fish, when suddenly it changed direction and brought my fly line swooshing straight at me. A quick backward scramble onto the sandbar was the only thing that allowed me to land the fish.
Minutes before, I had been sliding down the steep sides of Atlanta’s Chattahoochee River, leaving the roar of traffic behind as I carefully threaded my 13-foot Spey rod between rhododendron branches. That’s right: a two-hander, in this case a light 6-weight designed for trout. But as I soon learned, two-handed or not, a 6-weight is not enough stick for the hardest fighting fish in fresh water: striped bass.
Native to a surprising number of inland drainages, the modern-day range of Morone saxatilis now extends from coast to coast. The Atlantic strain is the version most anglers are familiar with. These fish run the seaboard from northern Florida all the way to Maine, and they will enter just about every river along the way if the time is right for spawning. These are the fish of Montauk, the kind that used to grace the table of the Mayor of New York. There is also a Gulf of Mexico strain of striped bass, which biologists believe entered the Gulf during the last ice age, when the circumnavigation of Florida was still possible for them. Today, they are cut off by thermal barriers and reproduce separately from their Atlantic brethren, historically running up the rivers of the Deep South. And finally, of course, there are America’s stocked stripers. From California to Ohio, Texas to Tennessee, stripers have been placed in just about every suitable reservoir or impoundment in the country.
All these far-flung members of the striped bass family have one thing in common: They run up rivers from time to time, and that means shallow water. In Middle America, the stripers’ run out of man-made reservoirs is the equivalent of a full-blown salmon run in fly-over country. Once they get in the river, stripers have similar behaviors to salmon and steelhead: they hold to structure in predictable ways, they eat streamers, and they often travel in pods. One day, it occurred to me that these characteristics make stripers a perfect target for two-handed rods and modern Spey tactics.
Of course, as soon as I had the thought, I realized that others would surely be ahead of me, and so they were. Anglers like biologist and artist Mark Liu had already begun targeting stripers in Alabama with Spey rods. I heard rumors of secret Spey sects on the Red River in Texas and California’s Central Valley, and right on my home water on Atlanta’s “Hooch,” there were anglers like American Angler contributor James Buice, who had perfected the local tactics. Once I had run these far-flung Spey anglers to ground, a few of them agreed to share their techniques.
The most shocking thing about the striper that nearly shattered my 6-weight was its size: it was relatively tiny, only about five pounds. I remember glancing at my slender 13-foot 6-weight, then back to the fish, as Chief Brody’s famous line from Jaws echoed in my head: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Atlanta’s James Buice agrees: “I use a thirteen-foot 8-weight for most of my striped bass Spey fishing. You want a modern, fast action two-hander, not one of the older European-style [meaning slower] rods like we used to use in the Pacific Northwest for steelhead.” Alabama’s Mark Liu, fishing the Tallapoosa drainage, also sticks to 7- and 8-weight rods, and he’ll go so far as to carry a second, heavier-actioned two-hander for bigger, weighted flies.
fly and photo by Seth Fields
Hook: Gamakatsu SL-12S 1/0
Thread: White Veevus GSP 150 denier
Tail: White zonker strip
Body: Pearl Cactus Chenille
Weight: Lead dumbell eyes (charteuse)
Underwing: Gold, silver, and pearl flashabou
Wing: Shad grey bucktail
As a general rule, two-handed rods are significantly beefier than their one-handed cousins. The butt section on an 8-weight Spey rod is at least as thick as a 12-weight single-hander. Of course, all that extra mass carries a toll: You can’t just stick any old 8-weight line on one of these rods. “For a beginning Spey caster,” says Scientific Anglers’ chief line designer Tim Pommer, “we recommend a Skagit line or a Scandi line, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.”
Skagit lines were developed for steelheading in the deep, wide rivers of the Pacific Northwest. They are shooting heads at the most basic level, typically with very short front tapers and equally short heads. This means even an unaccomplished Spey caster can use them from the very first day. If you can form up a 30-foot roll cast, the extreme weight-forward profile of a Skagit system allows you to power out 60- to 80-foot casts almost without trying, because the head will carry the running line behind it once you let fly. “You just don’t want to overpower it,” explains Buice, an old hand at Skagit fishing from his steelhead days. “Keep your tip high, go slow, and let the rod do the work.” Skagit lines have enough mass to turn over heavy sinking tips as well, letting you get the fly to where the fish are: “I use Skagit lines for my heaviest or biggest flies, or those with dumbbell sinkers,” says Alabama’s Mark Liu. The downside of a Skagit system is obvious from the first cast: it can be ugly. Like, really ugly. Stripers in extremely skinny water can be just as spooky as largemouth bass or trout, and they will flee if you crash a cast on their heads.
That’s where Scandi lines come in. Scandi is short for Scandinavian, where these tapers were developed, and they work on the same principle as the Skagit system but are less extreme. Where a typical Skagit head might be only 24 to 26 feet long, a Scandi head could stretch up to 40 feet.
The longer a line’s head is, as a general rule, the more line the angler will carry in the air (as opposed to shooting it) and thus the longer line’s “turn over” will be more gradual. Scandi heads also have less aggressive front tapers than Skagit heads, meaning when the line does turn over, it will do so much more softly. Consequently, Scandi lines are best for conditions where fish are running in clear water with depths less than six feet. In sum, use Skagit lines for booming big heavy flies a long way where stealth is not an issue, but use Scandi lines in low, clear water. “If I’m using small flies in the summer, I’ll go with my Scandi setup,” says Mark Liu, “but when it comes to big dumbbelled leeches, it’s Skagit all the way.”
Scandi and Skagit lines are available both as “heads,” which can be interchanged on a shared running line using loop-to-loop knots, or as “integrated shooting lines,” meaning the head is fused permanently to the running line and cannot be swapped out. For a rank beginner, an integrated Skagit line will probably be the easiest system to manage. Once you’ve got the flavor, if you really want to learn to Spey-cast properly, it would be a good idea to pick up a Scandi or even a midbelly line (most typically used for steelhead and salmon), which will allow the broadest range of true Spey casts.