The Case Against Spey-Fishing

The Case Against Spey-Fishing

And what would Lee Wulff have to say?...

  • By: Ted Rogowski
I must concede that I can understand the recent popularity of casting a long line with a 12- to 15-foot rod in the "Spey" fashion. It's a thing of beauty to see an experienced Spey-caster handle 100 feet or more of fly line. There is a skill to be learned and a certain joy in perfecting the cast. Casting is a sport unto itself even without a fish on the line. And as we comment on casting, we become aware that there are no universal truths as to the appropriate length of the rod any more than the length of the cast.The river, the fish, the tradition of the camp or lodge-each of these in some way directs our choice. But now let's talk "fishing," by which I mean actually angling for fish of whatever species. Here long rods of 12 or more feet certainly have their limitations. Of course, there's no argument that they can present a fly to fish far beyond the 60-foot cast of the 9-foot rod. Also, if there are bushes and trees behind you, the Spey rod may get you to water you dare not try with a regular backcast. However, a Spey rod of 12 feet is a huge instrument-too cumbersome to tote along trout streams where 50 feet is as long a cast as you'll need to make and a two-pound trout is a grand prize. In addition, there are many seldom-discussed drawbacks to using a Spey rod even on large rivers and in pursuit of such traditional Spey-rod species as steelhead and salmon. My recent encounter with steelhead taken on a 12-foot rod left me questioning not the practicality of using the 12-foot rod, as the river was wide and deep, but the whole experience of hooking, playing and landing a 6-pound and a 10-pound steelhead. My first problem was that, given the ability to throw a long line, I found myself almost powerless to refrain from doing so. I got caught up in the long-distance cast and ignored the near waters-the ones within 20 feet or so of shore where many steelhead seem to lie. Instead, my concentration was on the distant, "unreachable" currents, which, thanks to my 12-foot casting tool, had suddenly become accessible to me. Maybe you have more willpower than I do, but the Spey rod turned me into something that I am not, and I found myself intoxicated by that unearned feeling of power. Once I actually hooked my first steelhead, further problems-problems to me, in any case-presented themselves. The main thing was that I did not like the way Spey-fishing disconnected me from my fish. That 12-foot rod put a lot more of everything-rod, line and river-between me and that steelhead than any single-handed rod had ever done. For instance, the fish ended up fighting the extended line and current much more than it fought me. And when the fight was over, I didn't even get the satisfaction of touching it, because that 12-foot rod made it necessary for someone else to land my fish for me. (Dragging the fish onto shore is not a recommended landing technique.) And what would the late angling pioneer, Lee Wulff, think of this newfound fascination with Spey-fishing? Not much, probably. I was privileged to have filmed many of Lee's salmon- and trout-fishing adventures for the ABC-TV "American Sportsman" and CBS-TV "Sports Spectacular" shows. In these episodes, Lee demonstrated techniques for playing, landing and releasing even the largest fish. Viewers heard Lee's advice on how to: Bring the fish to you; hand-tail the salmon; wade out and grasp the trout; play the fish one-on-one; and, perhaps most importantly, do it all yourself. Lee's choice of the short rod-a 6-footer-enabled him to bring the fish within reach of his hand. Even after battling a giant tarpon, Lee slid off the bow of the flats boat into waist-deep water to land and release the fish himself. Lee's fishing was 100 percent angler involvement. Shouldn't we all be equally involved, enjoying to the fullest the take, the play, the landing and the release of the fish we catch? I assure you that today's single-handed rods are up to the challenge. The technological transition in rod design from bamboo to fiberglass, to graphite and now boron, has brought great improvements in length and accuracy to our single-handed casts; there are few casting feats that the competent singled-handed caster cannot perform. So I must ask, when do you really need a 12-foot rod for angling? And will you fully appreciate the angling experience with that 12-foot rod? Consider, too, the effect of the 12-foot rod on your neighboring anglers. The biggest rivers-the Thompson in British Columbia, the Skagit in Washington-have space to accommodate the reach of the Spey rod. But on rivers such as the Miramichi in New Brunswick, where you can Spey-cast clear across to the far bank and where fishing is done from both banks, should we limit our Spey cast to the middle of the river, or do we allow ourselves to fish across to the far bank, into someone else's water? And, if your partner is fishing downstream from you, is your long cast sweeping into the water he is fishing? I once was snagged in the knee of my waders by a size 10 Green Butt Black Bear that had been cast by a Spey angler fishing upstream of me. At first I offered to have him come down to retrieve the fly, but ended up cutting the leader and thanking him for the "present" (the editors have asked that I not repeat my phrases of "gratitude" here). In another sense, however, I felt sorry for this fisherman, because he had no idea where his fly was fishing, or even what current or eddy it was searching. Both of us were victims of his Spey-given ability to throw more fly line than he could keep track of. In my opinion, Lee Wulff should-and does-have the final word on this subject. In 1962, Lee traveled to Scotland's Dee River to challenge legendary Spey fisher Jock Scott with the question: "Have you put yourself out of reach of the angling event with your 75-foot cast?" Scott responded that Spey-fishing was the most efficient way to catch salmon on such a formidable river as the Dee. But Lee remained unconvinced. Instead of picking up a 12-foot rod himself, he strung up his 6-foot single-hander and tied on a dry fly. He then proceeded to outfish the famous Spey angler on his own river. Ted Rogowski's extensive angling career has included travel with Lee Wulff to Norway, Scotland, England and Canada. Dubbed by Arnold Gingrich as Lee's "aide de camp," Ted filmed Lee's Atlantic salmon and trout angling in Newfoundland and Labrador from 1957 to 1962. Professionally, Ted has served as counsel with a Wall Street law firm and as a senior US Environmental Protection Agency attorney in Washington, DC, and Seattle. His angling articles have appeared in Esquire, the Gordon Garland, The Anglers Club of New York Bulletin and in Federation of Fly Fishers publications.