A Trip to Spey Nation

A Trip to Spey Nation

Where you’ll be among big fish, metal heads, master casters and the Spey-rod revolution.

  • By: Greg Thomas
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I once dated an Oregon girl who may have weighed one-twenty after jumping into a swimming pool wearing a snowmobile suit. She was a petite thing for sure but you wouldn’t have known it on a Friday night when she’d put the guys to shame by stuffing a massive wad of Copenhagen in her lower lip and, just as shockingly, order a Jack Daniels on the rocks when the rest of us requested some watered-down beer.

Some of that attitude came from her father, who was a nuts-and-bolts timber trader who lived for his family and steelhead and not necessarily in that order. I met him when he was in his seventies and still taking month-long trips to Smithers, British Columbia, and getting his fair share of the Deschutes, Snake, Clearwater and Grande Ronde fisheries, too. I joined him on the Deschutes one day, September 11, 2001, and we fished as fighter jets passed low overhead. That morning he said, “There’s nothing we can do about it so we might as well fish,” and I suddenly pictured the Gary Larson cartoon where a nuclear plume rises in the background and one fisherman says to another,

“I’ll tell you what this means, Norm—no size restrictions and screw the limit.”

One evening, just before this girl’s dad nearly sliced off a finger with a carving knife (he was on a strict heart-healthy, no-red-meat diet and was sneaking another cut off the prime rib), I brought up Spey rods and he quickly tore them down saying, “Why would you need to fish one of those when most steelhead are caught 10 or 15 feet away from the bank?” He added, “Besides, you wouldn’t even feel the fight with a 14-foot rod.”

I shared that sentiment and chastised friends when they broke out those big sticks on Northwest steelhead streams. In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago when I headed to Russia for Atlantic salmon that I decided to give those Spey rods a true go of it and only because I was witnessing a major Spey-rod popularity boost in the Pacific Northwest and a friend, Declan Hogan, was at the forefront of that movement. What was I missing, I wondered?

In Russia, not much. During a weeklong visit I caught, perhaps, 15 salmon, but failed miserably with the Spey rod because, in retrospect, I received little instruction and what was offered was so basic as to manifest itself as nothing more than a rollcast. I returned home anything but high on the Spey.

Still, I stuck with the long rod and booked a trip to western Alaska for king salmon, because I hadn’t caught kings in years and also because Hogan was the guest instructor at Alaska West that week.

That first morning on the Kanektok was spent learning, and at times I yearned for the single-hand 10-weight to make things easy and stave off embarrassment. If it wasn’t bad enough to have a fishing friend laughing at you, it was devastating to see the grimaces and hear the rooster-crows from Spey-confident fellow clients when they passed in a boat as you wrapped 12 feet of T-14 and a three-inch long Intruder around your neck.

Remember, we all went through that in the beginning, when we found grandpa’s old bamboo rod or we picked up some Abu Garcia kit stick and tried to cast in the backyard. I wondered why I would put myself through it again, similar to packing out a high-mountain mule deer buck, swearing you’ll never repeat that misery, only to stand on the same damnably steep mountain the next year thinking, what have I done? Time dampens memory but also creates fresh wounds.

Then, in the afternoon Hogan’s instruction clicked and I snap-T’d a cast to the middle of the river and said, “Whoa, what was that?” Fortunately, what followed was a steady barrage of 100-foot darts, which reminded me of basketball and those times when I found the zone and the hoop seemed four-feet wide and everything I released went through the net and I owned the only little piece of the world that mattered at the time.

With Spey, when I slowed down and didn’t force the issue, the rod actually bent and the motion seemed effortless. When I hooked a chrome-bright 30-some-pound king that afternoon, and it took me far into the backing before wrapping on a log and breaking free, I was sold. No fight? Are you kidding me. Since that time I’ve caught more kings and lots of steelhead on a Spey rod and even the A-run six-pounders give a good pull.
I now see why, years ago, when I interviewed Hogan for the book Fly Fisher’s Guide to Washington, he said with disgust about my single-hand rod preference, “So you like to trout fish for steelhead.”

I took a little offense to that statement, but also noted Hogan’s enthusiasm for the Spey rod and after spending time with him at Alaska West I realize why so many of us are now Spey-crazy and begging for excuses to chase anadromous fishes—after years of casting to and catching trout and steelhead on single-hand rods, going with the two-hander brings new challenge and reward to the equation.

And, admittedly, I’ve sensed some pride when casting across a broad river to the boot-tips of a single-hand dude and watched his jaw drop just before he mutters something his mother wouldn’t approve of. To watch Hogan Spey cast on the Kanektok and to observe him instructing a new angling breed, and to see him holding hands at angles, visualizing the next line of Echo fly rods and new casting styles, was to see an angler taking his game to a new level with enthusiasm often reserved for newbies first gripped by the sport.

One day while casting for kings with Hogan, I asked how he could have moved away from his home near the banks of Washington’s Skagit River and taken up residency in Utah a long damn way from anadromous fish and Spey-rod conducive rivers. It’s a question other Northwest anglers ask and often in not such respectful terms because they feel abandoned by their leader. According to Hogan it was a simple decision: the girl he loves lives in Utah and the guiding, writing and photography gig didn’t offer the kind of security most of us desire. So he took training and became a card-carrying member of the Layton Fire Department.

So, is he Speyed-out? No way: Hogan teaches classes for Alaska West lodge; he hosts Spey-casting clinics; he fishes Alaska, Argentina, Idaho and British Columbia. Basically, he’s got a good job with security, a good girl and his schedule allows enough fishing in two-hand heaven to keep him happy.

While some anglers still consider true Spey rods as ungainly, the new breed of switch rods are anything but cumbersome, many weighing in at nearly the same light weight as similarly equipped single-handers. For instance, Orvis’ 11-foot 8-weight tip flex switch rod weighs 51⁄8 ounces versus, say, Winston’s single-hand 9-foot, 6-inch 8-weight Vapor that weighs 49⁄10 ounces. I can’t tell you which rod throws farther and that probably has more to do with the angler than technology, but I can say which rod throws distance with less effort and which one wears out a shoulder more quickly. As another example, Winston’s highly touted Boron II MX switch rod weighs a mere 5 ounces.

An observation: I consider the term switch rod a misnomer because there’s no way I’d single-hand those things for more than a few casts a day. In fact, throwing those rods in single-hand style burns the arm and is as enjoyable as getting a cavity filled. But, anyone who worries about casting a clunker or the fight of a fish once hooked ought to give these lightweight gems a spin. Manufacturers might rename the category, light-Speys.
Case in point, I took a Winston Boron II-MX to Canada last spring and fished it on the medium-size and heavily timbered streams of the Queen Charlotte Islands. Although long casts weren’t required, backcast real estate was in short supply. It’s true, you can throw Spey-style casts with a single-hand rod, but casting a rod designed for Spey and doing so for 11 hours a day makes sense.

One negative from the recent Spey-rod revolution is the sense of superiority that some Spey-roders demonstrate. It’s an uppity attitude and in my opinion does nothing positive for our sport. And I’m not the only one sharing that opinion: A friend recently said, “I’m sick and tired of hearing the Spey guys say ‘You aren’t fishing unless you’re throwing a two-hand rod.’ That sounds an awful lot like the dry-fly purists limiting themselves to a single discipline. It’s like sending Tiger Woods out there with a chipping wedge and nothing else. Just do this—how eff’in boring. I love Spey rods, but there are lots of situations where I’d rather have the single-hander.”

Maybe so, but in all honesty, there is a cool factor that contributed to my interest in Spey rods. You don’t hear about single-hand conclaves and single-hand Web pages, but Spey ’claves and Spey-specific Web sites are now found in abundance; when you pick up the Spey rod, just like choosing any fly rod over a conventional meat stick, you join a brotherhood, a sect, a commune with deep foundation and a hard-core, youthful aura.

I’ll continue throwing true Spey rods and lighter switch rods for steelhead and salmon. When it comes down to it, the basic advantages of a Spey rod over a single-hand stick—especially when casting for distance with large flies and sink-tip lines and covering every inch of a river—makes the choice clear. But I can’t deny there’s also something about reaching the far bank that reminds me of a mountaintop and I’ve never been very good about resisting either. Just ask the single-hand guy on the opposite bank and those high-mountain mule deer.

Greg Thomas is Fly Rod & Reel’s managing editor. He runs the Web site Angler’s Tonic (www.anglerstonic.com) and lives in Ennis, Montana, near the banks of the Madison River.