Zen and the Art of Angling

Chapter 4

Introduction | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5

Caarton of Alistair

The Spey cast

Spey Casting is the most versatile method of casting you can add to your armoury of casting skills. I, like many others who have learned how to Spey Cast, look back over the years and remember the occasions when a days fishing could have been transformed had I learned to Spey Cast in my youth. The following article is an introduction to this essential skill.

The Spey cast

About Spey Casting.

The Spey casting style is not new, it has been around for more than a hundred years on Speyside yet it is only in recent years that the Spey style has become known the world over.

Alexander Grant, a native of Carrbridge on Speyside, brought the Spey cast to prominence in the salmon fishing world when in 1895 he set a record of 56 yards and went on to demonstrate even more prodigious casts at exhibitions that compare more than favourably with modern record Spey casting.. Grant, the inventor of the famous Grant Vibration rod, used a 21 foot spliced greenheart rod, brass reel and a silk line! He must have been built like Superman,.

The weight of that rod and reel would have been daunting far less lifting the weight of a line that lacked the water resistant advantages of our modern scientifically profiled lines. What makes Grant's skills even more prodigious is the fact the that he lifted the entire length of line, casting perfectly straight without 'shooting' any line at all!

Like the current World Record holder, Scotty Mackenzie, Grant was a river Ness ghillie, hence the assertion that the style was developed on the Ness. Not so, ask any Speyside resident angler and you will be sorted out quite politely and quickly.

You just cannot not want to fish the fly on the Spey, it's as simple as that, it's beautiful, majestic, fissssshy as heck and lined with trees on so many fantastic pools that the only way to fish them is to develop a method of pitching a fly that avoids a back cast.

The demands of overcoming nature modified fly fishing techniques on the Spey to produce the kind of cast that when perfected will give you a serious feel good factor when performed.

Pitching 35 / 40 yards with comparative ease is what Spey casting gives you with a double handed rod, that is no idle boast. Presenting a good long line is central to fishing the fly effectively on most salmon rivers whether you are using a single handed rod or a double and the Spey cast is the most versatile way of achieving this.

Hugh Falkus refers to switch casting in his book, 'Salmon Fishing, A Practical Guide' to cover Spey and Roll casting, there are other references to underhanded casting (a style used in Norway to this day). I will quote you what the great man says about the Spey cast:

'It is a waste to equip yourself with expensive tackle and rent a costly beat if you haven't the technique to take full advantage of it. The ability to switch cast - that is to make roll, single Spey and double Spey casts - is essential to every salmon fisherman.

'In his book, first published in 1984, Falkus laments that 'Unhappily this branch of fly casting seems to be woefully neglected' and in this regard, as in many other matters, he was right.

Learning how to Spey cast will open new horizons for beginners and experienced anglers alike. Why find yourself unable to fish half of the beat you have booked because the banks are lined with tree that stop you from making a back? Why resort to spinning or the garden fly when a little wading combined with a Spey cast will open out more of the river to the fly? Why false cast half a dozen times when an easy Spey cast will do the job?.

Why Use the Spey Cast?

Spey Casting is the perfect method of presenting a fly on rugged rivers with trees, high banks and bank side vegetation where overhead casting would be difficult or impossible, in consequence as Falkus points out, it is a waste of time and money if you are unable to fish all of the available water. Once mastered you will want to Spey cast in almost every circumstance.

The double Spey

The Double Spey.

Ideally Spey Casting should be carried out whilst wading, but it can be done from the bank though care has to be taken to avoid bank side vegetation when executing the roll cast element of the cast where the lower part of the 'D Loop' will come into contact with terra firma.

Most of the action in a Spey cast happens on and above the water culminating in a roll cast, as a result the line does not need to be extended far behind the caster. When executed properly the disturbance caused by the Spey cast is minimal, the line merely 'kissing' the surface of the water.

False casting is unnecessary eliminating the possibility of lining fish and the 'kissing' happens well away from the water you intend to fish the fly through.

Spey Casting can be carried out either left handed or right handed with single or double handed rods. The description below is for a right handed caster using a double handed rod but you should try to work off both hands once you get the hang of things, you will find that this versatility helps enormously in differing circumstances and wind conditions.

Spey casting off the left hand.

Spey casting off the left hand

Once you have mastered Spey casting you will find that you can fish in places and in wind conditions that no overhead caster would consider sensible or possible. What Spey casting will do to your overall casting skill has to be experienced to be believed, it will expand your repertoire enormously.

The first lesson to learn as a Spey Caster is that minimal effort gets maximum result, do not try to use muscle power in your casting, use the rod, the line, technique, control, timing, the conditions and a bit of finesse, develop awareness of what you are trying to achieve to create the result you desire.

In every cast you make, discover what constitutes the minimum effort you can apply for a maximum result. Lets face it, perspiration doesn't always = results.

What is a Spey Cast?

Simply stated a Spey cast is a roll cast with a change of direction.

The Spey Cast:

The Spey Cast consists of two key phases:

Phase One;

Is all about positioning the rod and line while aligning your body in order to make a roll cast with a change of driection.

Phase Two;

The delivery element, the Roll Cast.

The Roll of the Roll Cast:

The element of the Spey Cast that propels the fly line across the river is the roll cast however the roll cast has the inherent problem that you cannot change casting direction through more than 5 degrees from the vertical plane in which you are casting. Simply stated, using a roll cast will not allow you to cover the width of the river. The Spey Cast incorporates elements that move the fly line and your body to a position that will allow you to roll cast across the river, thus covering likely lies.

The Starting Position:

Good balance is all important for safe and effective casting, falling over is not an option when you are waist deep in a fast flowing river!.

When facing down stream always stand with the foot furthest from the water extended forward i.e. when fishing the left bank (single Spey) stand with your left foot forward. On the right hand bank (double Spey) stand with your right foot forward. There are two good reasons for adopting this stance:

1. The stance allows your body to rotate freely during the cast.

2. You are balanced in a way that ensures that should you slip or lose balance you will fall toward on dry land if fishing from the bank or towards your wading staff on your left hand side.

The starting position for Spey casting

The starting position for Spey casting one other key point is to keep a light grip on the rod, notice how I hold the rod with the thumb and forefinger of my right hand and only cup the rod butt with my left hand. A common fault among fly fishing novices is to hold on to the rod with a death grip, please don't, it is tiring, restrictive and predisposes you to be overly tense. The essence of good casting is relaxation..

How to Roll Cast:

A snake roll in progress

A snake roll in progress

Whether you are doing a Single Spey, Double Spey, T Snap or Snake Roll, all of the hocus pocus is designed to position the line for the Roll Cast. There are two types of roll cast used when Spey casting: The first is a Basic Roll Cast which you will use to roll out a sunken fly or adjust line, the second is referred to as a Jump Roll.

The Basic Roll Cast:

Keeping your rod tip down close to the water retrieve line to your predetermined casting length, this will eliminate any slack line keeping the all important dynamic tension in the tackle. Now raise the rod tip vertically to 11 o'clock then draw your arm back keeping you elbow away from the body until the rod is held at the 1 o'clock position over your right shoulder, the line will form a belly backwards towards you. Now punch your arm forwards aiming 5 degrees above the horizontal. This will propel the belly forward effecting the basic roll.

Not the position of the right arm, the elbow extended to the right on a level witht the shoulder

Not the position of the right arm, the elbow extended to the right on a level witht the shoulder

Jump Roll:

To roll cast, visualise a clock face on the vertical, on your right side. Hold the rod tip down towards the water surface, retrieve any slack line with the left hand, slack line will kill the cast so keep things tight. Now trap the line against the handle of the rod with your forefinger only (as in the picture above), this will prevent retrieved line from slipping during the cast.

Allowing the rod butt to pivot in the palm of your hand, do not grip the rod butt, raise the rod tip vertically bringing the rod tip up to 11 o'clock then round to 2 o'clock over your right shoulder keeping you left hand down near your belly button. This will cause the rod tip to swing back with a slight dip half way through the motion allowing the line to fall back up stream to your right under the rod tip.

As the line bellies backwards it forms a D behind you and to your right. The fly and leader acting as an anchor remains in the water down stream of you throughout the action with most of the fly line constituting the D. This anchoring effect is essential as it ensures that the whole process of the cast remains dynamic, rod and line loaded with no slack line.

The D is pictured as the line forming the curve of the D by your right shoulder and the rod forming the vertical of the D when the process is observed from the side.

Fly lines are tapered, thicker and heavier in the mid portion of the length of the line in the case of double tapered lines and up to the junction with the running line in the case of the modern weight forward Spey lines.

In the roll cast D, the bulk of the curve of the D should consist of the heavier part of the line, the weight of the heavier mid portion of the line enhances the casting action.

Once the D is formed and stable, extend your right arm straight as if throwing a punch, pulling back with the left hand brings the rod tip rapidly from the 2 o'clock position to the 11 o'clock in front of you.

Keep your body vertical moving weight from the back right foot to the forward left foot, do not lean into the cast, dip the shoulder or lean forward.

With the rod butt level with your navel and your shoulders square the length of your arm dictates how far forward the rod can go i.e. it will stop at 11 o'clock. Stopping the forward motion at 11 o'clock causes the spring action of the rod to propel the D forward creating the roll cast, the line extending at about a 5 degree angle to the horizontal above the rod tip.

Point the index finger at the moment you stop at 11 o'clock, this will release the retrieved line which can then shoot forward in the cast. The roll does look impressive when it happens so don't be surprised if you let out a little expletive when the first cast goes right, I still do sometimes.

The 'punch' action describes the action of the arm, not the configuration of the hand. The hand configuration is an essential element in efficient casting. To begin with try to keep your fingers straight with only the thumb and forefinger curved around the handle, just enough grip to keep a hold of the rod and retrieved line during the forward cast.

The recommended grip

The recommended grip you apply power to the cast with the web of your hand between the thumb and finger. Using the thumb, as you would with a single handed rod, results in the thumb flexing back, unless you are exceptionally strong, diminishing the loading you have imparted to the rod thus flexing of the thumb will reduce the amount of power you can apply to the forward cast, as will leaning forward or dipping the shoulders.

Remember you are looking for minimum effort for maximum result, a literally laid back approach is a prerequisite of effective Spey casting.

Single Spey and Double Spey Cast.

Having mastered the Jump Roll you are well on the way the Spey casting, all you need to do now is learn to change direction in order to cover water properly. The first 2 elements of the Spey Cast are designed to position the line for the jump roll cast.

The dynamics of the positional moves are different depending on which bank of the river you are fishing from. Looking down stream, the left hand bank requires that you make a single Spey Cast, the right hand bank requires a Double Spey Cast (the reverse for left handed anglers).

Single Spey Cast. (Right Handed Person Fishing the Left Bank).

The Single Spey Cast is considered to be more difficult to master as it is more dependent on good timing, when perfected the simple smooth motion fires out a line with surprising speed and grace.

As the fly line extends down stream, the rod will follow the alignment ready to make the cast. Before commencing make sure you are balanced and that your left foot is forward.

The rod tip should be very slightly angled to the river bank and should be almost touching the surface of the water. Retrieve any slack line with your left hand. Now you are ready to begin the Single Spey Cast.

The Single Spey consists of 3 simple actions that should be carried out as distinct elements flowing one into the other, this is why timing is so important. The 3 elements are:

  • The Lift.
  • Placement.
  • Roll Cast.

The Lift.

Facing down stream, in a stable position with the left foot forward, the rod is pointing very slightly towards the river bank and the rod tip is almost touching the river surface.

Retrieve line to ensure everything is nice and tight for the lift. Visualise a large clock face standing vertically at your right shoulder, trap the line with your forefinger and raise the rod tip up to 10 o'clock.


In order to roll cast at 45 degrees across the stream you need to bring the line round to your right side.

To do this most efficiently, placing the fly 2 yards up stream of you and just beyond your rod tip you must combine two actions:

Bring the rod round from the 10 o'clock position to 2 o'clock over your right shoulder by turning to your right at your knees (not at the hips) transferring weight from the left foot to the right foot.

Keep your left hand down bringing the rod butt to your navel and your right arm raised level with your shoulder in the punch position.

In making this move the line draws upstream and bellies back under the rod tip.

The combined action of bringing the rod round from 11 to 2 o'clock and pivoting at the knees will 'throw' the fly line up stream creating the roll cast D.

The fly and leader will act as an anchor for the D as it bellies backwards past your right shoulder.

The turn left to right is a dynamic part of the cast adding power to the cast by increasing loading on the rod, it also dictates where the line will stop in the upstream draw and the angle at which you will cast across stream.

Remember the cast must go in the direction you are facing. The body turn dictates the casting angle so the farther you turn to the right the more square the cast must be.

Stopping the body turn will cause the line to be placed on the water upstream of your right shoulder.

You are now in the roll cast position. Keep balanced, do not reposition your feet as this will spoil the cast.

Roll Cast:

To roll cast, quickly extend your arm parallel to the water and pull back with the left hand in the same plane as your arm is extending.

The rod tip moves from the 2 o'clock position to 11 o'clock at which you must stop and the line rolls out across the river presenting the fly to a waiting salmon. That's the Single Spey, as easy as 1,2,3 LIFT, PLACE, ROLL.

The essence is timing and keeping the process in three distinct but joined up parts, feel for the rod remaining loaded throughout the cast.

Slack line or too much contact with the water will kill the cast dead in the water.

Moving the rod too fast will cause the rod to get ahead of the casting action killing the cast dead, usually tangled around the rod tip!.

1, 2, 3 SLOWLY.

Double Spey. (Right Handed Person Fishing the Right Bank).

The Double Spey is used when fishing the right hand bank (i.e. the bank to your right looking down stream).

If you imagine trying to do a Single Spey on the right hand bank you would be achieving very little in terms of change of direction and may even be laying the line to your right on dry land.

The Double Spey is used to achieve a placement position that will allow you to cast across stream.

The Double Spey cast sounds and looks more complex than the Single Spey but people do find the Double Spey easier to master because it is a little less dependent on timing and more forgiving.

The Double Spey Consists of 4 Distinct Phases:

  • The Lift.
  • Up Stream Draw.
  • Placement.
  • Roll Cast.

As with the Single Spey, good balance is essential. Facing down stream at the commencement of the cast your right foot should be forward.

Have the rod tip close to the surface of the river, retrieve any slack line with your left hand and visualise a vertical clock face aligned downstream to your left shoulder.

The Lift:

Imagine that clock face to be on a vertical 6 feet out to your left shoulder, raise the rod tip up the clock face until you are at 11 o'clock.

Up Stream Draw:

Now imagine the clock face on the vertical directly in front of you as you face the opposite bank.

Rotating left at the knees, move the rod upstream with your right hand.

With your left hand guide the rod butt under your right arm until the rod tip is at the 11 o'clock position, upstream on your left.

The fly line will be pulled up stream towards you and to your left. It is important at this stage that you keep the rod angled away from your body or you it will wrap the fly line around your body or the rod tip or both!

If the line comes too close to you at this stage stop the casting action and return to the start position as you will not complete the cast in safety. Placement:

Your rod is now pointing up stream with the rod tip at 11 o'clock, your right and left arms are slightly crossed over, right hand upstream, left hand downstream.

Visualise the clock face now aligned on your right shoulder pointing across the river; bring the rod tip round in a shallow arc swinging the line way from you until the rod tip is at 2 o'clock over your right shoulder.

You are now at the same roll cast position you achieved with the Single Spey with the body of the line forming a D downstream of you, the fly anchored in the water about a rods length out and slightly to your right.

Again the body turn adds to the dynamic of the cast, turning to your left in the upstream draw keeps loading on the rod. As you bring the rod back to the two o' clock over your right shoulder the body turns left to the right causing the line to belly out across the stream maintaining the loading and bringing the D round to your right shoulder. Remember turn at the knees - right to left then left to right.

Roll Cast:

As described above, you punch forward with your right arm while pulling back with the left hand, stop the rod tip at the 11 o'clock and watch the line roll out. The Key to Good Spey Casting is:

Don't be hasty, take your time, keep the rod loaded, keep the line tight and stay in control at all times, keep the shoulders square and do not lean into the cast.