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Trout Spey – What Is It?

You may have heard of a popular technique that lots of fly fisherman are using. It is called trout spey and it is very different from traditional nymphing or dry fly fishing. So what is trout spey?

Trout spey is a trout fishing technique that derives from spey fishing techniques developed in Scotland. With spey techniques, you can cast a long distance without having to back cast at all. When done right, the cast feels effortless and you can cast to the opposite bank if you wanted to. Instead of “dead drifting” your fly, you are swinging it down and across the river until a fish bites.

The River Spey in Scotland has lush river banks and heavier currents. It is simply not possible to back cast because you have no room behind you. By using long fly rods and “shooting heads”, 18th century pioneers found an effective way to catch Atlantic salmon that hadn’t been tried before.

In more modern times, spey fishing became popular for anadromous fish. These fish are ocean dwellers that come back to the river to spawn, thus completing their life cycle. Among these fish are steelhead, and all sorts of salmon species.

Spey fishing took the steelhead culture by storm, and any hardcore steelhead fly fisherman is probably a spey caster. The “down and across” swing method is very meditative and is considered the most classic way of catching a steelhead.

The spey and switch rods used for this are heavy duty, ranging from 7 to 10 weights. Switch rods are just smaller spey rods, which can also be cast overhand if needed. A spey style rod is equivalent to 2 sizes up in a single hand (regular) fly rod. So a 7 weight spey rod really acts like a 9 weight single hand rod.

Since trout water is way more abundant than steelhead water, trout spey was born. We still use the same spey techniques, but we are using trout-sized spey rods. This allows us to get trout on the swing in the same manner that you would catch steelhead or salmon on the swing. Thus, trout spey is just a miniature version of spey fishing.

Trout Spey Rod Sizing

2, 3, 4 and 5 weights are most common for trout spey rods. In regular fly rod terms or “single hand” rods, these spey sizes will act like 4, 5, 6 and 7 weight rods, respectively. Remember, a trout spey rod acts like 2 weights above its actual size. By downsizing spey rods, you can really feel the fight of a trout. This is because they have more play and flex to them, and are designed just for catching trout. If you used an 8 weight spey rod to catch trout, it wouldn’t be very fun – since the rod would hardly flex at all.

The 2 and 3 weight trout speys are better for swinging soft hackles and tiny streamers. They aren’t able to cast large weighted streamers very well. These rods are great for swinging during the summertime when there are hatches going on. A small soft hackle really looks like an insect when it is swinging through the river.

4 and 5 weight trout speys can handle streamer casting. You can’t cast anything huge, but weighted sculpins and buggers can be thrown easily with these rods. The 5 weight is the brute of the bunch, and can cast some good sized trout streamers.

Lengths on these rods vary between 10 feet to 12.5 feet. There is no reason to have a 15 foot trout spey rod, it would be overkill for the rivers we are fishing.

Trout Spey Reels

Since trout spey lines are bulkier than regular trout lines, sizing up your reel is a good idea. On a 4 weight trout spey rod, I would tend to pair it with a 6 weight reel. This goes back to the difference in weights described above.

By using a larger reel, we are able to fit enough backing and the whole spey line. This gives us ample room so we don’t overload the reel spool.

Click pawl reels are really popular for spey fishing. Hearing the scream of them when a fish is on can be quite exciting. However, you can use a regular disc drag reel if you’d like.

Some folks prefer to use a full frame reel. This ensures that your running line won’t get caught in between the reel and the spool.

Trout Spey Lines

There are so many darn lines for trout spey fishing, it can get confusing. Let’s go over how a spey line works first.

Starting at the back of your line setup, you’ll have a running line or a “shooting line“. This line is thin and can shoot through your guides easily to make a long cast.

Then we have our shooting head. This is a shorter line with lots of mass. It is thick and carries lots of “grain weight”. Grain weights are matched to your rod weight to ensure a proper setup. This shooting head gives you the power to cast your fly out into the river.

Next, we will have our tip, usually a sink tip. These tips go on the end of your shooting head to complete your setup. Sink tips are most popular for streamer swinging, and floating tips are great for swinging dry flies or soft hackles.

To complete your setup, just add some tippet and tie on a fly. With sinking tips, you shouldn’t use a full length leader. You want your fly to swim at the same depth of the sink tip, so 2-3 feet of tippet accomplishes this. If there’s a 9 foot leader between your sink tip and your fly, the fly won’t get down at all.

Selecting A Trout Spey Line

There are a couple options when deciding what setup to go with.

You can get an integrated trout spey line – this means that the running line, shooting head, and tip are all combined into a single line. There are no loop to loop connections to mess with. Just put the line on your reel and you can go trout spey fishing.

You can also piece together your spey line system, which can take a bit more research. The benefits of this is that it casts smoother and farther. When you correctly set up a line system, casting feels effortless. In order to do this, you must select a shooting line, a shooting head, and a tip. This usually comes out to roughly the same price as an integrated line. There is generally no cost benefit by selecting one or the other. Spey line systems are put together with loop-to-loop connections. You can easily switch out sections of the system since no knots are involved.

My Trout Spey Setup (Example)

Disclaimer: My trout spey set up is very high end. However, there is no need to spend this much if you are just getting started. I will later recommend some brands that make great entry level trout spey rods.

Hopefully this will give you an idea of how a completed trout spey setup works. When all of it works in harmony, it is a joy to use.

Rod: Sage Trout Spey HD

I decided to go with the 3 weight, 11 foot long, Sage trout spey HD. It is great at throwing soft hackles, but it can throw buggers and other small streamers as well. The 3 weight can handle bigger water, but it really performs well on medium sized rivers.

This rod is designed for one thing – casting trout spey lines. It is not a nymph rod or a streamer rod. It only wants to throw spey style casts.

Reel: Abel Classic

This is one of the click pawl reels I mentioned above. It doesn’t have a disc drag, but it can still put the brakes on a big trout. The full frame design means that the running line can’t get caught between the reel and spool. It is basically a guard that ensures your shooting line won’t come out of the reel.

This reel is smaller in diameter, but it is heavy. This balances out the 11 foot rod nicely. Generally, you will need a heavier reel to balance out a longer rod. When you can balance the rod by putting one finger on the cork, you know it’s a good set up. Some people get caught up in balancing a rod perfectly. I really don’t care if it’s perfect.

Running Line: Rio Slick Shooter 25 lb

This shooting line is extremely slick with a thin diameter. It allows the user to throw long casts with ease. Shooting lines go up to 50 or 60 lb test, but these are made for salmon or steelhead fishing.

The 25 lb is probably the best trout spey size. You can actually shoot the line without much effort. In order to shoot heavier shooting lines, you’ll need heavier rods. The 25 lb slick shooter is so light and thin, that the trout spey rods have no issue shooting it.

Slick shooter has an oval shape to it. It is not “round” like other shooting lines. The oval shape makes handling it easier because there is more surface area. I highly recommend it.

Shooting Head: Rio Skagit Trout Spey 15′

This is a Skagit style shooting head designed for trout spey fishing. Skagit style heads are thicker and shorter than Scandinavian or “scandi” heads. They can cast big flies with ease. Scandinavian heads are thinner and longer than Skagit heads. They are better for throwing lighter flies with less bulk.

Most trout spey style fishing is done with Skagit heads. We are swinging streamers and we need a compact, fat head that can do the job. Skagit works well for this.

15 feet is very short for a shooting head, but this is the trout spey head. It is sized for fishing trout rivers and compact areas with less casting room. It is designed to be cast with shorter rods i.e. my 11 foot sage.

I chose the 275 grain version of this head. My Sage rod recommends a 250-300 grain head, so I went right in the middle. I have stuck with it since it casts so nice. Make sure to look at your rods grain recommendations before selecting a head! A lot of rods will even have it printed on the blank, thats how important it is. The grains reflect how much mass/thickness the line has. Too much mass, and your rod will be overloaded. Too little mass, and you won’t be able to cast well.

Keep in mind that there is a difference between regular fly lines and spey fly lines. If you buy a 5 weight trout rod, you can just pick a good 5 weight line. Spey lines are a bit different. Some manufacturers will put the weight right on the packaging, but most will just list the grain weight. By following grain weight recommendations, you can easily pick a shooting head for your trout spey. Spey fisherman deal in grain weights (I know, it’s nerdy) but becoming familiar with this is beneficial.

Sink Tip: Rio Light 3D MOW

Some folks just use a Rio sinking versileader or a tungsten tip (known as “level-T”). These can both work fine and will get your fly down to where the fish are.

I have been using a Rio MOW tip. It is designed to complete a Skagit head system, and adds some additional grain weight to your shooting head. There are so many MOW tip variations – half float/half sink, full sink, full float etc… MOW stands for McCune, Ward and O’Donnell, who are some of the early spey innovators.

The 3D series is a triple density tip. It sounds complicated but it’s really not. One third of the tip is intermediate, sinking at 2 inches per second. The next third of the tip is a type 3, sinking at 3 inches per second. The last third of the tip is a type 5, sinking at 5 inches a second.

This allows the MOW tip to ride better through the water column. It rides at a better angle since the densities are varied.

Although I love MOW tips, they aren’t mandatory. You can put on a tungsten leader or versileader and fish with it.

However, I find that MOW tips really complete a trout spey setup well. Their additional grain weight is like an extension of your shooting head. They are a joy to fish with.

The light MOW tips are for trout spey rods. Medium and heavy MOW tips are for full size spey setups.

Trout Spey Casting

There are so many different spey casts, I could write several articles about them. However, there are some awesome youtube channels that have spey casting lessons. I highly recommend that folks watch these to get an idea of how to spey cast.

Rio Two Handed Casting videos

Ashland Fly Shop Casting Videos

Entry Level Trout Spey Rods

Some of the manufacturers making less expensive trout spey rods are:

  • Redington – Rod: Claymore Trout Spey
  • Echo – Rod: Trout Spey
  • Temple Fork Outfitters – Rod: Pro II Trout Spey

We will dive into these companies and rods in future articles. As you can see, trout spey doesn’t have to break the bank. There are definitely some up front costs, but it is well worth it.