Bear Trail Spey: An Introduction To Two-Handed Fly Fishing

Story by Melissa Norris and Troy Letherman

The truth is I am damaged goods. After decades of baseball/softball, dodgeball, skiing, fly fishing and a general “push it until it can’t go any more” mentality, my shoulder is just about thrashed. Once a week I even see a myofascialist (Thomas Bailly at Arctic Chiropractic is an enormous help). I am still playing these sports, albeit not as well as I used to, but that constantly nagging shoulder led me to a desire to be able to fish with less pain than normal. I have heard from several people that two-handed casting is a great solution. And in Alaska it also helps with the big-water dilemma.

Two-handed, or Spey, casting is a fly-casting technique that most likely developed during the mid-1800s on Scotland’s River Spey, where bankside trees and other obstructions make overhead casting unlikely if not impossible. These conditions are eventually encountered everywhere, and while most anglers are proficient with a number of overhead casts, the ability to roll, switch or Spey cast remains woefully neglected, usually to the angler’s detriment.

Thus, the advantages in learning to Spey cast are legion. For one, once mastered these casts can produce consistent distances of 75- to 140 feet without a backcast, opening up water that was previously only within the realm of anglers utilizing conventional gear. Spey casts are also ideal for handling and fishing extremely heavy sink-tips on the swing, a definite boon for down-and-across wading anglers—such as those in Alaska sending out searching patterns for salmon or tossing streamers for beefy fall trout. Plus, changing direction is so much easier with the Spey cast, and it’s a lot safer to make a cast with heavy sinking line and weighted flies if you don’t need to lift the fly from the water and bring it past your ear, especially in areas with lots of wind (i.e., most of Alaska).

Spey rods are longer to accommodate the different casting techniques and feature extended handles for placement of both hands in making the cast. Once the cast is made the degree of line control is astounding; with the longer rods anglers can place the fly and mend more efficiently, keeping it in the bucket longer than possible when fishing with a regular nine- to 10-foot fly rod.

Another major benefit of two-handed casting is that it requires less effort, and less wear-and-tear on the body, which you’ll note after a day of chucking heavy sink-tips into a 20-knot wind.

There are plenty of river choices for implementing two-handed casting in Alaska, but since I have not caught a 30-inch rainbow I figured there was no better place to learn than on the Naknek River in western Alaska. After all, we named this river the “#1 Trophy Trout River in Alaska” back in 2004 and over the years we’ve encountered nothing to change those feelings. Plus, I had not been to Bear Trail Lodge since before Brian Kraft and Nanci Morris Lyon took over. These two are Alaska legends in the industry for fishing, lodge management and crucial conservation efforts, and I was anxious to see what that would mean for the lodge experience.

It meant a lot.

From the moment you are picked up at the airport after your flight on PenAir from Anchorage you are taken under their wing. We had a quick drive to the lodge, where our bags were moved to our private cabin, and then we were invited to join folks in the main lodge for wine or beer and dinner.

Walking in to the lodge we could see that things had changed. A large dining room was added, where guests can interact and sit together at tables of six, and what used to be the dining area is now the designated great room, where the group congregates to swap stories and simply relax. Dinner was lovely and I appreciated the lodge chef for taking extra care to prepare me a pescatarian meal. After dinner we set about meeting our guide and making plans for the next morning. It was my first time meeting Nanci in person and she was very natural in her role as lodge manager after being a world-class guide for a couple decades. She introduced us to our guide, Kate Taylor. We had a quick interaction but I had no way of knowing what was to ensue.

The next morning we were ready to get to it. We loaded our Spey gear and spirits were high, as it was the one trip that my husband and I would be taking with just the two of us this year. We were eager to get fishing, so we headed to the rig Kate uses to transfer guests to the beach at Rapids Camp, where we would launch the flat-bottomed river skiff.

After a short river-ride, we stopped at the spot where Kate could instruct us. The water looked to be good holding water for autumn trout, but before we could get to that there was a pile of gear to rig. We set up an Echo3 Two Hand E3-8134 and a Ross Reach 8134-4 for rods—each a 13-foot, 4-inch 8-weight—and for reels we used a Lamson Arx 4 and a Ross Reels F1 #5. For our Spey line, we’d chosen the Airflo Skagit Compact 570, designed specifically to throw sink-tips and big flies, and to the tippet went Al Green and Willie Nelson, a pair of fly patterns designed and marketed by Solitude and provided to us by Kate.

With the flow running river-right, Kate stood next to me and started me off with the Double Spey setup. I took the rod and started to cast. After several minutes of not getting the line loaded properly, the laughter ensued. We realized quickly that Kate and I must have been separated at birth. My husband looked on in his amused way. However, I caught my first trout on a Spey rod shortly thereafter. It was not 30 inches, but it was exciting to be able to hook and land it using a new casting technique.

It went on like this for a couple days; lots of laughing, even more fun and a bit of a dunking in the river for me, but that story is for a different time. We spent time learning to cast from both river-right and river-left positions, which involved a number of setups, including the Double and Single Spey. We also played with the Snap C when an upstream wind had picked up and learned the basic movements to a couple of others, such as the Snap T and Snap Z, each requiring slightly different muscle memory. I had to go back to my notes to remember details like the gear and flies we used, but Wayne and I will never forget how much fun we had with Kate at Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge on the Naknek. And how much we learned.

Casting Skagit-style

The term Skagit casting was coined in the early 1990s to describe an offshoot system of traditional Spey casting that was being used at the time by steelheaders like Ed Ward on Washington’s Skagit River system. This casting method exercises one particular premise to accomplish a cast—the sustained-anchor concept. Working from principles of rod loading that are in opposition to those of traditional, or long-belly, Spey casting, the sustained-anchor concept uses the un-sticking of a thoroughly stuck fly line from the river’s surface as the mechanism for creating casting energy and loading the rod. In other words, the fly and sink-tip are allowed to sink for a couple of seconds before the formation of the D-Loop and forward stroke begins, and the tension created there is what is utilized to load the rod—rather than in more traditional Spey casting, where touch-and-go anchors are primarily used.

Today there are numerous lines designed specifically for this method of Spey casting, utilizing short, heavy heads and accommodating heavy sink-tips like the T-14 or T-17 and large, weighted flies. Likewise, today’s high-end Spey-rod manufacturers are designing rod series with the technique in mind.

As far as making the transition from single-handed to Spey casting and picking up enough of the principles of the technique to effectively begin chasing gamefish in Alaska, it’s not as hard as it might sound. Despite the number of different casts—Circle, Double Spey, Snap T, etc.—all Skagit casts employ the same dynamics, beginning with the setup, wherein the angler sets the anchor (line and sink-tip/fly), the sweep, which forms the D-Loop, and then after a brief pause, the forward stroke. One of the most significant differences traditional fly casters will notice is that you’ll no longer need to lift and accelerate to begin casts. It’s enough of a difference to cause problems initially, as is the need to now deliver power to the forward stroke with the bottom, not top hand.

There are numerous ways to learn, and each has its benefits—books, DVDs, YouTube videos (check out our website for some starter videos this month), and of course, on-stream instruction. Obviously, it’s the latter of the group that’s the most effective, as there is no substitute for on-the-shoulder assistance, particularly from an expert like Kate.

Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge

The Alaska Sportsman’s Bear Trail Lodge offers some of the most diverse and high-quality fishing to be found anywhere. All five Pacific salmon species that return to Alaska are found in the Naknek, as well as enormous trophy rainbow trout. Bear Trail Lodge offers their guests myriad fishing choices each day, from flying out to trout streams all over Bristol Bay to fishing kings within sight of the lodge. They will fish guests using traditional fly, Spey or conventional gear. They will fish whatever way you enjoy the most. From top guides and quality guest accommodations to high-end food, fine beer and wine included, and a generally pleasant atmosphere, the lodge is what you would imagine for your dream trip.

You can see great photos of huge trophy rainbow trout, beautiful dime-bright freshwater kings that are just 20 miles from the ocean and their luxury lodge at www.fishasl.com. I highly recommend booking a trip. You might also be interested in their sister property on the Kvichak river.

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Melissa Norris is publisher of Fish Alaska magazine. Troy Letherman is editor of Fish Alaska magazine.