Spey to Play

Alaska’s Kings and the Two-Handed Rod

Story By Troy Letherman

Searching for clemency from a winter spent locked away from the stream, many of Alaska’s fly anglers look to kings. The first returnees of the state’s Pacific salmon, Chinook tote with them amnesty from a seasonal gulag that features heavy piles of snow, ice a foot thick on all our favorite waters, and increasingly vague memories of chrome sides and sea lice. They’re favored with tremendous size and almost unspeakable power and around them swirls just enough myth and mystery to keep everyone interested when the odds suggest we’d all be better off chucking fry patterns at Dolly Varden.

Kings are the least abundant of the Pacific salmon in North America, but they’re also the largest. Individual fish routinely exceed 30 pounds and can grow much larger. In 1949 a 126-pound Chinook was captured in a commercial fish trap near Petersburg, and unverified reports of fish up to 135 pounds have filtered down from the Cook Inlet commercial fleet. The all-tackle world record, a 97.4-pound early-run king, was hauled from the turquoise waters of the Kenai River, where the state doesn’t even consider a 50-pounder a trophy catch.

Like all the species of Pacific salmon, Chinook stop feeding after entering their natal streams. They’re also most comfortable in power water, often preferring to travel and hold in the deepest, swiftest portions of a river system. Add these traits to their relatively modest migration numbers and a propensity to outlast or simply overpower conventional tackle and you can see why for the longest time pursuing the species was hardly considered profitable by the bulk of those who like to make their presentations with feathers and fur. You can also see why they’re so alluring to fly fishers looking for a challenge.

Kings are definitely that, so challenging in fact an angler can wear himself out in a few hours without ever having come into contact with an actual strike, let alone having engaged in prolonged combat with a hooked fish.

As Don Thomas illustrates elsewhere in this issue, kings require specialized gear and techniques, neither of which are particularly pleasant for the anglers involved. But ever since the advent of lead-core shooting lines in the 1950s, technological advances in the manufacture of fly-fishing equipment has made all water—and all species—fair game. Seamless sink-tips, super-light but extra-fast graphite fly rods, reels with sealed compression drags: Today’s fly tackle is even more sophisticated, and as a result, the modern angler has been granted unparalleled access to even these fish. We can get deep with the kings, effectively fishing the swiftest water, dredging the gravel-bottoms of the deepest channels, and once we find and hook one, we have the rods and reels to stay in the game. It’s still difficult and a guy can still develop both tendonitis and tennis elbow in a single afternoon’s work with a 500-grain line, but it beats split-shot by a fiberglass mile.

The good news is that there’s a better answer out there, a more effective way for fly fishers to reach Alaska’s state fish, to cover more water and stay comfortable doing it, a way to get down but not dirty. The answer is to Spey.

“From the wading angler’s perspective, you can’t do any better,” says George Cook, an industry manufacturer’s representative who has been teaching Spey-casting clinics from the Pacific Northwest to Tierra del Fuego for the past fifteen years. “The efficiency and effectiveness of both casting and line control are absolutely maximized. Plus, it’s just plumb more interesting.”

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 obstructive foliage makes overhead casting unlikely if not impossible. As Hugh Falkus suggested in his seminal work on Atlantic salmon, 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.

“On most rivers,” Falkus wrote, “a fly fisherman unable to Spey cast can never realize anything like his full potential.” This includes casting with traditional fly rods, as any Spey casting technique can be applied with the single-hander as well as the double.

Thus, the advantages in learning to Spey cast are legion. For one, once mastered they 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 salmon anglers.

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 ten-foot fly rod.

That and more has made the technique popular everywhere from its birthplace on the rivers of the British Isles to the Atlantic salmon fisheries of Northern Europe, Iceland, and eastern Canada. First to embrace the two-handed rods and Spey-casting techniques on the West Coast have been the steelhead fisherman of British Columbia and elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest, where the long, powerful rods have excelled on mammoth rivers like the Deschutes and the Dean, the Thompson, the Skagit and the Skeena. In contrast, the majority of Alaska’s steelhead streams don’t require the longer two-handed rods, primarily due to their short coastal nature, with anglers more apt to be prospecting pocket water with standard nymphing techniques than laying out long casts and swinging flies through extended runs. Only a few of the state’s most productive steelhead rivers, like the Thorne on Prince of Wales Island or Kodiak’s Karluk, really lend themselves to the use of a two-handed rod at all.

Simon Gawesworth of RIO Products says there’s another factor that has made the use of Spey rods seem less than mandatory in Alaska. “Perhaps Spey casting hasn’t been as popular in Alaska because many of the best salmon rivers for the fly angler are in the western region of the state,” he explained. “In most instances, there aren’t a lot of trees and bushes making backcasts impossible near the prime Chinook water on these rivers.”

Recognized as one of the world’s leading authorities on Spey casting, Gawesworth was elected captain of the England team for the 2003 World Fly Fishing Championships and has been promoting and teaching Spey casting professionally since he was 16 years-old. He maintains that the techniquewill open up more water to the angler in any situation, even though there may be a lack of bank obstructions in a typical southwest Alaska salmon fishery. That, he says, eventually results in increased chances to hook and land bright fish. “The extra rod length is a major advantage for better control of the fly during the swing,” he continued. “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.”

As it specifically relates to fly-fishing for Alaska’s king salmon, Spey casting is only beginning to catch on, but advancements in equipment, along with casting styles that are tailored to North American waters and the Pacific’s anadromous fish, make it seem like the techniques are here to stay.

George Cook, who teaches classes geared towards Spey fishing for Alaska’s kings as well as his regular casting clinics, explains that the recent advances in equipment design greatly aid the angler looking to make the transition to the two-hander.

“In the last five years, the caliber of Spey lines in sink-tip variation and adaptation, coupled with the next generation of stinger-style flies, has created a tackle matrix for the Spey-casting enthusiast, who can now approach favored fisheries with the best possible chances for success. With Spey rods today,” he continued, “there is an opportunity to fish water of varying speed and depth that previously could have only been approached with hopes of low-percentage success.” He went on to say that before anglers would have employed lesser lines and flies, or been forced off the gravel bars and into boats, where they would have to cast the most arduous sink-tips available (500- to 600-grain lines) to gain even a marginal chance for success.

Sizes for Spey rods vary almost as much as they do for single-handed rods, but for kings the most popular are nine- through 12-weights in 14- to 16-foot models. They come in a variety of tapers as well, from Scandinavian to traditional Spey actions, which should be paired to the style of casting and fishing to be employed. For Alaska and its kings, both Gawesworth and Cook recommend powerful rods with fast, progressive tapers that will deliver razor-sharp loops. Examples include the Sage TCR series rods or those offered by G. Loomis in their new RoaringRiver line. For lines, today’s fly anglers find their options similarly diverse.

Until recently, Alaska-bound Spey casters were limited to either building their own shooting heads or utilizing lines that incorporate interchangeable tip systems, like the RIO WindCutter or Scientific Anglers Tri-Tip Spey. However, these multi-tip Spey lines generally start to lose their effectiveness as tips climb upwards of the 400-grain mark, which isn’t ideal for a good percentage of the state’s most productive Chinook waters. Enter RIO’s T-14 tips, with sink rates of over eight to nine inches per second, which as Cook explained have taken Spey anglers “from fishing an X-amount of water to fishing XYZ.” The tips are matched with RIO’s new Skagit Lines and propelled via the casting system that brought about their advent. “The Skagit Line has truly upped the ante in terms of the ability to cast long and straight with T-14 setups and flies of the lead-eye, Intruder-style variety,” Cook continued. “With the previous setups available, this was challenging at best, if not debilitating.”

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. The 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 contact Spey casting, the sustained-anchor concept uses the unsticking of a thoroughly stuckfly line from the river’s surface as the mechanism for creating casting energy and loading the rod. The Skagit Line is designed specifically for this method of Spey casting, utilizing a short, heavy head and accommodating heavy sink-tips like the T-14 and large, weighted flies. Likewise, today’s high-end Spey rods are designed with the technique in mind, especially the Dredger series of G. Loomis RoaringRiver rods designed by Ed Ward. Sage also markets a number of Spey rods besides the TCR series that are effective for Skagit-style casting, including models in the new VT2 series and the 9141-4, a European-Style action that Cook refers to as his teacher’s pet when instructing Spey casters on how to approach Alaska’s kings.

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 Alaska’s Chinook, it’s not as hard as it might sound. Gawesworth explains that one of the most significant differences traditional fly casters will notice is that they’ll no longer need to lift and accelerate to begin their 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. “The biggest obstacle for single-hand casters to overcome is the lack of muscle memory. Once you get over that, it’s real easy to learn.” He also states that while no one can likely learn to cast from a book or DVD, it’s usually a good idea to have one or the other handy for reference after an initial bout of lessons.

George Cook has much the same advice to give. “Learning to Spey cast is not a daunting task if you begin in a class,” he says. “Books and DVDs can be important learning tools to perfect your technique, but the best step to begin is to take some lessons, as there’s no substitute for on-the-shoulder help.”

The average beginning Spey class Cook teaches runs three and a half hours in length, and as he explains it, about 5% percent of his students come out of that initial class ready to get right in the game. For the other 95%, he says there’s about a 20- to 30-hour learning curve before they reach a comfort level allowing them to fish effectively—and that doesn’t just relate to casting distance, but more to a level of comfort and confidence in the new equipment and casting motions that allows them to concentrate on fishing and not casting. However, that doesn’t mean beginners necessarily need to wait to get out there and target kings.

“In Alaska,” Cook concludes, “because of the range of rivers and water types between Southwest and Southcentral, it’s different than it is for other major Spey fisheries. While beginners might be in awe of big water like the Nushagak, Alagnak, or Kanektok—those classic-type Spey waters—that 95% can put on a Skagit Line and a hunk of T-14, a Super Prawn or a Jumbo Critter, and be casting 45 to 70 feet on Willow Creek, the Kasilof River, or a similar road-system king fishery and be catching fish the evening after a morning class.” As that begins to happen and other anglers get a chance to see the effectiveness of the Spey rod for Alaska king fishing, we can only expect their popularity to continue to grow.

“It’s the fastest growing segment of the fly-fishing industry today,” says Gawesworth about the current revival of Spey interest in North America. “And I see it continuing to grow for the foreseeable future, especially in a place like Alaska where the big fish and the angling conditions are so ideally suited to it.”

Troy Letherman is the editor of Fish Alaska magazine.