So you want to try Trout Spey fishing? Or maybe just figure out what folks are talking about? Long story short- Spey fishing is a style of swing fishing that originated on the River Spey in Scotland. Generally speaking, swing fishing involves an across and downstream angle cast. From there (on the simple side of things) you can let the water do the work as it swings your fly downstream until it stops directly downstream of you.
The popularity of Trout Spey fishing has dramatically risen over the past decade as major rod companies have developed smaller Spey rods that suit trout fishing perfectly. Casting an 11' 3 weight rod is much easier (and a lot more fun) to swing for trout than the burden of larger 6+ weight rods meant for salmon & steelhead.
Most Spey anglers visiting to swing the Madison River are headed inside YNP for fall-run brown trout, but few spend time swinging the Madison between Hebgen Dam and Ennis lake. Primarily thought of as a shallow, fast, riffle, the Madison River below Quake is an incredibly sneaky great swing fishery. With the high volume of insects, sculpins, and juvenile fish, our swing season never ends.
Another unique aspect of swinging the Madison outside of YNP is its two wade-fishing-only sections; the upper from Quake Lake's outlet to Lyon Bridge, and the lower from Ennis Bridge to Ennis Lake. While fishing from a boat isn't allowed, you can use a boat as transportation which gives you incredible access to these wading areas that many anglers don't spend the time hiking/wading to.
Before jumping into a run, especially one you don't often swing, take a minute or two and visually survey the run. It's good to have a mental plan and set a few markers on where you should be standing, working towards, and casting.
Your first couple of casts should be relatively short and gradually extended to the distance you'll primarily fish over the remainder of the run. Often enough we see fish hooked with barely more than the shooting head and sink tip out of the fly rod. While catching fish at that distance will generally make up a minority of your fish, no reason to rush.
Once you have the optimal amount of line out for the run, make sure to keep moving downstream after each swing. The pace you go at is up to you, but keep it moving! Some folks will only take 1-2 steps between swings, and some 5-10. The idea should be to swing your fly in front of new fish on each cast. If you get a lot of action, you can always take another pass through the run, no shame in that. Swinging through the same run a few times is much different than nymphing the same hole for 20+ minutes.
The casting styles/techniques are what define Spey fishing. Spey casting doesn't involve a traditional back cast, another reason it was developed on the River Spey- lots of vegetation right behind the angler that inhibits a long backcast.
For the inexperienced Spey angler, Spey casting can appear to be a complicated series of roll casts. In reality, the basic Spey casts are easy to pick up. But, just like when you picked up a single hand for the first time, it takes practice.
When first starting, you need to learn at least two casts. Depending on which way the wind is blowing, you'll need to get comfortable with the line on either side of yourself while casting. Casting while the wind is pushing the line into your side can result in a hook in the back of your hat- all part of learning.
For starters, we recommend learning the Snap-T and Double Spey casts. These casts are great building blocks for the foundation of your Spey fishing. If you really want to start right, learn to become comfortable with either hand in the top casting position. If you make an effort to do this early on, you won't become as dominant with one hand or the other.
Having the appropriate sink tip (see Tips below in Tackle) is a good start, but there are multiple ways to get your fly down without solely relying on the weight of the tip.
Pulling your line back towards you and the bank immediately after your cast lands is probably the most effective technique for allowing your fly to get deeper. Especially on the Upper Madison.
Many times we are purposely overcasting the targeted lane of water knowing our pullback will put the fly directly in the strike zone. Don't hesitate to pull the line/fly 5-10ft back towards yourself, introducing this slack gives your fly a lot of time to sink before the line tightens up again. And when it does tighten up, be ready! Many fish will eat swung flies moving up in the water column.
Step sinking is the technique of taking steps downstream immediately after your cast lands. This can be done independently or in conjunction with pullbacks.
Similar to pullbacks, the act of taking a few steps downstream once your line is on the water gives more time for your fly to sink before coming tight in the current.
With all of the techniques below, it is important to keep in mind where your fly is going. Simply said, keep the fly moving in a way that it is heading into new water, not back from where it came.
For example, if you're casting from the bank to mid-river, you should be moving the fly back towards the bank below you, not back out to the middle of the river where your swing began.
As water temps and levels change throughout the year it is important to be versatile and continue to try different speeds and depths while swinging. In much of summer, you can get away with lightning-fast swings on a floating tip, while most Februarys you'll want a deeper/slower swing to give those cold fish (who don't always want to chase) a slightly better look.
With the Madison generally moving at a pretty quick clip, setting the hook is as simple as "Let 'em Eat It!" Once you feel the full weight of the fish on the line, Then it's time to pull your elbow back and set the hook. Too many swung fish are lost on the Madison due to early hook sets on the first bump/feel.
Moving the rod back and forth upstream and downstream with the rod at your hip will give the fly a quick jig and then a short dead moment before the newly introduced slack tightens up. As the line fully tightens up again your fly will make another quick movement.
Vary your sawing speed, some days they'll want it fast, others slow. This is a great technique for all trout Spey anglers, but especially beginners. Once you feel the weight of the fish on the line, give one last upstream saw, then lift the tip.
Lift your rod tip up and then lower it back to its original location. This is a very reliable technique for both deep and shallow runs. Many trout love the action of a swung fly that is simultaneously moving up and down in the water column. And in shallow water, this is a good technique to pull your fly off the bottom of the river if your tip/fly is overweighted, or possibly in a shallow head or tail of a run.
Where sawing is more about the speed of the movement, bouncing gives you the ability to move the fly farther. Some anglers will slowly drop the tip back down so as to not have too much slack (i.e. not feel a strike) while others purposely drop quickly to let that extra slack sink the fly more.
With a hand on the shooting line, pull the line back and then let the water move your hand back to its original position. Hold the line throughout the process. The false strip can show a fish the same motion as a stripped single-hand streamer presentation, but you don't lose any distance on your swing as actually retrieving the line would.
While similar to sawing, false stripping allows you more finesse to move the fly multiple times in a single upstream line strip. With a hand directly on the line, it is easier to make shorter, quicker, and sharper darting movements compared to the saw. Also, many trout Spey anglers love to have their hand on the line to strip set once there is a strike.
Whether fishing a single or two-handed Spey rod, you'll need a solid understanding of how to set up your line; a missed section, or (even worse) backward head or tip can make for a frustrating day.
From reel to fly, the components are; backing, shooting line, shooting head, tip, and leader. Where traditional single-hand lines come in 1 continuous piece, there are a few steps to setting up a Spey line.
From the end of your backing, you'll need to attach your shooting line in a loop-to-loop fashion. The shooting line is generally a thin, but very strong monofilament line (25-35 lb. for trout). The purpose of this section is to reduce friction for the shooting head as you send a cast. Most companies now offer a continuous shooting line to shooting head combo, but we always recommend going with a separate monofilament shooting line. The combo lines just never seem to shoot as fast as they should.
There are two different shooting head styles to become familiar with; Skagit & Scandi. Both have their important niche in the world of Spey casting. Skagit heads are generally shorter and thicker, while Scandi's are longer and thinner. Skagit heads are ideal for throwing heavier streamers and sink tips, Scandi's are best for lighter flies such as soft hackles.
For Skagit head set-ups, you will need some sort of tip, whether floating or sinking. For trout, these tips usually come in lengths of 8-10 feet and connect to your shooting head loop-to-loop. The type of tips you'll need depend on what kind of water you'll be fishing, and how deep in the water column you want to swing your fly.
For example, on many summer days swinging the Madison, we rarely need to be heavier than an S2 or S3 tip (S1 = sink rate of 1 inch/second). This works well as the Madison isn't too deep and fish will move up towards the surface for a swung fly. In the winter while swinging the same runs, we may need to use an S4-S5 to get down deep to the fish's nose as they are less willing to chase in cold water temps.
Keep it simple, keep it strong is the best advice we have for trout Spey leaders. Using too light a leader/tippet is one of the most common mistakes while swinging in this area. For streamers large and small, don't hesitate to pull out the 12-15lb Maxima. On the smaller side of flies like soft hackles, 0-2X is just right. Remember, the Madison River is fast, the fish are strong, and when they eat the fly your line will tighten up quick, fast, and in a hurry.
Modern trout Spey rods have changed the game. No longer do we have to toil with overbearing 5-7 weight rods that were designed for Steelhead fishing. The new 1-4 weight rods are light, reactive, and built to cast modern shooting heads.
The sizing on Trout Spey rods is an item that can confuse new Spey anglers who are used to fishing 5 & 6 weight single-hand rods on the Madison. It is important to remember the extra length of two-hand rods makes up for the lighter rod weight.
For the Madison River, we prefer fishing 10-12' 2-4 weight rods. This size range matches up great with the size of fish we typically catch, the current speed while fighting fish, and the weight of our most commonly used sink tips and flies.
A good rule of thumb is to subtract 2 rod weights from your standard single-hand rod to determine which two-hand rod is right for you. For example, on the Madison our standard single-hand rod is a 5 weight, for Spey, our standard rod is a 3 weight.
You can make just about any style of fly fishing reel work for trout Spey, you just need the right size. Unless you are buying a reel specifically designed for Spey rods, remember to subtract two sizes, similar to rods. For example, a 5 weight reel meant for a single-hand rod is a great match for a 3 weight Spey rod. Most anglers prefer a large arbor reel as shooting heads can take up a lot of spool space, but it isn't required by any means.
Upper Madison Angler
West Yellowstone, Montana
Copyright © 2023 Upper Madison Angler - All Rights Reserved.