Coming from the single-hand bass or trout world, spey casting can be pretty intimidating. The rods are often twice as long as your standard single-hander, and the fly line that you’re used to is now multiple pieces that need to be strung together. But fear not, friends; we’re here to help.
Spey and switch lines can be broken up into two general categories: integrated lines and head systems. Integrated lines are one piece and cover most of the fly lines on the market. Odds are, your trout line is an integrated line. In an integrated line, the head and running line are constructed to be one piece with no discernible junction between the two parts. Head systems, on the other hand, are composed of multiple pieces that only perform when used with one another. The head is entirely separate from the running line, and many heads require an additional sink tip to cast properly. Nowadays, most folks fish head systems off of their spey and switch rods, but it very much depends on the zip code you find yourself in. Ready to dive into the rabbit hole? Here we go.
Integrated Spey/Switch Lines
Mid and Long-Belly Spey Lines
For long spey rods and maximum casting distance.
‘Traditional’ spey lines are integrated lines that feature a long head and long total length. They excel on long (13.5’+) rods and, by virtue of their head length, offer the opportunity for longer casts. These can be further broken down into mid-belly and long-belly lines. Mid-belly lines are characterized by a moderate belly, generally shorter than 40’. Long-belly lines feature a longer belly (go figure), and maximize a person’s potential casting distance. With additional length, however, comes an additional degree of complexity when figuring out your personal casting stroke. As a rule of thumb, the longer the head, the harder it is to make a tight, pretty cast. Both styles can be fit with light-to-medium sink tips for deeper presentation or with a floating leader for surface work.
Integrated Switch Lines
For smaller switch rods.
Integrated switch lines are a fairly recent development in the two-handed world. The head and running line are one piece to help with some of the trout-specific issues that folks sometimes have when fishing head systems. On smaller switch rods (#6 and under), the guide size is typically small enough that the loop-to-loop connections found on head systems become clunky when stripping back in to your feet. To alleviate the risk of losing fish from a stuck loop-to-loop connection, manufacturers have begun producing one-piece switch lines with the condensed head length preferred by most switch rodders. The short head length helps when casting in tight quarters and eliminates the need for a large D-loop.
Head systems are composed of at least three pieces, and sometimes four. All head systems require a running line, shooting head, and leader. Skagit systems require an additional sink tip to fish as designed. Head systems can be broken into three general categories: Skagit, Scandi, and Hybrid.
For swinging flies with a sink tip.
Skagit heads are designed to be fished with a sink tip exclusively. Their aggressive front taper and large tip diameter help turn over heavy sink tips and wind-resistant bugs. They’re the go-to setup for salmon and steelhead anglers that prefer to get their fish on a swung fly. They are not designed to be fished with a tapered leader alone. While they will certainly turn over a mile-long leader, their taper creates a certain amount of surface crash that can spook fish that are feeding near the surface. Skagit heads are fished using a sustained-anchor cast.
For skating flies on or near the surface with a tapered leader.
Scandi (Scandinavian) heads are designed to be fished primarily on or near the surface. They are more delicate, featuring a longer front taper and skinnier tip diameter for presenting flies to surface-feeding fish. While some folks fish light sink tips off of their Scandi heads, they’re intended to be fished with floating, hover, or intermediate leaders. Scandi heads are typically fished using a touch-and-go style cast.
For maximum versatility.
Hybrid heads are a middle-ground between Skagit and Scandi heads. They’re less aggressive than Skagit heads, but more aggressive than Scandi heads. They can turn over moderate sink tips (generally, tips lighter/shorter than 10 ft. of T-10), or be fit with a floating leader for skating flies. For folks looking for one head for multiple fishing situations, they’re the bee’s knees. They’re also a great way to pick up touch-and-go casting without the learning curve often found with Scandi heads.
A running line is the level-diameter line that connects to a shooting head via a loop-to-loop connection. They can be built like a standard fly line (low-stretch core with PU or PVC coating), constructed of a single material (monofilament), or braided.
Coated Running Lines
For dexterity and ease of use.
Coated running lines are built a like a fly line, and will feel familiar to folks that are used to fishing integrated lines. They offer better dexterity than monofilament running lines in cold weather and are generally easier to handle. Coated running lines, however, don’t offer the same shooting distance that monofilament running lines provide. Coated running lines are available in a variety of core strengths, coating hardnesses, and densities to match each fishing situation. A basic rule: #7 rods and above should be fit with a #30 running line, while rods smaller than #7 should be fit with a #20 running line. Floating running lines are standard, while some anglers prefer intermediate running lines to get below surface hydraulics that would otherwise compromise a drag-free drift. Great for anglers of all skill levels.
Monofilament Running Lines
For maximum shooting distance.
Monofilament running lines afford greater shooting distance than a coated running line, but are less dexterous. Many anglers ‘graduate’ to monofilament running lines once they’ve cracked the code with spey casting. They cut though surface hydraulics and are less susceptible to damage. Back in the day, many anglers used standard, heavy monofilament fishing line as a running line. Today, manufacturers produce monofilament running lines that have less memory and greater feel than normal mono fishing line. Great for advanced anglers.
Braided Running Lines
For improved dexterity without sacrificing casting distance.
Braided running lines provide a happy medium for anglers looking for greater dexterity than a monofilament running line but aren’t willing to sacrifice casting distance. Built from a low-stretch core covered in a braided material, braided running lines have zero memory. Great for intermediate to advanced anglers.
Sink tips allow anglers to present flies to fish that are holding in deeper water. They’re generally fished off of Skagit or Hybrid heads, though some masochists like using Scandi heads for sink tip fishing. Sink tip density (which equates to sink rate) is measured in grains per foot, preceded by the letter ‘T’ (referring to the tungsten-impregnated material that allows the tips to sink). For example, T-10 weighs 10 grains per foot. Sink tips are typically of a level diameter, though tapered sink tips are also available.
Level Sink Tips
Level sink tips are what people are usually talking about when they say ‘sink tip’. They’re generally 5-15 feet in length, with most being around 10’. They’re available in various densities, starting around 5 grains per foot (T-5) and maxing out around 20 grains per foot (T-20). Most fishing situations require tips between T-7 and T-14. The downside to level tips fished off of a floating head lies in the ‘hinge angle’ created between the head and sink tip. Level sink tips create a steep hinge angle, which makes it easier to get your fly hung up on the stream bottom relative to multi-density tips – see below. The tip is looped on to the shooting head (usually a Skagit head), and fit with a short piece of level leader on the business end.
Flo-Tips are an Airflo product that help reduce the hinge angle between a floating head and sink tip, and offer a more direct link between you and your fly. Instead of a single density, Flo-Tips combine intermediate fly line material (1.5 inches per second sink rate) with level-sink tungsten material. The resulting tip features 2.5 feet of intermediate material on the butt end fused to 7.5 feet of level sink material on the business end. The intermediate material sinks at a slower rate than the level sink material, creating a smoother transition between head and tip. With this, the overall hinge angle is reduced to a fraction of that found with just a level-sink tip. Shallower hinge angle = fewer hang-ups. The intermediate transition also helps create a straighter line between the angler and fly, affording greater sensitivity and reducing the number of missed strikes.
Polyleaders feature the same tungsten-impregnated material found in level-sink tips. Produced by Airflo, their tapered design allows for smoother turnover than their level brethren. They’re available in multiple densities, lengths, and core strengths to match specific fisheries. Floating, hover, and intermediate Polyleaders are perfect for delicate presentation when casting to spooky fish from a Scandi or Hybrid head. While they do work when fished from Skagit heads, they perform better with less-aggressive heads.
Phew. That was a whole lot of info. Still have questions? Shoot us a message at firstname.lastname@example.org. Get out there!