Getting Started: Two-Handed Fly Fishing

If there is one area of fly fishing that confuses most people (myself included for years), it’s probably Spey fishing, or rather fishing with a two-handed fly rod.

I was always impressed when I saw videos pop up on social media of salmon anglers in places like Norway, or steelhead anglers in British Columbia launching 100′ casts without seemingly any effort.

Whenever I would look into a beginner setup, I was immediately scared away by the science of grain weights, Skagit, Scandi, Switch lines, traditional Spey lines and 14’ rods. I was content to stay with my single-hand setups and keep catching fish.

That all changed last November. Striper season had ended, and I was happily catching trout with my Euro setup. Eventually though with the stripers being gone, the desire to chase anadromous fish lingered and I started to grow a little bored with my local trout fishing styles. This is typical of my personality and while it can lead to learning new things, my habit of becoming discontented also drives me crazy!

If you follow lots of fly fishing pages on social media, you’ll notice that in November there are lots of people posting steelhead videos. This particular year it got the wheels turning in my head. These anglers on Instagram weren’t posting the usual bobber-down stuff that I’ve always done at the Great Lakes though. They were fighting big fish on big two handers with a screaming drag.

I decided that I would treat myself for my birthday (at least that’s what I told myself to justify buying yet another fly rod) and invest in a Spey rod. I ended up going with a 13’ 7 wt. from Orvis. The journey had begun!

Spey fishing is a term that has come to be identified with using a two-handed rod. It originated from Salmon anglers in Scotland hundreds of years ago who angled for Atlantic salmon using long rods (20′ or more) on the River Spey.

Spey fishing has a fascinating history that I won’t get into too much here, but I highly recommend looking it up if you’re a history buff. Over the last 300 or so years it has evolved into what we see today. The rods are typically much shorter(rarely longer than 15′) and the options of line choice have evolved tremendously, even within the last 20 years, to become user and beginner friendly.

Getting Started

As I mentioned above, it can be intimidating and confusing to know where to start. I am not by any means an expert, and in the words of Lefty Kreh “you don’t know what you don’t know”. So rather than pretending to be someone who has a vast knowledge of the subject, I will only speak to what I’ve learned over the past seven months.

This beautiful wild rainbow was the first fish I hooked on a Spey setup.

Lines

I feel like line choice is a big deterrent for those who are used to the simple rule of “5 wt. line for a 5 wt. rod”. I’ll start by explaining the two most common types of Spey lines people are currently using. These are called Skagit lines and Scandi (Scandinavian) lines. Both of these products are relatively short shooting heads that anglers attach via loop to loop to their running line.

Modern two handed casting uses the technique of attaching a heavy short amount of fly line to a thin diameter running line (often monofilament or a thin coated fly line).

Both Skagit and Scandi lines use their heavy grain weight combined with a long powerful fly rod to basically catapult the leader and fly a long distance, and the thin running line creates little resistance to allow the shooting head to travel farther. Think of it as tying a long thin string around a baseball and throwing it as far as you can. The mass of the baseball will have no trouble carrying the light string with it as far as you can throw it. That’s the general principle behind shooting heads.

Skagit

Probably the most common shooting head for beginners or those looking to cast larger flies are Skagit lines. Named after the Skagit River where this idea was developed, a Skagit head is a short (25′ or less usually) line that has a very bulky taper to it. As opposed to typical fly lines that taper down towards the head, a Skagit head is heavy all the way through, tapering very little on each end where it connects to the running line. These heads were developed as a way of carrying large flies and sinking lines long distances without the need for a wide back cast. Because they are so heavy and bulky, they’re typically a good choice for beginners learning to cast. The weight of the line helps to correct mistakes and less than perfect casting form. Skagit lines require what we call tips, which are simply about 10′ of either full sinking line, or a mix of floating line and sinking line(example: 5′ floating/5′ sinking). To simplify these tips, Rio has made what are called MOW tips. They come in light, medium and heavy.

These tips allow anglers to vary sink rates for when they’re swinging a fly through a run. The weight of the sinking lines are measured as T8, T11 and T14. Sounds confusing. All you need to know is that T8 weighs 8 grains per foot, T11 weighs 11 grains per foot, and T14 weighs 14 grains per foot. If you attach 10′ of T8 to a 400 grain Skagit head, you are casting a line that weighs 480 grains.

In my experience I find that any Skagit line under 400 grains should only be used with a light MOW tip. Too much mass in the tip will have trouble casting if the Skagit line doesn’t have enough mass to move it. Bigger rods that are 13’+ usually employ the medium and heavy tips. It all depends on what rod you’re using, how heavy your shooting head is, and how big of a fly you’re trying to cast.

So after all that information overload, the simple Skagit setup is this: Backing – running line – Skagit head – MOW tip – leader – fly.

A good thing to note is that because Skagits often employ sink tips, a short leader of five feet or less is all that is needed.

Scandi

Scandi lines are a bit different from their west coast counterpart. They tend to be longer (25′ to 40′) and have a more traditional taper to them. They are typically fatter in the middle with long tapers on the ends. Scandi lines do not require tips (although they can be used with them) and are typically fished by just attaching a normal tapered leader to the end. Scandinavian heads are more similar to traditional Spey lines, and are a good way to learn more traditional casting techniques. Because of their more  delicate taper, they are the ideal choice for low water conditions and small flies. These shooting heads are capable of casting smaller offerings very long distances, and are truly a joy to cast in my opinion. There’s also different types of casts you can perform with Scandi that don’t work quite as well with a Skagit. If you’re looking to swing a small blue charm through a school of salmon in shallow waters, Scandi is gonna be the line of choice.

A good rule of thumb when choosing a Scandi line is to go about 40 grains less than the Skagit head you’re using. This is not a hard fast rule, but it’s a good place to start.

Rods

When it comes down to selecting a first Spey rod, there seems to be a general consensus that a 13′ 7 wt. is a great place to start. Although this is a little too much rod to effectively chase small trout, it will help learn the casts needed to get the flies to the fish.

My first setup was an Orvis 13’ 7 wt., combined with an Orvis Spey reel, Orvis Running line, Skagit Head 525 grains, 10′ Medium MOW tip T11, and a short fluorocarbon leader around 15lbs.

It was a really great setup for me to get a feel for this new style of casting. The two casts I would use with this setup were the Double Spey cast and the Snap T cast. All of this was enough to get me out on the rivers and through trial and error (and lots of YouTube videos lol) eventually learn the subtle ways each movement I made effected the cast.

If you have your heart set on trout Spey, I would recommend a 11’6 4 wt. with a 325 grain Skagit head and a light MOW tip. Trout Spey is an absolute blast and can actually be quite an effective way to present a fly!

There are also a category of two handed rods called Switch Rods. These are usually shorter rods that still employ a two handed grip. A good example would be the 11′ 7 wt. Typically a two handed 7 wt. rod would be around 13′, but a switch rod allows you to get similar power, while using shorter heads. This is ideal for fishing places where there is very little backspace. The shorter rod means a smaller D loop when casting. With switch rods you can cast very far with little room. Definitely an important tool in many cases. Switch rods are also very comfortable to cast and can easily be used as single handed rods as well. Very versatile!

For my 11’6 8 wt. switch rod, I use a 19′ 400 grain Skagit with light MOW tips.

Summary

There’s so much to explore in this subject that I’m tempted to keep on writing and writing, but I don’t think that would be helpful to those just starting. So for the moment I’ll say this: Spey fishing is an incredibly rewarding endeavor to put your efforts into. I find it extremely therapeutic. There’s also nothing like the take you get from a big fish on the swing! I hope this will aid those who are interested in getting into this heritage style of casting a fly. Tight lines 🤙🏻.

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2 thoughts on “Getting Started: Two-Handed Fly Fishing

  1. Nice post, this is very informative. I have an 11′ 7wt switch rod that sits in my closet because I never got around to figuring out the type of line/head it needed. Might be time to get it on the water. I also like the idea of using it to target stripers.

    1. I’m so glad you found this helpful! For your 7wt switch rod, you might wanna try a 350-375 grain Skagit head with a light MOW tip. The MOW tips are great because you can really pick what sink setup works best for the water you’re fishing. That’s also gonna be big enough to throw small intruders, clousers or small deceivers for stripers. You’ll be amazed at how much more distance you’ll achieve!

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