Spey Casting for Shad

Spey Casting for Shad

Spey casting for shad has become my preferred method for catching shad on the fly. For the record, when I say “Spey casting for shad,” I really mean Spey or Skagit casting using a double hand rod. I am not going to spend a lot of time here explaining the differences between the two as there are excellent resources available elsewhere, but a quick rule of thumb is, Skagit casts are all waterborne casts, and Spey casts can be either waterborne or touch-and-go casts. I will also provide some links in the footer if you want to learn more.

I caught the two handed bug back in the summer of 2014 when I picked up my first switch rod. Originally my intention was to use it to extend my distance in the surf while overhead casting, which it is certainly capable of with its ten foot, eight inch length. However, as I started to become more proficient at Spey casting, I quickly started to realize that it could be a killer tool in the pursuit of shad. As the 2014/2015 shad run began, it was clear that we were in for a high water year. This is really where a switch or full length Spey rod shines. Paired with a Skagit line, you are able to cast incredibly heavy tips like T-11’s and T-14’s with flies weighted with hourglass eyes to get the fly down deep in the strike zone. Pair that with the cannon-like power of a long rod under load from a waterborne cast, and you have a winning combination.

More than one day that year I had excellent fishing days, while those fishing with single hand rods struggled. One particular memory I have from that year was packing the kayak up after a full day of successful fishing, when a gentleman approached me from the Fish and Wildlife Department. He was conducting a creel survey and asked how many shad I had caught. “Nineteen today, but I decided not to keep any.” His response… “Did you say nine or nineteen?” “Nineteen,” I replied. “What is your secret?” he asked. I proudly showed him the used switch rod I scored from Ebay for a scant 70 dollars and sung its praises for five or so minutes, explaining how deep I could get with it and how much further I could cast. He later said, “well it must make a difference, the runner up caught seven today.”

For those of you that may be considering joining the two handed club and starting to Spey cast for shad, you may find the whole idea a bit, well… intimidating. I know that I did. You have to choose a rod, choose whether to start with a switch line, a traditional Spey line or a shooting head system such as a Scandinavian (Scandi) or Skagit head, and learn new casts, using both your strong and weak side. It is going to take some time and practice to get proficient, but it is worth it. There is something uniquely graceful about Spey casting, and once you learn the techniques, you will find it to be incredibly relaxing, and not to mention, you will be slaying fish in your moment of Zen! Something else to consider, Spey casting opens up a whole new world for your traditional rods as you apply what you have learned to single hand Spey techniques.

Here is some quick information about each of the areas mentioned above:

Double Hand Rods:

  • The Switch- a switch rod is a great place to get started without breaking the bank and is perfect for 99% of the conditions you will encounter while shad fishing on the St. Johns River in Florida, and a lot of other shad fisheries on the east coast. Switch rods average between 10-12 feet in length and are manageable even when exploring the waterway by canoe or kayak. If you are not entirely sure about spey casting, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get in to the game. Buy a used rod or something on closeout. There are plenty of options on Ebay right now for under 200 bucks, and used rods under 100 dollars can be found regularly. The Redington Dually or Prospector are fine rods (no, they did not pay me to say that… although I would not mind a quiver of their rods… insert pinky to the lip ala Dr. Evil..hmm?) and can be found consistently at this price point. A five or six weight is perfect for Spey casting for shad.
  • The Spey Rod- If you are fishing larger waters, or you plan on targeting other species, you may want to start with a full length Spey rod. These rods average between 12-15 feet in length. While not necessary for my home waters and I have no experience with them, I must admit, I am feeling the siren’s call to pick up something in a 13-14 foot length to use for shad. The extra distance would open up even more water on high water years. Spey Rods are more expensive but can still be found under 300 dollars. Because of the length, traveling with them assembled in a canoe or kayak could be a challenge.

Lines:

To preface, I would like to recommend that you read my Two Hand Lines primer in The Basics section of this site as this article is meant to be a little more high level.

  • Switch Lines- in my experience these lines neither overhead cast or Spey cast terribly well, they are just sort of blah. Since there are compact Skagit and Scandi lines now being offered by multiple manufacturers, I just do not see a need to use a switch line. If you are looking for a single line to use for both overhead casting and spey casting, they are a consideration, but know you will not be able to harness the full power of your switch using them. A better option is to use a triangle taper such as the Wulff Ambush if you want the best of both worlds. The best option is to, give in to the daaaaaark side… and decide that a two handed rod, as short as it may be, is meant NOT to be cast overhead, but to be cast as if a backcast was not an option, even if it is <insert light saber sound here!>
  • Skagit Heads- Skagit is where I started… I was confused, intimidated, I may have even been inebriated (likely,)  but it is where I landed. All kidding aside, I liked the idea of being able to swap and cast heavy tips and flies, even on the St Johns River where most of the areas I fish average 6-8 feet depths (during a normal year,) with discharge around 1500cfs. Skagit heads are likely overkill for Florida waters, which are nothing compared to big/ fast waters up north or out west, but I liked the flexibility, and ended up happy with my choice. I can easily cast the heaviest sink tips along with flies weighted with hourglass eyes. The casts used are all waterborne with no touch-and-go, which makes learning easier as timing is less critical. Another advantage is that you need less space behind you for the D-loop, which makes this line perfect for tight quarters. Casts like the Double Spey and Snap T load the rod so well, you learn to feel (thedarkside) when the rod loads and with some practice, a sixty foot cast is effortless. With more practice… we are talking dream land stuff… like the kind of casts where the one handed guys go “Whoa…” and start to come over and ask questions. Seriously though, if you want to get up to speed quickly, you can learn two casts, learn them off both shoulders, and toss heavy tips and flies for shad in no time.
  • Scandi Heads- with the glowing review of Skagit above, why even bother with a Scandi right? WRONG? I have two words for you… Single Spey! The Single Spey cast is one of the most powerful casts at your disposal, but, you can’t make this cast with a Skagit head (at least not very well) as it is a touch-and-go cast, not a waterborne. You can get away with a lot if you can make a Double Spey and Snap T off both shoulders with a Skagit, but, the Single Spey is a mighty cast that I have cursed myself for not having in my pocket while Spey casting for shad with a Skagit. The Single Spey requires more backcast room, but if you have it, the power and flexibility to rotate your body and launch a cast in a direction only limited by your ability to move is quite powerful. I have found that I typically fished where the water moved from my right (strong) shoulder to my left, where the wind was either in my face or blowing from my left shoulder to my right (strong.) I wanted the power of the Single Spey to be able to harness the power of the wind to push the D-loop away from my shoulder on the back stroke and then upstream on the foreword. A Snap T with a Skagit will work in these situations, depending on the wind, but compared to a Single Spey, and because of the water tension, it cannot compare in power.There are other touch-and-go casts that are incredibly useful and powerful casts if you choose the way of the Scandi. Casts like the Snake Roll, when you first see them seem silly. But when you are in a position to use them, they are incredibly powerful compared to waterborne casts. You are not going to be able to throw the heaviest tips with a Scandi but, in normal water years I just don’t need to cast the heaviest sink tips that Skagit heads allow you to cast. If you choose a typical Scandi (without the swappable tips,) you can fish a polyleader (learn more about polyleaders here) and flies weighted with beadchain eyes just fine. FWIW, this year I have made the move to the Rio Scandi Versitip system as my primary system(water levels permitting.) The Scandi Versitip is the best of both worlds, offering Scandi line tapers combined with the flexibility of swappable tips of four different weights.
  • Traditional Lines- this is an area I can really provide no insight, as I have never tried them. My understanding is that they are double taper lines with heads over 50ft, and they come in three types, the long belly line, the medium belly line, and the short belly line, dependent on the length of their head (also called the “belly.”) The length of head you choose is based on your casting ability, with long bellies being more difficult to cast than short bellies. The advantage of these lines over their modern counterparts is that you need to strip in less line before lifting the line off the water to make a cast. I can’t say that is something I have felt that I needed as a long swing, and plenty of time retrieving the fly has led to plenty of hookups. However, as my casting continues to improve, I may give them a shot.

Note: If you choose to go with a shooting head system, you will need running line. You may be tempted to go the cheap route and go with good old Trilene… DON’T! I have used Trilene and have learned it just ends up being a knotted, twisted mess as soon as there is wind at play. I have tried Rio slick shooter (not impressed,) Airflo Ridge (eh…so-so,) and the Sunset Amnesia (insert Angel-like music here.) Do yourself a favor, start with the Amnesia in a 30lb strength, stretch it properly before you load the reel, and then once before you cast it the first time you hit the water for the season. There is enough diameter on the 30lb that stripping line back in is easy and tangle free. Just thank me later for the pain and aggravation you will never know! 

Learning the Casts:

So you have made the jump, bought a rod and picked a line, now what? Now the fun begins, its time to learn how to cast. The best thing you can do for yourself is find a quality instructor and take some lessons. Doing so will likely shorten the learning curve. That is great if you live near rivers such as the Deleware, Potomac, or American rivers, you will most likely be able to find an IFFF certified Two-handed Casting Instructor (THCI) near you. However, that is not an option in Florida, where Switch/ Spey rods have been somewhat of a novelty. While they are starting to catch on, it will probably be some time before there is an instructor within a short drive. So how do you learn how to cast? While nothing beats one-on-one instruction, there are two videos which I highly recommend.

  • RIO’s Modern Spey Casting- this 3 DVD set has 4 hours of instruction, and if you are going to buy one DVD set, this should be the one. Simon Gawesworth is an incredible teacher and will bring you step-by-step through the basics, Spey casts such as the Single Spey, Double Spey, the Snap-T and MANY more! This video also walks you through the Skagit casts as well. This is a video set that I have watched at least a dozen times and learn something new every time I watch it. It is something I reference regularly when troubleshooting a problem I am having with a particular cast. It includes a biomechanical breakdown of every cast as well as sections on error-correction. This is an unbelievable set that will get you competent quickly.
  • Skagit Master featuring Ed Ward if you decided on the Skagit system, then this is the video for you. Ed Ward is considered one of the fathers of Skagit lines and casting and does a great job breaking down the casts. Just as above, I have watched this video at least a dozen times and often fall back on it to help me error-correct a problem I am having. While it does not cover the depth that RIO’s Modern Spey Casting does, it provides a very detailed narrow focus on the waterborne casts that make up Skagit casting.

Once you have picked up one of these videos, I recommend that you focus on learning the Snap-T first off of both shoulders, and then move on to the Double Spey off of both shoulders, and if you chose the Scandi system, add the Single Spey off of both shoulders after that. The Snap-T and Double Spey are both waterborne casts, and if you learn those, you will be able to fish most conditions you will find in the wild. River Right, River Left, Wind Right, Wind Left… learn the Snap-T and the Double Spey and you have any of those combinations covered. Once you have mastered these, you can move in to the other casts which will give you some options when the Snap-T and Double Spey are not quite perfect for a situation, or you just want to try something new.

Becoming a proficient caster takes practice… a lot of practice! If you do not live near the water this can be difficult. Whether you are using waterborne casts or touch-and-go casts, the water tension on the line is what helps load the rod when creating the D-Loop. To help simulate this when casting in your backyard or a local park, build yourself a grass leader. While a grass leader is not quite the same as being on the water, it allows you to practice without heading out to a river or lake. You will have to adjust timing once you actually get out on the water, but most folks get the hang of the slight difference in load that the water tension adds versus the grass leader in a short time. To learn how I tie my variation of a grass leader, check out the video below.

If you are interested in joining the two hand club, I hope that this article has helped you make the decision to jump in and start spey casting for shad. It is truly a wonderful world of fishing that you will enjoy for a lifetime!

Additional Links:

 

Polyleaders Will Change How You Fly Fish for Shad

polyleader for shad

I received my first polyleaders as a stocking stuffer for Christmas in 2012. My wife had ventured in to the fly shop on her own, told the guys that she was looking for some fun stocking stuffers, and that I really enjoyed fly fishing for shad. One of them mentioned to her that they had just received these polyleaders, and that he thought it would be a good addition to the bead chain and chenille that she already had in her basket. My wife never could have known at the time, but polyleaders completely changed how I fly fished for shad and it took me from 5-6 fish days, to 20-30 fish days. Sound like a bold statement? Keep reading…

Up until I received my first polyleader, I had only used a floating fly line. I knew sinking lines and sink tip lines existed, but they were expensive, and I thought they really only fit in to a certain niche of fly fishing. I was more pragmatic then, and really could not justify spending 80 bucks on a line, then maybe another 60 bucks on a spare spool so I could swap a floating line for a sink tip line when I felt I needed a bit more depth in my swing. Enter the humble polyleader, an $8.99, 5ft, fast sinking answer to a problem I was not even aware that I had. I attached the polyleader to my fly line using its welded loop, attached 5ft of level 2x tippet to the polyleader, and then attached a shad dart weighted with 5/32 dumbbell eyes to the tippet, and set out on one of the most successful days of fly fishing for shad that I had ever had up to that point.

So what exactly is a polyleader? While Airflo coined the actual term “Polyleader,” other manufacturers have come up with similar products. For instance, RIO has its “Versileader.” For this article, “polyleader” can be defined as, “a section of level core to which a tapered coating is applied, and is available in different lengths and sink rates.” Polyleaders are typically available in 5ft and 10ft lengths, and because the polyleader is tapered, it turns over relatively heavy flies very easily without the hinging effect caused if you were just to add a level section of say, T-8 sink tip. The short story is, a polyleader is a cheap, customizable, swappable sink tip that you can simply add to any floating fly line that you already have. Doing so will extend your reach in to the depths, and allow you to better adapt to your water conditions. Let’s take a look at some specifications:

Type Sink Rate 5ft 10ft
Float 0 ips 16gr 26gr
Hover 0.5 ips 17gr 28gr
Intermediate 1.5 ips 18gr 30gr
Slow Sink 2.6 ips 20gr 34gr
Fast Sink 3.9 ips 22gr 38gr
Super Fast Sink 4.9 ips 36gr 56gr
Extra Super Fast Sink 6.1 ips 44gr 88gr

On my home water, the upper St. Johns River, depths average between 5-10 feet where I generally fish, so I typically opt for a 5ft polyleader attached to a 5 weight fly line. I typically choose either a Super Fast Sink rate or Extra Super Fast Sink rate and have had great success, especially when paired with 5/32 hourglass eye type flies. If I am fishing downstream towards Lemon Bluff where the water is wider and deeper, I may opt for a 10ft section with the same sink rates.

The key to any sink tip system is to understand how fast the sinking tip sinks, and how deep the water is that you are fishing. Once you have that information, you simply swing the fly as you normally would by quartering upstream, and then count down the fly before starting your retrieve. If I am fishing with an Extra Super Fast sinking polyleader in 6ft of water, I know that I need to count the fly down for about 12 seconds before starting my retrieve to ensure the fly and polyleader are on the bottom. As you might imagine, adjusting where in the swing you start your cast, mends, and when you start your retrieve allows you to cover a larger range of depths and water than you could with just a floating line.

Some of you may ask, “I am using a heavy sinking fly, why do I need a sink tip as well?” The answer is simple, using a sink tip keeps the fly deeper longer, and the shad are generally hanging near the bottom of the river. If you are only using a weighted fly on a floating fly line, when the fly reaches the end of its swing, the floating line pulls the fly through the water column more aggressively than a sinking or sink tip line. This means you are lifting the fly out of the shad’s face right at the critical moment they tend to strike, near the end of the swing or the beginning of the retrieve. Adding even a 5ft section of polyleader allows the fly to stay deeper longer, changes the angle of the fly to fly line connection so the fly rises through the water column more slowly, which gives the fly more time to entice a strike from a shad.

I would encourage even a skeptic to try out a polyleader. For $8.99, you can change how you fly fish for shad, giving you access to water that your fly has probably not spent much time in if you are just using a floating fly line.

OKFC Podcast – Mark Benson Shad Fly Fishing Talk

This is another great podcast from the Orlando Kayak Fishing Community recorded at their 01/08/2015 meeting at Orlando Outfitters. I was able to attend this meeting and learned a lot from Mark Benson about water levels, temps, discharge, etc. This is a great resource for shad fishermen fly fishing on the St John River.

OKFC Podcast – Talking Shad with a Biologist

This is a really great podcast from the Orlando Kayak Fishing Community recorded on 11/06/2014. Biologist Reid Hyle gives a great presentation on the biology, spawning, and habits of shad. Hyle also talks about where shad can be found, what types of water they congregate in and even talks about cooking them. The podcast has quite a bit of noise (sounds like someone moving around the mic) which can be a bit frustrating at times but, if you can take a few deep breaths and deal with it, there is a lot of good information in this presentation, particularly if you are fly fishing for shad on the St Johns River.

The Figure of Eight Retrieve

The figure of eight retrieve is a constant motion retrieve that is executed once your fly has completed its swing downstream of you. In this video, I demonstrate the technique as well as show you the cadence I use on the St. Johns River. If the swing itself does not elicit a strike, the figure of eight retrieve usually does as the fly makes its way up through the water column. This is my preferred retrieve when targeting shad on the fly.