Spey casting evolution
Oddly, salmon fishers tend to be very reluctant to pay for Spey casting tuition. Marcus Janssen looks at the benefits of seeking the help of a professional instructor.
Spey casting is evolving. While many of us have been happy to plod along with techniques that were developed on Scottish rivers more than 100 years ago by the likes of Alexander Grant and Jock Scott, massive advances in fly rod and line technology in recent years have allowed innovative fly casters to redress the way we approach salmon fishing, particularly with regards to double-handed rods.
This flexible approach by fishers from Scandinavia and North America in particular, has led to the development of new ways of presenting a fly in almost all conditions. Although the traditional single and double Spey remain the basis for all double-handed casting techniques, technological advances in tackle design have led to variations such as the snake roll, the circle cast and the snap-T all being introduced to the salmon fisher's vernacular, and shorter and more powerful fly line tapers including shooting heads and skagits being added to the Spey caster's armoury.
To some, such terminology may sound like gobbledegook, but the truth is, in order to improve your proficiency as a salmon angler, you do need to be adaptable and flexible in your approach, and that means being able to employ the most effective cast for the conditions at hand.
Despite the ineffectiveness of conducting a self-assessment of one's own fly casting flaws, this is exactly what a lot of salmon fishermen do. Whilst golfers and shooters are happy to pay qualified instructors good money to put their technique under the microscope, fly fishermen very often opt for the trial and error approach, relying on tips they were given by their father, a friend or a trusted Scottish ghillie. And when you consider what we are willing to spend on tackle and fishing, be it in Scotland, Iceland, Norway or Russia, it's surprising how few anglers bother with casting tuition.
Bad habits become ingrained and before long there comes a point where progress comes to a halt. I am a prime example of this – for years I have been satisfied with my ability to present a salmon fly and haven't really progressed much over the past five or six seasons. Well, this year I decided to swallow my pride and see what could be gained from some one-to-one tuition with a reputable Spey casting instructor.
Alan Maughan is a man who has made salmon fishing his life. He is a widely experienced salmon angler and guide who has fished in Russia, Iceland, Norway, Canada and on many UK salmon rivers. He is a highly qualified Spey casting instructor with a reputation that precedes him – he came highly recommended which, when it comes to choosing an instructor is as important as extensive qualifications and credentials. Alan also owns and operates the worlds largest online salmon fishing forum www.salmonfishingforum.com
I met Alan in early May on a privately-owned stretch of the Tyne, a short distance upstream from the well-known Bywell beat. Two of the beat's owners Phil and Denise Adams, who are long-time pupils of Alan's, were at hand as we set up a range of 13, 14 and 15ft rods with a variety of lines before climbing into our waders and ambling down to the river, which is no more than a few hundred yards from the bottom of Phil and Denise's garden.
Breaking it down
Before Alan begins with any tuition, he gets you to spend a short time casting exactly as you would normally. This gives him an idea of your level of proficiency and allows him to see where you might be going wrong or which areas of your cast might need addressing.
The experience it takes to diagnose what can be very subtle faults, can be what separates a good instructor from a mediocre one, along with the ability to then relay this information back to you in a way that is practical, useful and easy to understand.
In Spey casting, as in shooting and other sports such as golf and tennis, consistency can be the most difficult thing of all to achieve. In shooting we all have occasional golden spells when we can't seem to miss, and in fishing when every cast seems to fly through the guides like it's jet propelled. But in most cases we aren't able to put our finger on exactly what it is that we're doing differently, and therefore replicate it every time we shoot or fish. This is where Alan's method of deconstructing a cast comes into play.
Like anything, Spey casting is all about cause and effect. If there are any inconsistencies to your casting technique, there will be an identifiable cause, i.e. something that you are doing wrong. And in order to identify and highlight exactly what that may be, Alan breaks your cast down into the different constituent parts and then looks at each of these elements in turn. For a double Spey cast, for instance, these elements would include: a) the lift of the rod which removes some of the line from the water surface, b) the upstream sweep and precise positioning of the anchor, c) the downstream sweep and formation of the all-important D-loop and finally d) the forward cast, a progressive acceleration to an abrupt and crucial stop. Once a decent level of consistency has been achieved in each of these elements, Alan then shows you how to stitch them all together and perfect the timing.
“Advanced Spey casters do not possess some inherent natural ability like Usain Bolt or Mo Farah,” says Alan. “Lots of people have it within themselves to become an advanced caster. The only difference between an average caster and an advanced one is that the latter has learnt all of the basic fundamentals and then perfected their execution.” Indeed, Alan repeatedly stresses the point that the fundamentals of all forms of Spey casting, from the double Spey with a traditional, long-bellied line to techniques employed for use with shooting heads and skagits, are principally the same and, if you can perfect these basic elements, you will become a more proficient caster.
Getting the basics right
Straight away, Alan highlights areas of my casting technique that I had never even considered before. Firstly, the positioning of my feet was all wrong. As Simon Ward repeatedly points out, foot position in shooting is of critical importance, as it is in golf, but in wading down a boulder-strewn run? But when Alan pointed this out, it made perfect sense: if you want your cast to go in a particular direction your hips and shoulders must be facing in that direction. I.e. if you want to cast across the river at a 45˚ angle, your feet should be positioned in such a way that will allow your hips and shoulders to be facing your target.
The next thing Alan got me to address was my initial lift. Again, I had never really considered the importance of lifting the rod tip to exactly the same point every single time. This, when combined with the upstream sweep, achieves consistency in the positioning of your anchor and thus ensures the correct positioning of that all important D-loop. Clearly, these are simple and basic fundamentals, but they really do make a huge difference.
But before you can achieve consistency in your lift, you have to establish precisely where the end of the running line/start of the head should be, relative to your rod tip. This differs according to the taper and design of each particular line. Some lines, like skagits or shooting heads, are designed to have a foot or two of running line outside the rod tip (known as overhang), whereas some Spey lines with really long back tapers need a certain amount of this taper to be inside the rod tip. Alan very much favours a shooting head, skagit or Spey line with a twin colour tone as it provides an easy way to ensure you are casting the same amount of line every time – this is the only way to achieve any consistency in your casting. Bear in mind too, that sink-tips and poly leaders will have an effect as well.
Only once I was consistently lifting my rod tip to the same point (within an agreed tolerance) did Alan get me to address the next stage of a basic double Spey cast, namely the upstream sweep. Again, this was practiced over and over again until I was sweeping to exactly the same point with the rod tip following the same plane. This ensures consistency in generating a loop of line upstream of the rod tip. Like the lift, this is crucial in ensuring that the anchor point is in the same place with every cast. Once this was perfected, he got me to practice the downstream sweep, again focusing on following the same plane every time, which ultimately creates the D-loop.
Having addressed each stage of the double Spey cast independently, Alan then left me to put all he had taught into practice, but remained ever vigilant, with the occasional word of advice or praise from the bank. The result was amazing: by simply following the rules for each stage of the cast, I immediately found that I was achieving a far greater level of consistency, as almost every cast pinged out in exactly the same direction.
Occasionally, I would forget to address the position of my feet or the level to which I lifted the rod before making the upstream sweep, and straight away I noticed that my casting would become erratic. Conversely, as soon as I reapplied the rules, the line would sail through the air, turning the fly over perfectly.
All of the above relates to just one of a range of different Spey casts that any angler who wants to be able to fish in all conditions, ought to have at their disposal. Of course, no-one ever learnt to Spey cast by reading a magazine article or buying one of the many DVDs on the market, but the key point is that only by addressing and perfecting the individual elements that make up any Spey cast will you be able to progress to the next level and achieve a greater degree of consistency. “Although the physics of how a Spey cast works can be fairly complex,” says Alan, “once you understand the basics, learning to cast is actually fairly straightforward.” But, significantly, this is nearly impossible to achieve on your own without the help of someone who truly understands what makes a cast work and is highly skilled in fault diagnosis.
There are literally hundreds of qualified casting instructors in the UK, but there are relatively few who have made tuition their full-time profession. It is therefore advisable that you do your homework and seek advice before deciding where to go for lessons.
Based on the River Tyne in Northumberland, Alan can cover all aspects of Spey casting including the latest methods and tackle developments, and he can also offer some fishing as part of your tuition. His location on the Tyne makes him very handy to visit en route north to the Tweed, Tay or other Scottish rivers.