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How to Choose Your First Spey Rod

by Jeff Putnam

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One of the most common questions that my clients ask me is, what weight spey rod should I get to get started? Since a spey rod outfit is not cheap, a little understanding of the lines used will prevent you from having to purchase that second outfit because the first was unable to cast the fly you were using or wanted to use.

Considering the fly size that you are intending to use is probably the most important factor in determining what spey rod weight is appropriate. It’s even more important than the size of the fish you are catching.

Most West Coast steelheader’s from Northern California to Washington usually begin their pursuit for winter and summer steelhead that might average 3 to 10 pounds in size. The typical steelheader may fish the Trinity River in northern California, the Deschutes River in southern Oregon and the Grande Rhonde in Washington just to name a few in search of these summer run steelhead. During late summer into early fall water conditions on these rivers are usually at normal summer flows.

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Common size flies used for summer/fall run steelhead are generally light, sometime sparsely dressed hair wings style flies, similar to a Green Butt Skunk or Silver Hilton. Flies of this size and design can easily be cast using more gradual tapered head similar to a RIO Scandi. A monofilament leader can be used to fish close to the surface or a sinking RIO Light Scandi VersiLeadercan be added to the end of the Scandinavian head to fish the fly deeper. The longer, gradual tapered Scandi Head and lightly dressed hair wing flies are very enjoyable to cast. For me it’s similar to casting a small dry fly on a floating fly line for trout. This spey line set up usually works well until the rainy season begins and river flows increase.
As water clarity degrades a larger fly silhouette is often required. Now is the time to put away the summer steelhead box in exchange for larger, heavily dressed winter-style flies with lots of movement. These same conditions regularly occur during the summer in many British Columbia steelhead rivers influenced from melting glaciers and or heavy rain. These conditions might require a 4 to 6 inch heavily dressed leech or Intruder-style fly that is more visible to the fish. Casting these flies can be like trying to cast a ”wet sock” which is no job for a Scandi head or similar taper.   That’s where my RIO Skagit Max head and InTouch MOW Tips will make easy work of casting these larger, more air resistant flies. The issue now becomes the MOW tip that I attached to my Skagit head. If the MOW tip I’m using doesn’t have enough grains per foot, fly delivery will be difficult or next to impossible.
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I find that casting large winter style steelhead flies in excess of 4 inches requires about 14 grains per foot. This is the job for a Heavy MOW tip. A Heavy MOW tip requires a Skagit head of 575 grains to cast it properly. To cast a 575 grain Skagit head you’ll need a very powerful seven or eight weight spey rod. If fishing winter style flies less than 4 inches in length, 11 grains per foot in a tip will do a nice job. The RIO Medium MOW tip would then be the choice. To cast a tip that weighed 11 grains per foot you’ll need a Skagit head weighing 475 to 550 grains. To cast the Skagit head of this weight you will need a powerful six, up to a medium seven weight spey rod.

In conclusion, a seven weight spey rod will allow you to fish more conditions however; it might be a little heavy for smaller summer run steelhead. A six weight spey rod will allow you a more enjoyable experience when fighting smaller summer run steel head however; it won’t be able to handle T-14 when fishing larger winter style flies. Hopefully you find this information useful when you walk up to a rack of fly rods to purchase your first spey rod.