Double-handed Rods in the Salt

By Nick Curcione

It’s no exaggeration to claim that two-handed rods are the hottest new development in fly-fishing at least as far as the US is concerned. Back in 2000 when I first started using these long sticks off the beaches in the northeast for stripers and blues this wasn’t the case at all. When other anglers spotted me fishing with one of these rods I was greeted by a lot of strange stares often followed by a barrage of questions.

For many it was the first time they had ever seen such a rod. Gradually these rods were becoming more and more popular with freshwater anglers, particularly among those who set their sights on steelhead and salmon, and today they’re even becoming relatively commonplace in a variety of saltwater venues.

The initial motivation for using a double-handed fly rod for fishing off the beach was based on my years of experience surf fishing with conventional and spinning outfits. The added length of these 11 and 12-foot rods made it relatively easy to fire off long distance casts beyond the breakers and I reasoned that the same would be true in the case of two-handed fly rods.

For many years I fished most coasts in the US with standard single-handed 9 and 10-foot fly rods and enjoyed many successful outings on a wide variety of species. But bear in mind that regardless of how you approach it, surf fishing is most often a low percentage game when it comes to catching fish. The conditions are often downright formidable and even with conventional and spin gear the odds are stacked pretty much against you. As any angler who fishes on foot is well aware, compared to boat or personal watercraft options, wading has definite limitations because you can only go so far. And if you choose to do this with fly gear, you’re handicapping yourself even more so. However, as I found back then and as increasing numbers of fly fishers are discovering today, the casting advantage afforded by 12, 13, and 14-foot double-handed fly rods can help shift some of the odds in you favor.

The casting style with two-handed rods off the beachfront is primarily overhead and up until a few years ago I didn’t give much thought to spey or Skagit casting in saltwater environments.

I wasn’t alone in this restricted thinking and some of my die-hard saltwater fly fishing buddies still feel there is no application for this casting style in a marine environment. Like most extreme pronouncements that’s not entirely true, but to properly address the question let’s spell out what we’re talking about. The word ‘application’ in the sense it is being used here can refer as much to personal preference as it does to practicality. The notion of what is practical is also subject to debate. At least in terms of trying to catch fish, I would argue that using fly gear in the high surf isn’t a very efficient way to go. But we do it because we enjoy it for a variety of reasons. In the surf my friend with a six- ounce sinker and a strip of bait on a spinning outfit will certainly out cast me and will very likely out fish me if I’m using fly gear. But this is the way I prefer to go about it and as far as two-handed fly rods are concerned, I have good a time just casting them whether it’s overhead or spey. For that reason alone I’m using them more and more in different saltwater environments. Before we progress any further however, let’s get a little background on this spey phenomenon.

Spey casting owes its designation to the river Spey in Scotland. Its traditional form originated in the late 1800’s in Scotland and it was a fishery primarily dedicated to the pursuit of Atlantic salmon. The angler (frequently a member of the nobility because you had to be well off to afford the time and the means to fish the prime “beats”) wade fished or stood and cast from sturdy heavy wooden skiffs manned by gillies and basically roll cast a long belly fly line across a wide expanse of river. The object was to control the fly as it swung in the current. There was little or no hand stripping of the fly. At the end of the swing down current, instead of stripping the fly in for a given distance, different forms of roll casts were developed whereby the angler repositioned the fly in preparation for the next delivery out into the current.

Even with today’s advances in spey line and rod design, the prospect of effectively casting such lines where 70-feet or more of line must be outside the rod tip, requires a great deal of practice. When executed correctly the casts are visually compelling. In addition, when you do it right, it also feels great and you want to keep casting and casting. A friend who does a lot of steelhead fishing put it plainly: “You have to make so many casts for these fish; you might as well have fun while you’re doing it.”

In these last few years there have been significant developments in spey fishing both in terms of product development and technique. One such innovation that is readily adaptable to a variety of saltwater scenarios are the shorter belly lines variously marketed as Skagit lines. RIO has a great lineup of these shorter lines in the form of the Skagit Flight Head and the Skagit Short Head. The former range in length from 22 to 31-feet while the ‘shorts’ are 20-feet long. The rods used with these lines are also shorter than traditional spey rods and generally range from 11 to 13-feet or so in length. Due primarily to the fact of their shorter length belly sections, these lines are a great deal easier to learn to cast than the traditional long belly spey line.

With Skagit lines the belly section is a floater, but you can fish a variety of depths with the addition of 10 to 15-foot tip sections in varying densities from full floating to extra fast sinking. Adding to their versatility is the fact that these lines perform well for Skagit casting (a simple version of the spey cast) as well as overhead casting. For those applications where I might want to do a lot of overhead casting I prefer the Skagit Short Heads. For overhead casts you need room behind you. With a body section that’s only 20-feet and a tip section that may range from 10 to 15-feet, the entire length of line isn’t more than 35-feet. This is a line that is very user friendly for casting overhead and it still performs well when you want to Skagit cast. The latter are referred to as water-born casts which means that the cast begins with the floating belly section laying on the surface. The surface tension on the line bends the rod as the fly and leader are positioned for delivery to your target area.

I’ve often used these lines off the beach for striped bass but about a year ago a whole new opportunity presented itself when I met Clayton Yee, co-owner of Nervous Water Fly Fishers in Honolulu, Hawaii. Clay went to college in Oregon where he was bitten by the steelhead bug. He made the natural progression to two-handed rods and became enamored with Skagit casting. A few years back he took his passion to a whole new environment and started Skagit casting for bonefish in his home waters. Admittedly at first I was very skeptical. Like most, I associate bone fishing with sight casting. But I also want to maximize my fishing experience particularly if I’m making a long trip from home.

On many occasions in different bonefish locales I have blind cast to these fish under cloudy conditions when it wasn’t possible to sight cast to them. With Clay it’s a different story. He has all the sight fishing opportunities anyone could wish for but his first preference is to blind cast the bones using Skagit casts. The locals there refer to it as “bombing.” After trying it I have to say it is a lot of fun and when you’re standing waste deep in water and have to make cast after cast, doing it Skagit style is a lot easier on you physically than double hauling and overhead casting with a single-handed rod.

Due to the legendary wariness of bonefish clear intermediate sink tips are used. Their comparatively slow sink rate will also help prevent the fly from getting fouled on the ever present chunks of coral that inundate the bottom. However, the coral can take its toll on leaders, so in many of the places he fishes Clay recommends 20 lb. test for the class tippet. Given the fact that these fish often exceed the five lb. mark you won’t feel over gunned with tippets this size. Though bonefish are the primary target, when you blind cast you never know what you might connect with and on these flats there’s always a chance of hooking into members of the jack family, ladyfish and trevally. They all pull hard and can make line smoke off your reel at an alarming rate.

About 3,000 miles east of the islands I’m also Skagit casting in my home waters along the San Francisco coastline for species like surfperch, halibut and striped bass. The same advantages I found using this setup in Hawaii also applies to beach- front locales. Physically the Skagit setup can be a lot easier on you when you have to make repeated casts. You can achieve good distance with comparatively little effort. Another big plus is the fact that on many stateside beach fronts often times there isn’t a great deal of room for decent back casts. Even when there are you have to constantly look behind to make sure you’re not going to hit a jogger, a curious passersby or even a free running dog. The Skagit cast doesn’t call for much space behind you so it’s ideal anytime your casting lanes are restricted. Aside from the pure fun in making these casts, when you do connect with a fish the deep bend in a long, double-handed rod creates a sensation that is pure exhilaration. Bring a long rod to the salt-you won’t be disappointed.