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Spey Casting versus Underhand
Confusion in Double Handed Fly Casting

Spey Casting or Underhand Technique

Probably in no other field of fly casting a such confusion what concept and style names are concerned rules, as it is the case in fishing with double handed rods. There is a reason for that mess - guess where it comes from?

After Mel Krieger stated that "Europe’s double-handed fly casting was light years ahead of theirs" (citation Mel Krieger at the meeting of the FFF fly casting BOG in Idaho Falls in 1998) and asked the FFF-Board to change this, every little piece of information about double-handed fly casting that was available was collected and bundled together. Double hand conclaves (e.g. Spey-o-Rama) were organized and an FFF certification program for double hand rods was set up.

Nevertheless, what happened then, was not for the purpose of many of the invited fly casters from Europe, because all techniques were market under the name Spey Casting without distinguishing between them or regarding their background and the biomechanics behind them. Even in the double hand program of the FFF the IMHO most advanced development in the field of double-handed fly casting in the recent decades – the Underhand Technique – was not more than mentioned only. There was a reason for this because in the background the marketing machine of the tackle industry was already started with the main purpose to push the name Spey Casting only. The Canadian Mike Maxwell (†), at that time owner of the website Speyrods.com, was referring to Spey Rods at this meeting and he also suggested in a blazing address to move in this direction. In contrast to the great technology of the old Scots and also the philosophy of Maxwell, today's "Spey Casting" is far from the technique of the forefathers (Classic Spey Cast). 

Unterhand Technik Bernd Czerr casting
Bernd Czerr (DE) an excellent Underhand fly caster and fly fisher

It was only a matter of time until this wrong development in case of technical terms would lead to a big confusion that would finally fall back to the true Spey casters: There was this old Spey Casting guide who taught Spey Casting for 40 years and who had to guide and show Spey Casting to an American. The old man was finally told by his upset and unsatisfied client that he had no clue about Spey Casting at all. The American, who by the way learned how to cast a double-hand rod in Canada, was of course not showing the old guide a Spey Cast but an Underhand Cast or something close to it which is in Canada also called a Spey Cast. The confusion was perfect!

Is it still possible to untangle the mess again and to clear the technical terms to give at least credit to the forefathers of the excellent roll casting technique called Spey Casting? At present times the name Spey Casting is misused in many parts of the world and stands for all double-handed fly casting techniques even those which are not even based on the physical casting principle of the founders of Spey Casting and also does not give any credit to the special tackle which was manufactured for that unique technique.

I want to try to bring some light into the darkness and to lighten up the styles a bit. But at first, I would like to thank particularly Göran Andersson for his implementation of the basic technologies. No other double hand fly caster of our time has comparatively experience with the different fly casting techniques performed with double handers.

Spey Casting

This very efficient technique had its origin in the mid-1800s on the big rivers of Scotland. In the primeval times of salmon fly fishing, the fishermen only used overhead casts to present their salmon flies. Of course, the overhead technique was dependent on the availability of backspace. It also leads to problems because of the wind which is more or less always abundant in Scotland. So quite often the flies were banged against the angler's bodies.

As a consequence, some tried to roll out the fly somehow to reach the same length and spot more or less consistently. They were of course not very successful in the beginning because their tackle did not support such long roll casts. Then, by a steady improvement of the tackle(Greenheart rods), the results got better and better. The rods used at that time were very long, some up to 24 ft. in length and they were finally able to perform these long roll casts. This was the hour of birth of Spey Casting.

So Spey Casting was a pure roll casting technique based on the physical principle of a rolling ball. The shooting of line after the stop was impossible with this technique because these Spey Rods (this term was taken up only decades later by rod makers) were simply too soft. It was necessary to accelerate the long DT lines by a very long stroke which even made the rod tip touch the water at the stop from time to time.


The unbelievable Alexander Grant

The new technique was very suitable to present the fly with a long roll cast to the target and soon found many followers. Really remarkable were the unbelievable casting skills of Alexander Grant. Although he was not a big and strong guy, he was said to have picked up and unrolled more than 60 m(!) of fly line. That is an unbelievable amount and it was only possible because of the special guides he used on his rod. But even Grant did not shoot line (well, if you call max. 1-2 m shooting then he probably did). The line was only picked up and replaced up to a certain angle. Spey Casting in its original form is more or less not used anymore except by a few people in Ireland and Scotland were some traditionalists still try to preserve this great technique. I for myself have not met anyone at the river performing a true Spey Cast within the last three decades.

Today the term Spey Casting is misused by many fly casters who use the physical principle of the Underhand Casting Technique with long lines (see Long Line Technique) and so perform some kind of hybrid casts. This made it meanwhile necessary to distinguish between classical Spey Casting as shorter and shorter WF heads are used instead of DT lines. The term Modern Speycasting is used by many fly fishers today.

Main elements of Classic Spey Casting:

  • long rods
  • DT lines
  • the upper hand is dominant
  • bottom hand acts as the fulcrum
  • rod is loaded from the tip towards the butt
  • the whole body is involved when casting as a lot of line has to be moved

Casting principle:

  • Long-stroke - curved line (path of the rod tip).
  • the physical principle of the rolling ball (GA)

A true Spey Cast - and that is where the name Spey Casting comes from - still remains a roll cast.


The Underhand Technique

In the 1950s the Swede Göran Andersson began to stop the rod consistently earlier. Nevertheless, the change of the technique was only made possible by the changing of the tackle, when faster rods hit the market. He used quicker rods and shorter lines and optimized the tackle constantly. Because his father was a rod maker, Göran learned the art of rod making already at a youth age. His shortening and splicing of the lines can be regarded as the birth of the modern shooting head fishing. The first shooting heads on the world market were introduced by the Swedish company LOOP of which Göran was a co-owner. The Underhand Casting Technique (aka Andersson Cast) developed by Göran Andersson can be regarded as the most important development in double-handed fly casting of the last fifty years and is maybe the most useful DH technique developed ever.

By using the Underhand Casting Technique the physical principle of the rolling ball(G.A.) which is own to the original Spey Casting is substituted with the principle of the shooting of the line like an arrow (like in overhead casting). While with long lines but also with super heavy flies the upper rod hand takes over the lead and so the biggest part of the work because long lines also require a long way of acceleration(long stroke), this is contrary with the Underhand Technique style. In Underhand Casting, the lower hand is the more active hand, while the upper hand moves close to the shoulder and only performs the lifts together with a slight rotation of the upper body(20°). During the stroke, the upper hand does not move much and is never stretched, but remains bent after the stop. Only when using longer shooting heads (for UH usually lines longer than 16.5 m are not used as they reduce the possibilities of angulated casts and need more backspace than necessary) the upper hand starts to work a little bit more (see long line underhand casting > long line technique). When performing an Underhand Cast the upper hand acts as a fulcrum around which the rod writhes.

Göran Andersson Underhand
Göran Anderrson (SWE), father of the Unterhand Technique

By the quick and progressive power application of the lower hand, it comes to a catapult effect which allows shooting long distances without much effort. In addition, many more places can be fished with short lines in comparison to long lines as you can also cast where only a little backspace is available, so practically in all places in the river. Besides that, one can perform more angulated casts. Another special element of the Underhand Technique is hand shifting. The off-shoulder cast is only used for certain pick-ups, while most underhand casters just change their casting arm when they want to fish from the other bank. This makes this technique the most universal and versatile one in the field of double-handed fly casting. Some "Spey casters" argue that already in Kelson's book in the 19th century an underhand cast was mentioned. Obviously another misunderstanding. The soft rods that were used at that time as well as the DT lines did not allow a strong use of the lower hand to create a short stroke and to shoot line. Try to cast a soft bamboo rod by doing a short powerful stroke and you know how the tackle at that time had to be treated. But the powerful short stroke is what Underhand is about. In fact, to use the term underhand cast only is misleading in case the reader does not understand anything about physics. It is not the Underhand Cast what it is all about but the great technique with a new physical principle that is hidden behind. So it is wise to always use the term Underhand Technique instead to avoid any misunderstandings.

The main elements of the Underhand Technique:

  • shorter rods 12-13.5 feet, only for high water and bottom feeders longer rods up to 15 ft
  • Shooting Heads (invented by Göran Andersson for LOOP)
  • the bottom hand is dominant
  • The top hand acts as the fulcrum
  • rod is loaded from the butt towards the tip (!!!)
  • only little body movement just after the lift

Casting principle:

  • Short stroke - straight line (of the rod tip)
  • shooting the line like an arrow (GA)


Today's Spey Casting – a Hybrid Style

The style which most fly fishers of our time call Spey Casting has not much in common with the excellent  fly casting technique of the forefathers except the name. Today the name Spey Casting is used mainly for marketing reasons as I have already mentioned. The style that is used by many fly casters today is a hybrid style but definitely no (Classic) Spey Casting any more as the underhand principle is used predominantly (remember the Underhand Cast is not defined by the use of the lower hand as many believe but it is defined by the physical principle behind the cast). It is the principle of shooting line like an arrow which belongs to Underhand. So do shooting heads. Because Göran Andersson was also giving classes in UK and Canada and because English fly fishers  got in contact with his technique in Scandinavia, too, they  started to use more and more elements of the Underhand Casting Technique. Because of their traditional background and the long history of double-handed fly casting in Great Britain, his postfanatics did not give any credit to the Underhand's inventor but went on calling the adapted style Spey Casting. This happened on one hand because  of patriotic reasons and on the other hand because they were not aware that the two techniques follow completely different physical principles.

What people call Spey Casting today, is a hybrid style which uses the principle of the Underhand Technique (shooting of the line like an arrow), however, by the use of long heads (up to more than 30 m) a long stroke with the upper hand is needed (the longer the line the longer the stroke). In addition to that the lines used for the so called Spey Casting today have  nothing in common with the lines used for true Spey Casting. These lines were DT lines while today's lines are far away from that line profile. In fact today also the "Spey Casters" use shooting heads. And the heads get shorter and shorter.

In Great Britain some pros are even demonstrating pure Underhand Casting but they still call their casting Spey Casting, obviously to not pull the rage of the traditionalists on themselves. By this abusive use of the Underhand Technique under the name Spey Casting a big confusion was created among fly casters all around the world. Some Norwegian top casters contributed to this confusion, too. In their film they used the Underhand Technique but called it Modern Spey Casting. As the name Underhand was protected and it was not allowed to use it for any business  purposes like films - another name had to be used. A marketing machinery had been got going which made it increasingly more difficult to make a clear distinction and to clear the terms again.

What is called Spey Casting today would better be called Long Line(full line) Style and if no business and traditionalist's interests would be part of the game, this term would describe the style in the best possible way. The advantage of the Long Line Style(double hand technique for casting long lines) is to be seen at wide rivers where one must wade breast deep and serve consistently on long distances without any need of doing angulated casts (usually less than 40 degrees) and where you cannot expect to get a take when stripping your line in along the bank.

The Long Line Style is dependent on a lot of back space and the presentation possibilities are limited, because long lines do not allow angulated casts up to 90°. Because these long movements with long and heavy lines  also require a lot of power, the Underhand Technique can be regarded as the smarter and more economic way of casting a double handed rod.


Main elements of todays' "Spey" Casting:

  • long rods up to 18 ft.(they get shorter and shorter now)
  • long shooting heads(shooting heads are the core element of the Underhand Technique), disguised shooting heads(full lines)
  • upper hand is dominant 60-80 %
  • bottom hand acts as the fulcrum, bottom hand is involved up to 40 and even more %
  • the rod is loaded from the tip towards the butt
  • the body is involved when casting as a lot of line has to be moved (dependent on the length of the shooting head)


Casting principle: 

  • Long stroke - slightly curved line (path of the rod tip).
  • physical principle of shooting the line (core element of Underhand Technique)

The shooting of the line and the use of shooting heads moves the style closer to Underhand principles and separates it from Spey Casting (which is a roll casting technique).


During several fly casting courses of Göran Andersson in Canada (mainly Skycomish) the Canadians came in contact with the Underhand Technique, too. A former student of him recognized that the elements of the Underhand Technique and especially the use of short shooting heads could be of great use for salmon and steelhead fishing with heavy sinking lines, too, especially where very limited backspace is available. Together with some friends at the Skagit, Sauk, and other northwestern Canadian rivers they began shortening the heads in order to get better fishing possibilities for salmon and steelhead. They did so until they were satisfied with the result. The system fished so well that it soon got a new name - Skagit.

By using very short heads, big and heavy flies can be cast easily and the thin running line does not speed them up so fast when fishing. The ultra-short heads can be even cast from very small niches. The short shooting heads do not need to be lifted from the water but are just waved forth and back (figure 8th movement) so that the fly is pulled into the upper water layer and finally can be cast by a relatively short stroke with the top hand leading the movement but also with a lot of action of the bottom hand. My Snap-T fitted perfectly for fishing Skagit lines.

So if you look at it from the biomechanical point of view Skagit can be regarded as a style but not a technique. It is a variation of the Underhand Technique (as they shoot line and use shooting heads which are the core elements of UH) as according to the used principles it is closer to Underhand than to Spey. The use of the Underhand Technique elements with these very short heads and heavy flies shows its extreme versatility.

However, because of the use of T-tips especially with larger flies, a longer movement of the upper hand is a must!


Perfect line setup for fishing big flies

Skagit is more about a line system. It is not the casting but the line set up that really defines Skagit. The inventors of Skagit lines have really done a great job. Big line companies like Rio and Airflow soon started to make all sorts of Skagit lines for the needs of the anglers. Skagit became a brand name. The short shooting heads of 6-8 m in combination with a usually 3 m long T-tip are absolutely superb to fish heavy flies slowly along the bottom. I also use Skagit lines for Hucho fishing (iFlight 725 and 750 grains). They are really great for that purpose. 

Thanks, guys, you did a really great job!

Meanwhile, I have developed a line in cooperation with RIO that is perfect for fishing huchen (hucho hucho a relative to hucho taimen) fishing with flies up to 30 cm(!) in length. It can be cast with almost no backspace at all. The idea behind it came from Skagit lines but the principle is a little different as these big flies have to stay in the surf as I put it.

The Mucho Hucho Super Sinker

Quo vadis?

The pushing of Skagit lines for pacific salmon and steelhead fishing has made many think about their tackle. The big line companies jumped on the business track and now the run for the shooting heads cannot be stopped anymore.

Göran was right with his development of shooting heads for fly fishing many decades ago ... 

The long and full lines (not to be mixed with disguised shooting heads) will probably disappear except in some very traditional corners of our planet. You might call them Skagit lines or Scandi lines but they are just what they are: Shooting heads!

The shorter the line, the shorter the stroke is one of the main fly casting principles. So if you use heads of less than 12 m in length you will end up doing a short stroke if you follow the principle and want to have a straight line of the rod tip.

Any long movement of the upper hand does not match with the principle except you want to waste energy or have to move extremely big flies or heavy tips. 


Copyright © Günter Feuerstein