A Brief Introduction to Modern Spey Lines

One of the largest obstacles to anglers with the desire to learn how to cast and fish a two-handed rod is the apparent complexity of the line systems that enable the incredible performance of modern Spey and switch rods. After a lifetime of fishing floating, sinking, or intermediate lines of various tapers on a single handed rod, understanding an entirely different line system which contains multiple components can seem a little daunting. Fortunately, lines designed for two-handed rods can be broken down into components and are easily understandable with some simple explanation. We’ll take a look at the two predominant styles of modern shooting head Spey lines, Skagit and Scandinavian (Scandi), and provide the information needed to take the first step in the transition from single to two handed fly rods.

Spey Line Basics

At its core, a shooting head style Spey line is a weight forward line that has been separated into three components: the running line, shooting head, and tip. To begin, understand that Spey rods are designed to provide peak casting performance with the entire length of the shooting head out of the tip of the rod. This allows the rod to properly load with the full grain weight of the shooting head on each cast, while the length of running line out of the reel provides the distance of the cast. The purpose of the tip or leader is to provide versatility in the depth at which the fly is presented, and can be thought of as an interchangeable “sink tip” with options that will sink at various rates from floating to 10 inches per second.

Above is a simple diagram to help visualize the entire shooting head spey line system. Each component is attached to the other with integrated loops, creating a versatile system that can be easily modified to meet each angling situation.

It is important to note that the weighted portion of a Spey line, the shooting head, is measured in grains. This means that despite Spey rods using a “weight” rating system similar to that used for single handed rods (6wt, 7wt, and so on), it is not possible to purchase a 6wt, 7wt, etc. shooting head. Instead, anglers must turn to additional resources that provide grain weight recommendations for specific rods. Many rod manufacturers will provide suggested grain windows for each model of rod, and line manufacturers like Rio provide comprehensive charts to aid in the process of line selection. Grain windows tend to range about 50 grains. A line on the heavy end of the grain window is optimal for beginners because it will load the rod more easily, but in the end the choice comes down to personal preference. Now that we have a basic understanding of the theory and performance of the shooting head style Spey line, we can take a closer look at the specifics of each component.

Skagit Head

The Skagit head is one of the two most popular shooting heads available to anglers using two handed rods. The concept was developed by Steelhead anglers in the Pacific Northwest, who saw room for improvement over the long belly lines available in the late 1990s. The long belly lines required a long casting stroke and touch and go style cast, which was difficult to master and made runs along tight structure inaccessible to anglers using two handed rods. With the intent of creating as short of a line as possible, a group of Steelhead bums cut and spliced lines until they found a formula that worked. The result was a short, heavily weighted shooting head that was easy to cast. The lines allowed anglers to fish shorter rods and in tighter casting situations, while enabling sustained anchor style casting. All of this performance created an opportunity for anglers to fish heavy sink tips and big, intruder style, flies that proved extremely effective on the Winter Steelhead of the Olympic Peninsula and Puget Sound rivers.

Today, most major line manufacturers have a Skagit offering. These heads are ideal for fishing the heavy sink tips and large flies designed to target Winter Steelhead in high water, but are versatile enough to fish a dry line in search of fish in lower water conditions of late Summer and Fall. They also make Spey casting about as easy as it gets, and are a great option for those learning to fish two handed rods. 

Length 15’-25’
Taper Long body, short front taper
Advantages -Easily casts heavy tips and weighted flies


-Perfect for tight casting situations

-Easier to learn with than longer heads

-Great for use on switch or single handed rods

-Easier to punch casts through wind

Disadvantages -Creates more commotion on surface of water


-Does not lay out like the fly lines many of us are used to


Scandi Head

As anglers in the Pacific Northwest experimented with various methods to improve Spey lines, Atlantic Salmon anglers in Northern Europe developed their own theories on how to optimize spey lines. The result was similar in concept to the Skagit shooting head, but contained a much longer front taper designed to provide a delicate surface or shallow presentation. The Scandi shooting head was born, and quickly gained in popularity due to its ability to delicately turn small flies over while providing a pleasurable and smooth casting experience to the angler. Scandi lines are typically longer than Skagit style shooting heads, and thus require a longer casting stroke. Scandi heads perform best on longer rods, lending them to use on full Spey rods of decent length rather than short Spey rods or switch rods.

Scandi lines are hugely popular around the world where small flies and surface or shallow presentations are used to target fish. Summer Steelhead anglers in North America appreciate the line’s ability to provide delicate presentations at great distance. In the low and often clear water conditions of late Summer and Fall Scandi heads can provide advantages over “louder” Skagit heads, which can spook Summer run fish that are tuned in to activity on or near the surface of the water.


Length 35-45’
Taper Long front taper for delicate presentations
Advantages -Soft and delicate during cast and presentation


-Requires a long and smooth casting stroke

Disadvantages -More difficult to learn on for beginners


-Less capable of carrying heavy tips or flies

-Can be affected by wind more than Skagit heads


Running Lines

The style of shooting head has no influence on the type of running line used, and the choice is entirely based on personal preference. Key attributes of a quality running line include shootability, ease of handling, and mend-ability. Running lines can be simply divided into two materials, monofilament and fly line style coated lines, each of which have advantages and shortcomings in different areas of performance.

Monofilament running lines provide minimal friction and resistance, giving them the edge when it comes to shootability and potential distance when casting. However, their thin diameter can make them difficult to handle, particularly in cold conditions. They also do not float as well and are more difficult to mend once the cast has been made. Anglers who value line management, whether that be in handling the line or making mends and adjustments after the cast has been made, tend to gravitate towards coated running lines. Coated lines are essentially unweighted fly lines that are designed to shoot well while maintaining attributes that allow the line to be easily controlled during and after the cast.

Some line manufacturers have created hybrid lines that give anglers the best of both styles of running lines.  Rio’s Gripshooter  is a prime example of a hybrid line. The majority of the line is monofilament to maintain maximum shootability, while a short handling section of coated line provides more feel in cold environments.


The final component of a spey line is the tip or leader. There are various options available to anglers using two handed rods, the most popular of which are Rio’s MOW tips and Airflo’s Polyleaders. MOW tips were specifically designed to be used with Skagit heads, and are essentially a level portion of fly line designed to allow anglers to target specific depths while presenting a fly. This enables effective fly presentation in a huge variety of water types, which can be essential for anglers targeting Winter Steelhead in adverse water conditions. For more detail on MOW tips, see this article, which was also included in this week’s newsletter.

Airflo’s Polyleaders are very popular with Steelhead anglers as well, and tend to be the choice of those using Scandi style shooting heads. Like MOW tips, Polyleaders are available in floating, intermediate, and various sink rate options, which also allow anglers to achieve different presentations and fish different water types. The largest difference between the two is that Polyleaders are tapered, and allow for a more delicate turnover and presentation. Anglers also have the option of using a standard tapered leader, which can be more than sufficient for surface or near surface presentations for Summer Steelhead. For those with brand allegiances, Rio offers an alternative to Polyleaders with their Versileader, and Airflo offers a MOW tip alternative with FLO tips.

We’ve thrown a lot of information out here in an attempt to provide a brief overview of an entire system which can be quite confusing. Hopefully we’ve cleared the air on some topics, and provided the information needed for those who are considering making the switch to commit to learning a different style of fishing.While Steelhead tend to be the dominant driver for many spey anglers in Oregon, the increasing popularity of Trout Spey rods and single hand Spey lines mean that the applications of the spey cast are endless. As with anything in fly fishing, leaning on outside sources is the best way to gain a full understanding of a new topic. Ask questions to friends who have some experience in the two handed game, or stop into the shop and have a discussion with one of the many employees who spend more than their fair share of time searching for Steelhead. We’re always happy to talk Spey casting and Steelheading, especially as late summer turns into Fall and fish move into the Lower D.

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