Written by Matt Klara
Inspired and Edited by Eric Doyle, Steelhead Maniac
The double handed casting style know as Skagit Casting has been thrust into the steelheading mainstream in recent years and continues to grow in popularity, attracting new and loyal followers across the Pacific NW and elsewhere. In brief, Skagit casting includes a family of spey casts that utilizes the sustained anchor concept (Double Spey, Snap T, and variations) using short, heavy shooting head lines, and a compact, consistent casting stroke. Skagit lines, once upon a time only available to those willing to cut and splice their own creations, now can be purchased at your favorite flyshop. These lines are short, heavy, interchangeable tip shooting heads measuring 3 to 3.5 times the length of the rod used to cast them. This commonly puts the length of the head and interchangeable tip in the 35 to 55 foot range. All the top line companies, including Rio, Airflo, and Scientific Anglers, currently manufacture Skagit lines.
These lines have been marketed heavily to the winter steelhead crowd – dedicated, masochistic souls who are looking for any advantage when it comes to casting the heavy sink tips and large, wind resistant, and heavily weighted flies favored by fish and fishers alike. Make no mistake, these lines fit the bill. Skagit lines and the Skagit casting style often make presenting a fly possible (downright easy sometimes) from places where most flyrodders would never dare fish. Waist deep water, five feet from the bank, with alder branches reaching out to grab your D loop, and the lie is 70, no 80 feet away? No worries. You can do it! The short, heavy head loads the rod easily with hardly any D loop behind the caster, and its concentrated mass takes even the biggest string leeches for a ride. The casting stroke is a bit different than the one used for casting longer belly lines, but after a day or two of fishing (or a couple of hours with a good instructor) you’ll be sending out casts without difficulty.
One big advantage that I’ve found with the Skagit style lines has nothing to do with casting and everything to do with presentation. Specifically the quality of the wet fly swing. My buddy Eric and I were emailing back and forth about Skagit lines the other day and we both agreed on one point that neither of us have heard articulated very well in either line company propaganda or the general fly fishing media. The short floating head and sink tip attached to a long thin running line allows for a very controlled, very slow swing with much less effort than is required with longer belly spey lines. The reason is simple. The amount of line on the water subject to the drag inducing whims of the surface currents is far less with a Skagit line. With rod tip held high, and extended out over the river, an angler can easily hold the entire running (shooting) line off of the water. The short portion of floating line ends up pointed straight at the fly with very little belly, producing a swing that is slow and controlled throughout its duration. With longer belly lines, and even the popular short head speys like Rio’s Windcutter, you end up with more floating line on the surface subject to the effects of currents. Winter steelheading conditions often produce lies that can’t be fished effectively with longer spey lines because, even with the most careful cast and judicious mending, complex and variable surface currents cause small bellies to form that will have your fly tearing through the sweet spot like a fighter plane. That isn’t helpful when you’re trying to coax a steelhead to bite in cold water. It’s the little things that make the difference beween success and failure in winter steelheading, and Skagit lines may provide a critical advantage.
I accidentally came across this realization this fall while experimenting with two different rods with Skagit lines. Both are rated as 9wt rods, but they vary greatly in length – one is 12’6” and the other is 15’. To conform to the so called “Skagit Formula”, where head length is between 3 and 3.5 times the length of the rod, I found myself fishing two different line configurations. On the 12’6” rod I was fishing a 28’ floating Skagit head with 15 feet of sink tip, bringing the total length to 43’ (3.4 x the rod length). On the 15’ rod I fished a 38’ floating head with the same 15’ sink tip and leader, bringing the total length to 53’ (3.5 x the rod length). I found that I could control the swing much easier with the shorter head, despite the limitations of a shorter rod. Where the longer setup really shined was for achieving extraordinary distance, especially in cases where I was forced to wade deep. The extra rod length made it easier to form nice D loops just as a longer rod is beneficial for distance casting from a float tube. In addition, the longer turnover time resulting from the longer head promoted shooting (A line only casts for as long as it is unrolling in the air, and the longer the head, the longer time it will take to unroll.). I suspect that each angler will have a preference for which system to use, but I find myself going to the shorter rod and head in instances where 70 or 75 foot casts are appropriate for covering the water and the longer setup when longer casts are required, opting for improved presentation over the sheer fun of casting for distance.