Spey Curious – How to rig your Skagit Outfit by Mark Bachmann

Spey Curious – How to rig your Skagit Outfit by Mark Bachmann

The terms Skagit Rods and Skagit Casting are credited to Ed Ward who was explaining some revolutionary fly fishing techniques on the discussion group, Spey Pages.

He and some friends had been experimenting with very large flies and the tackle to fish them while fishing for steelhead in rivers in Northwestern Washington State.

Ed had used the common term “Spey Fishing” a style of two-hand fly rod fishing thought to have evolved on the Spey River in Scotland. A member of this international forum from Briton chimed in that whatever they were doing it wasn’t Spey Casting or Spey fishing.

spey fishing steelhead skagit casting purple flies

Ed admitted that maybe his terminology might not be right, so he would call it Skagit casting after the local Skagit River. Skagit style casting and tackle has now been used successfully in most parts of the world where anadromous fish are the quarry.

Skagit style of fishing evolved very quickly during the 1990s

...for catching steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, primarily from rivers of southern British Columbia to Southern Oregon.

Rivers in this geographic region are primarily of snow-melt and rain-forest watersheds. Steelhead return to these river nearly year round, but by far, the largest runs return during the winter months when these rivers have the most water.

Skagit outfits incorporate short, thick, heavy shooting head fly lines equipped with sinking tips, and are engineered to cast large flies that are often weighted and to fish them deep in fast-flowing water. Skagit style setups may now be the most popular kind of two-hand fly rod tackle in North America, if not most of the world. Even most of the new Trout Spey rods are rigged with Skagit style shooting head fly lines.

steelhead skagit fishing line spey

It may seem pretty straight forward to rig a Skagit rod, but to the angler who’s just picked up their first two-hand rod, rigging it properly can seem to be a daunting affair.

As a guide and shop owner, my staff and I have seen a lot of "unconventional" rigging techniques come through our front door, or wind up in our boats. Heads that are backward, Scandis attached to Skagits, and a variety of contraptions that just don't make a person’s rod work efficiently for casting or fishing. If a person is new to fly fishing the easiest way is to have a professional rig your gear. If you don’t have such a service available here are the steps:


Let’s start with an empty reel. The first part of your line set up is your backing. The backing is attached to the spool with an arbor knot reinforced with super glue. On a standard steelhead set-up, 150 yards of #30 Dacron is appropriate. In the end of your backing, a double surgeon’s knot will form a loop large enough to pass the next part of the equation: your spool of shooting line. Knots should be slim, trim, strong, and streamlined so that they will pass through your guides with a minimum amount of friction. A light coating of super glue will provide insurance that a knot won’t slip or come undone.

If you are targeting larger fish like Chinook or large Atlantic salmon, 200 yards puts the odds more in your favor. Consider that in many rivers if a fish gets 200-yards away from you, it may be around a bend in the river where you can’t even see it. If you are using a reel that is too small for the right amount of Dacron backing, use gel-spun backing, which is small diameter, very strong, and totally reliable.

Shooting Line

Your shooting line attaches to your backing.

spey skagit fishing shooting line reel fly rod

The shooting line is the portion of your line that is pulled out by the mass of your shooting head when a cast is made. Loop to loop connections are widely regarded as the strongest, and most efficient connection when connecting the shooting line to the backing, and then connecting the shooting line to the shooting head, and the sinking tip to the shooting head.

There are many kinds of shooting lines available and there is also a lot of advice from other anglers, and experts. There are a few things to keep in mind when selecting a shooting line. I would highly recommend that your first shooting line should have a factory-installed loop at each end. This will simplify the assembly of your whole outfit. If the shooting line and the shooting head are similar colors, a good trick is to color the loop on the forward end of the shooting line with a black waterproof marker. That way you will be able to visually locate this connection when you are casting/fishing.

There are several categories of shooting lines, which denote the materials they are made from. All will get the job done, but each has advantages and disadvantages. Three types are worth examination:

Monofilament Shooting Lines:

Shooting heads and shooting lines first gained fame in the distance competition games. Monofilament nylon became widely available right after WWII, and it became the shooting line of choice for all distance casters. It’s small diameter and slick surface vastly reduces friction as it travels through the rod guides, enabling longer casts than any other material. Monofilament is still the choice for long-distance casting, but it has distractions as well.

Monofilament is so slick that is often hard to control or hang onto while fishing, especially in cold weather. It also retains a lot of memory, which assumes the shape of the reel spool that it is stored on, which means that it is shaped like a coiled spring. The coiled effect can be removed from some types of monofilament by stretching it, other types don’t respond as well. Monofilament is temperature sensitive and retains memory longer when it is cold than when warm. For this reason, I rarely use monofilament shooting lines during winter.

Braided Monofilament shooting lines:

Airflo offers a shooting line made from hollow braided monofilament. It is very slick, and lightweight, and has virtually no memory. The hollow configuration tends to trap air, which enables the line to stay near the surface of the water. The textured surface tends to hold a fine sheath of water, which lubricates the line as it goes through the guides. This texture also makes braided monofilament easy to hang onto, even with cold hands. Because of these advantaged, I have used it a lot during winter with good success. It however, has not really caught on with other anglers, as they complain that the textured surface is hard on their hands and that it tangles easier than other shooting lines. My experience is different, but such is life.

Composite Shooting Lines:

These are small diameter fly lines, usually made with a polymer coating over a braided or monofilament core. The advantages are that they float, have low memory, are durable and are easy to see and control. Most of these lines are round in cross section and have a smooth surface. Some are actually textured to reduce contact with rod guides and therefore reduces friction. My council is that one of these kinds of shooting lines is probably best for your first Skagit outfit, because it is easiest rig, and to use.

Distance casters claim that monofilament still creates less friction than braid or composite shooting lines. And it is true that I have never seen a competition distance caster using anything else. However, composite shooting lines easily produce great casts at fishing distances, and are a lot less hassle.

Spey Swivels

Spey Swivels are controversial in some quarters, and many anglers are not familiar with them. I use them in each of my set ups. The constant circular motions used in Spey casting put twists into your shooting line which is the chief cause of tangles while casting. A Spey Swivel helps prevent this. Loop to loop a Spey Swivel to the end of your shooting line. If you are using monofilament shooting line, you can cut one loop off the swivel and attach it directly with an improved clinch knot. Spey Swivels can be built into a braided monofilament shooting line with a blind splice.

Skagit Shooting Heads:

The engine of the whole Spey train is the shooting head. The shooting head is the large portion of colored fly line that generates the rod load and ultimately delivers your fly. On all these heads there is a defined front end and rear end. On the two most popular brands, RIO and Airflo, the rear ends are colored. RIO shooting heads feature a rear loop that is hot orange. Airflo designates theirs with a black rear loop. On some heads, such as Scientific Anglers, Beulah, and OPST Commando Heads, there is no marking. A tag is simply put on the rear end to identify it, a difficult task once the tag has been removed and the shooting head is in a line bag. For this reason, if there isn't a colored rear loop we will take a waterproof felt marker to ours to prevent confusion. The shooting head is also looped to either the factory loop in the end of the shooting line, or your Spey swivel.

steelhead skagit spey fishing

When casting longer distances with a Skagit head, the rear loop of the head, Spey swivel and front loop on the shooting line, and even a short portion of the shooting line itself should be left outside of the rod tip as the rod is loaded to execute the cast.

This distance of line from the rod tip to the rear of the shooting head is called “Over-hang.”

Over-hang means that the cast is started with no friction causing loop connections inside the rod tip to slow the line down when the line is shot to extend the cast.

Approximately a foot of over-hang is normal. A color change gives a caster a visual marker, and a Spey swivel gives the caster a marker that can be both felt and heard.

All Skagit heads used to be made from floating line material.

Now some Skagit lines are made from as many and four different densities of material in the same head. The least dense material is located at the rear of the head with the densest material near the front end where the tip attaches. That way the rear of the head floats for control and tip end sinks, allowing the fly to be fished at greater depth.

skagit spey fishing steelhead washington oregon


Every Skagit shooting head is designed to be used with a tip attached, and none casts efficiently without one. Tips are attached with a loop to loop connection. Most, but not all tips used with Skagit heads are made from fast-sinking material.

The tip selected will help determine how deep your fly will fish. It is not uncommon for an angler to change tips as different water speeds and depths are encountered. To facilitate fishing, Skagit tips range from nine to fifteen feet in length. Most tips used today are from ten to twelve feet in length.

Things that determine tip length, are water speed, water depth, rod length, and the skill of the caster.

Long, very fast sinking tips are hard to cast with shorter rods.

Skagit tips are made from many different densities of fly line material. Tips may be full floating or full sinking. Now tips are commonly made with two different densities of material in the same tip. This allows an angler to customize both the casting and sinking properties of the line tip to match the properties of the head and the weight of the fly being used.

guided fishing fly rods skagit spey

Skagit Leaders

Short leaders of 2’ to 6’ are best for fishing flies deep.

By far, the most popular steelhead leader in the Pacific Northwest is Maxima Ultra Green. Since Skagit leaders are so short, they don’t need to be tapered unless they are over 4’ long.

Tie a double surgeon’s in a 4’ section and attach it to your tip. For most steelheading, 10- to 12-pound test is preferred.

When very large steelhead, Atlantic salmon, or Chinook are expected 20-pound test is commonly used.

Attach your fly and you’re rigged and ready to go.

 - written by Mark Bachmann

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1 comment

SKAGIT casting for trout. What length/weight leader “rule-of-thumb (thumbs?)” would you use?

Dale Woolhiser

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