Angling artistry

Graceful sport of spey casting gains popularity

Brett French / The Billings Gazette /

Published May 8, 2013 at 05:00AM

There’s a scene in the movie “A River Runs Through It” where the stand-in for actor Brad Pitt, Jerry Siem, is casting his fly line in a perfect candy cane loop while standing on a rock in the middle of the Gallatin River. A photo from the scene graces the poster for the movie, backlighting the fly line in its swirling, graceful arcs.

“And I realized in the time that I had been away, my brother had become an artist,” the narrator, Robert Redford, intones during the scene. The beauty of the 1992 movie launched a national surge in fly-fishing devotees and gear sales.

Twenty-one years later, there’s a relatively new fly-fishing artistry infiltrating Montana rivers called spey casting that rivals the movie scene’s beauty and that practitioners equate to the grace of ballet when done correctly.

“For people who fly-fish, it’s a more mystical thing,” said Vern Homolka, 58, of Vallejo, Calif., as he suited up for a class on the sport along Montana’s Bighorn River.

“It’s almost like, if you golf, when you get it right the art form by itself is mesmerizing,” he added.

Casting coaches

The class on the Bighorn River was taught by fly-fishing guides Mike McCune, 53, and Whitney Gould, 46, of Oregon. McCune has been involved in spey casting for about 25 years — since the sport’s infancy in the Northwest. Gould took up the sport in 2006 as a competitive caster. She is a three time Spey-O-Rama champion. They landed in Fort Smith at the invitation of Hale Harris, of the Bighorn Trout Shop, who likes to spey cast when fishing for steelhead.

“It’s very effective as a way to cover a lot of water,” Harris said.

He said more and more Bighorn guides have taken up the sport in the past four to five years to cast streamers and nymphs and that spey casting is becoming more mainstream all the time, partly because of the beauty of the fly line’s arc.

“It’s impressive to watch them cast,” Harris said. “I think that attracts a lot of people — aesthetically, it’s real pleasing.”

Spreading the gospel

The increase in interest in spey casting is in part attributed to better rods and lines that make casting easier to learn, McCune said.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that development of line systems has made the task of learning much easier,” he said. “And people have refined the casting and teaching techniques.”

It’s also spread as anglers in places like Montana want to spey fish more often than the few times they venture to the coast for salmon or steelhead.

“The technique lends itself to a range of applications in terms of versatility,” McCune said, but it’s gained its most fervent following among Atlantic salmon and Pacific steelhead anglers.

“The technique is not as effective on places like the Bighorn,” McCune said, “but on the Yellowstone it might be as effective as anything else.”

The casting style also is beneficial to know for fishing in windy weather, since the wind helps load the rod for the cast.

“It’s easy to pick up,” Mc-Cune said. “Anybody can do this: man, woman or child, young or old, strong or not. Athletic ability is helpful.

“Like any other outdoor activity that requires hand-to-eye coordination, it also takes practice,” he added. “The skills they learn today, if they do not immediately apply them and practice, they will lose it immediately.”

Physically easier

The idea that it might be a physically easier way to cast appealed to Bob Brownell, of Wyarno, Wyo. An “old bronc rider,” he said his bucket list includes catching a huge salmon on a fly rod. Spey casting seemed the easiest way to realize that dream.

“I love it, the ease of it,” he said. “I’m pretty well crippled up, and it doesn’t take a great deal of effort.”

Brownell, 63, said he’s crushed a disc in his spine and had his left shoulder replaced with an artificial implant. But that hasn’t deterred him from spey casting.

“I guess one’s never too old to learn something new,” he said.

McCune said the hardest thing to teach a new angler is to let the rod do the work.

As McCune demonstrated the double spey cast, he nearly laid the rod tip in the water on his upstream side as his arms crossed. From there he swept the rod tip around to his downstream shoulder, comparing the movement to arcing the rod around the brim of a large sombrero. The rod stopped upright at his downstream shoulder as the line formed a D-shaped loop behind him. With a forward stroke the line shot out in a candy cane loop before dropping to the water.

“So that’s all there is to it,” he said, turning to his pupils with his arms spread wide.

“It’s about relaxation, you don’t want to do any of this with tense muscles,” he stressed. “Again, it’s recreation. We’re out here having a good time, so relax.”

For Homolka, the California angler, learning to spey cast is like a rifle hunter taking up bowhunting. The point is not in simply being successful in taking game, but in the method of the take, the artistry and spirit of the sport.

“There are different levels of fishing,” he said. “To me it’s like how you define fair chase, I guess.’

Considering rod size

The beginning spey angler can get into the sport for about $350 to $400 by buying lower-end rods, said Hale Harris, of the Bighorn Trout Shop. From there, the cost can climb to $1,500 for a rod.

Mike McCune recommended a 12- to 13½-foot seven-weight rod for fishing Pacific Northwest steelhead. On the Madison River he said a 11- to 12-foot ultralight rod in three-, four- or five-weight may be best.

“There’s not a one-size-fits-all rod,” he said. “One rod can’t fish a variety of settings because you’ll be too big for some and too small for others.”

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