The History of Spey Casting in the Northwest
By Amy Hazel
If you have fished for steelhead on any Northwest river in the last two decades, you have undoubtedly witnessed fly anglers wielding weapons of epic proportion. Magnetic rod racks on vehicles prowling rivers around the Northwest proudly display the fly anglers’ weapons of choice - Spey rods.
Click photos to enlarge
John Hazel teaching a Spey clinic on the Deschutes
Spey rods now come in all weights and lengths
The popularity of Spey casting, or the use of the two handed rod, has spread like wildfire across the United States and Canada over the past thirty years. Named after Scotland’s river Spey, where the two-handed technique was first developed in the 1800s, Spey casting was and still is the traditional method favored by the Ghillies and their anglers in the UK in pursuit of Atlantic Salmon. Simply defined, Spey casting allows an angler to cast a fly line out over a river with a change of direction roll cast. The long fly rod with a handle on either side of the reel makes 70+ foot casts possible in tight quarters where there is no room to back cast. Anchored in British tradition, Spey rod and line design evolved very little over a hundred years from the late 1800s until just over thirty years ago Spey rods splashed into North America.
Back in the early 1980s, a small handful of fly anglers in pockets around the Pacific Northwest began to explore the possibilities of using Spey rods in the pursuit of steelhead. The first Spey rods to make it across the pond were greenheart, split cane bamboo, and later fiberglass and carbon fiber. These Spey rods were typically 15-18 feet in length and used lines with 80-100 foot heads. To become a proficient Spey caster using the equipment that was first available to North American anglers took many months and years of practice. Some of the earliest Spey casting enthusiasts in North America were Mike Maxwell on the Bulkley, Jimmy Green and Al Buhr on the Snake River, John Hazel on the Deschutes, and a few others around the Northwest. Isolated geographically, the earliest Spey pioneers of the Pacific Northwest had no claves or gatherings at which to share Spey techniques and insight on equipment.
A full and accurate accounting of all of the influential people on the development of North American Spey casting through the 1980s and 1990s could fill volumes. This simple first-hand account will cover the evolution of Spey casting in one pocket of the Northwest led by John Hazel on the Deschutes River.
In 1980, while he was guiding and teaching schools for Kauffman’s Streamborn, John Hazel and a couple of fellow shop employees got their hands on a 14 foot three piece Hardy fiberglass Spey rod with a diameter equal to that of today’s cork Spey handles. As they began playing around with this huge rod trying to figure out how to cast it (their only references were line drawings in books published in the 1800s) their riverside attempts to simply roll the line out were far from pretty. Before long, Randy Stetzer shook his head and walked away from the Spey folly –but John Hazel and Kerry Burkheimer hung on tenaciously to the idea that this long rod could be a great tool for covering water on a river like the Deschutes with little to no back casting room.
Driven to find a method that he could teach to guided clients, John tossed aside the old greased line from the UK and started to build his own Spey lines out of 11 and 12 weight double taper lines. Fellow fly shop employees laughed at John as he spent hundreds of dollars on brand new fly lines only to chop them to pieces in a splicing and dicing quest for a better Spey line.
Kerry Burkheimer, fresh from a fly rod building apprenticeship under Russ Peak, started to build some of the very first American made Spey rods in his garage, and he and John spent hours, days, months, and years designing and testing two handed rods. The prototype rods were unsanded, cosmetically blank, and had the guides and crude cork handle simply taped to the shaft. As they flailed with the Spey cast on the banks of the Deschutes, rods shattered and lines collapsed, but Hazel and Burkheimer persevered in their quest to build a great Spey rod.
Over the decade of the 1980s, things in the North American Spey world progressed quite slowly because there were so few anglers interested in or even aware of this foreign method of casting the fly. A few American rod companies dipped their toes in the new pond - Orvis came out with a carbon fiber 13 foot, 9-10 Spey rod, and Jimmy Green (working at a brand new fly rod company named Sage) came out with a 10 weight 15 footer. The few rods that were available were very expensive, and quite difficult to cast with the lines that were available from Europe. But Spey rod design was evolving, and line design was soon to follow.
John Hazel, now becoming known to his guide buddies as Speyzel, continued to chop and splice lines in the back of Kauffman’s fly shop and was soon selling his custom built multi-tip Spey lines to his clients for $250 each. These lines were five times as expensive as the average trout line, and were part of the economic barrier that kept the large majority of fly anglers from getting into the Spey game. However, these hand-built lines along with the fledgling CF Burkheimer Spey rods made the once daunting task of using a two-hander a little bit easier and actually fun.
By the late 1980s John was teaching a fair number of Spey Casting clinics on the Deschutes as well as on other rivers around the Northwest. The clinics attracted attention wherever they took place as fellow anglers would stop and stare, mouths agape, at the crazy anglers swinging long thick fly lines off the end of massive fly rods – attempting and sometimes succeeding at rolling those lines out across the water.
Through the early 1990’s John Hazel and Kerry Burkheimer continued to collaborate on Spey rod design and the trend towards lighter and shorter rods grew. As rods became lighter and shorter, line design began to follow suit, and soon mass produced lines became available at a price far lower than John’s custom built lines.
The first Northwest-grown fully fledged Spey line came to the table from a small line company in Idaho with the name Rio. The Rio Accelerator Spey line was a traditional long bellied line which sold like wildfire to the growing number of anglers discovering the long rods. Significant casting skill was essential to make the long lines perform well. Thus, anglers spent many days and years practicing with their Spey rods in order to achieve a long beautiful cast.
In 1994 a young guide with a love of Spey casting named Dec Hogan began to work with John on the Deschutes. Fourteen years after first picking up his first Spey rod, John was now able to work with a fellow guide who shared his passion for the two-handed rod. John and Dec kept themselves quite busy on weekends teaching Spey clinics to droves of anglers and filled their weekdays with guided steelhead float trips during which they introduced many an angler to the excitement of hooking and playing a chrome bright fish on the long rod.
One of the few outfitters sharing the waters of the Deschutes on a daily basis with John and Dec and the only other guide out there at the time who was fully invested in the Spey rod was Brian Silvey, the southpaw of Spey. John, Dec, and Brian got together on their rare days off to test the prototype Spey rod designs sent to them by CF Burkheimer, Sage, G. Loomis, and others. Their push for shorter and lighter rods that were more client- friendly resulted in the introduction of seven and eight weight rods less than 14 feet in length.
The late 1990’s brought the most revolutionary Spey line design yet, the Rio Windcutter. The Windcutter was far more compact than any Spey line North Americans had ever seen, offering interchangeable floating and sinking tips in a “one line that can do it all” fashion. As the first Spey line that didn’t require an Olympian effort to control and maneuver, the Rio Windcutter line opened the door to the Spey world for the majority of fly anglers – and they came flooding through that door in droves.
Spey casting became more than just the obsession of a few grizzled fly fishing guides, it became something that could be accomplished by a gal in a pair of waders. That gal came along in 1999 when I began guiding for John Hazel, whom I would marry four years later. To say that I had a head start on the Spey game with John Hazel and Dec Hogan as my full time instructors, would be an understatement.
In 2002 we filmed our first instructional Spey casting video, “Introduction to Spey Casting with John and Amy Hazel”, which was produced by and segments of which were broadcast nationwide on Fly Fishing Television. Fly anglers around the country witnessed, many for the first time, the beauty of launching a long Spey cast out across a glassy piece of water. In 2003, as Spey casting was exploding in popularity, we opened our own fly shop in Maupin, Oregon on the Deschutes River and used our Spey knowledge as the cornerstone to building Deschutes Angler fly shop.
While teaching and giving Spey seminars across the country, John and I met international Spey gurus from around the world. In 2004, we were invited to give a presentation at the first annual Jimmy Green Spey O Rama at the Golden Gate Casting Club in San Francisco. This is where we had our first experience casting shooting head line designs from Scandinavia. When we saw the ease with which the Swedes and Norweigians were casting their shooting heads, we knew instantly that shooting heads would be the way of the future for North American Spey casters.
John imported hundreds of Spey lines from Finland and went back to his mad-scientist days: measuring, weighing, cutting and dicing the lines to form a better product. We sold custom cut Scandi lines in our fly shop for five years until a few of the major fly line companies hired John to design the American version of Scandinavian shooting heads.
Spey casting technique, line design and rod design continue to evolve in North America. A cast that once took the Pacific Spey pioneers months of practice to perfect can now be learned in a day, thanks to rods and lines that have been modified through the years and to the wide availability of quality Spey casting instruction. Though the lines and rods of today make it easier and easier to cast a fly with a two-handed rod, John makes it a point in all of our Spey clinics to emphasize that learning all of the casts and especially the single Spey cast is essential to becoming a well-rounded Spey angler.
The intuition that John Hazel had back in 1980 when he first picked up a Spey rod has finally come to fruition – Spey casting has become the preferred method for steelhead anglers in all of North America. Spey casting provides fly anglers, many of whom had grown weary of dredging a nymph and staring at a bobber, with a exciting new way to present a fly to a fish.
I was a fly angler but not a Spey caster before I met John Hazel, but his passion for the two-handed rod was as mesmerizing to me as it was to his hundreds of Spey converts. Through his stories and teachings I came to value the history, the complexity, the depth, the tradition, the challenge, and the beauty of casting a fly with a Spey rod. The evolution of Spey casting as we know it today could not have come as far nor would have gained the popularity that it has without the influence of John “Speyzel” Hazel.
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