Demystifying Spey Part 1: Lines - Skagit vs Scandi Heads

 Lines, Lines, and Lines...the single topic that seems to cause the most confusion (perhaps frustration) for anglers trying to get into the spey game. Shown above: a variety of Skagit lines being prepared for rigorous testing.

Lines, Lines, and Lines...the single topic that seems to cause the most confusion (perhaps frustration) for anglers trying to get into the spey game. Shown above: a variety of Skagit lines being prepared for rigorous testing.

This is the first of a three part post series on the topic of Demystifying Spey. Meh, maybe it will be a four part series, this stuff is confusing. Actually, I am going to replace the word "confusing" with "nuanced"...this stuff is nuanced. My intention throughout this post series is to break down the primary components of a modern spey setup (rods, reels, lines, tips, and leaders), identify the various options on the market, and discuss the differences therein.  Keep in mind that my context for all of this is centered around swinging flies for steelhead in the Pacific Northwest, so this is the paradigm from which I will mostly be speaking. Also another note before we dive in - my hope is to present accessible and helpful information for those looking to get into spey for the first time as well as those that are just a bit confused by all the terminology and equipment choices. In other words, I am going to keep things fairly basic, speaking hopefully in layman's terms. That being said, I can seriously nerd out on this stuff, so if you like, feel free to shoot me an email and we can do a deep dive on whatever questions you have.

On today's agenda - Spey lines! But first, some context. I have spent the past several years as the general manager of a large fly shop in the Pacific Northwest.  Being as that we were in the PNW, a large amount of our business revolved around spey and steelhead. I can say without a doubt, that there was absolutely no singular topic that caused more widespread confusion (and panic) than that of Spey Lines and their subsequent components. When a customer would walk through the door with questions on this topic, my typical answer would be something along the lines of "Do you have some time on your hands? Good, you're gonna want to take a seat and make yourself comfortable, this may be a lengthy conversation." Some of our staff loathed these conversations, I loved them. I always felt a tinge of giddiness when one of our staff would creep into my office and say to me "Hey Reid, do you have a minute? I've got a guy here with some spey quesionts." Oh yes, the confusion is real.

Modern Spey Lines - A General Overview

There are quite a few types of spey lines available these days - Skagit, Scandi, Mid Belly, and Long Belly, to name the primary types. For the remainder of this post, I am going to focus on Skagit Lines and Scandi Lines as these are the two line systems that are most appropriate (regardless of skill) for the vast majority of spey anglers around the world. Long belly and mid belly lines do serve a purpose and can be quite fun to cast...but I will put it like this: in my four years of managing a fly shop, we sold exactly 4 mid belly lines and 1 long belly line. During that same time period we sold about one thousand skagit and scandi lines (about 90% of which were Skagit, but more on that later). There is a good reason for this. 

Skagit and Scandi Line Systems

Skagit and scandi lines are both shooting head line systems. This means that the line is comprised of three individual pieces - the shooting head, the running line, and a tip or polyleader. "Skagit"/"Scandi" refers to the type of shooting head in this system. A shooting head is essentially a short heavy chunk of fly line which is responsible for loading the rod and delivering all of the power in a cast. The same running line can be used for both Skagit and Scandi heads. The running line (also called shooting line) is a very thin and long line that attaches to the back side of the shooting head. It is essentially a kite string that attaches to the shooting head, such that when you launch your shooting head it is still attached to your reel via the running line. Lastly, both Skagit and Scandi heads require a tip or polyleader to be attached to the front of the shooting head. On the end of your tip/polyleader will be your leader and your fly thereafter. To put it simply for now, "tips" are used with Skagit heads, and polyleaders (also called Versileaders) are used with Scandi heads. Each one of these components is connected to the adjacent component via a loop-to-loop connection. And yes, you still put backing on your reel. In order from back to front on your reel, this is what a skagit/scandi spey line system looks like:  Reel -> Backing -> Running Line (also called shooting line) -> Skagit or Scandi Head -> Tip or Polyleader (also called Versileader) -> Leader -> Fly.  Boom! That explanation right there would probably eliminate half of the questions I have received on rigging up for spey. Ok fine, I was trying not to muddy the waters, but I will also acknowledge that there is a new crop of lines out there which have integrated running lines and heads (eliminating the loop to loop connection which typically exists between the head and the running line), but we'll save that for another post. Now that we have set the stage, let's dive in.

 Spey reel loaded with a Skagit line system.  From inside to outside: Yellow = backing, Orange = running line, Mint Green = Skagit Head, Black = Tip. 

Spey reel loaded with a Skagit line system.  From inside to outside: Yellow = backing, Orange = running line, Mint Green = Skagit Head, Black = Tip. 

Skagit vs Scandi Spey Lines

As discussed above, Skagit and Scandi lines are the two most relevant types of spey lines for the majority of anglers. This is due to their ease of castability, limited backcasting space requirements, line speed, and overall efficiency of fly delivery in a variety of challenging conditions. Again, these are both shooting head line systems, where the Scandi/Skagit designation refers to the type of shooting head. Skagit and Scandi heads use the same running lines and are simply connected via a loop-to-loop connection, so it is very easy to own both a Skagit and Scandi head and swap them out as you see fit on the same reel.

Skagit Heads

Let's cover one thing real fast - proper pronunciation is "SCAD-JIT". This should save you a bit of unnecessary embarrassment down the road.  

Skagit heads are designed to deliver heavy flies and sink tips with minimal effort. They excel at making good casts with limited back casting room (ie. your back is up against the bank or there is a tree overhanging to one side of you) . Furthermore, they load spey rods easily, creating good casting performance at close distances, while simultaneously producing enough power to cast as far you desire. They were originally designed for winter steelheading scenarios in the PNW that entailed heavy sink tips, big flies, and minimal back casting room. This is still the scenario where they are most appropriate, however they are a perfectly good option for year round and summer steelheading as well. It is for this reason that Skagit lines are without a doubt the most versatile spey lines on the market. If you are only going to have one spey line setup, it most likely should be a skagit line.  Many spey casting instructors, myself included, believe that Skagit heads are the easiest type of line to learn to cast with. This is due to the fact that Skagit lines load the rod the most deeply (load is a fancy word for bend/flex), allowing the caster to feel what the rod and line are doing throughout the casting stroke, therefore helping the caster develop a better sense of timing. They also reward a more compact casting stroke which is generally more efficient and less susceptible to casting flaws.

Skagit heads achieve the above characteristics by compressing the entire weight of the line into a very short length. Essentially Skagit lines are extremely "weight-forward" fly lines. Most modern Skagit heads are 18 to 25 feet in lenght, with some new additions to the market being even shorter.

Pros and Cons of Skagit Heads

Pros:

  • Easily casts large flies and heavy sink tips (winter steelheading)
  • Great line speed and heavy mass cuts through wind easily
  • Little backcasting room required
  • Good castability close in and further out
  • Year-round versatility due to ability to throw both small and big flies, as well as both heavy and light tips
  • Greatest all-round versatility, the only spey line system with the ability to do everything
  • Most beginner friendly due to deep loading of rod and subsequent increased line feel

Cons:

  • "Clunky" casting feel due to bulkiness of head. 
  • Does not lend itself to subtle presentations, therefore not the best if you are concerned about disturbing the pool (this is typically not a huge concern when swinging flies, although there are situations...)
  • Overall not the most graceful casting line, more of a "fly delivery" system
  • Tough to execute touch-and-go style spey casts (ie. single spey, snake roll, etc), better for sustained anchor casts

Understanding Skagit Grain Weights

A common point of confusion for new spey anglers is the grain weight system used to designate the line weight of Skagit (and Scandi) heads. With single hand fly rods and fly lines, there is a pretty straight forward system: a 5wt fly line goes on a 5wt rod, a 6wt fly line goes on a 6wt rod, and so on. In spey, we speak in terms of "grain weight". To put it simply, grain weight refers to the physical weight of the head. Higher grain weight Skagit heads will match best with heavier line weight spey rods such as 10wt spey rods, while lower grain weight Skagit heads will match with lower line weight spey rods, such as 6wt spey rods. Although there is no such thing as a "7wt skagit head", there are typical grain windows associated with different weight spey rods. Shooting from the hip, here are the approximate Skagit grain windows for most modern spey rods in common rod weights:

6 weight spey rods: 360 to 450 grain skagit heads

7 weight spey rods: 480 to 550 grain skagit heads

8 weight spey rods: 570 to 650 grain skagit heads

Depending on the brand, Skagit heads come in either 25 grain (Rio), 30 grain (Airflo), or 40 grain (SA) increments. The exact grain weight within the above suggested grain windows you choose for your rod will depend on a) which rod you own, as different rods perform best with higher/lower grain weights, and b) your casting stroke and preference. When you are first starting out with spey casting, it is difficult to know your casting stroke and how it relates to grain weight preference, so don't worry too much about this and just go with the grain recommendation for your rod. There are a couple of good resources available for finding grain weight recommendations for your rod:

https://www.rioproducts.com/learn/spey-line-recs

http://echoflyfishing.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/2018-Spey-Rod-Line-Weight-Recommendations.pdf

Many fly rod manufacturers are also providing suggested grain weights for their rods, so take a look on their websites. Additionally, feel free to email me if you would like a hand determining the correct grain weight for your specific spey rod...chances are I have cast it and have an opinion on the best grain weight for that particular rod.

Variations of Skagit Heads:

A few years ago I probably would not have included this section, however nowadays there are quite a few variations of Skagit heads on the market. As if the water wasn't already muddy enough. Variations in Skagit heads mostly pertain to length and density (ie. floating vs sinking).

Length - Standard Skagit head length is about 23-26 feet. However many manufacturers are also now offering "Short" skagit heads (18-20 feet), and even "Micro" skagit heads (11-18 feet). Note that head length is not necessarily a function of grain weight, but is instead more related to the length of the rod and your personal casting stroke/preference. Here are my thoughts on this:

Standard Skagit Heads (23-26 feet):

Short Skagit Heads (18-20 feet):

Micro Skagit Heads (11-18 feet):

Density - Density of a fly line refers to its sink rate. Up until a couple of years ago, all Skagit heads were floating. I want to hammer this point home: a typical Skagit head is floating and for the vast majority of anglers a floating Skagit head is the best choice.  That being said, recently a few sinking skagit heads have been introduced to the market. These heads are ideal for heavy currents or rivers with lots of boily sections where currents are moving at significantly different speeds throughout the water column. The idea is that a sinking skagit head slices through uneven surface currents, creating a smoother swing while keeping the fly deeper in the water column. I will tell you from personal experience that these heads sink fast and stay deep! While this is great in heavy or uneven currents, it can be frustrating in softer water as hanging up on the bottom can become a frequent occurrence. I would suggest thinking of these sinking heads as niche items. While they can certainly be helpful to have in your "toolbox", 90% of the time a regular old floating skagit head is the better choice. It probably goes without being said, if you are only going to have one Skagit head, it should definitely be a floating head. Examples of sinking Skagit heads: Airflo Skagit F.I.S.T, Rio Skagit iFlight, SA Freightliner Skagit Intermediate

Summary on Skagit Heads

In summary, Skagit heads are the most versatile spey lines available. If you could only have one spey line, it should most likely be a Skagit. They can be used year round and are really the only appropriate choice for winter steelheading when heavy tips and large flies are the norm. Skagit heads are arguably the easiest spey line to learn to cast with and provide the greatest ability to cast in tight quarters or with limited backcasting room.  Buy a Skagit line if: you are a winter steelheader, you routinely throw big flies and heavy tips, backcasting room is minimal on your rivers, you can only have one spey line, you are new to spey and unsure which line will be best.

Scandi Heads

Scandi ("SCAN-DEE") heads, or Scandinavian heads, are the second most popular spey line system in North America. Like Skagit heads, they are a shooting head system and are part of a three part line system consisting of the Scandi head, a running line, and a poly/versi leader (instead of a tip as used in a Skagit setup). 

Scandi heads are known to be easy casting smooth feeling lines. While Skagit heads have a clunky, get-er-done, huck anything type of attitude, Scandi lines lean towards grace and presentation. They excel at throwing small flies and light leaders. They are a great choice for summer steelheading where smaller flies are common and there is less need to get down in the water column. Although Skagit heads can certainly be used for summer steelheading (given the correct choice of lighter tips), many anglers simply prefer the seasonal switch out to Scandi heads and the more graceful casting experience they provide. 

Structurally, Scandi heads achieve the above attributes by having a long front taper and an overall longer length than Skagit heads. See the below taper diagrams of a Scandi vs Skagit head. Notice how the Scandi has a long front taper aiding in delicate presentation, where as the Skagit head is short and condensed, transferring maximum power to heavy sink tips and big flies:

 Scandi head profile, long front taper for delicate presentations.

Scandi head profile, long front taper for delicate presentations.

 Skagit head profile. Short and stout, transferring maximum energy to big flies and heavy tips.

Skagit head profile. Short and stout, transferring maximum energy to big flies and heavy tips.

Scandi heads are longer than Skagit heads, typically 30 to 40 feet in length. This overall length lends itself well to distance casts and touch-and-go style casting (single spey, snake roll, etc). Where scandi heads do poorly (compared to Skagit) are in wind or with heavy flies/tips. 

Pros and Cons of Scandi Heads

Pros:

  • Easy, graceful casting feel
  • Delicate presentations
  • Excels at both sustained-anchor and touch-and-go style casts
  • Great for summer steelheading where small flies and light tips are the norm

Cons:

  • Struggles with bigger flies and heavier tips
  • Not a great choice in wind (compared to Skagit heads)
  • Requires more backcasting room (compared to Skagit heads, although much better than Mid Belly and Long Belly lines of old)
  • Simply not going to get'er done in most winter steelheading scenarios

Understanding Scandi Grain Weights

Like Skagit heads, Scandi heads come in various grain weights. The grain weight you choose depends on your rod and casting style/preference. Usually, the correct Scandi grain weight for any give rod will be 30 to 60 grains lighter than that same rod's Skagit grain weight. For example, if you like casting a 540 grain Skagit head on your rod, you will probably like a 480-510 grain Scandi head on that same rod. Here are approximate Scandi grain windows for common spey rod weights:

6 weight spey rods: 300 to 420 grain scandi heads

7 weight spey rods: 420 to 510 grain scandi heads

8 weight spey rods: 510 to 620 grain scandi heads

Examples of Scandi Heads Currently on the Market

Airflo Scandi Compact, Rio Scandi, SA Ultimate Scandi Taper 

Variations of Scandi Heads:

Like Skagit heads, line manufacturers have started to offer Scandi heads in different lengths. "Long" Scandi heads are available and recommended for rods over 14' in length, and there are a few "short" Scandi options that are best for rods less than 12'6". The primary "alternative" Scandi head that I want to highlight is the Airflo Rage Compact. Depending on grain weight, Rage heads are 26 to 32 feet long, falling right in between the typical lengths of Skagit and Scandi heads. Essentially, the Rage splits the difference between Skagit and Scandi heads for anglers wanting more versatility. In actuality, the Rage is much more like a Scandi head. It has all of the grace, ease of casting, and presentation benefits of a traditional Scandi head, with fewer of the drawbacks. It does great in wind and can turn over moderately sized flies and tips. In fact, it can be used with both poly/versi leaders as well as light skagit tips, however definitely performs better with the poly/versi leaders. Basically it is a more powerful and more versatile Scandi head. Additionally, it's shorter length lends itself better to the compact strokes required to cast Skagit heads, making it easier to transition between the two line systems.  Some purists may turn up their nose at this, but I refer to Rage heads as Scandi heads and pretty much exclusively fish Rage heads in Scandi scenarios. I recommend these heads highly, and for the majority of situations I think they are a better choice than traditional scandi heads.

Summary on Scandi Heads

Scandi heads are a great line choice for summer steelheading when small flies and light tips are the norm. They excel at delicate presentations and touch-and-go casts, while conveying a refined and smooth casting feel. Scandi heads struggle with larger flies and sink tips, making them a poor choice for winter steelheading or any time you need to get your fly deep. As such, they are not as versatile as Skagit heads. Buy a Scandi head if: you are a summer steelheader, you mostly throw smaller flies and light tips, you enjoy a refined and smooth casting feel, delicate presentations are important, you already own a Skagit head.

Final Word on Skagit and Scandi Heads

Skagit and Scandi heads each have clear pros and cons and are both relevant spey line systems for steelheading in the Pacific Northwest. To put it simply, Skagit heads are ideal for winter steelheading and are great at turning over big flies and heavy tips. Scandi heads are best for Summer steelheading where small flies and light tips are common and delicate presentations can be of greater importance. In reality, any angler dedicated to the craft of spey will inevitably own and spend time with both line systems. It is so easy to change out heads that there is very little reason not to. That being said, if I could only fish one spey line system for the rest of my life, it would most certainly be a Skagit. 

UP NEXT: Demystifying Spey Tips and Leaders...

And of course, feel free to reach out with questions.

- Reid