Demystifying Spey Part 2: Tips and Leaders
Happy New Year and thanks for tuning back in for the second edition of Demystifying Spey. This is a multi-part series of posts where we are taking a close (but simplified) look at the components of modern spey setups with the intention of cutting through the sea of confusion that can serve as a barrier to entry into the world of spey casting. In case you missed it, in Demystifying Spey Part 1 we discussed the basics of modern spey line systems and took a deep dive into the topic of Skagit vs Scandi heads. I would recommend reading Part 1 before jumping into today's post if you haven't already. On to today's agenda - all things Tips!
We'll start with a quick refresher on the basics of modern spey lines. The two predominant modern spey line setups are Skagit and Scandi. Both Skagit and Scandi lines are shooting head systems comprised of a head, running line, and tip. The three components attach to each other via loop-to-loop connections to form the completed spey line. If you are missing any one of these three line components, you do not have a complete spey line and your casting will suffer. It is fairly obvious why you need to have a shooting head and running line, however there often tends to be some confusion as to whether or not a tip is absolutely necessary. To put it simply for now, the tip is an integral part of the spey line, and to try to cast without one would be to try and cast with only two thirds of your line. So yes, you must have a tip.
Keeping the conversation specific to the realm of Skagit and Scandi, "Tips" fall into two general categories: Skagit Tips and Polyleaders/Versileaders. Skagit Tips are used in conjunction with Skagit heads, while Poly/Versileaders are used in conjunction with Scandi heads. Skagit and Scandi heads are pretty specific as far as which type of tip works best for them. As such, putting a Skagit tip on a Scandi head or a Polyleader on a Skagit head will result in greatly diminished casting performance. I should quickly acknowledge that it is possible to cast some spey heads (mostly referring to Scandi here) without a tip, however ease of casting and line turnover will be greatly increased with the appropriate tip. One more disclaimer, there are some types of tips on the market that do not neatly fall into either of the above categories, however we'll just say that these are for "niche" applications and not paramount to the understanding of basic Skagit and Scandi line setups.
Types of Spey Tips
As the name suggests, skagit tips are used in conjunction with skagit heads. Skagit tips are available in a wide variety of sink rates, from floating to very fast sinking. The typical length of a Skagit tip is 8' to 15', with most skagit casters nowadays opting for tips in the 10-12' range. Skagit tips have a fair amount of physical mass to them and work in conjunction with the Skagit head to load the rod during the casting stroke. Because of this mass, Skagit tips do a great job at turning over large flies. Due to their ability to turn over large flies and their availability in fast sink rates, Skagit tips are the name of the game for winter steelheading. Historically, virtually all skagit tips were simply level sections of sinking line ("T" material) cut to length based on the caster's personal preference. In the past few years, Skagit tip design has progressed substantially and there now are quite a few different types of skagit tips on the market. While this has certainly muddied the heck out of the already quite muddy spey line waters, it has also resulted in greatly improved casting performance from modern skagit systems. Put another way, there are a lot of freaking skagit tips to choose from nowadays. A trip to your local fly shop will present you with a full menu of tip options - we've got MOWS, FLOS, T-this, T-that, Type-this, Type-that, Custom Cuts, Commandos, and the list goes on! Daunting for sure, but the good news is that most of them will likely cast fine with your skagit head. Let's try to make sense of this all.
Skagit Tip Length
Back in the day, there were few pre-packaged skagit tips available. Skagit casters custom cut their tips to the length of their preference. This is still a common practice, and you will see some tip options from various manufacturers labeled as "Custom Cut" tips. These are sold in long lengths with the intention of the caster cutting multiple tips to their preferred sizes. When I first started spey casting, I eagerly filled my tip wallet with homemade 12', 15', and 18' tips in various sink rates. Why in the world I thought I needed 18' skagit tips is beyond me, and they sure were a pain to cast. Fast forward to modern day Skagit casting, I rarely ever cast any tips longer than 12' and mostly stick to 10' tips. Luckily, the fly line industry has followed this same path and now offers a variety of pre-packaged skagit tips in the 10-12' range. By "pre-packaged" I mean that the tips are ready to go out of the package. They come in a pre-determined (usually 10' or 12') length with loops welded on both ends, totally ready to attach to your head and go fishing. No more homemade tinkering required.
So what length tip is appropriate for you? The answer to this depends on what length rod you have, what length skagit head you are using, and of course, personal preference. "Personal preference" encompasses things such as your casting stroke, height, how deep you are typically wading, and so forth. Leaving personal preference aside for now, we can use a basic math ratio to determine a good tip length for your setup. This ratio looks at "head length + tip length" to "rod length". For example, if you have a 27 foot head and a 12 foot tip on a 13 foot rod, you would have a 3-to-1 head+tip to rod ratio (27' head + 12' tip / 13' rod = 3, thus a 3 to 1 ratio). When I first started Skagit casting, a 3 to 1 ratio was pretty common, however I now feel that it is far too long to be practical for most anglers and negates many of the benefits of Skagit casting. Nowadays, I stick to approximately a 2.5-to-1 ratio. My current favorite skagit setup consists of a 20' head, a 10' tip, and a 12'6" rod, resulting in a ratio of 2.4-to-1. Rules of thumb rarely apply in the world of spey casting, however, if you are just starting out, try to fall somewhere around 2.5-to-1 for your head+tip to rod ratio.
Skagit Tip Sink Rates
Skagit tips are available in a variety of sink rates as well as floating. There are two primary rating systems used to identify sink rate - "T" and "Sink".
In the "T" rating system, the T stands for tungsten, which is used in the line coating to make the tip sink. How much tungsten is used is what the "T" rating identifies. Specifically, the T rating identifies how many grains per foot the tip weighs, which directly relates to how fast the tip will sink. Here are some common "T" ratings and their associated sink rates:
- T-7 or T-8 = 7 inches per second (ips)
- T-10 or T-11 = 8 ips
- T-14 = 9 ips
- T-17 or T-18 = 10 ips
You will notice that there are some overlaps in the above "T" ratings, such as T-10 and T-11. The sink rate of T-10 and T-11 are virtually identical, however different manufacturers use different T designations. Airflo produces tips in T-7, T-10, T-14, and T-18, whereas Rio produces tips in T-8, T-11, T-14, and T-17. So fret not if you were advised to use a T-11 tip but all you own is a T-10 tip; they are virtually the same.
The "Sink" system is pretty straight forward. The "S" or "Sink" refers to the fact that the tip is a sinking density. The number that follows it is the inches per second that the tip will sink. Here are some common "Sink" ratings:
- Sink 2 = 2 inches per second (ips)
- Sink 3 = 3 ips
- Sink 4 = 4 ips
- Sink 5 = 5 ips
- Sink 7 = 7 ips
Just to keep you on your toes, the "Sink" rating system is sometimes also denoted as "Type". For example, you may see "Type 3", which is the same as Sink 3 or S3.
Lastly, there are floating and intermediate tips available. Floating tips, well, they float. Intermediate tips sink at a rate of approximately 1-2 ips.
Which sink rate tip you choose should depend first and foremost on the river conditions and how deep in the water column you want your fly. If you are fishing deep heavy flowing water, you will want a heavier sink tip. If you are fishing slow moving shallow water you will want a lighter tip. If you want your fly deep in the water column, you will want a heavier tip. If you want your fly high in the water column you will want a lighter tip. Knowing exactly which sink tip to choose for the type of water you are fishing will take some trial and error. I'll offer this advise, if you are hanging up on the bottom with any frequency, your tip is too heavy. This could be a whole blog post in itself, so I'll hold off on going down the tip selection rabbit hole for now. Fine, I'll dive a little deeper down this rabbit hole - for winter steelhead I typically recommend a tip assortment of T-7, T-10, and T-14. For summer steelheading I suggest a quiver of Floating, Intermediate, T-7, and T-10 tips.
A secondary consideration in tip selection is rod weight. Remember that "T-" refers to the grains per foot of a tip. Therefore a heaver T-rating physically weights more than a lighter T-rating. Thus, lower line weight rods might struggle casting higher "T-" tips. Here are the tips that I usually find to cast well for various spey rod weights:
- 5wt or lower spey rods: T-7 at the most, otherwise better off with "Sink" type tips
- 6wt spey rods: T-7, T-10
- 7wt spey rods: T-7, T-10, T-14
- 8wt spey rods: T-10, T-14, T-18
The grain weight of "Sink" type tips does not necessarily increase with the sink rate (ie. a Sink 3 tip can weigh the same as a Sink 7 tip). Therefore the above rod weight consideration is of less relevance when dealing with "Sink" type tips. To get technical for a moment, "Sink" type tips can be manufactured to have the same sink rates in different grain weights. For example, OPST offers a Sink 5/6 tip in both 132 grains and 168 grains. Both of these tips have a sink rate of 5/6ips, but they have used varying amounts of line material to produce a tip that weighs 132 grains and a tip that weights 168 grains. In this example, the 132 grain Sink 5/6 tip would be better for a lighter weight rod, while the 168 grain Sink 5/6 tip will pair better with a heavier weight rod. That being said, "T" is a far more popular type of tip in the world of Skagit, so be prepared to mostly speak about skagit tips in terms of T-.
Current Skagit Tip Offerings
Just a few years ago this section would have been very short, as the only type of Skagit tip available was level T, cut to the casters preferred length. Over the past couple of years, the variety of skagit tips on the market has grown immensely. They pretty much all do the same thing, but offer unique casting characteristics and the ability to more precisely dial in your intended sink rate for the water you are fishing. Below I'll identify and discuss some of the more popular skagit tips currently available. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but these are the tips that I have the most personal experience with.
Level T - Airflo Custom Cut Tips, Rio InTouch Level T. This is the classic standard in skagit tips and still the most popular tip out there. Depending on the manufacturer, level T is usually packaged in 10-30' lengths, with the intention of the the consumer cutting the tip to their preferred length. Fly shops often carry bulk spools of level T which they can cut to any length specified. Packaged level T usually comes with a welded loop on one end, but not the other (since it is assumed the the customer will cut the tip). Thus you will need to either tie a standing loop on one end or use a nail knot to attach your leader. Many shops now have line welders with which they can weld a loop for you on the cut end of the tip. Pros: Cheapest, simple, customizable length, still pretty much the standard in skagit tips. Cons: More difficult line pickup (line pickup refers to lifting the line out of the water during the casting stroke) compared to newer tip designs, less control over fly depth compared to newer designs.
Airflo FLO Tips - These are my personal favorite tips currently on the market. They are available in T-7, T-10, T-14, and T-18, in both 10' and 12' lengths and come factory looped on both ends. They are directional, meaning that they have a butt end and a front end. FLO tips seamlessly combine intermediate and T material to create a smoother transition from the skagit head. The butt is 2.5 feet long and is made of thicker intermediate line which then transitions into 7.5 feet or 9.5 feet (depending on whether it is a 10' or 12 foot long tip) of level T. The benefits of this dual density design are easier line pickup, improved turnover/loop shape, and a straighter connection to the fly in the water (due to less sagging of tip during the swing). In my experience, all of the above claims really to manifest themselves in use. One more super important thing about these tips...they are labeled! So no more guessing which one of your tips is T-this and which one is T-that, it is printed in plain letters on the butt end of the tip. Pros: Improved line pickup, improved turnover, looped on both ends, labeled, more consistent swing. Cons: More expensive than level T, cannot use with F.I.S.T heads or other sinking skagit heads (due to intermediate butt section).
Rio Skagit MOW Tips - Rio MOW tips are dual density skagit tips which seamlessly integrate varying lengths of level floating line with corresponding lengths of level T. They are available in T-8, T-11, T-14, and T-17, in 10' and 12.5' lengths (12.5' only available in full sinking), and are factory looped on both ends. Available configurations are 10' Float, 7.5' Float/2.5' T, 5' Float/5' T, 2.5' Float/7.5' T, 10' T, and 12.5' T. So why in the world would anyone want all of these options? The simple answer is to more precisely control the depth and sink rate of your tip/fly. For example, lets say that you want your fly to get down quickly, but you don't want to achieve too much overall depth throughout the swing, this would be a good time to use the 7.5'Float/2.5' T-14 MOW tip. Conversely, if you wanted your fly to get down quickly and achieve maximum depth throughout the swing, you might opt for the 10' or 12.5' T-14 MOW. Does anyone really need all of these options? In my opinion no, but it does create the opportunity for experienced anglers to really dial in the perfect sink rate/depth for water that they commonly frequent. To give you even more options, MOW tips are also available with Intermediate (rather than floating) configurations via the Rio Skagit iMOW Tips. Pros: So many options, ability to dial in the exact sink rate/depth that you desire, color coded and labeled for easy identification, pre-looped on both ends, better line pickup and turnover compared to regular level-T tips. Cons: So many options, hard to know which tip to use when (leads to over-thinking rather than fishing), more expensive than regular level-t.
OPST Commando Tips - These may be the most complicated of all skagit tips currently available. That being said, they really are a pretty great solution to the classic dilemma of an angler's preferred sink-rate "T" tip not being an ideal match in terms of grain weight for their rod of choice. For example, an angler with a 6 weight spey rod might really want to use a T-14 tip in a given run to get his/her fly down as deep as possible. But the problem is that T-14 usually casts like garbage on such a light spey rod. This is where OPST presents a solution with their Commando Tips. Commando tips are offered in three sink rates - riffle, run, and bucket. Riffle is the lightest tip and has a sink rate of 2-3 ips, Run has a medium sink rate of 5-6 ips, and Bucket is the heaviest with a sink rate of 8-9 ips. Each of these sink rates are offered in three different grain weights - 96 grains, 132 grains, and 168 grains. OPST recommends the 96 grain tips for rods in the 2-6wt range, the 132 grain tips for rods in the 5-8wt range, and the 168 grain tips for rods in the 7-10wt range. Thus, OPST has allowed us to match the appropriate grain weight for whatever rod we have, while still being able to have the sink rate of our choosing. This is especially relevant for lighter weight spey rods and "trout" spey rods which often struggle to cast "T" tips. Commando tips are dual density, with the front half being a heavier sink rate than the back half (for example, the Riffle tip is rated Type 2/3, where the back half of the tip is Type 2 sink rate and the front half is Type 3). This is done to create a straighter connection between angler and fly by reducing tip sag during the swing. Commando tips are 12' long and come looped on both ends with identification labels. OPST also has 7.5' and 5' tips available which pair well with shorter spey/switch rods as well as single hand rods. Pros: Get better casting performance out of any weight rod due to ability to appropriately match grain weight of tip to grain window of rod, a great tip option for lighter weight spey and switch rods, looped and labeled. Cons: More expensive than level T, doesn't have quite the same casting feeling as "T" tips when used with full size spey rods - not necessarily a con, but they are different.
Scientific Anglers Third Coast Textured Spey Tips - The SA Third Coast tips are pretty unique in that they are both tapered and textured. These are features typically found in full length fly lines, which SA has now applied to their tips with claims of easier line pickup and better turnover. I have spent some time with these tips and have been impressed. The tips use the "Sink" rating system and are dual density, with a lighter sink rate in the back and heavier sink rate up front. They are available in Floating, Intermediate/Sink 2, Sink 2/4, Sink 3/5, and Sink 7. All sink rates are available in 8', 10', 12', and 15' lengths. Pros: Ease of line pickup due to textured coating, better turnover compared to level tips, looped front and rear. Cons: More expensive than level T, textured coating can slightly diminish line stick and subsequent rod load.
Skagit Tip Rigging
Most tips nowadays come out of the package ready to go with welded loops on both ends. This makes things super easy. The tip attaches to the Skagit head using a loop-to-loop connection and the leader attaches to the front end of the tip using a loop-to-loop connection as well. As far as the leader goes, 2-4 feet of untapered leader material is all you need. Tie a perfection or surgeons loop into the leader, loop-to-loop that sucker onto your tip, and go fishing.
Final Word on Skagit Tips
Wow, I really cannot believe I wrote so much on what used to be such a mundane topic as skagit tips. Really, any of the above options will work well, but hopefully you'll be able to walk into the fly shop with a little better understanding of the various options and what the designers intentions were in bringing each of them to market. Just make sure to pick up a few different sink rates, as there is no one sink rate that will be appropriate for every river and situation you are likely to encounter.
Polyleaders, or Versileaders, are the ideal tips to use with Scandi heads (as well as long belly and mid belly lines). They also pair great with the Airflo Rage head. They are available in a variety of sink rates and come in lengths from 5' to 14'. Polyleaders are Airflo's offering, and Versileaders are the equivalent product from Rio. Unlike skagit tips, Poly/Versileaders do not add too much meaningful grain weight to the head, but nonetheless function as an integral part of the line system. While you can cast a scandi head with a regular tapered leader, you will get much better line stick and turnover out of your scandi line when used with a Poly/Versileader. Poly/Versileaders turn over smaller flies well, but struggle with larger/heavier flies. Compared to skagit tips, Poly/Versileaders make a much more delicate presentation on the water. For these reasons, Poly/Versileaders are best suited for summer steelheading.
Airflo offers Polyleaders in 5, 8, 10, and 14' lengths, while Rio offers Versileaders in 6 and 10' lengths. The length Poly/Versileader to choose depends on rod length as well as casting style/preference. For spey rods 12' or shorter, I would recommend Poly/Versis in the 5-8' range, for spey rods 12-13'6", I would go with 10 footers, and rods 13'6" and up, go with 14 footers.
Poly/Versileader Sink Rates and Options
Airflo Polyleaders - Airflo makes a ton of different Polyleaders, however the two that are most relevant for spey applications are the Salmon/Steelhead Polyleader and the Sea Trout/Steelhead Polyleader. The Salmon/Steelhead version comes in 5', 10' and 14' lengths and are available in seven different densities - Floating, Hover, Intermediate, Slow Sinking, Fast Sinking, Super Fast Sinking, and Extra Super Fast Sinking. The Sea Trout/Steelhead Poly comes only in an 8' length and is available in the same densities. The numerous density options are somewhat redundant in my opinion, and as such, there is no need to purchase all seven densities. As a basic summer steelheading assortment, I would recommend picking up the Floating, Intermediate, and Fast Sinking Polyleaders. If you need to get down deeper than the fast sinking Poly allows, you would be better off switching over to a Skagit head and tips.
Rio Spey Versileaders - Rio's Spey Versileaders are available in 6' and 10' lengths and come in six different densities - Float, 1.5 ips, 3 ips, 4 ips, 5 ips, and 7 ips. Rio also offers Light Scandi Versileaders which they recommend pairing with scandi heads 450 grains or less. I would recommend rounding out your summer steelheading assortment with the Floating, 1.5 ips, and 5 ips Versileaders.
You'll notice that there is no pros and cons comparison of the above Poly/Versileader options from Airflo and Rio, as they are virtually identical products. No need to over think it, just loop one onto your scandi head and go fishing!
Out of the package, Poly/Versileaders come with a factory welded loop on the butt end and a short section of exposed monofilament core (usually about 6 inches) on the front end. Although Poly/Versileaders are called "leaders", you will still need to add on several feet of leader material to the front end of the Poly/Versileader before tying on your fly. For most fishing scenarios, 2-4 feet of leader material is sufficient. You can attach this piece of leader material to the exposed monofilament tip of the Poly/Versi a couple of different ways. The first method is to tie on the leader material much like how you typically add tippet to a leader, using either a blood knot or surgeon's knot. My preferred method, however, is to tie a permanent standing loop in the tip end of the Poly/Versileader and attach my leader material to this loop via a loop-to-loop connection. The primary benefit of this is that it preserves your Poly/Versileader by allowing you to change your leader material as frequently as you want without cutting/shortening the pricey Poly/Versileader. To create the standing loop in the Poly/Versileader I tie a perfection loop and add a drop of Loon UV Knot Sense for added security. I then tie a perfection or surgeon's loop in the leader material and attach it to the Poly/Versi via a loop-to-loop connection. No need to add any tippet or further leader material at this point, just go ahead and tie on your fly...and go fishing.
Leaders for Skagit and Scandi
Leaders are always a contentious and hotly debated area of fly fishing rigging, dominated entirely by subjective opinions supported solely by anecdotal evidence. That being said, here is my two cents on the subject. Whether I am casting a Skagit or a Scandi setup, I rarely ever do anything fancier for my leader than just using a 2-4 foot flat section of monofilament leader material. There are quite a few spey anglers that prefer to taper their leaders by using a stiffer butt section. There certainly is some merit to this, but realistically, a simple untapered piece of leader material works well enough that I have rarely ever bothered doing anything else. What kind of leader material is best? Again, personal preference. That being said, I only use good ol' fashioned Maxima. And by "only use" I mean absolutely do not trust anything else...at all. As far as pound test goes, 15 lb Maxima Ultragreen is my go-to for winter steelheading, however I'll sometimes drop down to 12lb if I feel like it is more appropriate given conditions and fly choice. For Summer steelheading 10lb is my go-to, but will sometimes size up to 12lb. Ultimately, when swinging flies, leader shyness is not as much of a concern, so I tend towards using heavier test leader material. And 15lb Maxima is some strong stuff! I have snagged and subsequently recovered some pretty impressive logs (read: trees) from swift currents using this stuff.
Thanks for letting me ramble on. Of course, feel free to reach out with any questions you have.
Up next, Running Lines!