by Scott Sadil
Thanks to John Shewey’s new Spey Flies: Their History and Construction, which I happened to get firsthand this weekend from Shewey himself in exchange for a copy of my own new book, Pacific Coast Flies & Fly Fishing, I can report with confidence that every so-called “Spey fly” I’ve created, tied, and written about over the past two decades has been a woefully inadequate impostor of the real thing.
Dang it, I hate when that happens.
Still, despite, say, my Spey Car, my version of a Green Butt Spey, and a host of other unnamed patterns, all tied by methods that disqualify them from classification as a genuine Spey fly, it appears I’m not the only poseur. Upon detailing the wave of creativity that swept through the Northwest steelhead community during the 1980s and 1990s, an explosion of all but revolutionary designs that revealed itself as “Spey flies” pulled from leather wallets on steelhead rivers from California to British Columbia and as far east as Idaho, Shewey tells us that many if not most of these flies were unwittingly mislabeled.
Agreeing with Paul Marriner, “the eminent fly expert and angling writer from eastern Canada,” Shewey feels, in fact, that it’s appropriate to state that the definition of a Spey fly has been “grossly mangled.”
Shewey himself, for four decades now one of the most creative practioners in this school of Northwest steelhead flies, even accepts some of the blame.
“I hold some degree of culpability in expanding the scope of what the term Spey fly might include,” writes Shewey, “primarily because in the early 1980s, when I first became enamored of the style, I eagerly wrote about the steelhead patterns we were inventing and labeling as Spey flies.”
These exquisitely elegant flies, as seductive to anglers and fly tyers, perhaps, as they are to fish, became part of what Shewey describes as a “broad expanse of fly patterns labeled as Spey flies (that) came to include just about anything with a long-fibered hackle palmered through the body, or even not palmered nor particularly long of fiber.”
In other words, everybody, it seems, got into the act. And today, for many Northwest steelheaders, faced with dwindling runs of these iconic fish, the Spey fly, or what Shewey now calls the “Spey-style” fly, has become their raison ďêtre. If your sea-run fish are few and far between, why not at least tie and cast a beautiful fly?
Is there more to it than that? I’m not sure I’m the right guy to ask. It was the early 1990s before I moved to the Northwest, and it wasn’t until the turn of the century that I could call myself a serious and accomplished steelheader. By then, so-called Spey flies cast with so-called Spey rods, yet another case of local mislabeling, were practically de rigueur for this particular brand of Northwest fly fishing. Two-handed rods gave one the capacity to tame all but the biggest rivers, handle even the biggest fish.
Not that you always did.
But that’s another story. In this one here, I need only insist that if you have any interest in steelhead fishing, any interest in tying flies or in the long rich history of the development of patterns fashioned for sea-run fish and the men and women who tied and fished them, or if you simply wish to expand your knowledge of this funny game we call fly fishing, you owe it to yourself to get your hands on John Shewey’s new and impressively-researched book.
Get it and you’ll own, as well, a piece of the history itself.
*Fly photos taken from Spey Flies: Their History and Construction
Gray’s angling editor Scott Sadil says the only thing he’s sure of in steelheading anymore is that he catches fish with the fly he’s fishing.