Two-handed fly rods may be seen by Atlantic salmon fly fishers as a traditional means of fishing, but to most fly fisherman they are the latest revolution. Longer and more powerful than one-handed rods, two-handed rods allow fly fishers to cast farther, mend easier, and control a drifting fly better than they can with a one-handed rod. This has guides, trout bums, and the weekend warrior excited as never before. Bottom line is, two-handed rods help catch more fish. And they’re a lot easier to use than you ever thought. With a couple basic casts, you can improve your odds at landing big fish such as steelhead, Atlantic salmon, and big browns. But don’t take our word for it. Take the word of a couple fishing fanatic guides who are always looking to improve their fishing methods.
We spoke to Matt Supinski and Orvis-Endorsed Guide Mac Huff, who fish regularly with two-handed rods for steelhead and other big western fish. Matt guides more than 250 days a year for steelhead from his Gray Drake Lodge on Lake Michigan, and is author of Steelhead Dreams. Mac is a guide based in St. Joseph, Oregon.
Orvis News: So, what is it about two-handed rods that makes them advantageous for steelheading, especially out West?
Matt Supinski: Where to start? One, you can cover a hell of a lot more water with them than with a one-handed rod. That twelve, twelve-and-a-half feet of rod makes a huge difference over a nine or nine-and-a-half-foot rod. Huge. You can really throw shooting head line and sinking line and even floating line much, much farther with a couple basic Spey casts. You can shoot up to 40 feet of sinking line out there, which means you can get down deep and cover an entire run or pool. It’s just so much easier than with a traditional rod.
Another great benefit is your ability to control the speed of the fly with much more ease than you can with a traditional rod. Controlling fly speed is crucial, especially in cold water, in mid-winter, or late spring. When that water is cold and snow and slush cover the rocks, those fish are logy. Their metabolism is down. You need to slow down the fly. Put it right by the fish’s nose again and again to get a strike. The two-handed rod allows you to stack mend, or do a “push and pull” mend right down to the point of entry into the water. You can do it much easier with a two-handed rod. Control that fly, slow it down. And you get a lot more strikes.
Mac Huff: Matt’s right. Casting farther is the most obvious benefit. Two-handed rods allow any angler to cast 30 or 40 feet with great ease. And with practice, up to 100 feet. But the control it gives you is what catches more fish. The best part about this rod is how easily it allows you to control the drift, the fly speed, and to mend easily. It does no good to make a 100-plus foot cast if you can’t control the drift. Which is where one-handed rods fall short. Less experienced steelheaders often forget this crucial point.
The length of the two-handed rod gives me control of the fly that’s just impossible with a one-handed rod.
Matt, you’re right on. To be able to slow the drift and mend so easily is magic. Two-handed rod anglers can mend to hold the fly in the drift longer than with shorter, single-hand rods. The slow, tantalizing drift puts the fly in front of the fish longer and is often key to rousing a fish from its lie.
Orvis News: What’s new in two-handed rods?
Mac Huff: How light the rods have become, especially Orvis rods. Lighter, but better. Still powerful and able to get line out there farther with a good spine and ability to load. The seven weight I’ve had since last winter has a more full flex than the nine weight Spey rod I used a few years ago. This advance makes the new rod easier to cast. I use a lot less energy and can fish a my two-handed Orvis rod a lot longer than other rods without being tired.
Matt Supinski: Well, Mac hit it on the head with the lightness. That’s huge.
What else is new? If you’re a nymph fisherman, the two-handed rod will change your world. It will. I love the two-handed rod for nymphing. Their use is catching on like wildfire. The control you have is unbeatable. The perfect dead drift necessary for successful steelheading can be carried over to nymphing for browns or other big rainbow trout. It’s accomplished with much greater ease. First, you can reach right out there, with that extra three-plus feet of rod. You have virtually a perfect 90-degree entrance into the water. Vertical entrance. Follow that nymph along, mending as you go, and you have a perfect drift.
Another advantage when nymphing with a two-hander is how easily you can work a water. You can go along and just flip a nymphing rig to any tail out, gut, riffle, whatever with a simple roll cast. You’ve got great control and you’re right there where you need to be with a flip of the wrists. Then you can control its drift or sweep. It’s beautiful.
Also, saltwater anglers are pioneering the two-handed rods uses out off the Cape and Long Island. It’s big now. These guys are throwing shooting head line out there a hundred and twenty feet with a simple overhand cast. Bam. You’re out there in it, in the schooling fish.
Orvis News: What do you like about the new series from Orvis?
Matt Supinski: They have it all really. They are light, fast, and powerful. Being light is key. If you’re out there chucking and ducking, using slinkies or tubes, or hurling sinking line all day, a light rod is essential. I have an old bamboo two-hander and I’ll tell you, it tired me out. You literally need to hit the gym if you were to use it often and use it right. The Orvis two-handers are light enough so that you can use them all day, hours and hours on end without undue fatigue. But, and this is important, they have the power to throw that sinking line, or sinktip, or shooting head line. A lot of rods are light, but lack spine. Lack power. Orvis rods don’t. They’re built with that power so they load up and throw that line. And at twelve feet or so, they throw as well as a fourteen or fifteen footer, often even better, because of the balance. They take less energy out of you to cast but they have all the power. You don’t tire out and can keep fishing. Length does not equate to power if the rod is too heavy to handle, or does not properly load. Orvis has done it right, a perfect balance of lighter weight, power, and length.
Mac Huff: That says it. I have to say, I can’t believe that Orvis has made a rod this light that is so powerful and tough and capable. I can fish all day now and not be tired from anything but fighting big fish!
Orvis News: A lot of guys want to get into two-handed rods, but are apprehensive because of the techniques needed, those huge casting motions, the size of the rod. Any technique and tips you can offer the rookie two-hander?
Mac Huff: Well, there are some casts that are hardly even casts that you can start with. Most often I have clients use two-handed rods for steelheading, so they can easily cast 30 to 40 feet, where the majority of the fish lie. If they are able to get a cast any farther, I get them to “cast” at an acute angle downstream with a reach cast to the center of the river. With the line parallel to the current, the client can lead the drift across with the rod tip. The fly will remain for an irresistibly long time in front of a steelhead. This often produces strikes from a steelhead that has ignored other presentations.
The Circle cast and Skagit-style double Spey are key for those new to two-handed rods. These two casts give the angler a cast to throw from either side, depending on the direction of the river and the direction of the wind. If you need to cast on your upstream and downwind side, the Circle cast easily puts the fly in position. The Skagit-style double Spey leaves the fly on the downstream and downwind side of the angler. Each of these casts remove the critical timing elements that are required in traditional Spey casting. They use the tension of the water, with the line settling fully on the water after the pickup and before beginning the change-of-direction portion of the cast. The critical thing with any two-handed cast is placing the fly a rod’s length away from you and in the direction of the cast. This allows the line to be aerialized over the fly to reduce line drag and create an aerodynamic shape in the line for accuracy.
Matt Supinski: First off, it’s easier than you think! Especially with Orvis rods. Really. A few basic casts and you can do most anything you like with a two-handed rod. The overhead backcast is one any fly fisherman can pick up in an afternoon. Less than that, really. I’d suggest learning that. And learning the single and double Spey casts. These will teach the angler the basic mechanics, the timing, and the anchor position you’ll need for any of the other casts, like the Swedish Underhand Cast, pioneered in Iceland by Mortenson. This is basically an evolved roll cast, and you can get out a lot of line without much room. The basic casts will teach you all the elements, give you the feel of the two-hander. You can even practice with your nine foot, five weight one-hander. My advice is, if you love fly fishing and want to take it to the next level, which most of us do (laughs), the two-handed rod is that next step. Once you start, it will be part of your arsenal forever.