What makes a Spey Fly a Spey Fly?


Another dumb question from a newbie. What are the characteristics of a Spey Fly? It seems to me that Spey Flies are synonomous with classic Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead flies. Is this true or is ther something unique about Spey Flies like size, profile or density of materials?


Spey flies were originally a style of fly developed in Scotland for salmon. There beginnings were on the River Spey hence the name spey flies. They were flies that were tied on longer shank hooks with slim bodies of berlin wool and of course had the long flowing hackles, which back in the day would be heron or spey cock hackles. Id say Syd Glasso is most famous for bringing the spey style of flies to America and particularly to the northwest and using them for steelhead. From there it has definatly grown and many tiers have created unique patterns that fall into the spey fly category using a wide variety of materials. John Sheweys spey and dee flies book as well as Bob Veverkas spey flies book both have great information on the history and evolution of spey flies. Kevin


Active Member

Spey flies are one of the classic featherwing Atlantic Salmon flies, but they are not one of the classic steelhead flies.

Classic steelhead flies are the old hairwings and very large more bright and gaudy trout flies that had white wings and that were tied on heavy weight, down eye hooks similar the the Eagle Claw 1197. These classic steelhead flies had short bodies of chenile and rather long and full wings (the wings were much fuller or larger in diameter than the flies of today) of calf tail, bucktail, or polar bear and were usually ribbed with flat silver tinsel.

Spey flies, as was mentioned, were developed on the River Spey in Scottland and were characterized by being rather somber (dark in color) flies with very long black, bronze, or dark grey hackle (originally Scottish Spey Cock, which has been extinct for a long time) that flowed out beyond the hook bend. They also had their bodies tied shorter than normal, meaning the bodies started at or slightly in front of the hook's point. And they almost always had bronze mallard tied in "tent" fashion for wings. Some had a face hackle (or throat as it is now commonly called) of teal. The wings also laid very close to the body. They also had a small head of thread (which the old masters and tying books referred to as "no head" because it wasn't much more than a few wraps of thread and a whip finish.

Syd Glasso is acknowledged as the first PNW steelheader to adapt the spey style to steelhead flies and the brighter colors known to attract steelhead. He began doing this back in the 1950's after he saw the flies in Price-Tannat's book on Atlantic Salmon flies.

His first attempts at this used what he called large saddle hackles (really they were the few schlappen feathers you get in 1 oz. bundles of strung saddle hackle) in natural brown. His Quilleyute Spey is I think the only one of these early spey flies of his that survived unchanged. It is basically an Orange Heron tied with brown schlappen hackle and no face hackle. Syd moved on to using these same "large saddle hackles" (again it was really schlappen, which can be seen readily if you ever see one of them that Glasso tied) dyed yellow, orange, and black (his Black Heron is tied with black hackle).

Glasso was the first one to use hackle points for wings on spey flies and he did so because there weren't any other materials available to him that he thought were suitable for the bright wings he wanted to have on his flies. Keep in mind this was back when goose shoulder was virtually unknown here in North America as a winging material and the common goose wing quills just don't work for wings. He used hackle point (tip) wings in orange, black, and white, which he tented slightly and on which he bend the stems to they lay close to the body (very unlike the knife point, more upright hackle point wings you commonly see on Glasso-style flies today). He also used bronze mallard on the Brown Heron and Gold Heron.

Another thing Glasso did was tie and fish his flies much smaller than many do today for winter steelhead. Except for when he was fishing the Hoh River (where he used #1/0 low water hooks), he used flies tied on #1 and #2 low-water hooks for winter steelhead (about the size of an Alec Jackson #3 Spey Hook).

Anyway, to answer your question: A spey fly is a fly with the following characteristics:

1) long flowing hackle that goes beyond the hook bend

2) body that starts at or slightly in front of hook point (this is subject to tyers preference today) of dubbing, floss, combination of floss and dubbing (ala most of the Glasso speys), or tinsel and dubbing.

3) the body is ribbed with usually 5-turns of tinsel (this depends some on the size of the fly, tyer preference, and type of tinsel or tinsels used) and can have a counter rib of oval tinsel or wire which is counter-wound through the hackle after it is wrapped.

4) Opt. a face hackle (or throat as it is now commonly called) of a duck flank feather either natural or dyed. (although some steelhead speys like Walt Johnson's speys use a large, webby hackle instead of duck flank for the face hackle).

5) wings that sit low over the body and that are usually (but not always) not longer than about the hook barb.

6) a thread head that is very small (only about 5 wraps of thread to hold the wing and a whip finish). This very small head is the ideal, but one a bit larger is OK, just keep it as small and thin as possible.

Some spey flies have tails, but very few do. If one has a tail, the tail is normally not longer than the hook bend or a little shorter.
Not much needs be added to ft's info. A quick perusal of John Shewey's 2002 "Spey Flies & Dee Flies" will show you many spectacular examples. Dee flies seem to differ only in having wings of long, thin paired slips of goose, swan, or turkey flats.

Legal heron is hard to obtain. Blue-eared pheasant is a costly substitute. Schlappen and pheasant tail (yes, from ordinary ringnecks) are inexpensive, and their fibers are long enough for all but really large hooks. Whiting has bred specialized strains of roosters to produce quite long, thin-fibered "spey" hackle; a good Silver-grade skin is around $30, in different colors.
Spey flies have no direct connection to spey rods, except that both originated in approx. the same time and place. They can be fished with any kind of fly rod. Some say they're only for slow streams; others say they're fine in any steelhead water. They're beautiful and great fun to tie and fish - which I can't say for the fancy, multi-layered wings of classic Atlantic salmon flies.:beathead:

Red Shed

"junkyard spey"
Tom Arrol,

Your questions aren't dumb. Everyone of us had the same questions at some point in time or something just like them.

If you search and study the archives here, on Spey Pages, and several other two hand rod forums you will most likely find more then you want to know with just about anything connected to spey casting. Enjoy the ride!

Thanks for the great explanations about Spey flies. Based on what has been said it seems that Spey flies where developed to fish the specific river flow conditions, water clarity and fish preference (or Angler preference) in the Spey and other Rivers in Northern Scottland. Is this right? Also according to Nooksac Mac Spey flies are not designed to specificaly fish with Spey Rods. This answers one aspect of my original question which was if Spey flies have characteristics that make it particularly suitable for Spey casting and fishing.




Active Member

I suspect more than anything that the spey fly style of flies was the result of being developed on the River Spey where the now extinct spey cock breed of chicken was also found. The spey cock chicken breed had neck and saddle hackles with very long barbs which naturally flowed out beyond the hook's bend when used to hackle a fly. However, no one really knows why the spey style came into being since there are not written records of why it was developed.