Spey fishing is like Tai Chi

Recent comments from a fan reader of the Unaccomplished Angler gave cause for me to sit back and do a bit of pondering. The first comment asserts that, “Spey fishing is like Tai Chi!” The second comment was equally amusing:  “I find the whole fad a little curious…”

We’ll address the matter of Spey fishing being a fad next week. As to the first statement about Spey fishing being like Tai Chi, I believe there was an unintentional revealing of profound enlightenment in those words.

Fishing with a Spey rod is in fact like Tai Chi. As activities both practiced by humans, they have common roots that go back millions of years to the first ancestors of modern Homo sapiens. Over time, as modern societies established themselves, various activities grew out of the different societies: martial arts evolved in Asia; fly fishing evolved in Europe. So, yes, the Spey Way of fishing and Tai Chi are alike in that they are both activities practiced by human beings, and all humans are alike in that we have common ancestors. That analogy, however, may not be quite what the originator of the statement meant.

In researching the origins of fishing, I was surprised to discover that the Chinese are often credited for having invented the fishing rod around the time of 1300. Less surprising is that the Chinese also developed Tai Chi. So yes, the Spey Way again has something in common with Tai Chi. Still, I believe that isn’t where the originator of the comment was going with the statement.

Actually I know exactly what was meant by the comment–it was intended as a backhanded comparison suggesting that fishing with a Spey rod is not a very effective means of catching fish, and Tai Chi has no inherent physical, tangible benefits.

Spey casting was developed as a means of delivering the fly effectively and efficiently in certain fishing circumstances. Nobody ever said it was THE most effective way of fishing, but if your goal is to cover a lot of water with reduced casting repetition and limited room for back casting, Spey casting may just prove worthy of your consideration.

Tai Chi, with its familiar slow, meditative-like physical movements may not look something you would expect from a martial art but to say that it has no physical value is to not understand. When translated literally it means “supreme ultimate fist” and when practiced at its most advanced level, it’s movements are a series of strikes, blows, sweeps and kicks, etc. There are even Tai Chi forms that involve swords and spears. It’s important to acknowledge that fighting and practicing martial arts, just as fishing and catching fish, are two different things. To draw a comparison: on one hand you have Yin (Spey fishing and Tai Chi); on the other you have Yang (gill netting and cage fighting).

Back in 497 A.D. when Bodhidarma walked into China from India, among other things he taught martial arts to the monks at the Shaolin Monastery. This was necessary as a means of defending their domain against invading bands of marauders. To study a martial art today is much more simply an alternate form of exercise done for mental and physical health and to adopt a philosophical outlook on life. Bottom line: we no longer need to be able to fight for survival. Still, the benefits of martial arts training are not insignificant and include improved balance, stamina, flexibility, emotional and physical self control and stress relief. Those seem like fairly tangible benefits to me. It’s certainly easier on the body than other high impact martial arts/physical activities, with which I do have some experience.

Back before the marketplace economy when people lived off the land, fishing was a means of harvesting food needed for survival. Since the overwhelming majority of us no longer fish to feed our families, fishing (whether done with or without a Spey rod) is simply a means of engaging in a recreational activity for the sake of enjoyment and for many it also becomes a way of life. A day on the water casting and swinging flies is a sure way to relieve stress (it sure beats a day at work) and there is much less repetition involved in Spey casting than there is with typical overhead casting with a single handed rod. Therefore it’s much easier on the arms and shoulders, and I have experience with regard to shoulder tendonitis.

So yes, the Spey Way is remarkably like Tai Chi. Let’s examine some of the other similarities:

  • Both Spey Way and Tai Chi have been around a long time. Spey casting was invented in the mid 1800’s. Tai Chi is said to have been founded in the mid 1600’s.
  • Both Spey casting and Tai Chi have many fluid, circular movements.
  • In Spey casting they practice the Snake Roll. In Tai Chi they practice Snake Creeps Down.
  • Long sticks are not uncommon to both Spey Way and Tai Chi.
  • While one may learn Spey Way and Tai Chi from a book or video, it is highly recommended that one seek instruction from a master.
  • There are very simple, helpful diagrams which can be used to supplement instruction in both Spey casting and Tai Chi.
  • One can find large groups of people engaged in both Spey Way and Tai Chi.
  • To the untrained eye, it may look like large groups of Spey casters and Tai Chi practitioners aren’t really doing anything.
  • Spey casting is usually done in the water and Tai Chi is often practiced on grass. Sometimes Spey casting is practiced on grass and Tai Chi is done in the water.
  • It’s not uncommon to Spey cast among large rocks in a river. Apparently the same goes for Tai Chi.
  • It may look as though the two Spey casters are fighting, but one is actually telling the other not to push his top hand. Similarly the two Tai Chi practitioners are not fighting, rather they are practicing Push Hands.
  • There are cool photos of  Spey casters at sunset. There are cool photos of a Tai Chi practitioners at sunset.

There’s more to practicing a martial art than learning to fight, and there’s more to fishing than catching fish. So yeah, fishing with a Spey rod is a lot like Tai Chi. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised but what someone combines the two graceful practices some day, and when that day comes I’d like credit for the idea of Spey Chi. Even if it does turn out to be just a passing fad.

Close your eyes and listen to this video. Spey casting or Tai Chi?


  1. Dave Carpenter

    Simply Brilliant! Makes me want to buy some silky pajamas.

    • Kirk Werner

      Dave, as long as you can get silky pajamas with built in wading boots, I say go for it! Hugh Hefner would be proud!

  2. francois Blanchet

    hey there, found this a while ago and have been using te analogy in my spey casting demos. It is the perfect aligment of the body, natural movement and complete control at slow speed….oh Spey-chi is the key .
    great article!!!

    • Kirk Werner

      Francois, are you suggesting that someone else thought of “Spey Chi” before I did? How could that possibly be?! 😉

  3. Marty Sheppard

    I love this post!

    • Kirk Werner

      Thanks Marty – appreciate the good thought.

  4. Patrick

    Hmmm… Guess I’ll have to reconsider the premise of fly fishing being a religion, making Spey casting a cult. Nice analogy and fun reading.

  5. Chuck Atkins

    When I made the initial comment it was meant to be somewhat backhanded because I meant to assert that the Angler who Spey casts must spend an enormous amount of time perfecting a skill that won’t result in catching many fish! Therefore, the angler must find the real reward in the ritual itself!

    It seems to be the perfect technique for the angler who accepts that the chances of catching a “real” steelhead are very low anyway!

    Embrace the ritual!

    • Kirk Werner

      Chuck, consider the ritual embraced. The way I see it, personally (from my unaccomplished standpoint), I can go out and not catch a real steelhead using any means of presenting a fly. That’s just too easy, so why not take up the Spey Way and become truly humbled? Thanks for the inspiration!

  6. Chuck

    Well , I have not reached that level. I need to catch a fish! I will indicator nymph if I have to! I just don’t understand guys that spend hundreds of dollars to go out west and get spanked! My friend went out – hired a guide that told him he didn’t need to set the hook! He had one hit in three days – didn’t set the hook – game over!

    I like to swing , but I only do it when the water temp is just right. Application is everything! If ya swing when the water is under 40 – well, GOOD LUCK!

    The guys that will only swing are just like guys that will only fish drys during a hatch! When you tell them that most feeding is actually sub surface they just shrug. Reason has no affect on them. They engage in some kind of bizarre , self imposed paradigm. They have created the parameters for their personal challenge and that’s it! At some point , it becomes kind of absurd – but hey, bait fisherman feel the same way about me probably!

    • Kirk Werner

      It will come when the time is right, Grasshopper. Kwai Chang Cain did not snatch the pebble until it was time. Ernest and Julio Gallo do not sell wine, until its time.

  7. Rebecca


    What can I say. This post is classic (and funny) and well put together. When I finally do what you’ve told me not to even start –spey–I’ll step up my game for sure when I remember all these poses.

    • Kirk Werner

      Whoah! Look what the cat done dragged in! Haven’t seen or heard from you around these parts in ages. Reckon you been so busy with the OBN that you probably haven’t had time for fishing or Tai Chi, either?

  8. Bud Alcock

    Profound buddy………profound !

    Tight lines


    • Kirk Werner

      I dodn’t know about profound, Bud—more likely an indication of cabin fever and too much time to think about, but not actually go, fishing. As always, thanks for following along!

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