Last fall, my brother asked me to get on the sticks and row he and his friend down the Green on Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge. While rigging up at the put-in, I suggested they throw big Chernobyl Ants with a dropper. It was then that I noticed my brother’s friend, Ned, (not his real name to protect the innocent) had strung up an 11-foot switch rod with a heavy switch line. I politely said, “Uh, Ned, that may be a little too much rod for throwing foam bugs from the boat.” To which he answered, “This is the only rod I own. My buddy says a switch rod is the best ‘all-around’ rod.” I left it alone. However, sure ’nuff, his overhead casts with the dry-dropper rig landed with an unholy splat on the water scaring every salmonid within fifty yards. Not to mention, accurately putting the fly near the ring of a rising trout was impossible. I rigged up my 5-weight and showed Ned how much easier it was to throw bugs to rising fish.
Later, after lunch, I suggested to Ned that we wet wade and fish a nice riffle with streamers and his switch rod. Ned was game and we proceeded to the head of the pool. First cast of the cone head Dolly Lama and my worst fears were realized—Ned had thrown the streamer with an overhead cast. What was even better is he had hit himself in the shoulder with the missile on the end of his line! Time for lesson #2. I looked at Ned and said, “You do realize that that rod is meant to be spey cast, right?” He just looked at me dumbfounded. I quickly showed him how easy it was to throw his rig with a double-spey and a Snap-T cast. I couldn’t help myself and, showing off, threw a nice, long snake roll cast. Standing next to me, slack jawed, all Ned could say was, “Show me how you did that.” I started Ned off with simple double-spey casts, followed by proper mending and swinging techniques. He managed to hook up with a couple of nice ‘bows. Ned had entered the Two-Handed Zone.
My diatribe above is meant to show the mistake that too many anglers make in thinking that a switch rod, able to “switch” from single-hand to double-hand casts, is an all-around rod capable of flinging #22 tricos all the way up to #4 conehead Wooly Buggers. Nope. Let’s try to make sense of switch vs. spey rods.
Spey rods are meant to be cast exclusively with two hands. Assuming you are right-handed, the long fore grip is delicately held by the right hand while the left hand provides movement of the rod and power. There is no aerialized, overhead cast. Bend and power is provided by anchoring the leader/fly in the water, forming a D-loop, then shooting spey line and running line at a target with a forward cast. Other givens regarding a spey rod could include:
- A spey rod is 12’6″ to 14’+ in length. Because of the length of the spey rod, a floating line weighing 350 grains or more can be cast 70 feet with ease. (For comparison, a WF7F fly line you cast with your single-hand rod weighs about 185 grains). The extra length is also nice as it keeps that sharp, hook-laden missile away from your noggin.
- Because a spey cast does not use a back cast (the rod is loaded by a water anchor to the side and near the angler), you can throw flies to waiting fish even when you have trees or brush three feet behind you.
- You can make long casts and still have rod length that makes it easy to mend and manage your line. That is, you can pick line off the water to make it easier to mend and drop your line in the seams.
- You can spey cast off either shoulder when wind conditions dictate. Spey line also punches through the wind because it has a short, thick head and thin running line. I have used my spey rod many times when steelheading on Lake Michigan beach near the mouth of a river.
- Casting heavy streamers and wet flies with sink tips is so much easier with a spey rod compared to a single-hand rod.
- Last, but not least, two-handed casting is a gift to the aging angler. Casting a single-hand rod all day is not unlike pitching a baseball for nine innings. You are doing damage to your rotator cuff and elbow. If I spend a day throwing a full-sink line with my single-hand rod, I know I will have ice on my right shoulder and a wee dram of Scotch in my left hand. The mechanics of the underhand spey cast will save your casting arm.
With a long fore grip and a rear handle, switch rods are 10′ 6″ to 12′ 6″ in length. I submit that an 11′ switch rod is ideal. Switch rods can cast Skagit-style, floating spey lines up to about 275 grains. Indeed, if not for the advent of front-loaded Skagit lines, as opposed to long-belly, Scandi lines, switch rods could not have been created.
For all the reasons discussed in the previous section, throwing a switch rod with a water-anchored spey cast is just plain fun and efficient. “Switching” to single-hand casting with a switch rod also has its advantages:
- Switch rods are about 30% lighter than their spey cousins. Therefore, many anglers are successful when using a switch rod as an extra-long nymphing rod. With this longer lever, casting a nymphing rig with a huge, wind-resistant Thingamabobber, two beadhead nymphs, and split shot twenty feet further than with a single-hand rod is easy. Mending line and controlling the drift will be a breeze. NOTE: You will need to change out your Skagit line on your reel and put in a spool with regular fly line when nymphing. I suggest a double-taper fly line at least two sizes bigger than your rod weight; “overline” it. Or, both Rio and Airflo make indicator lines. Again, spey or switch lines meant for water-anchor casts will not do you any favors when nymphing.
- Switch rods are not just for swinging heavy meat flies. Try skating mouse patterns at night on a floating Skagit line. You will cover a lot of water with a long cast using a switch rod.
I hope now you may be a little more educated about spey and switch rods and their intended purpose. Jans has a great selection of Orvis, Sage, and Loop switch and spey rods. For the money, consider the Loop XACT switch and two-handed rods. After casting a Loop rod, you may never want to “upgrade.”
In addition to a spey or switch rod, you will need a reel, of course. Big fish require a reel with a bigger drag. Especially if you use your switch rod for nymphing, get a reel, with line and backing, that balances the rod at the midpoint of the fore grip. Your wrist will thank you.
You will also need a switch and/or spey line, plus running line. Proper line selection is key to success with a switch or spey rod. RIO makes it easy to choose a line with their interactive tool which helps match your specific rod with a switch/spey line.
Pick up a package of floating and sinking poly leaders and tippet. I recommend 12# Maxima Chameleon mono.
On a personal note, I can tell you what I carry in my quiver. I have my dry fly rods for accurate casts to rising trout. My 6-weight streamer rod takes care of throwing meat from the boat. I have a 4-weight, 10′ 6″ euronymphing rod when I target lazy fish sitting on the river bed. Then I have a Sage Trout Spey HD Fly Rod that I love to swing Muddler Minnows and skate foam flies with. This way I can get some practice in before I head to the Deschutes or Salmon River steelheading with my 7 weight, 13′ 6″ Burkheimer spey rod that allows me to swing Intruders all day long.
In conclusion, don’t be a Ned and get fooled into thinking that a switch rod will fit all your needs. All fly rods are best thought of as having a specific purpose. That’s why we just have to have so many fly rods!
By: Jim Hissong, Fly Fishing Guide
Jim lives with his wife, Susan, and Wrigley, the fishing dog, in Mountain View, WY. He is currently president of Upper Bear River Trout Unlimited in Southwest Wyoming and a certified guide who plans to be on the sticks more often when he retires. Jim is a part-time product description writer and blogger for jans.com and vailvalleyanglers.com. You can encourage his blogging by contacting him at firstname.lastname@example.org
*Post updated on March 13, 2020