We’re all familiar with a standard fly rod. Eight to nine feet long, one handed cork grip, and a weight forward or double taper line. This setup will do well in a wide variety of circumstances and the basic design hasn’t been improved on for over many decades. However there are situations where the standard fly rod is difficult to use and ineffective to fish with. Imagine you’re standing on the bank of a small river or a lake, and there are trees and bushes all around you. Even if you’re wading, frequently you can only wade so far because of depth or current speed. Now to cast a standard fly rod, you need room behind you. Fly casting involves a forward and a back cast, and those trees and bushes behind you are more than happy to grab your line and not let go. You can hope for a break in the trees in exactly the right spot, or maybe try to wade out fifty feet.
Alternatively you can “roll cast”. A roll cast is accomplished by leaving the fly in the water out in front of you, swinging the rod back to put some line behind you, and then moving your casting hand forward. With practice you can get the fly out thirty to forty feet. The real experts can throw it little farther. But it isn’t easy, and if the fish are way out in the middle of the river it’s going to be very tough to reach them.
History of the Spey and Switch Rods
Many years ago this was the problem faced by Salmon fishermen in Europe, fishing on rivers that were more than a cast length wide. They were trying to reach way out there and get a fly in front of Atlantic Salmon in a snag rich environment. However the obstacles weren’t submerged, it was the trees crowding the river. Along the Spey and Dee rivers in Scotland, anglers developed new tools to effectively meet these requirements. The rods became longer and heavier. Since the rods were heavier, two-handed handles were soon added. The lines changed too. They knew they weren’t going to be doing any conventional (overhead) casting so the lines could be heavier. For any of you who have tried to roll cast a short one handed fly rod, imagine having a much longer rod and a heavier line that would load the rod easier. The result was a fifteen-foot long, two-handed rod and a weight forward line with a large heavy head. With this rig an angler could expect to throw well over one hundred feet out across the river!
Eventually some European anglers made their way to North America, first on the East Coast fishing for Atlantic Salmon and then later on the West Coast fishing for Steelhead. The locals became intrigued by these long rods and began to tinker with the design. The rivers in the Pacific North West are smaller, have steep banks with trees, brush, and fast current. In addition the Steelhead, particularly winter run fish, like big flies near the bottom. The traditional fifteen foot Spey rod could throw a long line, but struggled with heavy sink tips and a big weighted fly. Back to the drawing board they went, and what popped out was a rod longer than a regular fly rod but much shorter than a Spey rod, averaging about eleven feet. In addition, a heavily modified fly line appeared, called a “Skagit”head, after the Skagit river, and this new line had a very short heavy head with a thin running line behind it.
Now anglers had a tool that could pick up a big heavy fly and twelve feet of sink tip and throw it a long way. Since this rod is shorter and lighter than a Spey rod, it can also be used one-handed like a regular fly rod. Hence they became known as “Switch” rods.
What we’re talking about here is an eleven-foot long fly rod equipped with a soft or slow action and a two-handed cork grip. The fly line has a heavy twenty to twenty five foot long head section (a “Skagit” head) with 100 feet of small diameter running line. Attached to the other end of the head is a sink tip or floating leader. The reel needs to be a large arbor model and it should be big. Besides some backing and one hundred feet of running line, the head section is thick and uses a lot of room on the spool. I use “9/10” weight sized reels.
OK, enough of the history lesson. What does any of this have to do with fishing in the Upper Midwest?
Two-handing in the Midwest
There are a lot of applications for a Switch rod in our neck of the woods. These rods excel at throwing long distances with a minimal amount of effort. The casting involved doesn’t require a lot of room for a back cast, and they can handle large or small flies. In particular, I’m going to describe the use of a switch rod for Smallmouth Bass in rivers, shore fishing for Bass and Panfish, and streamer fishing for Trout.
If you remove Steelhead from the conversation and talk about Smallmouth Bass instead, you can see you’re dealing with the same problems someone chasing Steelhead in the Pacific Northwest might face. The only difference is the fish. Let’s look at some specific examples.
You’re on a small tree lined river like the Snake or the Kettle. There’s a nice pool out in front of you. One way to approach this would be to use a crayfish imitation and swing it across the bottom of the pool. Since you probably don’t know the exact location of the fish, you’ll need to cover as much water as possible. Wade out a few feet from shore near the head of the pool.
On the end of your fly line you’ll have a sink tip, short level leader, and a fly. It might take some experimentation to find the right combination of sink tip density and weighted fly to get down into “the zone”. Sink tips come in different sink rates. This is where using “loop to loop” connections will become important. My running lines, heads, sink tips, and floating leaders are all terminated in loops. I can switch components quickly and easily and make adjustments to my presentation without tying knots. It also makes a big difference where you cast relative to the current. Whether you cast slightly upstream, directly across the river, or slightly down stream will have a big impact on how deep your presentation will go. Once you feel you’re getting down in the right spot, you make a short cast (there might be fish right in front of you!) and follow the fly with the rod tip.
You can add twitches and hops if you want, but the river will create a lot of movement with the fly by itself. Let the fly swing around through the pool until it’s hanging straight down from you. Let it hang there for a bit, sometimes they’ll follow and only hit the fly when it stops swinging. Now make a slightly longer cast and let it swing. Keep doing this until you’re reaching the other side of the pool. Now take a few steps down stream. As you cast and step down stream you’re putting that fly into every possible location in the pool. This may sound like a lot of work; but again the Switch rod can easily make very long casts with a minimum of effort and you don’t need to wade out into the middle of the river to reach all the water you want to fish.
That second point is important. A river like the Snake is very hard to wade because the bottom is all round, loose rock. The Kettle is even worse. It’s like walking on greasy bowling balls. The less wading you have to do, the better! Dredging the bottom with a crayfish imitation works well, but sometimes they’re chasing minnows. Use this same technique with a streamer. Picture a Wooly Bugger, Lefty’s Deceiver, or other forage-sized streamer swinging across the pool as though it was struggling with the current and trying to flee and you can see how a hungry Smallie would climb all over it.
If there are obstructions in the pool like boulders or downed trees you can swim the fly into obvious ambush spots. Finally we all know stream Smallmouth have a penchant for top water presentations. By replacing the sink tip with a floating leader, you can cover the whole pool with a popper or Dahlberg Diver and experience some exciting surface hits. The switch rod is a very efficient tool with a variety of presentations! Besides pools, in some rivers you will encounter boulder fields or “rock gardens”. Dozens of targets are all over the river! The extra length of a switch rod allows you to manipulate the line and cover more than one target on a swing. Swim the fly right in front of a big rock and let it hang there for a while before moving to the next spot. Particularly with top water, the longer you keep the fly on the spot the better.
Let’s consider a dark shaded bank with overhanging trees. The longer you keep your fly under the trees the better chance of finding a hungry fish. If you keep a tight line to the fly, the current will grab your presentation and drag it out into the river below you. To compensate for this, you can mend your line. Basically this means throwing the fly line upstream from the fly. You can do this many times to keep the fly where you want it. Don’t worry about slack in the line and setting the hook. With an eleven-foot long rod you can pick up a lot of slack in a hurry and get hooks. And finally remember a Switch rod can be used like a single-handed fly rod with an overhead cast. On a Smallmouth river, it’s the most versatile rod available!
When we think of shore fishing two things come to mind. Not being able to get out there far enough, and getting stuck in the bushes behind you. This is another situation where the Switch rod really shines. I don’t use waders most of the time. In the spring time when the panfish are shallow you can have a lot of fun throwing flies from shore. As you might expect you’re looking for weedbeds or other obvious cover. Because the water is relatively shallow a floating leader works best for sinking or floating flies. You can also use larger offerings to find Bass or Pike sneaking along a weed line. I’m always surprised at the number of Bass I can catch in the middle of the day, throwing streamer flies at weedbeds from the shore.
There are times of the year when the best presentation for Trout, especially large Trout, is a big ugly streamer fly. The program here is essentially the same as described earlier when we were swinging flies through a pool for Smallmouth Bass. Let the river do most of the work, and then add twitches or jerks if you’re not getting any response from the fish. If you’re working through a long pool you can cover all of the water efficiently and easily with a Switch rod. The extra length of a Switch rod let you steer your fly into likely looking spots around wood or rocks. You can even control how fast the fly swings across the river by throwing a big mend into the line immediately after the cast. Imagine you made a cast quartering down stream. If you throw a big up stream mend into the line, the fly will sink deeper and swing across the river slower. A down stream mend will do the opposite, dragging the fly across the river quicker. It always pays to experiment and let the fish tell you want interests them. If the depth or current demands it, you can add a sink tip and get down deeper. It’s difficult to throw a sink tip with a standard fly rod. The Switch rod was developed to do this and does it easily.
Casting a Switch Rod
OK, if you’re interested in trying the Switch rod you’re probably wondering how you actually cast one of these things. Remember that this is basically a roll cast on steroids and many of the same principles apply. There are three steps: Anchor, D Loop, and Cast. You place the fly in the right spot on the water (the “anchor”), throw the heavy head section of line out behind you (the “D Loop”), and then cast out towards your intended target. The anchor placement is important. Assuming you’re a right-handed caster, the usual spot for the anchor is to your right and little more than a rod’s length away and slightly in front of you. Getting the fly to land in the right spot can be done in a variety of ways. It’s also the source of a lot of confusion in this game.
You’ll see all of these terms: Snap-T, Circle-C, Single Spey, Double Spey, etc. They’re referring to ways of getting the fly to the anchor spot. To be honest with you, I doubt I can explain how to do any of them with any justice and strongly suggest you look at videos instead. A picture is worth a thousand words! Basically you can either drag the fly into position or snap it to drop the fly in the right spot. The simplest example would be fishing still water, like a lake. You start with the head section of the line just past the rod tip. Then slowly lift the rod tip up and then snap it straight back down. The fly line will come back at you and drop to your side. If you do this right the fly ends up the right spot and you’re ready for the next step, the D loop.
A “D-loop” refers to the act of throwing the heavy head section of line out behind you. The flat side of the “D” is your rod, and the curved part of the “D” is your line. If the end of your fly line is anchored, then the weight of the head will bend or load your fly rod. This is important. The thing that actually throws your fly line is the rod un-bending. The fly rod has to flex back so it can throw the line forward. If the end of the fly line can move, the whole line flies backwards and you never form a D loop. That’s why you can’t practice roll casting in your yard. The grass is too slippery. You need water to grab and hold (anchor!) the end of the line. When the rod is swept back to form a D-loop it is moved fairly briskly. You want the momentum of the fly line to flex that fly rod backwards. Let’s stop and look at a snap shot of what we’re doing: The end of the fly line is in the water, there is a loop of line out behind us, and the rod is flexed backwards. At this point the rod is loaded and ready to fire; we’re ready to make a cast out across the river. Remember we have a two handed rod here, which means there’s a long two-handed grip on the rod. The upper hand holds the rod lightly and the lower hand does the actual casting. This is like using a bait caster with a long handle. Pulling with the lower hand exerts tremendous leverage with a minimum amount of effort. Lift the whole rod straight up about a foot. This will pick up the bottom of the D loop out of the water, leaving just the leader or sink tip and the fly in the water. Then pull down with the bottom hand and let fly. Aim high, as though you want to throw the fly over the trees on the far bank. If you did everything right you’ll stand there in amazement as your fly line unrolls and the fly lands in the river ninety feet away!
One word of advice: Slow down! You can’t over power this and expect it to work. You can’t force it! The slower you go the better it works. It seems counter intuitive but it’s true. It also means you can fish all day long and not wear yourself out. Try making seventy or eighty-foot casts all day long with a single hand rod and then see how your shoulder feels. If you rush through the cast the end of the fly line comes out of the water and ruins the D Loop. That’s called “blowing your anchor”. If you push with the upper hand, that sends the rod time down towards the water and that’s exactly where the fly line will go. Hold the rod like it’s an open tube of toothpaste and you don’t want any of it to come out of the tube. And move slowly and smoothly! There are four casts you need to master.
The direction the river is flowing past you depends on which side of the river you’re fishing, and the wind may be blowing up river or down. You want to avoid having the wind blowing into your casting shoulder. The wind will push the D loop behind you and when you make the forward cast the fly will hit you in the back, which is not good. Again assuming you’re right handed, here are the four circumstances:
- The river is flowing left to right and the wind is blowing down river. Place your anchor to your right and cast off your right shoulder normally.
- The river is flowing left to right and the wind is blowing up river. The wind will push the fly line into you during the cast so we need to set the anchor on our left, a rod length away and slightly in front of us. Then throw the D loop on your left with the rod held in front of your left shoulder. This is called “cack-handed”. Lift, then pull with the bottom hand and away it goes.
- The river is flowing from right to left, the wind is blowing left to right. Set your anchor off to your right but you will need a different maneuver to get the fly in the right spot, it’s called the Snap T. Then make the cast as usual.
- The river is flowing right to left, and the wind is blowing right to left. Since the wind is blowing into your casting shoulder, we need to place the fly on our left. Then make a “cack-hand” cast.
Here are a few other things to consider. The motions used when you’re making one of these casts are slow and smooth. There’s no great exertion or banging or pounding. If you have bad shoulders, this is a way for you to fly fish with dealing with shoulder pain or other problems. A close friend of mine suffered a rotator cuff tear in his casting shoulder and for a while it looked as though he might be done with fly fishing. We found he could use a Switch rod and since then he’s been on several successful trips for Alaska Salmon. Switch rods, like conventional fly rods, come in different sizes. They come as small as four weights all the way up to 8 weights. I use a five weight for small stream Trout and Smallmouth fishing and an eight weight for Steelhead and Salmon. If you do decide to travel to a Great lakes Steelhead stream, you can use your Smallmouth skills and step right into it. People are finding new uses and applications for these rods every day!
Glossary of terms
Anchor: First step in making a cast, placing the fly in the water near you.
D Loop : Formed when you throw the head section of fly line behind you.
Dangle: Letting the fly hang in the water after it’s swung across the river.
Cack Hand: Making a cast off your other shoulder, backhand in other words.
Circle C: Motion used to place your anchor.
Double Spey: A Drag to your off hand and then back to your fore hand to set an anchor.
Mend: Flip your line up or downstream from your fly to control it’s motion.
Roll Cast: Cast with the end of your fly line in the water.
Running Line: A thin line behind the head designed to shoot through the guides.
Scandi head: Head section with a longer front taper. Better for delicate presentations.
Sink tip: Section of flyline with various sink rates. Used as a sinker.
Skagit Head: Short heavy head designed to cast heavy loads.
Snap T: Maneuver used to place your anchor.
Spey head: Very long head used with Spey rods.
Spey Rod: Big Brother to the Switch rod, typically 14 feet or longer.
Switch Rod: Short two handed rod, can be used single handed or two-handed.