Article: Switched On!
This article originally ran in the Fall 2007 edition of American Angler and is reproduced here with permission.
THE COWS WERE CAUSING TROUBLE AGAIN. I was fishing Arkansas's White River at Rim Shoals—Dixie's equivalent of the Miracle Mile—but the herd occupying the bank behind me was preventing any kind of real backcast. With my trout stick, I tried making Spey casts across the broad open shoal, reminding myself exactly why Spey casters usually prefer longer rods. What I needed was a hybrid—a rod I could cast like a two-hander but fish like a standard rod—but at the time I didn't know such a rod existed. Turns out I wasn't the only one to find myself in such a situation. A new wave of these hybrid tools, called "switch rods," is making its way onto shelves this year.
As when any supposedly new technology appears on the scene, most anglers are full of questions: What is a switch rod? Why would you want one? And most important, how could one make you a better fisherman? I polled the experts and tried these rods firsthand to learn exactly why you'd want to pull the switch.
In order to appreciate switch rods, you have to understand the whole two-handed rod concept. Two-handed rods, nicknamed "Spey rods" in American parlance (to the horror of most Europeans), were developed on Scotland's salmon streams, such as the River Spey. They are specialists' tools—rods long enough to load and unload a cast without the need to aerialize a backcast; necessary equipment on rivers with deep, swift currents and high, crowded banks. The technique made the jump to the New World in places—such as the Pacific Northwest and more recently the Great Lakes region—with rivers that match that profile. Given those locations, most Spey fishers tend to be salmon and steelhead aficionados, but recently many have been branching out and using their two-handers for other species.
The fundamental trait that all Spey casts share is the "water anchor." Like the familiar roll cast they are based on, Spey casts rely on surface tension to give the rod something to pull against. Another way in which Spey casting is different from singlehanded casting is that there are no hauls. Any extra power the angler would get from hauling is more than outweighed by the power provided by pulling on the bottom grip of a two handed rod.
Your typical two-handed rod has some identifying characteristics that set it apart from a one-hander. First, most are 12 to 15 feet long. Second, they often sport an extended upper grip and an elongated butt section that can be more than six inches long. The lower grip gives the Spey caster a lever to pull on, while the length of the rod helps carry the extremely heavy load of a modern Spey line, often with a sinking tip and large streamer attached. Due to the weight of those lines, reels for Spey rods tend to be huge—many a salmon fisherman has wound a reel originally designed to pull in billfish.
Spey casts and traditional two-handed rods are very good at some things, such as presenting flies over and over on long casts in consistent currents, says Jim Bartschi, of Scott Fly Rods. They also excel at "delivering sinking heads a really long distance with a big fly," says Bob Meiser of R.B. Meiser Rods and Temple Fork Outfitters. Still, they have a couple of critical flaws: at an average minimum of 13 feet long, they are awkward and cumbersome when it comes to fishing in close, and they don't perform as well when currents are braided, like on most trout streams. Finally, on smaller waters, they are often simply overkill—a 15-foot rod could reach halfway across many trout rivers.
Switching for Success
Enter the switch rod. While there seems to be some disagreement (or at least discussion) about an exact definition, fundamentally, a switch rod is one that can be fished with either one or two hands. Some makers—such as Meiser , who is widely credited with popularizing the term "switch rod" in the Pacific Northwest—describe switch rods as rods that can be cast overhead like a one-hander, or Spey-style like a two-hander. Lee Davison of CND notes that all switch rods are substantially lighter than their double-handed brethren; "Otherwise you couldn't hold the things up!" But all switch-rod manufacturers are quick to point out that the distinctions don't stop there. "We like to consider our rods ’secondhand assist rods,'" explains Bartschi. "Because while you certainly can cast either overhead or Spey-style with one, the real advantage comes in the actual fishing. We say you can cast like a two-hander, but fish like a one-hander." And that means fishing in-close, as well as at a distance.
How would you fish a switch rod? Trevor Bross of Thomas & Thomas explains the details: "If you think about it, the rod is just the radius of the circle an angler can reach, say to pick up line from the water. The longer that radius, the farther away the angler can control his mends." There's a point of diminishing returns, of course, when the rod is 14 or 15 feet long, "because the angler loses fine control; long rods can magnify casting errors and cause mending problems." A switch rod is in the sweet spot, Bross says, because the angler can make a traditional Spey cast due to an obstruction or crowded backcast and can then mend and fish just like a one-handed rod.
The result is proficiency in controlling long nymph or streamer drifts, because the rod is long enough to throw big mends, but short enough not to blast across current seams or make the angler feel awkward. Bruce Berry of Beulah highlights the switch rod's ability to work a particular spot: "Instead of a second and a half of drag-free drift in pocket water, you can get a full six seconds, because you can high-stick almost the whole time." According to Bartschi, this means you open up new water: "The angler can target fish in places he's never been able to before; he can catch fish that rarely see flies." Many large trout hold just outside the reach of traditional fly anglers, blissfully unaware of all that their more-pressured brethren have learned. And as we all know, fish with lower pressure tend to be more aggressive—and bigger.
With a two-handed rod, the primary concern for the designer is, as Meiser puts it, "grain carrying capabilities." The longest rods have to be able to handle huge, heavy rigs to make 100-foot casts on large rivers. A switch rod doesn't necessarily bear that burden; long casts with reasonably heavy loads are possible, but the design excels in the lighter line categories. And that means trout. In my own experiments with switch rods on southeastern tailwater trout streams, including at Rim Shoals a few weeks after I encountered the cows, I proved Bartschi's point—fish often hold in lies just out of reach of most anglers. With my newfound ability to hit those spots, I caught more, larger, and more exciting trout than I could otherwise have done. And not a few anglers in the parking lot were eyeing my switch rod as I broke it down.
Farther and Longer
Putting the theory aside, where exactly would you use one of these rods? For wading anglers, one of the biggest frustrations is hitting the end of a shoal only to look back and realize that the crowds have set in; the spot you are in is now your spot, like it or not. On pressured water, many trout have learned to congregate outside the reach of shoal-based anglers—often just a few tantalizing feet out of reach downstream. With a switch rod, a 100-foot drift is an actual reality; the angler can set a hook thanks to the leverage provided by the longer rod, and he can mend over much longer distances to keep the drift alive. With a few modifications in rigging—I recommend indestructible and highly visible balloon indicators—you can present a string of nymphs at long range and bring back distant fish. Just keep paying out line and mending and you'll be very surprised how much farther away you're in control.
Nymphing isn't in the cards on your river? No problem. Switch rods also excel at delivering streamers—often with sinking tips and shooting lines—over long distances. By hybridizing Spey and traditional casts, you can efficiently cover lots of water while pinpointing likely trout lies (instead of blindly searching, like some steelhead water demands). First, make a Spey cast, such as a double Spey or a snake roll, at short range to aerialize your fly and line; then, when your rig is in the air, trade techniques and bring the line into a normal backcast. The added rod length, coupled with aerializing a heavy Spey line like a Skagit floater, can legitimately extend your overhead cast by several yards. (In my admittedly unscientific experiments, new switch rod casters gained about 30 feet on their longest overhead casts.) Best of all, aerial mends such as the reach cast and the stack cast are still available—you aren't limited to a straightline presentation across many converging currents. Since you are probably already very familiar with overhead casting, new Spey techniques become more of a supplement to your current style of fishing than a replacement, which would require you to learn all over again from scratch.
The switch rod is more of a concept than a set form, but most do share certain characteristics. Lee Davidson of CND notes that switch rods are, on average, 30 to 40 percent lighter than conventional two-handed rods and lack some of the anachronistic hardware (such as ceramic insert tip-top guides or oversize reel seats, seen on some double-handers). Whereas a two-handed rod averages from 12 to 15 feet long, most switch rods run from 10 and a half to 12. (The 12- to 13-foot range is something of a gray area, depending on how an angler uses the rod.) Finally, switch rods cut way back on the two-hander's grip array; they will often have a conventional upper grip and a shortened version of the lower grip, which resembles more of a lengthened fighting butt than a second handle. (But there's a lot of variation here.) Some maintain the one-hander's cigar-tapered grip, while others resemble knocked-down two-handers. A few more experimental models sport strange-looking humps in the cork, for different grip configurations.
Switch rods are not simply elongated trout rods, however. Europeans fishing Ireland and Scotland's lochs have used 11- to 12-foot one-handed rods for many years, but those rods would break if loaded with a modern Spey line. Switch rods evolved from their Spey brethren rather than their shorter cousins—their tapers are designed to handle the heavier line systems such as Skagit floaters. (A 400-grain Skagit line is considered a 6- to 7 weight load for a switch rod, rather than the standard 10 to 11!) However, switch rods can also handle conventional aerial-casting lines (though you may want to up-line a size or three).
Bob Meiser acknowledges that lining a switch rod can be confusing: "We do give a line designation, but the truth is most of these rods can handle a wide variety of lines, depending on how you want to use them." He suggests trying out both Spey and conventional lines and learning how you like the feel of each. If you tend to spend most of your switch-rod time casting overhead and controlling long mends, consider a conventional steelhead or distance line. (The longer front tapers give the longer switch rod some mass to manipulate, instead of trying to mend from the running line.) If you plan to mostly perform Spey casts but you don't want the cumbersome length of a two-handed rod, try one of the aforementioned Skagit lines or a short-headed Spey line such as Rio's Windcutter or Scientific Angler's Spey Short Head. Or, as Meiser is quick to suggest, bring them both. Conditions may change throughout a day, and it's easy to re-line a rod.
If you are considering buying a switch rod, keep in mind what these rods are not. "They really aren't ’training wheels' for learning to Spey cast," says Bartschi. "A lot anglers who think they aren't ready to step up to a two-handed rod will try to get their feet wet on a switch." This isn't as good an idea as it sounds; most Spey casts are best learned with a full two-handed rod, and it helps to know a few of these casts before picking up a switch rod for the first time. Luckily, many fly shops are now giving Spey-casting lessons, even in the former Spey hinterlands of the South and East, so you can borrow a rod to take a lesson, then buy the switch rod you'll really use.
Every so often, a new technology comes along and anglers everywhere look up and say, "Why didn't I think of that?" Switch rods are just such a development. Whether you'd like to try your hand at Spey casting but your local water is just too small (or complex), or you have a perfect spot in mind that you've always wanted to get a cast to but never could, it's worth your time to try one of these new hybrids. As they spread, other anglers are sure to adopt them and educate those distant fish.