First Published in California Fly Fisher Magazine, April 2008.
I believe in magic. Deceiving a fish with an artificial fly is all the evidence required and I consider fly rods the wands that allow anglers to perform this bit of magic. Some rods are best suited for performing particular magical acts. Rods with smooth classic actions are ideal for the delicate sleight of hand performed in close quarters on skittish rising trout, while a powerful wand that requires two hands is better suited for enticing salmon and steelhead from their deep, dark lairs. Recently, I’ve discovered the magic of switch rods.
Switch rods are relatively new to fly fishing and are among the most versatile of wands. Switch rods are most often 10-1/2 to 11 feet in length and can be used for roll and Spey casts, as well as for overhead casts with one or two hands. The term “switch” was coined to refer to the ability to use one or both hands while casting these rods and the ease with which an angler can change, or “switch” from one hand to two and back with ease. Utilizing modern lightweight composites these rods allow average anglers to perform casts that were once the exclusive realm of the masters. An average magician can shoot overhead casts nearing 100 feet and roll out 40, 50, and often 60-plus feet of line with little or no room to back cast. Once a fish is hooked, charming a steelhead, salmon, trout, bass, or shad to net or hand with an 11-foot bend is as pure an act of magic as you may have ever enjoyed.
The versatility of switch rods has proponents fishing them in rivers, streams, lakes, the surf, and even on the salt flats. My experience has been limited to rivers and streams, swinging flies and nymphing for steelhead, trout, salmon, shad, and a few bass. I’ve enjoyed fishing floating lines and a variety of sink tips using tactics and techniques that can be challenging to replicate with the shorter, one-handed cousins or larger, two-handed siblings of the switch rod.
The line that I use most often with switch rods is a floater. Floating lines are fun and easy to fish and provide opportunities to use both swinging and nymphing techniques. Floaters also allow an angler to change techniques on-stream easily as conditions and mood dictate.
The line that most manufacturers refer to as a steelhead or steelhead/salmon taper, which features a long rear taper of approximately sixty feet, is the line I’ve settled on as the most effective to practice the variety of techniques available with a switch stick. Manufacturers’ line weights seldom match rod makers’ switch-rod designations, so some experimentation or advice from a knowledgeable source can be invaluable. I have discovered that my 4-weight switch rod balances well with a 6-weight or 7-weight steelhead taper, my 5-weight with a 7-weight or 8-weight, and my 6-weight with an 8-weight or 9-weight line. I load the lighter line of the two on the rod when I expect to spend the majority of my time casting overhead, while the heavier line aids turnover when roll casting and Spey casting. I also call on the lighter line when I am plotting delicate casts with small flies, such as swinging flies through glassy tailouts for steelhead.
Over the last few seasons, for steelhead fishing, I have converted entirely to switch rods, with the exception of a few occasions when I’m dredging with the very largest sunken flies. Then, a Spey rod is the wand of choice. Whether I am swinging flies or nymphing, prospecting efficiently is the key to success. Switching allows fishing some lies seldom pressured by other anglers while also providing the means to make the long casts required to work a run most efficiently.
Swinging flies is one of the most time-honored techniques in fly fishing. A switch rod can dramatically increase the effectiveness of this technique. Longer casts, particularly casts with little or no room for a back cast, allow switchers to cover water more efficiently, which is the hallmark of successful steelheading. Floating, sinking, and heavily weighted flies can all be cast and fished on the swing with a floating line and a switch rod.
Perhaps the sexiest form of swinging flies is the surface swing used for steelhead. Proponents are addicted to the visual and tactile aspects. Watching a hot steelhead rise to suck down a floating fly makes the tug the drug. Many folks refer to this technique as “skating” flies. I prefer to reserve the term “skating” for the rarely used, but exciting technique of dead drifting a dry fly, followed by a very slow swing of the fly, dancing or skating it across the surface. I have used this technique with some limited success, primarily on steelhead sighted in glassy pockets or tailouts. Most often when using it, a delicate overhead or roll cast is necessary to cast a high-floating dry to avoid spooking the fish when the fly lands. The length of a switch rod allows delicate mends that can be made to keep the fly in position. Even occasional success using the skating technique can be worth the effort, because you may end up with a remarkable tale worth telling.
The more common technique of swinging a surface fly I refer to as “waking.” Quarter your casts downstream, and the surface tension will create a wake as the fly swims across and below you. You can add motion to the fly with your rod tip or line hand to create additional surface disturbances, producing what I call “chugging” or “mousing” effects. Chugging is most effectively achieved by flicking the rod tip up briskly while pointing it at the waking fly. Larger flicks produce greater disturbances, with smaller flicks employed when a run is clear and less turbulent. Mousing, as you might imagine, imitates a small rodent swimming across the surface, which is best accomplished by stripping in line.
New fly creations with foam lips at the head of the fly make creating the desired surface disturbance much easier than some older fly designs. Switch rods make casting bulky foam flies on 10-to-15-foot salmon/steelhead leaders easier and more enjoyable than trying to manage them with single-handed or Spey rods. Switch rods provide the versatility of overhead casting for great distances without the surface disturbance created by Spey rods while still allowing roll and Spey casts in tight quarters at distances difficult to achieve with a single-handed rod.
On the Umpqua River, or on rivers with similar conditions, such as the Trinity, Klamath or Rogue, I prospect for steelhead with a waking or chugging fly in a size 6 or 8, usually one of the newer foam-lipped versions. I quarter the fly downstream in progressively longer casts and wake and/or chug it across the surface. In very slow, glassy lies, the fly can be cast slightly upstream and fished using the greased-line technique by making a sizable, but delicate downstream mend. Once I’ve achieved the maximum comfortable casting distance for the run, I step downstream on the gravel bar or move to another stance and repeat the process to cover the remaining lies.
If a fish shows, but does not take the waking or chugging fly, I replace the foam fly with a small waking fly such as a Muddler or October Caddis in size 8 or 10 and swing it over the fish. (When greased lining, I sometimes start with a small damp waking or hackled fly.) I usually strip in a few feet of line so that the first cast with the new fly swings a bit short of the fish’s lie. I repeat the original cast with the following cast, then send the third cast a few feet beyond the point where the fish showed. More often than not, this will do the trick.
If the small follow-up fly fails to result in a hookup, I repeat the procedure with a small classic wet fly, which penetrates a bit deeper than a large classic wet, then (where regulations permit) with a small weighted leech pattern, followed by a large weighted leech pattern. The versatility of the switch rod makes casting and presenting the variety of different flies used with this strategy fun and often successful. If the fish remains unhooked after this routine, I note the location and revisit it. Of course, any one of the above flies and techniques can be used to create a bit of magic in their own right.
Another successful strategy to increase your odds while prospecting on the swing is to add a trailer fly. I typically tie about three feet of tippet on to the hook bend of my lead fly — enough to avoid foul hooking a fish a bit longer than the biggest fish I expect. Favorite combinations for steelhead include small wets below waking flies, small wets or nymphs trailing larger classic wets, and lightly weighted nymphs and wets trailing leeches. A switch rod aids in creating the open-loop overhead casts and powerful roll casts necessary to keep tandem flies fishing, rather than tangled.
I’ll admit it up front: I was first attracted to switch rods because of their amazing performance as a tool for nymphing. My early experiments “Speycatoring” with 12-foot Spey rods and an indicator were uninspiring, and a nagging shoulder injury from a climbing accident pushed me to find a 7-weight or 8-weight rod I could fish comfortably all day. Luckily, I was introduced to Bob Meiser a custom rod maker who was developing short Spey rods and who coined the term “switch rod.” Bob lived in Ashland at the time, which was just over the hill from my home in Mount Shasta, so on several occasions, I hauled a stack of his mini Speys to a local river to cast and fish. Most of the original rods were a bit too heavy and lacked the ultracrisp action I was seeking for one-handed techniques and nymphing. Though dedicated to Spey casting and swinging flies (and despite any misgivings about my intentions), Bob was helpful and after a few trials found a blank that suited my purpose. Though I have added and subtracted a few switch rods in my quiver since then, his magic stick remains one that I use as often as any.
Contrary to what some purists might have you believe, nymphing for trout and steelhead can be very challenging and engaging. A long rod that can be used with both one and two hands provides some distinct advantages. Some of the advantages are obvious when you consider the kind of terminal rigs involved. High-sticking heavy flies on the far seam or casting large, air-resistant bobbers attached to large, heavily weighted flies can be a chore, particularly if you desire to get a cast to turn over at some distance and then fish deep.
One of the most overlooked, but highly effective nymphing techniques, particularly for steelhead, is high sticking. With an 11-foot switch rod, I usually attach a 9-foot leader to my floating steelhead taper, add a foot and a half of tippet, a weighted fly, attach another foot and a half of tippet to the hook bend, then add a smaller fly and perhaps some split shot to search pockets, pools, slots, pour-overs, riffles and any other fishy-looking water. Quartering casts upstream and dead drifting them well below me, I look for the slightest hesitation in the line or a wink indicating a fish has grabbed. Unlike taking in the scenery awaiting a tug while swinging flies, high sticking requires an intense focus. A lightening hook set is the key to consistent success, and the quickness provided by an 11-foot ultralight stick can make all the difference. By changing flies, this system can also be easily converted to swinging or nymphing at long distances with an indicator.
Most California fly fishers are familiar with nymphing with an indicator. Anglers in the northern part of the state primarily use two types of rigging when nymphing with bobbers. One system uses a tapered leader to which a yarn, cork, balloon, or other type of bobber is attached in a way that allows for quick adjustment for depth by sliding it up or down the butt section. The second system fixes the indicator in place on the butt section a few feet from the end of the fly line, with tippet material then attached directly to the indicator at a right angle leading to the flies.
The right-angle system has the advantage of sinking faster with less weight and being a bit more sensitive. Of course, adding and subtracting tippet to fish the correct depth can cut into the time your flies are prospecting. If you’re committed for the day to nymphing with an indicator, the right-angle system is a good choice. The tapered-leader system, however, also provides the versatility of quickly converting to a dry-line swinging system by removing the flies and indicator and attaching swinging flies or removing the indicator and high sticking. With a little creativity, the versatility of a switch rod can be interesting and productive, allowing you to high stick with a nymph at the head of a run, add an indicator to nymph the heart, then swing wet flies through the tailout.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of a switch rod when nymphing is the power they provide to nymph with an indicator at distances and depths only imagined by casters of single handed rods. The stack mends sent across the river to keep your offering dead drifting in the zone are equally impressive. You can achieve exceptionally long dead drifts, and while it is invaluable in nymphing to reach water others might not and maintain a dead drift, what I believe sets the successful angler apart is strike recognition and lightning-fast hook sets. The lightness and length of a switch rod can go a long way toward allowing an angler to enjoy a dance, rather than merely getting a kiss.
Indicator nymphing for trout and steelhead can be deadly. When the fish are really on the grab, it can be tempting to run up a body count. I find some of the magic of fly fishing can be lost in these situations, so with a switch rod, I use the opportunity to experiment with seldom-used flies or techniques or, better yet, to swing, wake, skate, or dead drift dry flies.
There is a mind-boggling array of sinking lines to choose from these days for the wide range of applications suited to switch rods, but I must confess that sinking lines have never been my favorite to cast and fish. Learning to Spey cast has made me a bit of a convert, though. Spey casting is effective, and making all those crazy eights with your rod tip can be entertaining. Having confined my switching to rivers and streams, I’ve settled on three types of sinking-line systems that cover all of my needs: Skagits, interchangeable tips, and integrated heads. I can only imagine the line systems used by switchers in the surf, on the flats, and on still waters.
Sinking lines with short heads, 27 to 35 feet long, often called “Skagits,” are a favorite among steelhead and salmon anglers fishing the small to medium-sized canyon rivers typical of Northern California and Southern Oregon. The rivers’ rugged nature, tight quarters, and variety of runs and structure are ideal for Skagits, which require very little back-casting room to change direction and shoot line considerable distances. Skagits are now available in grain weights suitable for most switch rods.
While they are poor performers overhead, Skagit lines on switch rods allow modest casters to roll (or Spey) cast heavy heads and flies effectively at fishable distances with a very short learning curve. With Skagits, timing is less critical, and turning flies over is so easy that an angler learning the rudiments of Spey casting can sometimes be fast into a steelhead or salmon in minutes, rather than after hours and days.
When fishing canyon rivers, with their rock-studded runs and overhanging canopies, I rarely use the tips with various sink rates that typically come with Skagits. Instead, I’ve found that rigging tips with various lengths of tungsten-core line (T-14 or T-8) and a 3-to-6-foot piece of tippet with an open loop knot to the fly to be the most effective tactic. (To avoid the tippet’s nail knot slipping off the tungsten tip, double the tungsten back and tie the nail knot directly over the doubled-back end.)
I typically take 30-foot lengths of T-14 and cut three lengths, of say 7 feet, 10 feet, and 13 feet or 6 feet, 10 feet, and 14 feet, then forms loop to connect to the loop of my Skagit head. Up to 15-foot or 18-foot T-14 lengths are manageable for most folks. The tips can be quickly changed in the field to adjust for depth to get your fly in front of fish while avoiding hanging up on structure between you and the fish, a problem that can occur with the longer tips that come with the systems. Swinging unweighted, weighted, and tandem flies can be fun, and the Skagit sinking-line system has proven to be the most effective for swinging up steelhead and salmon.
I use a floating interchangeable-tip line with the same various lengths of tungsten heads used for Skagits. While it is considerably more challenging to roll cast heavy heads with these lines than with a Skagit, many folks transitioning from double hauls and one-handed applications enjoy the versatility of switch rods with this line system. Unlike most Skagits, an interchangeable-tip line can be loaded on a standard-sized reel for a one-handed rod. Most often, a line in about the same line weight as your floater is the best bet. My favorite line is actually an 8-weight line that I damaged. I just cut off the front taper and added a loop. When I have a bit of room, I cast overhead and shoot line, stacking line on top of the cast to gain depth before swinging. I can cover water using the standard broad swing in runs and tailouts, but this system is particularly effective when used in bouldery runs to high stick and make short swings through pockets and slots. Try replacing your standard wets and leeches with a heavily weighted stonefly or rubberlegs pattern, add a nymph trailer, and hang on!
For wide-open, low-gradient rivers with classic gravel-bar runs such as the lower Sacramento, Feather, Yuba, and American Rivers, an integrated head is my line of choice. Double-hand overhead casting a switch rod for salmon, steelhead, and my favorite, shad, can be a hoot. Playing these fish on a switch stick is so much fun you’ll soon find yourself addicted to a case of the eleven foot bends. Figuring out how to hold line, aerialize it without a haul, change directions, and shoot can take a little experimentation. I’m right-handed, so with my right hand on top, I strip in line and pinch it under my index finger, holding the loops I’ve stripped in low in my left hand. I roll cast to change direction, then aerialize my back cast as close to 180 degrees from my target as I can manage. Without letting go of my pinch, I let my forward cast touch down, aerialize my back cast again, shoot my forward cast, and watch it disappear. If I want a bit more distance, I sometimes let a loop out on my first “touch” forward cast, then back cast and launch.
Integrated heads and interchangeable tips are also great lines for probing for big trout with large streamers with a switch rod. The extra length provides control for the open loops required when casting overhead, eases the strain of roll casting, and provides the means to swim your offering in places and ways previously reserved for your dreams.
The line systems, techniques, and tactics I’ve outlined here have proven successful for anglers with a wide range of interests and experience. Some of the techniques, particularly the various Spey casts, may not be familiar to you. I encourage you to experiment, step out of your routine, and have fun learning something fresh. There are a number of new videos and books that can be very helpful. California is also blessed with some of the finest casting instructors anywhere. A little time spent with one near you can be a worthwhile investment next time you are looking to pull a little trick out of your bag and work a little magic on your favorite stream.