First published in California Fly Fisher, February 2007
“Boys and their toys,” Jerri said as I hung up the phone. “How many Spey rods do you own?”
Uh oh, I hadn’t realized my wife was listening. “Five,” I offered weakly, “but one is for sale and two are actually switch rods.”
“Switch rods?” she asked.
“Yeah, you know, the rods you can fish with one hand OR two,” I replied, figuring I better lower the price on my “for sale, spey rod” to ensure it sold before the Holidays.
Many fly fishers consider the fly to be the signature toy of the sport. For my tastes the signature toy of our sport is the long stick, the fly rod. I confess to be a presentationist rather than an imitator. I am of the belief that a general imitation properly presented, out fishes an exact imitation, poorly presented, most of the time. I do appreciate the value of well designed, versatile, well tied flies, but I don’t carry a pattern unless I expect it to out fish other flies I might put in my box. The same principle serves in my selection of rods.
While I love rods, I do not collect them. I own three “sentimental” rods I rarely fish. One is a Powell glass rod I received for my twelfth birthday, another is a three weight that represents the only rod I’ve ever built, and the third is a nine foot four weight my son Kevin used to catch his first fish. While I no longer fish the four weight, Kevin and Jerri still fish it as their favorite trout stick. The other dozen rods I own because, in my logic, they serve as the best toys for enjoying a particular fishing application. So when I spotted some rod maker’s new switch sticks at the Federation of Fly Fishing Festival in Redding this fall, I couldn’t wait to get to the river to “test” them on my next “scouting” trip.
“Testing” and “Scouting” are the terms used in my family for days I’m off from guiding and can get out to fish with friends. I contacted a number of rod makers to request they send a sampling of their switch rods and when the rods arrived, I phoned a group of local friends to join me for a “test fest”. The plan was to try a variety of one handed and two handed presentation techniques and determine the most suitable rods and switch techniques for catching fish. Because switch rods are so versatile, this required a stack of lines. We assembled a host of dry fly line tapers and weights, various grain weights of shooting heads and sink tips, Steelhead tapers, nymph tapers, and all manner of Spey tapers ranging from 27 to 85 foot head lengths.
The ten rods we tested are not your Daddy’s or Granddaddy’s rods. These rods are the newest composite designs that are very light in hand with fast to medium fast actions and are an ease to cast with one hand or two. All but two rods provided by switch rod makers were between ten and a half and eleven feet. The rods weights are listed between 4¾ ounces and 5.9 ounces, which is approximately the same fighting weights of the four and five weight bamboo and glass rods I own. See the “Switch Rods” sidebar for rod specifications along with brief comments from our “testfest”.
The Rods and Rivers
The name “Switch Rod” and a good deal of the early development of switch rod design can be credited to Bob Meiser, owner of R.B. Meiser Fly Rods located in Southern Oregon. I was introduced to Bob and another Southern Oregon switch rod maker, Gary Anderson of Anderson Custom Rods, by Ken Morrish.
You may have met Ken offering expert advice at the Ashland Outdoor Store or more recently as one of the principles at Fly Water Travel. Ken knows as much about fly fishing for steelhead as anyone I have met so when I saw his photos “high sticking” and indicator fishing with a spey rod I took notice.
Ken described to me his switch rod introduction, “When I took my first formal spey casting class in 1994 I was immediately struck by the potential the spey rod held for unconventional techniques such as nymphing. At that time double taper lines and big fourteen and fifteen foot rods were essentially all that was available, so as you might imagine, I found myself capable of making long line mends that were not only impressive in terms of power and length, but totally unthinkable with a single handed rod. I immediately started sending high powered stack mends across the river. I still remember one of my traditional swing fishing buddies in the class looking at me and shaking his head as he said aloud, ‘I know what you are thinking’.” That winter Ken began to nymph and indicator fish a number of rivers with his fourteen foot nine weight spey rod. He says, “While it was heavy and awkward, I caught a good number of fish that my companions could not reach. Eventually technology caught up with my applications and I got a prototype thirteen foot eight weight Scott that I loved, and later the twelve foot eight inch Scott seven weight which became my staple. Ultimately, this style of fishing revolutionized my success on certain systems. While I kept what I was up to quiet, this technique which I coined ‘spey-cator fishing’, has been enjoyed by my friends and I for the past eleven years. I guess in hindsight, due to my unconventional use of the product, this may have been one of the first switch rods.”
With my introduction to Bob Meiser and Gary Anderson in 2000 I began experimenting with the rods they designed specifically for switch fishing. I was frustrated by a nagging shoulder injury from a climbing accident and my inability to single hand a seven or eight weight rod for a full day. Not only did their switch rods allow me to fish all day without pain and suffering, I was able to easily make casts and presentations unimaginable with my single handed rods. I soon added two rods to my stash, a ten foot three inch six weight and a twelve foot eight weight and have been fishing them successfully for steelhead, salmon, trophy trout and shad on Oregon and Northern California fisheries ever since. With Sage, Scott, Thomas & Thomas, Winston, and other major rod makers joining the parade I expect to add a couple new sticks to my stash in the coming season.
It is no coincidence that switch rods were conceived and developed by anglers in Southern Oregon. Equipment and techniques are most often defined by the waters we fish. The rivers of the region, the Klamath, Rogue, Umpqua, Smith, and Chetco along with their forks and tributaries host quality runs of Salmon and Steelhead which are ideal species to target with switch rods. By Northwest standards these are small to medium sized streams and fourteen and fifteen foot rods are seldom required, even by traditional swing artists, to cover most runs while single handed rods can be limiting. The ability to make both one and two handed casts and load switch rods with a host of modern lines makes them an ideal toy to utilize a variety of techniques for catching challenging fish on a fly rod.
Spey-cators & High Stick Nymphers
For anglers serious about nymph fishing, the advantages of a modern lightweight two handed switch rod are readily apparent. While a switch rod may not compel you to sell your single handed eight weight at your next garage sale, you may find yourself relegating it to your “back up” rod more and more. Casting a large air resistant indicator fifty, sixty or seventy feet with heavily weighted flies and a stack of split shot can be done with considerably less effort than a single handed stick. Using powerful mends to maintain quality drifts becomes a breeze and getting eight to twelve foot drops to turn over allows you to effectively reach fish that are next to impossible with a single hand. What will really impress your friends though is hooking fish at the end of a one hundred foot drift and the arc a nice fish can put in an eleven foot stick!
Taking the indicator off and “high stick” nymphing with a switch rod provides similar advantages in control that “spey-catoring” anglers enjoy. Casting heavy weights and flies to the far seam and reaching out an extra two feet makes for great drifts and keeps nervous waders out of harms way.
The biggest improvement that I have found in nymphing however, comes with my hook set. In my early nymphing efforts with big spey rods, the extra rod length was offset by a heavy swing weight. Switch rods with their one handed weight and extra length combine to make for very quick controlled hook sets and fewer opportunities lost.
Shooting Heads and Overhead Casts
While a good double haul can provide some pretty impressive distances, a two handed rod cast overhead is in a whole other league. I recently witnessed Steve Rajeff demonstrate a 300 foot cast with a two handed rod. Providing there is room for a back cast, the average angler can often cast nearly half again as far when using both hands on these longer rods. For surf casters, and fresh water fishers throwing shooting heads, this often makes the difference in reaching feeding fish. While rod makers have told me that surf casters enjoy the longer length of switch rods to cast over waves, my experience is limited to fresh water fishing for Steelhead, Salmon, and Shad, where I am able to cast well beyond my single handed counterparts. The amount of grain weight these rods carry is also impressive with even the lightest switch rods handling grain weights heavier than I can cast with a ten weight single hand. For me, the biggest advantage casting switches is that I can fish all day without pain or getting worn out.
I have fishing companions that believe they are not fly fishing for steelhead unless they are swinging flies. They would not be caught dead with a bobber, often comparing it to dead drifting bait. I appreciate their aesthetic but being a bit more practical, only join them in their step and swing mantra if I believe I have a reasonable chance to find a fish dancing on the end of my line.
My spey rod selection as well as most of my companions has been evolving toward lighter weight and shorter rods. Fourteen foot eight weights, once the standard are being fished much less, replaced with twelve and thirteen foot six and seven weights. This also follows a trend away from dredging heavy sinking lines and skating, waking and chugging flies on or near the surface with floating lines. This summer and fall I moved all my dry line swinging to my switch rods. Hey, it was fun, felt classy and I even caught a few fish!
While a few experienced spey anglers will find useful applications for the new switch rods, I expect most will stick with rods twelve feet and longer and continue to dredge with their fourteens. However for the angler new to spey casting but experienced with single handed rods, switch rods can be the ideal toy to learn new techniques and transition to longer heavier spey rods. This is especially true with the availability of new spey lines that balance with the lighter and shorter two handed sticks.
Line Selection for Switch Sticks
I could not explain to you in words fit to print how frustrated I became searching for lines to match my short, light weight, two handed rods. A big part of the problem originally was the lack of selection. A double taper was great for surface swinging and nymphing and shooting heads worked great for overhead casting but when trying spey techniques my casts fell apart. Ken Morrish came to the rescue and suggested overlining my rods by one or even two line weights. This worked considerably better but my casts continued to suffer from inconsistent turnover whenever I fished large, heavy flies or indicators.
Then came a problem of too many lines to choose from, Windcutters, MidSpeys, Grand Speys, Triangle tapers, Scandinavian Heads, Skagits, Short Heads, Shooting Heads, integrated heads, XLT’s, Long Speys let alone all the tip options, sink rates, grain weights and even packets of short loop to loop connections to adjust head lengths called “cheaters”. It was no wonder I was frustrated and confused. It seems like I nearly ended up purchasing and trying one of each before recently finding a couple lines that provided the performance I have been wanting.
Most folks new to spey casting arrive on the water with lines with fifty to sixty foot heads. These lines cast well overhead and will get anglers started in most switch applications, but early on I became frustrated trying to spey cast heavy tips and swing longer distances. Over lining helped solve these problems a bit but I found it was also difficult to mend the thin running line when fishing indicators.
By far the best line I have found to develop and teach spey casts and quickly get folks into fish is the Skagit line. Skagit lines have a very thick heavy head, thirty feet or less in length, which is matched to floating or sinking tips and a running line. If I was to use a two handed rod for swinging (especially for sinking lines) my first choice would be a Skagit. Skagits have only recently become available in grain weights suitable for switch rods.
Unfortunately the Skagit line turns out not to be a very good line for nymphing with a switch rod. A longer head is needed to make long casts and mend line. Sixty to seventy
feet seems to be the optimal length, followed by thirty or more feet of running line. This also is a great line for swinging on or near the surface especially for more delicate presentations. “Steelhead” tapers made for single handed rods work well provided they are heavy enough. I use line weights 8-10 on my lighter switch rods but for my heavier rods Steelhead tapers aren’t available so I select a spey line with a similar head length and taper. Unfortunately the spey line requires a reel with a larger capacity than the one I use for the Steelhead taper and my single handed rods.
Will Johnson, a switch rod enthusiast from the Rogue Angler in Ashland had some interesting observations when testing lines on switch rods during the test fest. While he found the mid spey tapered line a good fit for indicator fishing, at extreme distances the tip of the line collapsed a bit. He thought cutting a portion of the front taper off might solve the problem. Will noted, “ There is the possibility that the best line for these rods does not exist yet.
Switch Stick Selection
After testing these new rods I am of the belief that switch rods might possibly revolutionize “spey-catoring”, have anglers throwing shooting heads ungodly distances, introduce a host of new anglers to spey casting techniques, and allow anglers to catch fish in ways and places they never imagined. Hopefully the sidebar will be helpful in sorting out a rod to suit your needs and provide your imagination a foothold.
Over the past twenty years I have arrived at a successful formula for selecting a new rod that has served me without fail. I have recently dubbed it the Harry Potter formula. There is a movie scene where Harry arrives at a shop to choose a magic wand. After all types of chaos, the wand ends up choosing him.
To apply Harry’s formula to rod selection I first decide the rod length and weight I am after. I go to a shop, or even better yet a fishing show (‘tis the season’) and test cast four or at most, five rods. One of them will feel just right because it is the right rod. If not, I come back another time to cast new rods and find my magic wand. This formula has worked for me and several friends time and again. I hope it works for you. In fact it’s recently worked for me again, I just need to convince my wife I need another switch rod.
10 Best Rods Reviewed from our Switchfest
Ready to switch? Here are the specs and some brief comments on the rods we tested in the fall of 2006. While we recommend some lines, I’ll again quote Will Johnson from the Ashland Fly Shop, “there is the possibility that the best line for these rods does not exist yet.”We hope you find a rod ideally suited to your fishing dreams and suffer soon from the long rod bends.
Anderson Custom Rods
ACR, 10’ 9”, 7 weight, 6 piece MSR $400
The ACR is a beautifully finished rod with a medium fast action that cast and nymphed well up to extreme distances.. We found for sinking tips Skagit lines seemed to be the easiest to cast. A great value that will serve any angler exceptionally well.
For ’07 4 rods, 11’ 5-8 wt. 4 piece MSR $500 (not reviewed)
Sage (blank), 10’ 8” 7weight, 6 piece MSR $600
A two hander created from a single handed blank. Another beautiful Anderson finish with a medium/medium fast action, not nearly as powerful as the ACR. We felt it performed best in dry line spey applications.
Other custom switch rods available (not reviewed)
R.B. Mieser Rods
S2H106, 10’6”, 350-550 grains, 4 piece, MSR. $555
A very nicely finished rod with a medium fast action that is ideally suited to spey casts. Hard for us to imagine casting 550 grains, 350 Skagit line seemed best to us. Persons moving from spey rods to switch rods will likely appreciate this rod the most.
Five other models 5 through 12 weights (not reviewed)
S2H1078, 10’, 7/8 weight, 2 piece, MSR. $535
Beautifully finished medium fast action rod that nymphs exceptionally well. Light in hand, will spey cast floating lines. Not well suited to sink tips, a bit cramped for loops, newer models have oversized guides. We liked an eight weight Steelhead line for nymphing and swinging.
Four other models 5 through 9 weights (not reviewed)
Z-Axis, 11’, 5 weight, 4 piece, 5 1/16 oz. MSR $670
This rod was the star of the show. Don’t get confused by the line weight, we liked an eight or even nine weight Steelhead line, 6/7/8 Windcutter, and the Skagit 350 nearly cast itself. This rod’s fast action excelled at extreme distances with reserve power wanting to be unleashed.
ZAxis, 11’, 6 weight, 4 piece, 5 1/8 oz. MSR $670
Ditto the 5 weight. If you’re after bigger fish try a bigger rod. We did not have Steelhead test lines heavy enough for this rod and the 8 weight SA Spey and 450 Skagits seemed a tad too heavy but distances and control at the extremes still dropped a few jaws.
ZAxis, 11’, 7 weight, 4 piece, 5 3/8 oz. MSR $675
With the 5 weight and 6 weight getting all the attention this rod got a bit lonely. We didn’t care for thick cork and shape of Sage grips. We also didn’t bring heavy enough lines to really put the 7 through it’s paces. Big Steelies and Salmon beware, the Switches are coming!
ZAxis, 11’, 8 weight, 4 piece, 5 5/8 oz. MSR $675 (not reviewed)
Scott Fly Rods
E2, 10’ 8”, 8 weight, 4 piece, 5.9 oz. MSR $495
We had a little trouble coming to grips with this rod, literally. The cork seemed to stop a bit short and we seemed to keep looking for a little more tip? Solid rod, medium fast action, exceptional price point that cast well in all techniques, but not exceptional for one technique n particular. We liked it with an 8 or 9 weight Steelhead taper and a 350 Skagit.
Thomas & Thomas Flyrods
DH, 12’, 8 weight, 4 piece, MSR $850
This was no doubt the biggest stick. Designed originally for classic two handed dry line presentations but can toss an indicator and land massive fish. Very fast action. Right on the edge for single handed use. We were disappointed not to receive the 6 & 7 weights for review.
DH, 11’, 7weight, 3 piece, MSR $750 (not reviewed)
DH, 10’, 6 weight, 3 piece, MSR $745 (not reviewed)
R.L. Wintston Rods
Boron IIx, 11’, 7 weight, 4 piece, 4 3/4 oz. MSR $645
The light weight in the group, if you were blindfolded you might take it for a 10’ five. I felt like I could single hand this rod all day. Do not be deceived, this rod has a smooth fast action and is loaded with power. Toss a 8 or 9 weight Steelhead taper to the next county or roll out a 350 Skagit with a tungsten tip and hang on when you’ve got a case of the 11’ bends.
This review would not be complete without a very big thanks to John Rickard, Will Johnson, Aaron Greener and Ken Morrish for their enthusiasm, insights and on stream dedication for this project. Thanks also to Jaime Lyle, Jason Lozano, Gary Anderson & Bob Meiser for supporting this project with rods, reels, lines and technical advice.