Saturday, 11 February 2012

Early Morning Elk sighting.

Early morning elk sighting.

Switch Rod on the Wind

First fish taken with the new switch rod - a beautiful wild rainbow.

Double handed rods have always been the traditional tool to use for Atlantic salmon fishing.  These rods can be as long as 16 feet though 12 to 14 footers are more standard.  The primary advantage of  the long rod is that you can Spey cast - a casting style named for the river Spey in Scotland where the style was first perfected.  The advantage of Spey casts is that you don't need room behind you for a backcast.  The rod is loaded by the water tension on the line. A Spey cast is like a roll cast on steroids. Atlantic salmon fishermen in the Canadian provinces used the same long two handed rods but, as far as I can tell, it was steelhead fishermen in the Pacific NW who really started the renaissance in the development of modern two handed technique. They've experimented with every aspect of the formula including rod length but the most dramatic developments have been in fly lines for two handed casting.

About twenty-five years ago custom rod builder Bob Meiser in Oregon started building two handed rods for northwest steelhead fishermen.  Along the way, he developed the concept of the switch rod. A switch rod is a short double handed rod that can also be used as a long single handed rod.   As a double-handed rod it can be used to make Spey casts and as a single-handed rod it can be used to make traditional overhead casts.  Switch rods are versatile fishing tools.  They are typically ten and a half feet to eleven and a half feet long and a more recent trend is making lighter and lighter rods to apply these techniques for trout fishing.Switch rods have become so popular that all the major rod manufacturers produce them.

I own a 14' 9wt Spey rod that I bought for fishing in Scotland in 2008. I've used it to fish for steelhead in Oregon and Washington, but it is not a suitable tool for trout.  This is a rod designed for large salmon. I recently purchased a used Sage Z-axis 5110-4 switch rod to apply the double-handed rod techniques to the larger rivers I like to fish in Wyoming. It's a 5 weight 11' four piece switch rod.  Aside from the fun of double handed casting techniques, a long rod makes mending and line control on the water that much easier.

The array of line types and weights for double-handed rods is damned confusing to the newcomer. The big manufacturers are Rio, Airflo and Scientific Anglers. Rio has a nice working paper called Understanding Spey Lines that I can recommend.  There are three different styles of lines for double handed rods: traditional Spey lines, Scandinavian (Scandi) lines, and Skagit heads.  Though they are all variations on the original Spey casts, each type of line requires a different style of casting.  It seems that almost no one throws a traditional Spey line any more. A Spey line is essentially a very fat double taper line and might have a 60' or 70' head.  With their long bellies they are harder to cast than a Scandi or Skagit head. The Scandi lines are like a shortened Spey line.  There is a continuous taper on the head so it turns over nicely.  A Scandi head is typically about three times the length of the rod and since it is shorter it is easier to cast.  Skagit heads were developed for casting on the Skagit river in Washington.  There is often quite restricted backcast area and so these heads are typically even shorter than the Scandi heads.  But the key is that a particular rod is best loaded with a line that falls within a particular range of grain weights.  My Z-axis 5 weight seems to like lines whose heads weigh between 240 grains and 350 grains. Bob Meisner uses the grain window concept to rate his rods but unfortunately the rod manufactures and line industry have not agreed that this is the best way of characterizing rod capabilities - it would simplify the whole absurdly complex mess quite a bit.  That rods perform best at casting a particular weight of line means that a short Skagit head is a whole heck of a lot thicker than a Scandi head of the same length. 
An old hatchery brooder also took the streamer.  
Of course since switch rods are shorter than traditional Spey rods, the formulas all change there too.    A five weight switch rod like the one I have is designed to cast a double-handed lines but can also be used to cast a single handed line.  Confusing things even more is the fact that rod weigth rating for switch rods do not match up with the ratings for single handed rods. Typically, switch rods are best matched with single handed lines that are two or three line weights heavier than the labelled rod weight.  Thus, in theory, my five weight Sage switch should cast a 7wt or 8 wt single handed line. And that formula seems to be true for many switch rods, but my Sage may actually perform better with a 6 or 7 wt single handed line.  Depends on who you listen to.

With a traditional single handed rods, say a 9' 5 weight, you'd buy a weight forward 5 wt line and that was pretty much that. Eventually, the coating would wear off the line and it wouldn't float as well as it had so you'd buy a new line.  If you were a lake fisherman you might also have a sinking line for the same rod. It's hard to estimate how many choices there are for two handed rods, I'd guess that there are literally hundreds of different lines available.  Some of the double handed fly line development frenzy has overflowed into the single handed rod world.  The relatively new Wulff Ambush lines are being marketed as single handed Spey lines - they have short heads and allow users of single handed rods to use Spey casting techniques. This turns out to be a good formula for switch rods too. Rio has followed suit with their Outbound short head line and Airflo has a Speydicator line which can be used to nymph with indicators.

All these experimental lines are good news for the fly line companies and they make the two handed rod game quite interesting. 

A cold overcast day on the Wind River tailwater at Boysen State Park.
I did get to try out the new rod just a day after it arrived.  I rigged it with an 8wt bonefish taper line and, on a drive up to Cody WY, I was able to stop and fish the tailwater on the Wind River below the Boysen reservoir. I would have usually fished this water drifting small midges or sow bug patterns. To initiate the new rod I tied on a white marabou streamer/leach pattern and caught three excellent fish on the swing in about an hour of fishing in cold overcast weather. Not a bad initiation at all. Now I just need to figure out what line fits this rod for the style of fishing I intend to do.