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Spey Rod Fishing -vs- Switch Rod Fishing

by Ray Schmidt
11/17/11 Ray Schmidt 2011

A lot is being talked about and written about when it comes to Spey fishing  and Switch fishing these days and it is very confusing to lots of folks. Let's talk about the differences.

First, Spey fishing is generally spoken of when an angler uses a rod that requires two hands to cast. The rod has a long fore grip and a relatively short aft grip (top hand is fore and bottom hand is aft). The term Spey fishing comes from history as a method of fishing that was started on the Spey River of Scotland. In order to cover large amounts of water swinging a fly and to make a cast without the luxury of a back cast, anglers developed a long rod that could do the job.....a two handed rod 15 to 20 feet in length. In order to cast such a beast it required using both hands and a very specialized cast. The cast is named "Spey Casting". Long bellied fly lines were made to order to use with these rods. Fly reels also had to be specialized to accommodate such long and large diameter fly lines.

This method of fishing went on for a couple centuries in Europe before it made its way to America's west and east coasts. West coast anglers first started using this method for swinging a classic Steelhead fly in places they could not find room to make a back cast. Atlantic Salmon anglers of the Northeast also used this rod and method for the same purposes. American anglers soon discovered that when the technique required a classic wet fly swing method, Spey was answer. Simply put, you can cast further with less effort than any other methods know to date.

There are many different types of Spey casts and many different Spey fly lines made for different techniques, rivers and rods. Generally thou, only two methods of Spey fishing are deployed. One is fishing on or near the surface (floating Spey line) and the other is using some sort of sink tip or sinking head to fish subsurface.

Today's modern Spey rod is on average about 13 to 14 ft long and fairly lightweight (made of carbon fibers) Cost of Spey rods range widely, from about $250 to $1,000 depending on where they are made and the brand you buy.

Now let's look at Switch fishing. The term "Switch" comes from the ability to use this rod single handed or two handed, thus Switch. These rods are on average about 11 feet long, have fore and aft grips similar to the Spey rods except the grips are slightly shorter in length. Switch rods are all the rage with Great Lakes Steelhead anglers as they should be. A longer rod has many advantages that include the ability to control line better, whip a big fish very quickly, use lighter leaders and can be used in a variety of techniques, including a Spey type cast.

Our guides use Switch rods almost exclusively while Steelhead fishing and here's why. We can deploy 4 different techniques with one rod. Using a float (for nymph & egg flies), drift fishing (nymph & egg flies), swinging flies either with a floating line or a sink tip single hand style and finally using the rod deploying the Spey casting techniques. We like the new St. Croix Imperial 11' 8wt 4 piece Switch rod. This rod is made in America, employs all the latest materials, is light weight, performs like a Swiss watch and is priced at $260, a great value.

Because Switch rods are shorter than Spey rods a different type of fly line is required. We generally use a line called a Skagit (ska-jet) Extreme from Scientific Anglers or a Steelhead Scandi from RIO. This line is very short in the scheme of things in the Spey world...22ft for the Skagit Extreme and 33ft on the Steelhead Scandi. I like the Skagit Extreme personally but both work well.  Here's how we rig it up. First we have to have a fly reel that is capable of holding backing, running line, Skagit head and the associated sink tips that can go with it. We'll talk about reels in a moment. We spool the reel with the appropriate amount of backing, we attach a new sort of shooting line to the backing called a Dragon Tail shooting line, then we loop to loop the Skagit head to the Dragon Tail and finally the  tip of choice (floating, intermediate or sinking). This fly line or "fly lines" configuration allows us to do almost anything at the spur of the moment. A Skagit Extreme head costs $55 and the Dragon Tail shooting line is $39. I would like to mention that RIO introduced a fly line called a Switch Line. For the Great Lakes this line has not proved itself to be as versatile as the Skagit or the Scandi line, so I would stay away from this “catchy” named fly line for Great Lakes Steelhead fishing.

Fly reels for this fishing technique need to be of large capacity. Generally if your Switch rod is a 7 or and 8 weight, the reel needs to what we would traditionally call a 10 size. The reason for this increase in size is due to the large diameter fly line (Skagit head and associated shooting line). We recommend a high quality machine cut reel for most Steelhead and big fish fishing. Many, many reels are out there at many different prices, we like the new Hardy Ultra Lite DD reel. This is an amazing fly reel at only $299. Another fly reel that’s hot right now for this technique is the Greys/Hardy G-TEC 9/10, a great value for $239.
So, let’s get to it. Steelhead and Great Lakes Steelhead go hand in hand with these new products. You can fish in a variety of methods and be ready for any situation when you get the products I have outlined. At Schmidt’s we specialize in this stuff, we just don’t talk about it we do it, everyday. We have these products in stock ready go and we’ll set it up for you for free.