Single hand spey casting for trout

I live on the west coast and spend pretty much all of my recreational free time sea run cutthroat trout fishing. These fish are not often like east coast resident trout at all, they are more like a mini steelhead so take everything I write with a grain of salt. If you’ve read anything else I’ve posted you’ll notice a bias towards trout switch rods, but I have spent a great deal of time on really small log filled rivers with tight drop bank, treed, brushy banks where roll and steeple casting, bow and arrow casts and whatever flop, poke abomination that got the fly out there was required to catch fish. It was not a place for any switch rod. This was with a 9 ft 5 weight older St Croix imperial (a rod that I miss and now resides on the bottom of the Cowichan river, but that is another story) and standard true to aftma 5 wt lines. This setup could get it out there but it wasn’t always the most efficient tool, but I caught plenty of cutthroat along with quite a few coho and the odd spring, and had a great time. This was before myself or any of the local flyshops locally had ever heard of so called “single hand spey casting” and spey casting was something alien to most anglers. After those formative years I have spent time learning how to spey cast (badly) and swing flies for steelhead, bought and sold a few spey and switch rods and experimented within the abstraction of a niche called trout switch rods. Inexorably this exploration has also led me almost full circle back to single handed rods with no backcast room on small rivers. After years of mucking about with these rods it seems to me that both switch rods and single hand spey have an equally valid niche where they shine.

There are several pros and cons of both light switch rods and single hand spey casting first of which is cost. There are quite a few relatively cheaper options (used or budget options like building your own, amundson, ARE, etc) when it comes to trout switch rods these days but most people who fly fish will already own one to several 3-7 weight single hand fly rods of varying quality and matching reels. Most factory budget switch rods still run $300 minimum, add in lines, perhaps a reel, and tips (not to mention any other gear you don’t have) and this gets expensive fast. Not pebble beach golfing expensive, but for those of us on a tight budget dropping 500 dollars to merely try something out is not practical or advisable. While not great for every approach the good news is that single hand spey casting allows you to try spey casting out within a budget and if you like it then you can spend the money. If you already own several single handers then all you really need is a single appropriate line and maybe a poly leader and then you can start spey casting. What’s more is that you may already own a 40+ or outbound or similar and then you don’t really need to buy anything.

A lot of people these days are looking for lines for single hand spey casting, so here are the ones I have used.

wulff ambush line- in both trout sizes and steelhead salmon sizes one of the most widely used and widely available, clunky but will throw tips and big flies, like a mini skagit. 20-29′ depending on the head

snowbee switch line-similar to an ambush but better for slightly lighter tips and smaller flies. 25′ head with attached running line

airflo 40+ the regular line features a 35′ head so not the best line for skagit type casting, attached running line

SA singlehand skagit line

Beulah tonic switch (skagit) as a grain guide the 300 gr tonic switch is perfect for a 9′ 6 wt single hander with 10′ of  T8

Beulah elixir switch (scandi) 245 gr for a 9′ 6 wt single hander with a 10′ intermediate poly tip) the switch versions are quite short and fish very well with single hand fly rods. Avoid the spey sizes for best performance

There are others such as the vision vibe, rio skagit shorts and the new scandi body, rio trout LT double taper for a more delicate presentation, and even regular fly lines work, but for best performance going a line weight or two heavier works better

What situations do trout rated switch or spey rods shine? Some would argue none but that is not even remotely true. On medium sized rivers where there is limited backcast room and longer casts are required for swinging flies there is no better tool. Swinging bushy trout wakers or other larger flies is another. Windy conditions, or where you are wading deeply while casting. Nymphing. Fishing with sink tips of any kind in rivers is far superior on a switch rod. The beach for me is also a preferred venue for switch rods, but you’ll find that opinions vary. Not because you can’t do any of this with a single but because of efficiency.When I look at that list, I see that really there are quite a few conditions covered.

What situations beg the use of single hand spey casting for trout? Well sea run cutthroat, and pretty much any other species can be targeted. Small rivers with lots of brush or obstructions for one, anywhere where you may need to strip or swing flies but also throw upstream dries in the same day and cant bring two rods, not having a lot of money, fishing for coho or cutthroat where stripping in flies is the primary approach and 11 foot or longer  rods are just too long, having an perverse and impractical hate for switch rods. Casting larger flies for smallmouth and largemouth around docks and laydowns from boats is a fun way to practice challenging anchor placement, as well as have fun with this technique.

Comparing the two requires going to a river, with appropriate setups to somewhere with moving and still water, not sitting on your ass oggling fish porn on the internet, but here are my observations on the difference between the two. Single handed spey casting like all fly fishing requires the right lines…airflo’s 40+, wulff’s ambush or triangle tapers, the lighter beulah elixirsand even tonics, SA single hand skagit, snowbee switch lines , and some of the lighter shorter skagits eg. SA Skagit extreme or rio skagit shorts (and others) are all good for the purpose, as they feature shorter length heads.

The rods I have played with the most are a cheap generic fast action amundson rocky mountain nine foot five weight, (a rod that I will probably be adding a lower handle to soon)and a moderate redington CT nine foot five weight, as well as an nine foot six weight moderate fast echo carbon and a light fast action mystic M series 9’3 6 weight. The five weights like a line at about 180-200 grains, as such I have cast my 200 gr snowbee switch on them both. When you first go to cast them it seems kind of ridiculous but even the five weights can chuck an impressive amount of line easily. Ive also tried 7 and 8 wt single hand lines but the taper is usually too long. The six weights like a line from 240-300gr, and as such I have cast a 245 gr elixir, 250 gr snowbee switch line, and a 300 grain snowbee switch and tonic(skagit) on these rods. All of these setups have exceeded my expectations and are a lot of fun to play with. When trying to dial in an appropriate line, sometimes we end up buying the wrong one and then can’t return it once it’s used. This is a common issue with all spey and switch rods. The clerk’s (or random internet) opinion of what works and you’re own preferences are often different. For example with my 6 wt 11’9 TCX I have seen line recommendations that run from 340 470 grains, so I picked up a 340 grain AFS scandi line and to me it was WAY too light, but the shop won’t take the line back even if you only cast it once. If the line you are using seems too heavy, you have three different options, buy a new one, strip some of the head of the line in past the tip and varying the amount each time until you find the sweet spot, you can then mark the line for reference, and either just strip it in to the mark everytime or cut and splice the line (line building however is a whole different topic.) If it’s too light well you can buy another line, rod, or trade somebody for a more suitable line. I find that it is a good idea to hold on to lines rather than sell or trade them, as you will often come back to the same lines in a roundabout way as you pick up different rods. Most of my favorite lines cast better on rods other than the ones they were intended to be on initially.

As far as performance goes 50-60 ft distances in tight cover were fairly easily obtainable, bordering on effortless, especially when you start experimenting with a haul. It was noticeable when wading out a bit deeper to my waist that the leverage the 9 ft rod gave me was lacking and it became tougher to cast. There seemed to be little room for error (a common issue with light switch rods as well) on the setup of the cast but I could turn over intruders no problem. Setting up for the haul takes a little getting used to, but a well timed haul helps overcome some of the issues with this style of casting like timing and distance. The snap T, double speys, single speys and the circle cast are all easy to do. Most of the lines these rods pair with are easy to overhand as well. The only thing I can sy is I wish I had these rods 10 years ago.

If none of this makes sense let me try to give you more of a direct comparison between the two. I recently took my 11’3 4 w mystic switch ( a light moderate soft rod that bends to the cork on 18″ sea run cutthroat) and my 9’3 6wt mystic single hander ( a moderate fast and light powerful rod that could handle coho and pinks no problem) with the same 250 gr snowbee switch line to a small brushy mid island river with fairly low flows for a couple of hours to see what the direct differences were like. This river is 20 to 40 ft across and has excellent sea run cutthroat and resident rainbow populations by island standards. First the switch rod got put through it’s paces in a variety of water and around obstructions followed by the single hander in the same spots. This comparison led to some surprising semi conclusions. The switch rod was definitely better when wading up to the waist or chest, and for line control on longer casts. They were both equivalent in terms of max. distance and the single hander was better for almost everything else. Fishing in tight cover, close in casts, The mechanics of casting the two are noticeably different even with the same lines in the same places. This is definitely the type of river where single hand spey comes into it’s own. Take those same two rods to the beach in a breeze with 6 weight overhead lines and the 250 switch line and the switch rod shines. The efficiency of the switch rod makes it a night and day comparison. Each has it’s niche, neither is useless, or universally useful.

As this is a discussion slicing niches into mini niches I thought the last word should be on single hand fly rod to switch conversions. Ed Ward one of the pioneers of the spey casting/skagit revolution in fly fishing has done some experimenting with adding small back handles to existing single hand rods (some incredibly light 3 and 4 weight rods) and then splicing lines to make small skagits for these rods. Very good and detailed discussions of these conversions can be found on 2handedtrout and the skagit master forums as well as spey pages and possibly some other sites. With the recent explosion of trout switch and spey rods on the market, this probably represents the utmost extreme of pushing the boundaries of two handed fly casting, and opens up more possibilities in this world. Can you imagine throwing small intruders on a 7’6 3 wt switch rod with an 12 ft skagit line? It is also another low budget option for the trout spey world as there are many lower end rods collecting dust in closets (including my own)that would be good candidates for this kind of conversion.

Like all things fly fishing, the only way to know is to get out and try it and if you don’t like it then don’t do it. Feel free to drop a comment even if you disagree.

All this or you could just go fishing.

On the beach: winter into spring/part one

This is part one in what will be a year long chronicle of the life of a beach fishing sea run cutthroat fanatic.

December to April

Winter sea run cutthroat fishing

Dour, wet, grey, are a few words that come to mind when one thinks of our west coast winters. Addled, crooked, bent are a few words that come to mind to describe the kind of people who would even consider fishing for sea run cutthroat in the winter. Winter is not often synonymous with the sea run cutthroat, most likely because some lesser fish known as the winter steelhead holds most anglers in a thrall through this sometimes fugly part of the year. For many anglers the only exposure they have to winter cutthroat is while fishing for winter steelhead and then it is only as a trifling and seemingly random event on much too heavy gear.

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Although not often targeted they are found both in rivers and in the salt in certain estuaries and beaches. Not all beaches are created equal however or even hold sea run cutthroat in the winter months. Many of them follow the salmon and steelhead into the rivers from the fall right through to late spring, especially on larger rivers, and this is not surprising for the opportunistic cutthroat as there is a sustained buffet of eggs, flesh, and then fry, aquatic insect hatches plus the spawning run of the diminutive and mysterious cutthroat itself. These are the rivers where you will often find winter stream cutthroat. They are not targeted by nearly anybody as far as I can tell, but can be caught by nymphing eggs, or flesh patterns, swinging large streamers, and stripping fry patterns. These patterns are very similar to flies that most people throw for steelhead, hence the crossover. The best chance for success is obviously on rivers where there are larger populations of sea run cutthroat and not above falls or fish ladders as sea runs are not known for travelling past these barriers like other species. The fact that nobody is chasing them belies that if you look hard enough there are indeed viable winter beach and river sea run cutthroat fisheries out there.

Below:chasing sea runs in the lower section of a small river in december, when found they are often just as aggressive in december as august

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The traits of individual runs of these fish do vary in myriad ways in spite of anglers assertions otherwise. Small creeks that have little or no salmon return and receive seasonal peaks of rain in the winter and otherwise are dry or just a trickle will have runs of cutthroat that utilise them for spawning when conditions suit, not when a textbook says they will. I’ve caught post spawn fish in November and I’ve caught them in June. These fish are largely marine fish and I will sometimes find these fish almost year round in nearby estuaries. Large rivers with equally large massive often hatchery enhanced  runs of salmon provide a fairly steady supply of food for trout for a good part of the year. I often do not find fish in the beach areas of these rivers after the end of October until well into the spring/summer.

One thing that is probably necessary of anyone who wants to fish for sea run cutthroat in the winter is a willingness to drive around, hike and search around a lot, and fail repeatedly. Incidentally this is usually required of anyone who wants to catch them anywhere in the first place. The weather often doesn’t cooperate, and the fish are more sporadic. On the beaches where they can be found they can still seemingly disappear periodically, for example during herring spawning time in early spring on some ECVI beaches. I had never caught a sea run in the winter off the beach until I moved to Vancouver island. This was not for lack of trying, but the island offers many more of the small creeks that meet the criteria for winter cutthroating on the beach.

A fine january beach sea run

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Being opportunistic creatures and feeding during a time of year when food sources are at low levels logically you’d think that cutthroat would eat just about any fly you toss at them but I’ve found that when you catch fish there are some important specifics to adhere to.

from the same beach in february

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There are different schools of thought on how to approach this fishery. A lot of the little literature I have read about this time of year states to use sparse versions of favourite flies(rolled muddlers, and werner shrimps for example) lighter tippets, longer leaders, wade only to the ankles etc. My own experience tells me to go to the beach with a variety of simple flies tied from sparse to fully dressed, several strengths of tippet, and perhaps a 6 wt for casting in the wind and a softer 5 wt for protecting light tippets, see what the conditions are like, find sea runs, catch or watch them reject your flies and deduce your own conclusions because these fish are maddeningly unpredictable and can behave differently depending on the time of day, location, tide, food source, and what works for me can might not work for someone at the other end of the same beach.

Food sources for sea runs in the winter months are much more limited than in the spring through fall. There is little sea weed growth, many creatures are less active or simply not there, feed less with slower metabolisms. Sculpins and small shrimp are pretty much the only things I have seen fishing from december to the beginning of april. Most small baitfish are scarce until march/april when chum fry and young other young of the year baitfish hatch. Different anglers seem to prefer different flies, and indeed the type of bottom structure/beach gradient you fish will hold different kinds of food sources. They are also fairly active even in cold water, sometimes visibly rising and cruising up into the shallows. The flies that have worked for me in the past are usually moderately stripped small shrimp patterns, ; conversely I have a friend who does well on the same beaches with quickly stripped number 8 long shank streamer blue and white or red and white bucktails. I have even read of people catching them on dries during the winter, so as always observation and experimentation are paramount. As well as being completely addled as you’d have to be to even wonder about chasing sea run cutthroat in the winter. I have found that these winter patterns will often hold until into april, when the warming water and increasing daylight triggers changes in the composition of food sources available.

Biting wind, cold rain, numb face, feet and hands are often the hallmark of the beach from November right through to May or even june-uary some years. If there is one key to fishing this time of year it is to watch the tides and the weather, and wait for the right time to go to the beach. Milder days with low winds and fishing the tides is key. I have not often found cutthroat anywhere near shore on low gradient beaches when the shallows are being thrashed and churned up by the waves. Sea runs tend to run away from these kinds of conditions. Going out when the rain is blowing sideways in your face is often not conducive to success.

A very ideal day at an ideal location

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As far as my winter this year went…well it was a wash. I didn’t make it out a whole lot this year but I did visit local saanich peninsula beaches some well known others completely new, with zero success in the rivers or at the beaches but sometimes that’s the way it shakes out. These trips were usually for a few hours around the end of the ebb or flood tides. I also hiked in to some spots without a rod and just watched for rises. I did not see a single rise in 2013 until april. Of course buying and selling switch rods, a few winter steelhead trips, blowing up my oilpan on a logging road, and blowing up a switch rod, finding a new job, and illness curtailed my outings quite heavily. When I did get out, my 4 wt mystic switch paired up with a snowbee 7 wt single hand line paired with an intermediate poly tip was my go to setup, and I fished a variety of muddlers and small short shrimp patterns.

They aren’t numerous, and they are hard to find but I do know that for me aggressive trout on light gear trumps any other winter fishery out there.

Nice calm day in January at the beach

jan beach 2012

Doug Rose had an interest in winter sea run fishing and often fished some beaches out on the Olympic peninsula that were very favorable to this fishery. Check out his blog (link down at the bottom) for lots of good information on targeting these fish in the winter months.

How to find sea run cutthroat: A primer

*Hint* you can’t find them sitting in yer underwear covered in cheeto crumbs at home, everything I have learned I have learned hands on at the beach or in the river. The only thing the internet is good for is killing time when you can’t go fishing. So jump out that sofa and get hiking. All you need is waders, a 5 or 6 wt. fly rod, floating line, a few leaders, tippet, and a few flies so don’t obsess over getting any new gear(at first). If you have been fly fishing for any length of time you probably already have these things. Most beaches get breezy and a 5 wt is usually lacking in the wind(unless its a new fangled ultra super fast action rod, but that’s that’s because they just write 5 wt on what is really a 6 wt blank)

Get yourself a copy of Les Johnson’s book and a tide table you can find these online now (back in the old days you had to look in a newspaper or use a tide book and convert the time based on where you were) and if you still have any money left get a copy of Chester Allen’s book, go fill your tank full of gas, string up your fly rod, and start exploring. Don’t give up if  you haven’t found anything for the first few weeks, and be careful in tackle shops, because most guys will make it sound like the waters teeming with these fish when they most certainly are not. I’m not going to give it all away. Look for creek or river mouths with cobbled beaches, it shouldn’t be too hard to get an idea of a few likely spots to start out at, and then start fishing the low and high tides. Observation is at the core of this fishery.