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.