Making the Switch to Two-Handed Casting

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

The union is divided, brother against brother.

Not since the rivalry of cats vs. dogs has there been a break like the one between two-handed and single-handed casters. Much of it stems from some practical issues of sharing the water but there’s more to the story. I found out exactly how much more when I first picked up the Spey rod. It’s highly uncommon to find Spey casters here in the southeast, and when I started some of my buddies reacted with outright hostility. Others, however, were curious and eventually most of them came around to asking me for a casting lesson.

Many of the guys I know who have fooled around with two-handed casting came to it through switch rods, because the idea that they could fall back on their single-hand casting gave them confidence. There’s nothing wrong with that in theory, but in practice it’s usually a disaster. The world of Spey is complex, and without a mentor it’s nearly impossible to master.

Too many anglers will set their switch rod up just like they do a single hander and fish it as a long nymph rod. Once in a while when nobody is watching they will try to pull off a Spey cast, yank the fly out of their neck and move on to a new piece of water.

Switch rods are simply short, lightweight Spey rods. Their tapers are Spey tapers and they are made for two-handed casting. They work in the world of single-hand casting but it’s not what they are designed for. They are more challenging for two-hand casting than longer Spey rods and choosing the right line for them is fiendishly complicated. Add to that the sheer complexity of the Spey cast and you have a goat rodeo for the uninitiated.

It may sound like I’m trying to talk you out of that switch rod, but I’m not. I love switch rods and I think everyone should fish them. I just want to help you learn in the best way possible. Like most fly anglers I know, I learned single-hand casting, pretty much on my own. I got one backyard lesson from my grandfather and spent years beating the water into a stiff meringue before I produced anything you’d call a fly cast.

In the process I developed a lot of bad habits and idiosyncrasies that took half my life to iron out. Sound familiar? When I learned to Spey cast I was lucky to have friends who were world class casters to teach me. When I didn’t know what line I needed, I picked up the phone and called Simon Gawsworth. When I was ready to learn casting I spent a week with Jeff Hickman. I was extremely fortunate. The result was, I learned good habits and the learning curve was days, not years. I’m not saying I don’t still blow my anchor once in a while, but it’s a different world from learning single-hand casting.

The average guy learning to cast doesn’t have the resources I enjoyed. Being in the industry and having the time to commit to practice made it easy, but you can use some of the same methods to learn and the results will be the same. There’s no reason to let the two hander intimidate you. It’s just a fly rod and the Spey cast has a lot more in common with the single hand cast than you might guess.

Here’s how I recommend you learn how to Spey cast.

The first thing you will need to do is chose a rod. If you are going to use your new two hander to fish for trout, a switch rod is the right choice. Get something light. A three or four weight. Remember, that’s more like a four or five in single-hand terms. That light rod will be incredibly versatile. It will swing flies like a Spey rod and still let you high stick nymphs, euro nymph or even dead drift dries. It won’t wear you out and you’ll feel the fish pull.

If you’re buying a two hander for steelhead, then I say go big or go home. Get yourself a real Spey rod, meaning a two-hand rod that is twelve feet or longer. There are some great applications for switch rods in steelheading but the longer rod is easier to cast and you’ll learn faster. If you’re planning to go to the Great Lakes and fish under an indicator, it will do that just fine. When you find yourself on a big western steelhead river you’ll be glad you chose the long rod. You’ll end up with a switch rod too. Two handers are like potato chips.

The next thing is to understand the baffling number of choices when choosing a line. Trust me, it’s simpler than it looks. Most guys get screwed right off the bat. Nobody tells you that switch and Spey rod line weights are figured on a different system than single handers. A five weight switch rod casts a line that’s as heavy as a six weight single hand line and the taper is different. Too many guys buy that five weight switch rod and put their five weight, weight forward line on it, try to Spey cast and decide it’s impossible. It is, with that line. You don’t suck, you just have the wrong line.

No worries, I have the answers for you. You can learn everything you need to know about lining your switch rod in my three part series on the subject.

(PART 1) (PART 2) (PART 3)

Now that you’re geared up, it’s time to learn to cast. I’m not going to write three-thousand words on Spey casting. Maybe we’ll tackle that at some point but it’s counter to the advice I’m going to give you. I don’t really think you can learn to cast from reading about it or from watching videos. At least not without a steep learning curve and the possibility of learning bad habits. It’s really best to find an informant. Someone knowledgeable who can diagnose your casting problems and answer your questions.

It could be a buddy or family member but too often there’s no one available. If you don’t know someone who is an accomplished Spey caster, hire a guide or casting instructor. Let them know that you are there to learn, not catch fish. Most guides will happily spend the time to teach you to cast because it’s an investment for them. The better caster you are, the better client you will be moving forward. If they don’t want to teach, they’re not a very good guide.

Good casting instruction is a sound investment. Fishing can get expensive. Money spent on travel, gear and guides is wasted if you only wind up frustrated by poor casting skills. A good instructor can demystify the mechanics of the cast and help you become a good caster with good habits. That translates to a better fishing experience.

Learning to cast two handed rods is like being born again as a fly fisher. It’s an incredibly effective and fun way to fish. Don’t let yourself be intimidated. Chose a rod that’s right for you and find someone to help you learn. Don’t be one of the guys who would rather fight than switch.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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3 thoughts on “Making the Switch to Two-Handed Casting

  1. Sorry, for disagreeing with you, but being a single hand and two hand casting instructor I would suggest not to buy any equipment, rather seek out a IFFF Certified Casting Instructor (which Simon is) or the like and take a lesson.
    Get an understanding of what this is all about and what equipment you’ll need to fish your area. As an Instructor I have had “many” people show up for a lesson that bought the wrong equipment, either they were talked into it by a person that had limited knowledge or it was a “great” deal. E-Bay and Spey Pages classified are full of these “great” deals
    My lessons always start with a full understanding of equipment, we’ll sit at a table and go over, rods/reels/backing/lines/leaders etc. how to properly balance your system. Then we’ll move to the field and go over grip/stance/ D-Loop/anchor placement/ then on to the water, where we’ll spend time learning the cast needed to fish both banks and wind directions. I supply everything (equipment wise) as is with most instructors !
    At the conclusion of the lesson it’s your choice if two hand casting is right for you !
    In short education is your best investment !
    Rick Whorwood

  2. Cards on the table. I’ve been fishing with a double-handed rod for over fourty years (I recall casting a Sage prototype). But I’m not an instructor or a guide; however I have a fair amount of fishing and retail experience. I agree with Rick’s note; it works in an ideal world. However the vast majority of folks acquire a rod/reel/line set-up, try it, get frustrated and end up on my doorstep. I read Louis’ article and wish people had read at least that (several times!) before coming to me. Generally they have a bad rod-line match. As I said, in an ideal world, they would go to Rick (or another certified instructor, I know several), but most either don’t have or won’t spend the money and time it takes to educate themselves.

    I usually go through a bunch of questions and to be honest about 1/2 out here (Vancouver Island) purchase rods to fish for coho in salt water; all over-head casting (for most). Switch rods are fine for that purpose; with the right line. But learning to use the lower hand for two-hand casting is ….. Problematic! However far too many choose switch rods with the idea of also using them for steelhead and coho in the rivers. These are the people who really need Rick’s attention. My experience … It is way easier to learn the different spey casts on a 13′ (or greater) rod. Just generally more forgiving. Anyway, for many, having a mentor is the best they can (or are willing) to do. It comes as a shock for many when I tell them that there is no one ideal rod for all situations. And to get back to switches, IMO because of timing and speciality equipment issues, those short two-hand rods are difficult for beginners to learn to cast.

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