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
www.ginkandgasoline.com
hookups@ginkandgasoline.com
 
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22 thoughts on “Making the Switch to Two-Handed Casting

  1. Nice work Louis. I’ve always been interested in learning how to Spey cast. I’m not sure that I would use it a ton, but I’m always looking to add another skill to my bag of tricks. Just another reason why we need to hit the water together!

  2. A close friend of mine totally blew out his right (casting) shoulder. Surgery, the whole deal and it’s still not right. It really looked like his fly fishing was over and done with, until we started learning about two handers. I built him a Switch rod and he’s back fishing, everywhere from Alaska to Cape Cod. When casting a Switch or Spey, the motions a re slow and graceful, and your hands are in front of your chest. Perfect for someone with bad shoulders. If you try and hammer a Switch rod it goes nowhere so this is perfect for him. We don’t have much Steelheading in Minnesota but I’ll tell you a Switch rod works very well on a Smallmouth too.

  3. I want to learn two handed casting, but living in Maryland, there are very few places nearby where it would be useful. A good two handed cast looks so smooth and fluid and just plain awesome.

    • If you fish on smaller streams where a single hander is normally used, you could probably make use of switch rod. Part of the beauty of the spey system is no back casting. It lets you fish in some pretty tight quarters plus you get your fly right back in the water without a series of back casts.

      Try it, you’ll like it and will be surprised how many places it “fits” that you didn’t think it would.

      Jeff

  4. Since picking up a Spey rod two and a half years ago I can count the number of times I have used a single hander on one hand. Spey casting is just so damn fun! A couple weeks ago I was on a windy farm pond and started using a double-Spey with my single hand 6wt in order to blast the line out through the wind. Use Spey casts on rivers with my single hand rods any time I am nymphing.

  5. This is good stuff. Two Handed rod casting is a wonderful liberation from the work of single handed casting. And if you get good quality advice and support from the beginning it will go all the better. You needn’t give up your good old 9 footers. But once you get into the simplicity of spey and switch casting, your old rods will be gathering dust.

  6. A GREAT switch rod setup for nymphing/swinging combo fishing:

    Echo SR 4wt Rod
    Rio Switch 4/5F Line

    This is the one setup I cannot go to a trout river without. It is versatile and casts like a dream. If you are only going to swing you should get a different line, though.

    I suck at spey casting, but I don’t need to be good because with what are basically two handed roll casts I can send a nymphing setup easily to 60 feet, which is way too far to fish one anyhow. The long rod helps to keep a big open loop in my cast so that I don’t tangle a nymph rig.

    When I get ready to swing streamers or soft hackles through a pool I can use a really ugly snap-T to easily get 100 ft of line out, but I don’t have a river that big to fish on.

    The best thing is that the long rod with awesome roll casting-like ability allows me to keep my fly in the water probably 2x what I could with a 9′ single hander. At the end of the drift there is no back cast to put the fly back in the water, and I can mend 2x the amount of line I could with a 9′ rod.

    • This has got my attention!

      “The best thing is that the long rod with awesome roll casting-like ability allows me to keep my fly in the water probably 2x what I could with a 9′ single hander. At the end of the drift there is no back cast to put the fly back in the water, and I can mend 2x the amount of line I could with a 9′ rod.”

  7. Louis:

    Jeff from OR here. I converted to fishing with spey gear, well lets just say a long time ago. I still have a light single hander for really small streams, but use the spey gear for EVERYTHING else.

    I use a 14′ 8 wt. spey rod with an 8/9 wt. Unispey line and various sink tips for swinging streamers here in OR fishing for salmon & steelhead.

    I go almost every July / August to fish the Gunnison River on CO and use a 13′ 7 wt. spey rod with a variety of floating and sinking tips fishing for the big browns & rainbows that live there. I use the longer 8 wt. when I fish for big stripers and largemouth bass on some of the lakes in TX when I go there to see family.

    The point of this is to get across how versatile the spey rod is. It really is easy to cast once one has mastered the basics. From there it is practice, practice, practice. I highly recommend that everyone give it a try if at all curious.

    Jeff

  8. It should be noted that Spey casting is just that a “casting style” and can be done with single or two-handed rods. The guy on the Rio videos was very adamant about that fact. A Spey cast is a roll cast without a pause. There are a lot more variations on the Spey cast depending on wind, which bank you’re on, etc.

  9. I just started using a Switch Rod this season. Like you’ve mentioned here, there really isn’t anyone I know in my area that is using these for warmwater fishing. Getting started is intimidating. Watching videos helped to see how casting instructors are doing it helps. Getting on the water and trying it builds confidence that anyone can do this. I’m far from being “good” at it, but I’ve caught a fair number of trout, bass, bluegills and crappies so far. I was suprised how well the crappies fought on a 12′ 5wt switch rod! It really IS fun.

  10. I bought an Orvis Helio 11ft 8wt switch rod this year, and put a Lamson Guru on it. All fall I was out swinging for steelhead on the salmon river, and was catching fish, although I wish now that I had bought a spey rod, but it still got the job done. And then this spring, I put Switch Chukar line on, and went up to the upper salmon river towards Stanley, and got steelhead nymphing. For me. Im glad I bought the Switch!

    and hey. When are you guys coming out to fish the Owyhee River again, its calling your’ name.

    Mike

  11. It is of this South-Eastern anglers opinion that spey casting has not caught on because most of the rivers are just smaller. Most freestone appalachian streams are as wide as a spey rod is long, if not shorter. The “trouty” water is often suited to short casts or drifting under the rod tip.

    That being said, last fall, I was fishing the outgoing tide at murrells inlet, throwing a streamer upcurrent, and letting the tide bring it down along the jetty, I thought to myself “hmmm, if I had a spey rod with a sinktip…” Spey fishing has connotations with salmonids. I think when using the extra long rod for warmwater species catches on (which it is), people will think of using them more down here.

  12. Hey Louis, I read your Parts 1-3 on switch rods before heading off to India with one to chase golden mahseer. Man, you really helped blow away the haze and make the view crystal clear. Great articles and a big thanks from me. Hallelujah! I’m a convert! I have seen the light.

  13. Pingback: Fly Fishing Articles | Two-Handed Casting, Pebble Mine and Fly Tying

  14. I started to learn two handed casting about two years ago. I bought and then resold many rods trying to find what worked best for a beginner. If a friend asked me, I would advise learning to spey cast with a spey rod at least 12 feet long. Gary Anderson’s Explorer series comes with a matched line for a great price. Once your casting has improved beyond beginner, you can give the switch rods a try. But I would caution switch rods are not at all a bridge to spey casting. D-loops are much easier to form with the longer rods.

  15. I’ve been using spey and switch rods for over 3 years in saltwater. There’s nothing like being able to reach out across an estuary to a Striper or a bonito! Or, to lift a fly out to an albie in the surf.

    That said, we just moved to Tennessee, and folks at fly shops look at me like I’m from Mars when I mention the S words. There’s just nowhere to throw a four weight any brand near Nashville.

    I could use a hand or hint here. Because of budget, I can’t just go out and get what ever and hang the expense. I’m tossed between TFO Deer Creek, Echo SR, and Redington Prospector in 4 wt. Oh yeah, I like Ambush lines with furled leaders or Versa tips.

    Please help ad to my confusion.

    • I fish a 4 wt Echo SR, primarily nymphing for trout.

      It is great for that purpose.

      I used to live in NC and fished the Watauga a lot. You don’t need a switch rod for that–you just need a longer rod to get the benefits.

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