Sunday Classic / Choosing a line for your switch rod Part 2: Choosing a line

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photo by Louis Cahill

photo by Louis Cahill

Before we talk about specific lines and how they fish, let’s take a minute to understand the switch rod.

If you have not read “Part 1: Understanding lines and line tapers” you can find it HERE. I think you will find the information helpful.

The switch rod is a product of evolution. A decade ago the average length of a two- handed rod was 14 feet and the average line weight was 9. As two-handed casting has become more popular and its application more varied, the average two-hander has become shorter and lighter. The modern two-hand rods are less fatiguing, beautifully balanced and more versatile, allowing Spey-style casting in tighter casting situations.

The switch rod adds to this adaptation the option of single-hand casting and high sticking. Things that couldn’t be accomplished with longer heavier rods. This makes the switch rod the most versatile rod ever made and the most confusing. It is a rare angler who uses their switch rod in every application it can handle.

A switch rod is really a short, light weight Spey rod. Although it will accommodate overhand casting, even with traditional lines, its taper is designed for two-handed Spey casting. Therefore, in most applications, it will perform its best with a line designed for two-handed casting. When matched with the right line switch rods are not only versatile but incredibly effective.

A lot of switch rods spend their lives in the closet because they got matched with the wrong line. Often, folks coming from a single-hand casting background will set their switch rod up with a traditional line for single-hand overhead casting and find that it performs poorly. This is because the rod is under lined and it’s an easy mistake to make.

Switch rod and Spey rod weights are rated on the AFTTA standard and single-hand rods and lines are rated on the AFTMA standard. It’s like comparing Celsius to Fahrenheit or meters to feet. This means that a 5-weight switch rod, for example, takes a much higher grain weight line than a 5-weight single hander in order to get the proper load. That 5-weight single-hand rod needs a line in the range of 180 to 200 grains, whereas a #5 Switch rod needs 300 to 330. That’s a huge difference and if it seems unnecessarily complicated, that’s because it is. It’s critical when choosing a line for your switch rod that you think in terms of the grain weight needed to load the rod.

Here’s a breakdown of suggested grain weights for switch rods by line ratings. These figures will vary from rod to rod and may also be affected by your casting style, but it’s a good guideline.

3wt. 200 to 275 grains

4wt. 250 to 325 grains

5wt. 300 to 375 grains

6wt. 350 to 425 grains

7wt. 400 to 500 grains

8wt. 450 to 550 grains

9wt. 500 to 600 grains

Now that we have a little better understanding of the switch rod, its lineage and some of the baggage associated with it, let’s talk about some of the line options and some of the fishing opportunities they open up for the angler. Most anglers have a line manufacturer that they like. Because Simon Gawesworth of RIO has helped me by providing a great deal of information on this topic, I will be talking about RIO lines. That doesn’t mean that other manufacturers do not make comparable lines. If you have experience with a line that you like on your switch rod, please share it in the comments section.

Line Options

The first lines we will look at are Spey style lines. In most cases these lines are shooting heads that must be attached to a running line of your choosing and in some cases a sinking or floating tip. While these shooting head systems perform beautifully on a switch rod, offer a lot of versatility and give you the best two-hand performance, you need to put some thought into your set up. For example, mono running line is a dream to cast and great for swinging flies but is unmendable. It’s useless for fishing nymphs or dries.

Head length is very important when choosing a Spey style line for your switch rod. Generally speaking, you want to choose a line that has a head length no longer than 3 times your rod length, as the greater the ratio between rod length and head length, the harder it is to spey cast. As the majority of Switch rods are around 11 ft in length, a good starting point is to utilize a line with a head length of around 33 ft. Simply put, this means either a “Skagit” type line, or a “Scandi” type line.

Skagit Lines

The only choice when swinging flies for winter steelhead and a great line for swinging streamers for trout. Skagit lines have thick and heavy front ends and are designed for one thing –turning over weight. These lines (most of them are shooting heads, rather than “lines”) are perfect for casting fast sinking tips and heavy flies. The power at the front end is also great for casting in tough wind conditions. The power of any fly line is related to how many grains it has per foot, and if there are more grains per foot at the front of the line, it will deliver a powerful punch. For example, the front foot of a 525 grain Skagit Short weighs just over 20 grains. The front foot of the equivalent weight of a Scandi head weighs just over 9 grains – far less punch.
Pretty much all Skagit heads that are on the market require the addition of a tip – either sinking or floating – to the front end, and a shooting line to the rear end, and the heads feature a neat welded loop on both ends to facilitate this. It is very important that the caster takes into account the length of the additional tip and adds it to the length of the Skagit head to find out if they fit close to that 3:1 ratio.

RIO offers three Skagit head designs; the “Skagit iFlight”, “Skagit Flight” and the “Skagit Short”. In most situations, the Skagit Short is the best choice of line for a Switch rod due to its shorter head length (totaling 20 ft). This means an angler can fish the very popular 10 to 15 ft sink tips without exceeding the 3:1 ratio significantly.

Scandinavian or Scandi line

Scandi lines are great for summer steelhead as well as fishing for trout. Any fishing scenario where two handed casting is advantageous and medium to small flies are being fished on the surface or at moderate depth a Scandi line will perform well.

Scandi lines again tend to be shooting heads, and the back end needs to be attached to some kind of shooting line, though there is no need to attach a tip to the front end like the Skagit heads require. Scandi lines are built with long front tapers and have most of the weight at the back. This type of design creates the smoothest and tightest of loops when cast, and have the very best in presentation. While you cannot add a sink tip to most Scandi heads (not enough grains per foot at the front), you can certainly add sinking (and floating) VersiLeaders to such Scandi heads, and use these to control the depth.

RIO offers three Scandi head designs; the AFS, Steelhead Scandi, and Scandi Short VersiTip, and, for the switch rod, in most cases the option is going to boil down to either the Steelhead Scandi or the Scandi Short VersiTip.

The Scandi Short VersiTip was specifically designed for Switch rods and has a total length of 33 ft. It comes with 4 different density, 10 ft long sink tips, which can be switched around as fishing conditions change. The real selling point of this head is the versatility of it. If you attach one of the supplied 10 ft tips, it is a beautiful and easy casting Scandi head. If you don’t attach the supplied tips, the 23 ft body is a great Skagit head that can handle the heavier fast sinking tips (such as the MOW tips) as needed. For anglers that want to just fish a floating head and keep it simple, the Steelhead Scandi is the best option.

Now let’s talk about Switch Lines.

Switch Lines

A new, and very effective, class of lines that combine the design of a traditional single hand line with a taper which is made to Spey cast. It is not the best line for either Spey or overhead casting, but does a pretty good job at both. This line is the best choice for the angler who wants to use their switch rod with techniques traditionally employed when fishing for trout with a single hand rod but wants the ability to Spey cast. These lines will allow you to cast a nymph rig with an indicator either Spey style or overhead. Combined with the powerful line control advantage of the switch rod, it’s a deadly set up for trout or steelhead.

RIO’s switch line has a 55 foot head which is well over the 3:1 ratio and requires that you modify your casting stroke on a Spey cast. The downside to this is that if you are new to two-handed casting, this line will reinforce habits that are not good for casting with Spey lines. To be the best all around caster I recommend that you learn to Spey cast with a Scandi line.

Still Water and Saltwater

For the angler who fishes still water or in the surf, the switch rod offers a powerful advantage– incredible distance. When used for overhead casting the two hander allows you to generate serious energy and line-speed. With the proper line you can shoot for a country mile.

For this application RIO offers the Outbound series. The Outbound combines a powerful 37.5 foot head designed to load high performance rods quickly with minimal false casting and a high tech low resistance shooting line. You feel like a super hero when casting the Outbound. It is available with floating, intermediate and sinking heads so you can easily fine tune your line choice for the type of fishing you do. Remember, buy by grain weight. The Outbound is rated on the AFTMA scale.


So to summarize, here are some basic choices for switch lines.

• Spey fishing almost exclusively with heavy sink tips and large flies – Skagit Short
• Fishing indicator rigs with nymph/egg patterns – Switch line
• Overhead casting in the surf or on a lake for maximum distance – OutBound Short
• Everything else – Scandi Short VersiTip

Hopefully one or more of these scenarios describes the kind of fishing you would like to do with your switch rod. Maybe they open up new possibilities that you haven’t considered. Whatever type of fishing interests you, there’s a good chance that your new switch rod is up for the challenge. In part 3, I’ll talk specifically about 2 of the RIO lines I am using on my switch rod.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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6 thoughts on “Sunday Classic / Choosing a line for your switch rod Part 2: Choosing a line

  1. Great article. As a recent (uk based) convert to a switch rod, I agree totally with what you say about how useful a switch rod is in your rod collection. I bought my switch rod – an 11ft 7/8wt – to swing bunny leeches for Pacific Salmon (mainly chums) on a short skagit head with a “T” tip in BC earlier this year but since then have used it single handed for carp fishing in local ponds overhead casting with a regular #7 floating line and the last few months with a Rio Outbound Short Intermediate with 6in flies for UK river pike. I’m amazed how versatile the switch rod is and will use it for many more applications during the year I’m sure.

    • I’ve been using OPST Commando Heads and Lazer lines with Rio’s iMow tips for Great Lakes Steelhead. OPST pairs wonderfully with my 11’9″ Sage TCX and makes an amazing product!!

  2. I think that fly shops are too interested in selling a $700 rod than a $70 line. The line is equally important. Red’s Shed lets you try lines, but very few other shops do. The line windows of the rod maker are very large since they don’t want to miss selling to someone who already has a line.
    The wrong line on the finest rod results in an unhappy client and no return sales. I nearly quit spey fishing in 2004, but the right line made the difference.

  3. I have used Barrio Switch lines on TFO Deer Creek switch rods in 5&8 weight with great success, good company to deal with and good value, their whole range of lines are excellent.

  4. This is all really helpful and much appreciated. In the final summary, you state the best line for fishing indicator rigs with nymph/egg patterns is a switch line. Then you go on to say the best line for fishing surf and lakes, when seeking distance, is a Rio Outbound. What would you recommend when pursuing both, such as fishing a large indicator rig on a big windy stillwater like Pyramid Lake? I’m planning to fish a 6 or 7 wt 11’ switch rod. A 425 grain (6 wt) or 500 grain (7 wt) Outbound Short? What about the Airflo lines?

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