Monday, 10 March 2014

Choosing a Switch Rod outfit for Salmon Fishing.

The term ‘switch rod’ was coined by American rod building legend, Bob Meiser. On his website, Meiser says, ‘Switch rods are short length two handed fly rids that allow the caster an optional use as a single handed fly rod if desired, or if it is advantageous to do so.’ Despite being on the market for more than 30 years, it’s only in the past few years that switch rods have really become must have tools. There has been a lot of debate about switch rods. Some anglers have been loath to embrace switch rods, dismissing them as a passing fad. Others have recognised their potential as the perfect tools to do a certain job on certain types of rivers.
                                  Switch Rod action on the River Fane
 I see a number of situations where a switch rod would be useful. If you fish small, overgrown rivers where you find yourself flicking short speycasts around trees and bushes, a switch rod should be your weapon of choice. Many salmon anglers are used to the big expanses of the larger classic rivers and would scarcely believe that such places exist but exist they do. My own local rivers on the east coast of Ireland are small, narrow and overgrown, yet they have some relatively large salmon into the teens of pounds and bigger. To my fishing buddies and me, switch rods have been a revelation. 
It is important to have your wits about you when purchasing a switch rod. There are two distinct categories into which switch rods fall; American switch rods and European switch rods. The differences between American and European Switch rods centre around how they are rated on the AFTM scale. The AFTM rating on American rods is generally for speylines while European switch rods are rated for single handed, weight forward lines. This means that an 8 weight switch rod from an American rod company is roughly two line sizes heavier than a European 8 Switch rod. Confusing? Well, it need not be. My advice is to disregard the AFTM system and go by the grain or gram rating of a rod. Orvis mark their switch rods with both the grain weight and the AFTM rating. European rods use the metric system and generally rate their rods in grams. Do your research online by visiting the websites of various manufacturers. Nowadays, information is only ever a click away.
                                  Throwing a line on the River Fane, Knockbridge
                                           A 300 grain Switch Rod is perfect for River Finn grilse
The versatility of switch rods is such, that I would urge serious salmon anglers to have one in their armoury. They are perfect for summer fishing in low water on medium sized rivers when subtle presentation is a priority.  A light ‘scandi’ style shooting head system is perfect for this style of fishing.
To get the most out of any flyfishing situation, it is vital to use tackle that is correctly balanced. The most expensive rod will be useless unless teamed up with the correct line and, to a lesser extent, the correct reel. Much of the debate about switch rods has centred on the question of whether switch rods are small double handed rods or large single handers. The answer, quite frankly is that they are both. Manufacturers have all taken certain approaches to the switch rod, each trying to create the perfect tool. In reality however, it is largely line choice that dictates how you fish your switch rod. Line choice should be matched to the particular river conditions that the angler is faced with.
                To a complete switch rod novice, baffled by the myriad of lines available, the first decision to be taken is whether to go with a fully integrated line or a shooting head setup made up of a separate running line and head. Let’s take a look at both systems.  
Shooting heads have taken the spey casting scene by storm in recent years.  Switch rods can be teamed up beautifully with a range of different shooting heads to suit different situations. The great beauty of a shooting head system is its versatility. Bear this mind when selecting a line setup for the first time. An angler need only buy one reel and load it up with a level running line. Most come pre looped for convenience; many with a large oversized front loop which makes changing heads a simple affair. Various different heads can be carried in a handy wallet in your pocket.  The most appropriate head for most switch rod salmon fishing situations is a Scandi type head. In order to be cast easily with a switch rod, opt for a head length of around three times the length of your rod. For example, match an 11’ rod with a head of around 33’. Rio and Airflo have pioneered the scandi style short head. Rio’s Steelhead/Scandi heads, available only in the US and now discontinued, and Airflo Compact Scandi heads are perfect for switch rods. The floating heads from Rio and Airflo are designed to be used with polyleaders but are also great when teamed with a fairly long tapered leader to which you can add your level tippet section. Most scandi heads cast best when coupled with 10’ poly leaders and a length of tippet of your preferred material.
                     Liam throws a tight loop with a 300 grain Airflo Compact Scandi head.

The leader should be the anchor point for your D loop when speycasting.  Rio offer the excellent Scandi/Short Versitip, a superb line for general salmon fishing. The head section of this line is slightly shorter than a standard scandi head and it comes with a selection of sink tips. The short, powerful body makes it easier to cast fast sinking tips. Rio have now replaced their floating AFS shooting heads and the Steelhead/Scandi series with their new ‘Scandi’ series of heads. The lighter heads are designed for Switch rods with lengths of 31’. When faced with tight casting situations on narrow, overgrown rivers, scandi heads can be easily cast single handed on switch rods. Fishing is often from the bank on these rivers, a far cry from the open spaces of the classic salmon fishing rivers. When fishing around bankside bushes and trees, a scandi head can be cast a long way downstream from a small space using the rod as a small double hander. I have caught more than a few fish in such situations. Guideline, Loop and Zpey have all entered the compact Scandi head market for switch rods and all make top quality heads. Indeed, the European line manufacturers excel when it comes to sinking heads. My own local rivers in Ireland are narrow and often quite deep. High water often means a heavy flow requiring fast sinking heads. Guideline, Loop and Zpey all make scandi heads designed to be used in such situations. Triple density ‘Compact Scandi’ shooting heads from Guideline are perfect for switch rods. These heads sink faster towards the tip of the rod, making it much easier to roll the line to the surface prior to recasting. Loop and Zpey both have double density sinking heads on the market designed for use on switch rods.  If I was forced to choose just one switch rod setup, I would certainly go with a short ‘scandi’ shooting head.

Of course, having a reel loaded with a separate running line means that other types of shooting heads can be used if conditions dictate. Skagit lines have received a lot of attention recently and these too can be used with switch rods. It is important to understand that Skagit lines were designed for steelhead fishing in the U.S. and Canada. Steelhead often prefer a big fly swung slowly on their noses, in water that is often very fast flowing. This is the kind of situation where the skagit excels. A skagit head is a very short, heavy shooting head designed to turn over long lengths of super fast level sink tips.  If you find yourself in a situation where you want to get a big fly down deep in fast water but still want a nice steady, controlled swing then stick on a Skagit. They are also perfect for those bitterly cold days we laughingly call spring; days which more often than not have a storm force wind blowing straight in your face. Skagit lines make mincemeat out of such conditions and fly out regardless. Keep a skagit handy for any situation where you want to present a heavy fly deeply. Skagits are particularly suited to rocky rivers with large boulders present in the middle of pools.  Full sinking shooting heads may get caught around subsurface boulders but a skagits floating body allows an angler to drift unimpeded over boulders while an appropriate density of tip will get the fly down to the fish.  Skagit lines are designed to be cast with waterborne spey casts such as the Snap-C and Double Spey. Do not overhead cast a skagit head or else you may have to deal with the inconvenience of an unwelcome breakage. Slow things down and use a longer casting stroke than you would with a Scandi head.  American and Canadian Steelhead anglers generally use a skagit head that is heavier than the recommended grain weight. On my 11’ #8 Orvis Access Switch, I use a 435grain scandi head and a 480 grain skagit. This rod can also throw a 510 Aiflo compact skagit at a push. When purchasing a skagit, make sure you purchase a head designed specifically for switch rods. Rio and Airflo both produce skagit heads for switch rods, so check their websites before you buy.
                                            River Reelan, Co. Donegal

It is also possible to buy fully integrated lines for switch rods. These lines are perfect for floating line work with either polyleaders or standard tapered leaders. Orvis make a few integrated switch lines with 33’ heads. Perfect for 11’ switch rods. I use a 300 grain #5 Orvis switch line on my 5 wt Access Switch rod. Orvis have the Hydros 3D Switch and the Access Switch lines.  Guideline manufacture their ‘Switch Multi Tip’ line. This is also integrated and comes with 3 sinktips. An excellent line, its one drawback is that it doesn’t come with an intermediate tip; one of the most useful density sinktips. The Lee Wulff Ambush line is another short head integrated line. The Ambush is rated for single handed rods but check their website for the grain/gram size and select accordingly. Rio feature two different  Switch lines. The standard ‘Switch’ line is not really suited to general salmon fishing but they have recently introduced a new integrated line called the Switch Chucker. This line looks like it is far more suited to general salmon fishing and is definitely worth a look. Integrated lines excel when you spend a lot of time fishing at close quarters with most of the head inside the tip ring. The lack of a join means no annoying rattling through the rod rings when you cast and work the fly back.
                              Sport on a Switch Rod at McGinty's, River Finn
Switch rods come in a range of sizes from 10’6’’ to 11’9’’.  Shorter switch rods are excellent if you intend casting single handed most of the time. Longer switch rods are best utilised as small double handers. I personally prefer an 11’ switch rod. Long enough to cast shooting heads a fair distance and short enough to cast comfortably with one hand when needed. There is a large range of switch rods on the market at the moment. Buy what you can afford but put your efforts into line selection.          
Reel choice is of lesser importance when it comes to switch rods. Use whatever model you choose so long as has the required line capacity and it is up to the task of subduing an angry silver tourist. If you prefer classically styled reels, go for 3 3/4in models. Reels with an 8/9 capacity are perfect for most switch rods. 7/8 reels are nice for the lightest of switch rods.
Low water conditions on the River Dee at Deecastle, Scotland.

Switch rods are really versatile tools. I used my 11’ Switch during a summer visit to the Scottish River Dee at Deecastle. In low water conditions, the Switch rod covered the river with ease and allowed me to work small flies such as micro tubes and Frances effectively. I also regularly use my switch rod on the sizeable River Mourne in Co. Tyrone, Ireland during low water, summer conditions. My switch rod outfit is certainly my ‘go to’ piece of kit for most Irish salmon fishing on small and medium rivers.

Give switch rods a try. They are fun to use and if you fish a lot on small and medium sized rivers, I’m pretty certain you’ll be hooked!


  1. Excellent article covering all you need to know about switch rods! Bought an Airflo Airtec Switch rod over the winter and have teamed it with the Rio SSVT. Going to be the job for the summer!

    1. thanks for the kind comment. Enjoy the swtchy rod!

  2. Nice article! I would add one more thing for anyone new to Switch rods. Many rod manufacturers design their switch rods for a specific grain or gram weight line. This makes grain or gram window is less important. This is especially true for manufacturers who make their own rods and lines. Orvis is a good example. The Orvis 5wt you bought was designed for the Orvis 300 grain Switch line. A Scandi Short or Skagit Short of the same weight should be good matches. Vision is another example. Their switch rods are designed for Vision lines of a specific weight. Many novices don’t know that some rod and line companies are affiliated with each other. For instances, Sage, Redington and Rio are owned by the same group, so Sage and Redington switch rods are designed for Rio lines. Echo and Airflo are affiliated, so Echo rods are designed for Airflo lines. On close examination someone new to Switch rods will find that Airflo, Orvis, Rio, and Vision use very different grain weight specifications. This can be very confusing. As a general rule, someone new to Switch rods should begin with a line weight (grains or grams) recommended by the manufacturer, especially in situations where a manufacturer makes their own rods and lines or when a rod company is affiliated with a line company.

  3. Phenomenal article!! A shame that I've been searching all of our American sources about switch rods/reels and the best one I find is in an Irish blog...LOL!! Either way, the one issue I'm still having trouble getting an answer to is; with either an integrated line, or when using a running line, do you still load the reel with backing??? I've been doing regular fly fishing for years and know that you put backing behind the line... but have found no good information regarding how to load a reel for switch or Spey...

  4. Wonderful! So much info, so very helpful. I am going to take my time in preparation for buying a Switch outfit for next season. Definitely an 11' rod #8/9, then research the line, running line with suitable Scandi head. I like the idea of staying as far as possible with one rod/line manufacturer for a balanced outfit concerning line weight in grains/grams. Thank you. In reply to ESbirddog; YES use backing! I load the Spey line or head & running line to the reel first (also known as retro fitting). Then loop to loop the backing (Dacron braid/other 20lb to 30lb) and spool on to the reel up to ± 1/4" or 6mm to 7mm from the spool rim. It's easiest IF you use a spare spool, load the line as above on, then spool backing/line onto the reel. Otherwise use 2 spools/linewinders/plastic spools the line was bought on, wind onto one, (backing first), wind onto the 2nd (head/fly line first) then finally onto the reel.