So, there’s no question you know what a single handed fly fishing rod is. You’ve probably also either heard about or used a spey rod…. right? But, what about the switch rod that has started to pick up some fame? What use are they if you already have a single and/or longer two handed rod?

Switch rods, as the name denotes are for switching between single hand and spey type casting. If you had to pick one rod to cover all steelhead fishing situations, this might be the one. Indicator fishing? It’s covered. Swinging flies down deep? It’s covered.   Although it’s not the perfect rod in every situation, it is the jack of all trades.

I’ll show you the different lines and flies you can use for swinging flies for steelhead. What else do you need to know about switch rods? How about how to cast the dam things? I’ll touch on that as well.

These switchers are gaining popularity, but maybe nowhere else as much as for people who fish steelhead in the great lakes. This is because many of the steelhead waters in these areas are smaller, shallower and generally geared towards smaller gear.

Unlike the rivers of the west, where a 13’ rod and larger is helpful, in the east an 11’ rod will do the trick in many situations. What else do you need to know about fishing the great lakes for steelhead?   How about tackle and technique?  I touch on that as well.

I’ll get you geared up today so you will know how to use the switch rod, what to fish and how to fish it.

Switch Rod Details

A switch rod is a mix of a single handed rod and a spey rod. The idea being that you can fish both styles when needed. For steelhead fishing, the switch is nice because you can go from nymph fishing to swinging flies in the same outing.

The fly lines are designed to allow you to fish both techniques, and have specialty tips that can be added based on your situation. Rio lines and Air flo are still leaders in most of the new development of lines here.

With a switch rod, it’s not going to spey cast as well as a longer spey rod, and it’s not going to fish nymphs as well as a single hand rod in many situations. But, put together, it’s a pretty sweet all around deal.

Switch Rod Lines

When setting up your line, the first question is to ask what length and weight is your rod.

There’s a good chance it’s in the 11’ range and in the 6 or 7 weight line range. Match your line weight with the rod to start. That’s the easy answer. Now the bigger question. Which line brand and type do you use?

 

Click here to watch George Cook describe the Rio Skagit Max Short:

 

The what line to use question always varies with the waters you are fishing, but there are a few general lines that should meet your needs whether you are in large river or smaller shallow rivers.

There are two general types of lines you might use depending on the conditions and the size of fly you’ll be using. These are the Skagit and Scandi lines.

Before we get to far into this, watch this video from Simon at RIO who breaks down the spey line types:  This gives you a good general overview of spey lines as you begin to think about getting more specific.

swinging flies for steelhead

Scandi lines are great for fishing lighter and smaller flies on or near the surface.  Scandi lines don’t have as heavy as a front belly, so they lay out a little smoother and easier.

As switch rods gain more popularity, more lines continue to be produced. The skagit style lines continue to dominate the switch line choices and now have new options. Along with the skagit line, you will need to purchase tips to cover different conditions. The Mow RIO tips are a great package that gives you a number of different sinking and floating options. This article from Deneki talks about the MOW tips.  The lengths and weights balance out well with the skagit lines.

The Rio skagit max short is the line to go with if you are casting larger and heavier flies. The basic setup is a length of sinking tip, like the MOW attched to your skagit line, plus a 4-5 8-10 lb mono leader.

One other big tip to remember…….

Remember that the ratio of the head length of your spey line to the length of your rod. Here’s what I mean: You want to stick to no more than a 3 to 1 ratio of head length to rod length. So, if you have an 11’ rod, you’ll want to have a 33’ head length or less. This is why the skagit short is a great choice for switch rods.

As Louis over at Gink and Gasoline says here, the 20’ head of the skagit short is nice, because it allows you to use a popular 10-15’ tip with the 20 head, and still stay within the 3:1 rule.

Another option is the Rio Switch Chucker, which is designed for the switch rods. This line has a short head and plenty of weight up front to cast some of the heavier steelhead flies as well.  Here’s the link.  You can add your correct tip to fit the needs of the stream and situation you find yourself in.

switch chucker

Do you still need more information? Check out this buyers guide summers from the Gorge shop.  If you have additional questions, click here and send me a message.

Casting a Switch Rod

You now have a rod with a balanced fly line that is setup up for swinging flies. If you have an 11.5’ 6 weight switch rod, the corresponding 6 wt. skagit Max short from Rio should do the trick for swinging.

What type of cast do you use to get the fly out there. As the fly line section noted, we are using skagit type lines. With a skagit line, comes a skagit style cast. You are lucky here in that the heavy skagit casts makes casting easier.  It’s an easy technique for the newbie getting into steelhead fishing.

 

spey casting
click the photo to watch Scott Howell demonstrate Skagit Casting

 

This 20 minute video breaks down the skagit casting basics.  Here’s a quick video from Rio that runs through all of the different casts.  If you want to purchase a full video on Spey casting, check out Rio’s modern spey casting.
My favorite and easiest casts to use are the snap T and the single spey and double spey.

The skagit style of spey fishing is as easy as it gets in some situations. The weight is all up front, so you just need to get it going. Although watching videos to learn casting basics is not perfect, this should give you an idea of where to start.

Flies for Swinging

Now that we have the rod and line details out of the way, and a little casting primer, the next question is what fly are we going to use. Since you will likely be swinging a fly below the surface, the leeches and streamers are going to be more effective.

This link gives a few examples that work well in the Great Lakes.  As the article shows, wooly buggers, zonkers and leeches all work well. When determining sizes, smaller is usually a little better in most situations. Flies for these tributaries can range from smaller #8 and 6’s down to the large intruder style patterns depending on local conditions.  Here is a nice background summary of these larger intruder style flies.

 

piscator flies
Fly tied by PiscatorFlies.com

A few more examples of streamers that work for steelhead…..

Here’s a johnny darter streamer, and here is the honorable mention.  Many of these flies are imitating either an egg, flesh of a salmon or some type of minnow.  Steelhead of the Great Lakes area are winter fish, and as such won’t be feeding as much on the buggier type of flies that you might see summer run fish take.

We can’t forget about tube flies as well. Here is a pattern tied on a tube with a bead on the front.  There are a bunch of advantages with a tube fly. They allow much more flexibility in hook choice and weights of flies. Instead of using a long inflexible hook, you can use your prefered stinger type hook.

There are a bunch of other flies that will work, but depends on the depth of water you’re fishing and water conditions. Most of these flies are not tied with weight. Instead, the sinking line gets your fly down and leaves your fly with plenty of movement. I have listed a few good proven patterns, so start here. As you experiment with flies, you will find that one pattern that you hook fish on and trust.

If you want to get into fly tying, click on this link and send me a message. I’m developing a fly tying course and would love if you can check it out.

 

Fishing Techniques for Great Lakes Tributaries

Now…. how do you put it all together? You’ll have to get out on the water and put your time in. Fish as much water as you can to find out what works. Watch others and see where fish are being hooked. Steelhead tend to hold in the same buckets year after year. Once you get a fish, continue to hit that spot.  Stay focused and passionate and you will hook fish.

Here are a few tips on the do’s and don’ts.  When swinging flies, you’ve got a big challenge in front of you. Put your time in and you’ll get there.

 

Conclusion

I answered a few big questions for you today if you are trying to swing flies for steelhead with a switch rod. I’m assuming you have an 11.5’ switch rod, or simiar size. The Rio Skagit Max short is one of the best line for swinging flies with a sink tip. If you’re fishing great lakes tribs, you can just as easy switch over to nymphing as well with this line.

Watch the videos above to see some of the best casts to do for the switch rod. The snap T and singe spey/double spey are some of the best. And for flies…… anything, that is leechy, fleshy, or eggy will probably be good. The egg sucking leach in black or purple is always a good bet. Now you just need to practice.

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I'm Dave Stewart, a passionate fly-tying mentor, course teacher and writer. I want to take risks, meet interesting people, go hard, challenge myself and explore the world.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Dave,
    Great article. I spend 80% of the fall, winter, and spring fishing Great Lakes tribs with a switch rod (I spend the other 20% using a spey rod). Getting into the sport can be OVERWHELMING with all of the options out there and ways to mix and match your lines. The 3:1 ratio is some of the best advice I ever got. A good friend of mine is a Great Lakes guide so I was able to get pretty concrete information and knew exactly what I wanted before I bought my first rig. If someone is just getting into it, don’t be afraid to hit your local fly shops and ask lots of questions. There were some great points made to me and may be helpful for people getting into it for the first time or new switch rod users that can use some refinement: 1) If you can afford it, buy a reel for your sinking head with Skagit line and a reel for your floating head with Scandi line. This will make your “switching” much easier and save time on the water. It’s not a necessity, but well worth the extra cash if you find yourself changing several times throughout your fishing trip. 2) I LOVE using a stinger hook for my flies. I generally use a shank to tie the body and add some material to the stinger. The movement is unbelievable and can really trigger the fish to strike as opposed to using a straight shaft. 3) On the same topic, rules are made to be broken… It was drilled into my head to swing and maintain the rod position to give the fly a good steady route of travel. This is great and the mechanics are important, but once you are comfortable with it don’t be afraid to adjust. I like to give a mend to the line at certain points in the swing. If I know I’m over a prime holding spot, that little stop and start with the fly can bring it to life and generate a strike.
    Thanks again Dave. Love the website and articles. Keep them coming!

    • Nice comment Mike. It’s obvious you have put some good time in on the water. I especially love your comment about mixing it up. Yeah, try different things. Although standing and swinging is great, try taking a step as you begin to swing to mix it up. For sure on the mends. You’ve got to find those little buckets within the larger runs. Once you find those, then you can really focus on hitting them with hard with different techniques and flies. Hope to find another good question to answer this next week. I’ll keep digging around to see what some of the other big pain points are out there.

    • Thanks for the feedback. Yeah, the small stuff doesn’t always have a place. I think the take home message is to try different things out there. I know I have a tendency to get stuck on things, but have to remember that the only way to learn sometimes is to try something new and fail along the way. Failure is what it’s all about. Does anyone else have a good fly fishing failure story out there?

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