Make the switch
Andy Bowman discusses why a true switch rod is the tool of choice for the multi-discipline travelling angler
A lightweight switch rod is the ideal tool for the multi-discipline travelling angler, argues Andy Bowman
WHAT MOST MODERN rodmakers call switch rods are simply small, lightweight double-handers with overly long handles, big butt extensions and “zippy” actions unsuitable for single-handed use. To suit the travelling, multi-disciplined angler, I think a true switch rod must be able to spey-cast double- and single-handedly and be light enough to use all day. It must also perform all single-handed casts with ease. Most makers seem to favour seven- or eight-weight models, but for the reasons above my preferred allrounder is an 11ft 3in six-weight. The combination of enough length, power and lightness of touch makes it a joy to use. I will only fish with a seven- or eightweight on powerful rivers such as those in Norway or if a big fish is on the cards. In essence, the blank must have a medium action to handle spey-casts but be fast enough to handle double-hauled overhead casts.
PLAYING A FISH
When fishing with a light switch rod for the first time you will notice it has less power than a long doublehander and what power it has is all in the butt. To utilise this power when playing a big fish, you must keep the rod at a low angle. The lack of power must be compensated by a reel with a good brake, as you will rely on it to hold or stop fish. When a salmon takes your fly, don’t lift the rod too soon after the take. To set the hook, keep the rod low, take your time and use the power of the butt.
For salmon I advise using much heavier leaders than you would with a standard double-handed set-up. Salmon are not “gut shy” so I use a level leader of 15lb with a six-weight set-up on small rivers, and up to 40lb on a seven- or eight-weight rod for big rivers or if there is a chance of a very big salmon. For fussier brown trout or sea-trout during daytime I use conventional light leader weights, but if I’m fishing for big sea-trout at night, I step it up again.
There are many fly-lines designed specifically for switch rods and you can match the line to the gram or grain weight specified on your chosen rod. My current favourite lines are an old six-weight Rio Spey because of its graceful turnover, and the new Gaelforce Equalizer Switch Spey (33ft; 7/8wt, 27 grams, 425 grains) for distance and presentation on larger rivers. Although not as pleasurable to use, modern compact Scandi-style shooting-heads can be cast to obtain maximum distance.
Many fly-lines are sold with a set of tips. That’s good, but these tips are usually long and won’t suit all situations. For example, to keep a long fast-sinking tip on the surface you’ll need a fast line speed on a cast such as a double-spey. Because of the variety of waters (rivers and stillwaters) you may fish on a trip to the Highlands or West of Ireland, for example, you will need to enlarge your armoury of tips. I am a great fan of Airflo Polyleaders and over the years have built a large collection to cater for all eventualities. The tips come in many weights, lengths and sizes, labelled according to quarry. I use heavier Trout and Sea-trout/steelhead leaders for sea-trout. For salmon in Britain and Ireland, I use standard Salmon leaders. For salmon abroad, such as Norway or Alaska, I use Salmon Extra Strong. Each packet informs you of the maximum leader strength you can use with a particular tippet. Polyleaders come in different lengths, too, but I often cut them down to suit, forming a new loop at the front.
You don’t need to scale down fly size too much because the rod is smaller. My only advice is that you should steer away from large brass tubes, which are too heavy to turn over.
A FLEXIBLE TOOL
The main reason to use a switch rod is flexibility. In recent years, I’ve toured the west coast of Ireland fishing estuaries, rivers and loughs and took only one rod and a spare of the same model. That rod was my six-weight switch. It allowed me to adapt to whatever discipline was required. I have done exactly the same thing around the Scottish coast and on Orkney, the Western Isles and the Hebrides. When you are in remote places, you need to know that your tackle is up to the job – you can’t just nip back to the house and grab another outfit. In these places, you need to adapt to the situation or weather. You could be wandering the flats of a wide, wind-blown estuary, or the rocky shores of an exposed loch.
Fishing an estuary for bass or sea-trout sounds straightforward: stand on the sand, no obstacles, standard overhead cast. Wrong. Estuaries are windy and if you want to fish the best water you can’t always have the wind on your back. I recently fished an estuary in Scotland with a strong, cold, north-east wind. To cover the best water, the wind would have to blow on to the right side of my face which – as many right-handers know – is a very dangerous overhead cast. With my switch rod, I could use the elements to my advantage by using a double spey-cast off my left shoulder.
ON A LOCH
Hill lochs are surrounded by twisted heather, rocky outcrops and mountain ash, but this rugged beauty can cause problems. With a length advantage over a single-hander, a switch rod will help keep your flies above the heather, not in it. At one loch I fish, the bank is formed by a rocky cliff, off which bigger fish feed in wind lanes. Because the bank is high, you need to be at water level to avoid spooking the fish. Using a variety of spey-casts I can fish it effectively with my switch rod, without breaking the skyline. It is very difficult to do this with a standard single-hander. With 6ft-8ft of dapping floss attached to nylon backing, and a bushy dry-fly, on windy days you can also dap from the bank. With the extra length and holding the rod high, you can get the flies out a surprising distance.
DRIFTING IN A BOAT
A switch rod’s reach makes it a great tool for loch-style fishing and especially dibbling a bob-fly. A 9ft singlehander just cannot compete. The ease with which you can roll out a team of flies and the distance – without a single false cast – is a great benefit (less tangles, less time lost). Playing fish is also easier due to the extra reach. The switch rod can follow the fish and keep it under control when it zips under and around the boat while you rarely have to move from your boat seat.
TACKLING OVERGROWN SPATE RIVERS
Fishing for salmon on a small overgrown spate river is where the switch rod outperforms any other type. These small waters are not suited to longer doublehanders due to the tight spaces and smaller windows of opportunity to get a line on the water. Trees, bushes, fences and rocks combine to make it difficult and therefore nimble single-handed casts, such as the side cast and roll cast, are crucial, while the various spey casts you can perform with a switch will give you the full armoury to succeed in difficult surroundings. When playing a fish, the rod’s extra length will help you to keep your quarry away from bankside obstacles.
LARGE RIVERS AND LARGER FISH
In the hands of an experienced fisher, a switch rod can be used on large rivers, too. A long double-hander will outgun it every time if you need to cast a long way, but not all fish are on the other side of the river. What the switch lacks in power, it gains in the fight. Total contact. Every shake, leap and run is accentuated – you are truly battling the fish. And if you are lucky enough to hook one of the big boys, stick to the rules and you stand an excellent chance of landing it. Hooking and playing a large salmon on a switch rod is exhilarating.
“Every shake, leap and run is accentuated – you are truly battling the fish”
For estuary fishing the switch rod is a revelation.
As well as overhead casts, your rod should be able to spey cast with ease.
LEFT When loch-style fishing, an 11ft switch rod will dibble a top dropper far from the boat.