There are three kinds of fly rods: single handed, switch and Spey. Most people begin fly fishing with a single-handed rod. There is good point in this, as learning the basics of a forward cast sets the stage for all other fly casting. While it used to be the case that big water lead to learning Spey casting and the extreme distances the rods can throw, these days there is another path.
Switch rods came on the scene after the move in Spey to the Skagit-style lines and matching 12- to 13-foot Spey rods – rather than the long 14- to 16-foot Speys. The heavy Skagit tip is seldom longer than 30 feet and matches very well with the shorter rods. The line systems became very popular with coastal fly guys who fish for steelhead and salmon. In the former, the issue is reaching a lie, with the latter, the issue is lofting a heavy sinking tip easily.
And learning Spey casts sets a fly fisher up for switch rods. While the roll cast is the basis of Spey, and one can make a roll cast with a single-handed rod, it is the versatility of the casts that is useful. In both the Single Spey and Double Spey, for which the key word is taking your time and being deliberate in setting up the D-loop behind you, the tip touches the water, and then the forward part of the stroke is last. Other casts like the Snap-T, or Circle-C are really variations on the other casts; still, the key is deliberately letting the D form, before the forward cast.
But the most important thing to remember is that Spey casts are change of direction casts. That may not seem so important until you get the casts down, but it is the key of versatility. Both the single and double Spey begin with retrieving the line at the end of the swing below you, and laying it down close to your body, and then on to the rest of the cast. Then, the important thing is that the cast changes the direction of the cast by 90 degrees, from downstream to laying the line out perpendicular to your body.
It is that change of direction that leads to versatility. Once you can cast proficiently, you will find endless times in your day where you want to cast 45 degrees or even 120 from where you stand. If you see someone with a single-handed rod who seems to be able to land his/her fly virtually anywhere in front of him/her, you are watching someone who has learned Spey, and then uses it with a single-handed rod.
In the middle of your cast, if you see a fish rise, or wind changes direction, you can use Spey casting to make instant adjustments and place your fly where you want. And one additional thing here: spend your day on the water, trying to put your fly within a foot of where you want it to go. If, for instance, you can cast all the way across the river, and into the forest on the far side, then every cast, try to put your fly within a foot of the opposite bank.
You will lose a lot of flies at first, but then your judgement of cast distance improves. If the cast is going long, if you lift the rod tip, the fly will land short, something that one does all the time when casting dry flies, but rarely in the subsurface fishing we normally do on the coast. Your sensitivity to your circumstances, and practiced, fluent casting, leads to being able to land in front of, beside, just above a surface branch, in a gap and so on.
If you are never willing to go through the period when you lose more flies, you will never be able to count on your fly going where you want it to go. Reconcile yourself during the learning period, making multiple, simple nymphs or marabou creations that are quick, cheap and light enough to make casting them easy.
Now, think of switch rods as short Spey rods. And the single Spey, the easiest of the Spey casts becomes your good buddy. Line systems have moved on to the Skandi system of specific grains, or weights. The other use of switch rods, like Spey, is: not having to do a single-handed back cast, to set up the forward cast; this means you are less likely to catch your fly on bushes behind you.
As a D is rarely 10 feet behind you, you are far less likely to be chagrined by catching flies. This is particularly useful in winter when rivers are higher and force you back into the forest, as in closer and closer to sticky branches. The other thing to remember is that in a D-loop the fly line hangs vertically behind you rather than horizontal. A vertical line hangs on bushes without getting a hook tangled, and thus, even when your D-lays on vegetation, it seldom gets caught. And the cast goes well.
Moving to a switch rod (though the change was really made by manufacturers to sell more rods), allows you to cast farther than you do with a single-handed rod. And even more importantly, it is far less effort to Spey cast all day than conventional back and forward casting on a single rod.
Add to this that Switch rods allow you to land a fish without breaking the tip off, as happens with longer Spey rods. When you try to ‘surf’ that fish to you – at then end, judge when the fish is tired enough to allow you to get its head out of the water, and ‘surf’ it to you – the closer it gets, the more likely your rod tip, up in the air is bent over double, and if it snaps that could be the end of your day, not to mention Ka-ching. Fly fishers seldom kill a fish, so releasing them unharmed, without having to drop your rod in the drink, or have someone with a net is a bonus offered by most switch rods.
Always, always, take two rods with you when you have a day on the water. If one breaks, you are still fishing. And that versatility thing can help you out in trying conditions. I fish a lot on Johnstone Strait beaches, where the wind is always blowing up to 25 knots over your left shoulder. I am left handed, and simply learned to make a single Spey off my wrong, meaning right, shoulder. So, I don’t hit myself in the side of my face almost every cast, if I had cast off my left shoulder.
If you watch fly people who can Spey cast, they can, on every type of rod, make instant decisions on what cast will get their fly where they want it with the least amount of energy. Switch rods make great sense because once you get Spey casting down, they easily place that fly anywhere within casting distance. Also, if you watch someone who seems not to be doing a conventional forward/back cast on a single-handed rod, yet their fly is on the money all the time, you are watching someone who has integrated Spey into single handed casting.
Another option is: lay the line out in front of you with a short single Spey, then lift it off the water – surface tension loading the rod – directly behind you and use a haul on the forward cast to reach out your fly. The other advantage is that there is no false casting. Each false cast can lead to a failed cast and having to start over again. Some people will use as many as 10 false casts, each of which could lead to a failed cast. With Spey casts, there is no false casting, and far fewer failed casts. Just be deliberate, making those D-loops, and you will be Spey casting in no time.