My first Spey rod was a 14-foot 9-weight with an action described as "Euro." At the time that I bought it, it was probably the best-selling, two-handed rod in America. I caught a memorable 20-pound, fire-engine-red steelhead on the Suskwa River with it, and some June Atlantic salmon on the Gaspé Peninsula. I believed it to be a fantastic rod.
Now it sits in a corner, neglected and unused. Technically there's nothing wrong with it except for a few bumps and scratches, but I couldn't in good conscience give it away.
That's because today's new two-handed rods are light years ahead of where they were when Spey rods first arrived North America. In general, the more popular models today are shorter and lighter, both in the physical weight of the rods and in the weight of the lines recommended for them. Instead of using 9- and 10-weight rods to carry huge amounts of line, and create immense D loops, the most popular (and effective) rods in the U.S. today are meant to throw relatively small D loops with a quick, compact stroke using much shorter Skagit and Scandi heads.
The trend toward lighter, shorter rods gave us switch rods, which are in name and theory small enough to switch to single-handed use. In reality, though, most switch rods are rarely used with one hand except on those rare occasions when you need to scratch your nose, or warm up one hand in a pocket momentarily.
Switch rods are two-handed rods 99 percent of the time; they are just sized down for smaller rivers, and gamefish that don't require a beefy stick. Switch rods are generally 11 or 12 feet, and are great choices for smaller Lake Erie and Lake Ontario steelhead streams, swinging streamers for smallmouth bass, or for use on tidal salt ponds and surf fishing for striped bass. You can use Spey techniques and two-handed rods for almost anything that swims in moving water.
And while you may not catch more fish (or even as many) at first, you'll find that merely casting is more complex, addictive, and more fun when you add that extra dimension, so get out there and try it!
For trout and small-stream steelheading on Great Lakes tributaries like the Cattaragus River or Canadaway Creek, I like the 4-weight Scott T3H. At 10½ feet it is the smallest of true "switch" rods you can cast with either one or two hands. Getting the right line on this little gem is critical, as the two largest U.S. fly line manufacturers don't make a Spey/switch line light enough to match with the rod. For swinging flies, Airflo's 240-grain Compact Scandi is a good choice. For nymph fishing Great Lakes tributaries, or for trout in big western rivers, like the Yellowstone, use the 260-grain Airflo Speydicator line.
A rod like this deserves a classic reel with the distinctive sound of a click-and-pawl drag system. A size III Orvis CFO is perfect for the line size and has been redesigned to closely match the original design of Charles F. Orvis Now, for the first time ever, it is being machined and assembled completely in the United States.
For West Coast steelhead my go-to rod the past few years has been the 13-foot G.Loomis NRX 7/8-weight with a 480-grain mint green Compact Skagit head with an Airflo Ridge running line. For tips, I use a medium MOW kit from RIO. With this, you can match the sinking tip to any water depth, and even use a floating tip when conditions allow. I've used this rig for hot steelhead on the Dean River below the falls, and other hallowed B.C. steelhead rivers like the Kitsum-Kalum in April and the Kispiox near Hazelton — both times with world-champion caster and G.Loomis rod designer Steve Rajeff. Just seeing him effortless cast this rod and line set-up to the far shore inspires me with hope that if I use this rod, one day I might be half as good as he is!
The 7/8 NRX can handle almost any steelhead situation, but for the largest freshwater fish you'll need more lifting power, and a meatier rod to deal with heavier sinking tips, and larger, heavier flies. Tim Rajeff (Steve Rajeff's brother) at Rajeff Sports has designed a specialty two-handed rod to deal with the biggest of the Pacific salmon and it's appropriately just called the KING. The 9- and 10-weight models are both 13 feet long, and they are over-engineered to deal with 40-pound+ salmon in brawling rivers. I use 700-grain RIO Skagit Max, which is designed to cast the heaviest sinking tips and weighted flies. I join this to RIO's ConnectCore running line so you have a complete, low-stretch system for instant hook-setting power, and also for crisp, easy mends when you are working a deep run for Chinooks a long way off.