Monday, March 23, 2015

Defining A Two-Handed Trout Rod

     Most come to two-handed rods through steelhead and salmon fishing, as a practical and enjoyable refinement toward collecting those fish from larger rivers. I’m probably fairly unique as my entry into the world of double-hand rods came through the desire for a better trout rod to meet the demands of my home water, the upper Columbia, where no fish from the sea have passed since 1939 when the construction of Grand Coulee Dam stopped the runs to the upper drainages. Nonetheless, it is big water holding big trout and in the way of such rivers it can be technical, but not the spring creek kind of technical wherein one envisions going ever finer, lighter, smaller.

Big rivers present technical challenges that might be efficiently met by going big, and a two-handed trout rod might be the solution to covering those waters. Or, a somewhat smaller river, for example, the Truckee, in California, might be a good place to employ a two-handed rod, particularly when the water is up. The Truckee has a slippery, loose cobbled bottom and can be dangerous to wade. A two-hander allows for longer casts, hence less wading for position. The longer rod holds more line off the water, affording more control and easier mending. With a two-hander, anybody who can execute a basic single-Spey cast or roll cast, will be far less hindered by lack of back-cast room. I can see the possibility of an angler taking command of the lower Truckee employing a two-hander, swinging a pair of nymphs or a muddler, covering the water more efficiently and with less effort than a single-hander.      

So what constitutes a Spey rod suitable for trout?   

There are a lot of kilt-wearing Scots in British Columbia, and they like the big sticks. The Canadians fish for Columbia trout with heavy rods, up to 15’ in length, using the big cannons to hurl large streamers an incredible distance, covering a lot of water from the bank and catching some impressive trout in the process. There is that. Still, I’ve tried it, and though fun to cast I find the big Spey rods overmatch most of the trout one is likely to encounter anywhere – swinging the claymore where the cutlass would suffice does have a certain appeal I admit, but hey, we’re trouting.

My first double-hand ‘trout rod’ was a 12’6” 5/6 Spey with a grain window of 350-550 grains, rated as a light steelhead rod, the lightest affordable and generally available twenty years ago. I learned to cast with it, and it was fun, yet didn’t fulfill exactly what I had in mind as a two-handed trout rod. My home water and its trout dictated something a bit lighter, throwing a less invasive line weight.

Once I learned Spey casts can be performed with a single-hand rod I wondered if a shorter, lighter rod might benefit from the addition of a rear grip – so I guinea-pigged an old fast-action, 9’ 6wt. After removing the butt cap from the reel seat, I assembled a 3” rear grip on a 6” fitted section cut from an old blank, then epoxied and inserted it, ferruled into the rod butt. The result is a fun rod, no Spey cannon but certainly better at performing Spey & roll casts than it was without the rear grip. It is a roll-casting machine rigged with a 7wt double-taper line, a nice tool for high-stick nymphing, and good for pot-shooting cruising trout with emergers due to its ability to fire a quick double-hand overhead cast a fair distance without wasting time false-casting. The conversion works well on small to medium-sized streams, the size streams that many of us fish most of the time, places where we seldom cast farther than forty feet and roll-casting is the preferred mode. But keep in mind that 10’ to 12’ rods designed to handle two-handed casts, which generate considerable torque in the rod, will be better tools than your10’ 4wt ‘far & fine’ modified with a rear grip, if you plan on meeting larger rivers holding a larger grade of fish, throwing heavier flies.

It requires a heavier line to load a rod for Spey casts, and rods designed for the purpose will throw a variety of lines; while a converted single-hand rod will be more fragile, possessing a tighter grain window. A conversion will perform best lined with the heaviest line it can possibly handle, but such rods do have strength limitations, so I would hesitate to go heavier than two line weights above the designation on the rod for fear of breaking it, and one or one and a half steps over the designated weight is a safer way to go for a conversion. The modified 6wt with handy rear grip that I built is a fun rod for fishing lakes and smaller streams, yet didn’t prove enough stick for meeting the larger rivers I like to fish. I found myself wanting a rod about 11’ to 12’ in length that might throw the equivalent of 6 to 9wt AFTMA rated lines, or a grain window somewhere between 160 and 250 grains.

I’m currently using an 11' 3" rod manufacturer-rated for 6wt (160 grains) AFTMA lines. It is sold as a ‘switch rod’, meaning it can be operated in either single-hand or double-hand mode. Trials revealed that the manufacturer’s 6wt designation is actually the lightest end of the rod’s grain window. After casting it with a variety of lines I determined the rod will handle 6wt to 8wt AFTMA lines most effectively, giving it a grain window of 160-210 grains. That covers the spectrum of things I want the rod to do, presenting and fishing small soft-hackles and double nymph rigs, swinging wetflies and streamers. While capable of handling an eight pound trout it doesn’t feel like too big a gun when fighting a twelve-incher. It is perfect for sea-run cutthroat, I’ve taken steelhead and pinks with it, and it’s all I use anymore for fishing barred perch in the surf.   

Lining a Double-Hand Trout Rod:

The ideal length of line beyond the rod tip for performing any type of Spey or change of direction cast is roughly equal to three times the length of the rod – about 30’ is the working length on rods appropriate for trouting. AFTMA line ratings are based on the grain weight of the first 30’ of line, while AFFTA (Spey) line ratings are based on the weight of several working lengths of line beyond the rod tip, each line designation available in several weights. There is a vast difference between the two. An AFTMA rated 6 weight line weighs 160 grains over the first 30’; while a #6 AFFTA Spey rated line can weigh 350 grains and more, depending on the working length beyond the rod tip, which may be somewhat more than 30’.  Such a line might break a rod designed for a 6wt AFTMA line. Fortunately, an enlightened minority of rod makers print the grain window on the rod, which is most helpful, allowing us to choose from a spectrum of lines – and that is the future, I hope. Knowing the grain window of your rod will cut through the confusion and open the door to lining possibilities. When you think in grain weight, no matter what the label says: a line is a line is a line. And regarding trout rods, our only concerns are what purpose we have for the line and how much the first 30’ weighs. As of this writing, it is among the AFTMA rated lines that we find the greatest variety suitable for trouting.  Though there are now builders producing light, 2/3 Spey designated rods and lines designed with trout in mind, there are no official AFFTA weight designations for 1, 2 and 3, the Spey weights falling into the grain window most suitable for trout rods. For perspective, I casted a 10’6” Meiser 2/3 which casted 6wt, 7wt & 9wt lines, & casted beautifully lined with the 8wt.  Generally, the longer the rod the wider its grain window, and a rod built to withstand the rigors of Spey casting will handle a variety of lines fairly well, though it will have a sweet zone, and that will vary according to casting style.

For small to medium sized streams an integrated, floating, weight-forward line will perform fine on a two-hander. Lines selling as ‘triangle tapers’, configured similar to Scandi heads, with the weight distributed toward the back of the taper, are a good choice for a double-hand trout rod – and sinking leaders or sink tips of up to 10’ can be looped to these as needed. There is at least one manufacturer offering double-taper lines with heads designed for Spey casting with either single or double-hand trout rods. In lining a light conversion meant for smaller streams, to my mind, you can’t go wrong with a double-taper, which is configured like a long-belly Spey line. A DT presents well, and the fatter running line creates maximum drag on the water and weight in the D loop to load the rod, particularly in tight situations when casting with less than 30’ beyond the rod tip. I offer the DT as my own preference, and that is not to say any integrated weight-forward line of the proper weight won’t perform as well, yet I haven’t found a line configuration that roll casts better than a double-taper – and you still get two lines in one. And if you move on to building your own heads, you might cut up the DT and get three lines.      

There are a number of AFTMA rated shooting head systems that turn over a variety of interchangeable tips becoming available, designed to be cast with both switch and single-hand rods, similar to the Skagit or Scandi systems used on steelhead/salmon rods, and I would recommend one of this type for lining a big-water trout rod. But, now, knowing the grain window of the rod, you can take it a step further and build your own system from a double-taper line, as I did for the 11’ 3” switch rod mentioned earlier. After trials with several line weights, I determined that the rod best performed single-hand overhead casts with a 6wt line; double-hand overhead casts with a 7wt line; roll and Spey casts with an 8wt line. I was still able to work the double-hand overhead cast fairly well using the 8wt line, and as I intended the rod for double-hand casting, I went with the 8wt as the primary line for building a system. I purchased a good quality DT 8wt floating line and cut the first 30’ from one end of it, which gave me a 210 grain floating head – so there’s my basic floating line. From the other end of the DT, I cut off 5’ of the front taper, then measured off 20’ to create a ‘body’ which carries a variety of 10’ sink tips – I cut 5’ off the small diameter at the end of the taper to gain more line body diameter for turning over attached tips. A floating head rounds out the system, so there’s rarely a need to change the primary line body. I also cut 27’ from an old 8wt, weight-forward, fast-sinking line to make a full-sinking head. A scale aids greatly in this process, the investment worth it, making it possible to custom build excellent lines at a fraction of the cost of factory lines. My reel is spooled with a good quality low-memory mono running line that slips through the guides with less resistance than an integrated line. The running line is rigged with a long loop at the end so a coiled head will pass through for an easy loop-to-loop connection, allowing quick line changes on stream without the need of a spare spool.               

The Advantages – The point, really:

A two-handed rod affords casting in tight places without the need to back-cast, greater casting distance, quicker launches without the need to false-cast when pot-shooting roving gangs of trout puddling on emergers, great line control with easy, more precise line mending at longer distance, and the ability to hold line off the water when short-line, high-stick nymphing and swinging. Also easy handling of large flies and awkward bobber set-ups. The long rod allows the use of longer leaders and is forgiving of light leaders in the precincts of fussy larger trout who might break them – a two-handed trout rod is a relaxing, graceful, pure fun tool for casting and swinging a streamer, wetfly, or a pair of soft-hackle nymphs on big water.
I met a guy who’d installed rear grips on all of his trout rods, and they are cute on the little 4 and 5 weights. No harm done. Nice roll-casters. There’s that, and one might have a good purpose for such rods. But I think, for most, a double-hand trout rod might afford the most appreciable advantage as a rod to fill the big-water/big-fish niche, while still possessing the capability for finesse – and that is a fairly narrow slice from the spectrum of double-hand rods available. For most practical purposes, I would say it comes down to rods of 10’ to 12’ in length, possessing grain windows falling between 160 and 250 grains, that serve to define a two-handed trout rod designed and built for the purpose. Rods rated for 6wt to 8wt AFTMA lines, or 1/2/3 Spey lines will serve for most of us. Or maybe Spey rated rods in 4 or 5 if you plan on fishing the Kenai. Forced to compress the definition to what I consider the most useful, I’d say a rod that performs best with the equivalent to an AFTMA 8wt line. That is, if I was forced to keep it down to only one ~              

Flyfish NE Washington with Steven Bird:


  1. Lovely essay. Now you've got me looking at long sticks. My local shop just started carrying Douglas and they've got some very cost effective 10 and 11 foot light models. I'm fond of Wulff Ambush for single-handed spey but could use something for a double-handed rig on technical water.

    A 265 grain rod might do me well.

    Loved it.


  2. Jack, thanks for the kind comments. Wulff Ambush must be trending the void, as you are the second reader to mention it today. Roll casts like crazy. Many agree that the Wulff triangle tapers are great switch rod lines. If the kind of 'technical' water you have in mind is the kind requiring a softer presentation than a head system affords, then the Wulff taper might be a good choice for the 265 grain rod. And these do turn over a sinking leader well.