Shooting Heads Decoded
What is a shooting head?
A shooting head is a relatively short section of fly line (head) looped at both ends. A level running/shooting line is looped to the back end and depending on the front taper of the head, a tapered leader/poly leader or sink tip is looped to the front end. In fact, if one were to look closely at modern weight-forward fly lines, they could be considered as shooting heads save for the fact they are integrated with a running line.
With shooting heads, as with regular fly lines, the distance you can cast is proportional to the length of the head. Because a line will travel through the air so long as it is turning over, it stands to reason a longer head will travel farther than a shorter head. Where shooting heads really accel, in terms of fishability, are situations where room for your back-cast is at a premium, such as when longer casts with proximity to brush or a steep bank are necessary, yet where pin-point accuracy is not. In these cases, a short section of fly line (head) with enough mass to fully load a rod will allow an angler to cast a considerable distance with minimal effort and space. This may also be beneficial to those anglers suffering from tennis elbow or other such ailments that limit how much time and energy they’re able to invest in a day’s fishing.
The following will be a discussion on some of the merits and differences between two types of shooting heads commonly used for fishing with two-handed (Spey) rods; Skagit and Scandinavian heads. Note, however, that both these types of shooting heads (and others) are adapted for use with single-hand rods over a wide range of applications.
Skagit shooting heads were developed for fishing the often steep and gnarly, tree-lined banks of steelhead rivers along the Pacific coast of the US and Canada where water levels often make wading quite difficult. Anglers on these waters were experimenting with ways to catch more fish using extremely short heads that would not only allow them the ability to fish water previously un-fishable with traditional lines/methods but also enable them to cast the heavy sink tips and extremely large (intruder) flies they were developing for these aggressive sea-run rainbow trout. This need for a line that could be fished in extremely tight quarters, coupled with an ability to cast heavy sink tips and flies is what gave rise to modern Skagit heads, i.e. tight casts and heavy payload were mutually inclusive to their overall design/taper. As mentioned previously, it is the front taper of the head that determines the type of leader to be used. The profile of a Skagit head is such that there is very little/no front taper. This enables a Skagit head to lift a heavy sink tip from the water and turn it over through the air due to the relative continuity of mass along its length. Skagit casting is often referred to as “sustained anchor” Spey casting. This implies that as the rod lifts the line from the surface film of the water, surface tension and the actual mass of the line load the rod and allow the angler to reach out to far away lies from a very confined space. Skagit casting has become very popular due to its relative ease of execution and how little time it takes to learn to make fishable casts. Another difference between Skagit and Scandinavian heads is the necessity of using relatively heavy tips. Skagit heads require sinking tips to add length and mass to create a proper anchor for Skagit casting. Scandinavian heads on the other hand, require longer tapered leaders or polyleaders to anchor ‘touch and go’ casts and to turn over and present smaller flies.
Typical Skagit shooting head taper. Length/taper may vary by weight and manufacturer.
Scandinavian (Scandi) shooting heads came about much the same way as Skagit heads; via the need to cast flies to anadromous fish in tight quarters, however, the major differences in taper and length are due in part to the types of casts utilized and the much lighter payload the Scandi head is meant to deliver. In this case anglers are fishing smaller/lighter flies (on average) and not utilizing the heavy sink tips employed in the pursuit of steelhead, thus the front taper is much longer/finer than with the Skagit and mass is biased towards its back end as opposed to being more continuous along its length. The Scandi head is also longer on average than the Skagit. As such their taper design is conducive to the type of casts generally associated with the Scandinavian approach. “Touch and go” casts are typically employed with these shooting heads, where only the tapered leader and portion of the front taper of the head are used to anchor the cast while the mass of the head nearest the rod is accelerated, loading the rod and effecting the cast. While these casts are more elegant than the Skagit cast, they typically take more time to master.
Typical Scandinavian shooting head taper. Length/taper may vary by weight and manufacturer.
Some general differences between the two types of shooting heads.
As anglers, we typically want the option to pursue fish by any means necessary and this can often mean having multiple rods rigged with lines dedicated to a very specific approach. However, if you have a minimalist sensibility, a system of shooting heads that can be looped to a common running/shooting line with various leaders from floating to fast sinking will give you the option to fish a single rod yet adapt your approach as the conditions or your desires dictate. In part two we’ll talk about the differences between the specific shooting head models we carry at BRT and why you’d choose one versus another in different conditions.
How to select the correct shooting head.
In our last blog, we outlined the main differences between Skagit and Scandinavian shooting heads in terms of application and design. From short Skagit heads on one hand to long Scandinavian heads on the other but with so many variations in between, there are a lot to choose from. Why manufacture so many different shooting head models? Because conditions are not always as simple as ‘wind or no wind’, ‘fishing deep or fishing on the surface’ etc., as anglers we cannot dictate the conditions we are faced with on the water but must remain adaptable and shooting heads can certainly provide us an advantage. With adaptability in mind, we will look at the “middle ground” between traditional Skagit and Scandi shooting heads and describe some of the advantages associated with each.
The following is a list of Airflo shooting heads from shortest to longest and what they are best suited for. We hope to create a basic understanding of the differences between different shooting heads and why you might want to use each in different situations and with different rods. As you read through this list, think about the weight of rods you’ll be fishing, the lengths of those rods, the places you fish and the flies you wish to employ.
The shortest shooting head made by Airflo, this line is made predominantly for single-hand and shorter switch rods. They may also be used on longer rods with long sink tips. Short heads like this excel in tight quarters where room to place a back-cast is especially limited. The high mass/length ratio of the Skagit Scout and Skagit switch make them the best choice for turning over the heaviest sinktips and largest flies.
Single-hand 5-11 weight, double hand 2-8 weight.
The Skagit switch is like the Scout, though slightly longer and comes in heavier line weights. Made for Switch and shorter two-handed rods to cast in tight quarters and with long heavy tips.
Double hand 7-9 weight.
The Skagit compact is made purely for longer two-handed (Spey) rods. Once again designed for fishing sinktips and larger flies in tight places, however, not as tight as is possible with the Skagit Switch and Scout. The observable trend with these Skagit heads is the increase in head length to accommodate progressively longer rods.
Double hand 6-11 weight.
Rage Compact heads are longer than what would be considered a Skagit head, in fact they are closer in length to a compact Scandi head. The Rage heads are designed to cast tapered mono/fluorocarbon leaders but will also turn over polyleaders (floating or sinking) and moderately sized flies. These heads were developed primarily for anglers who want to cast (larger) dry flies for steelhead, even in windy conditions, but who are not proficient in touch-and-go casting techniques and hence prefer to use Skagit style casts.
Double hand 4-9 weight.
The Scandi Compact is great for surface or near-surface presentations utilizing Scandinavian or underhand touch-and-go casting techniques. Because this line is shorter than a traditional Scandi head, it can be used on shorter rods as well as in tighter quarters. Scandi heads can cast (relatively) farther than Skagit heads, but will not cast into the wind as well due to the their longer more delicate front taper. It is for this reason that Scandinavian heads will not effectively turn over the type of sinking tips one would use with Skagit heads, however, polyleaders (floating or sinking) are well adapted for use with these heads.
Double hand 4-9 weight.
Much the same as the Compact in terms of overall taper though longer for larger/longer two-handed rods. A long head like this gives you the advantage of making very long casts to cover a great deal more water thus potentially presenting your fly to more fish.
Double hand 6-9 weight.
Although having a collection of shooting heads may sound expensive, they are typically less expensive than full lines and when using a common running/shooting line, can provide you great versatility with only a single rod/reel versus the expense of having multiple rod/reel combinations rigged for various techniques/approaches. This, in and of itself can help make you a more productive angler as you will be able to adapt to varying conditions you may be confronted with while maintaining a more minimalist approach in terms of just how much tackle you will need to carry with you for a day on the water.By Elliott