A Guide To Shooting Heads

If you are looking for a fly line that offers excellent water coverage and at the same time versatility in depth control for various fishing situations, you should seriously consider investing in a shooting head system. Shooting heads are incredibly adaptable and offer an interchangeable line solution for the broadest range of water heights and weather conditions. Over the years they have enjoyed widespread popularity on rivers throughout Scandinavia and are increasingly finding favour with UK salmon anglers. Armed with one fly reel loaded with running line and a selection of heads of various densities, salmon anglers can fish with significant effect in the highest or lowest water. With the head supplying the casting weight and the thin running line reducing friction, shooting heads can be cast huge distances with minimal effort, making them ideal for casters of all abilities for increased water coverage.

What is a Shooting Head System
A shooting head system comprises two main components - a head section and an independent running line, which are attached to each other by a loop-to-loop connection. Although available in a variety of lengths, the head length for a standard 15ft salmon rod usually is 10-20 metres, or 33ft-40ft. The heads are available in a large choice of densities, from floating right down to super-fast sinking. With developments in line design and construction, manufacturers now offer heads in dual densities (floating belly/slow-sinking tip, slow-sinking belly/fast-sinking tip etc) and even interchangeable front sections of various densities like a multi-tip spey line. Most heads have no back taper but benefit from a front taper to aid efficient turnover of the head on the forward delivery. One advantage of purchasing a manufactured head is that these tend to have good-quality welded loops at each end for easy loop-to-loop connection to both the running line and the tippet material or leader.

Shooting Head System
Running Line
The running line's principal function is to allow the head to travel long distances on the forward cast with minimal friction as the thin line shoots through the rings. It does, however, have to generate enough friction to keep the lower part of the extending loop under tension. If the running line is too efficient, slack will form in the lower leg of the loop and the line will bunch up in the air and extend in a mass instead of an unfolding loop.

When it comes to choosing a running line there are basically three options. Originally, the first running line was simply monofilament nylon used by competition casters in the United States during the 1940's. Today monofilament running line is still a very good option for a shooting head system. It has excellent shooting qualities and can be beneficial when fishing fast-sinking heads as the thin line cuts through the water. As manufacturing procedures have improved over the years, the inherent memory that made this type of line prone to tangling on the forward cast has been greatly reduced. That said, it's well worth taking a few minutes at the start of the fishing session to stretch about 20 yards of the running line in order to remove even the slightest memory.
Rio Slickshooter Running Line
Braided monofilament line can also be used as a running line and has good shooting properties. Due to its woven construction, it tends to be slightly less prone to tangling than standard monofilament. In theory, it also has less contact with the rod rings as it shoots out on the forward delivery. The only real problem with braided monofilament is that it can feel abrasive to the touch and can be hard on the fingers with prolonged stripping.
Hardy Running Line
The last option is a plastic or PVC-coated running line. This running line is quite popular and offers good shootability, low memory and is relatively hard wearing. Depending on the weight of the shooting head, this line can be bought in different diameters for single-handed and lightweight double-handed shooting heads.  You can get .029in for light shooting heads, .032 in for medium, and for heavier shooting heads, .035in. As well as different diameters, some manufacturers also produce running lines in intermediate as well as floating versions for additional depth control with sinking heads.
Guideline TSL Evolve
What casts can I use with a shooting head?
There is no doubt that Scandinavian salmon anglers have been instrumental in popularising shooting heads throughout the world of salmon fishing during the past few decades. Miran Andersson developed a style of casting using shooting heads called 'Underhand Casting.' Moran developed the technique to give him the ability to make long casts in confined casting areas on his native river in Scandinavia. Underhand casting utilises short shooting heads powered on the forward delivery with a dominant lower-hand power application - hence the name. The head is suspended momentarily in the air with only the long leader and the fly supplying the anchor before the forward delivery. With 100 per cent head energy suspended in the "D" loop and only the weight of the leader and fly gripped by the water, great line speed can be generated on the forward delivery.

Shooting heads can also be used with more traditional Spey casting techniques. As standard shooting heads are relatively short, the casting style has to be more compact than when using longer-headed spey lines. Using a crisper, more compressed power stroke on the forward delivery, it is possible to use distance casts like the single spey to cover large sections of water. Bearing in mind that the concept of attaching a thin running line to a section of fly-line was first developed for competition distance casting, overhead casting techniques also excel with a shooting head.
Guideline Xchange Tri Tip
What are the advantages?
There is no doubt that the main advantage when using a shooting head is distance. These lines will cover large sections of the river with relative ease. Due to the short nature of the heads, they can also be cast good distances in confined spaces, making them ideal for heavily wooded riverbanks or when fishing with restricted space on the backcast. The fact that the heads are also available in a large cross-section of densities, from full floating to super-fast sink, allows the salmon angler great flexibility by changing the head's sink rate to accommodate different depths of various pools. The other great benefit of a shooting-head system is the ability to improve how the fly works through the pool. Shooting-head users have long since reaped the rewards of fishing this type of line set-up for salmon for one simple reason —they fish the fly for longer through the pool. When using a shooting head, the relatively short head section must be retrieved to within a few feet of the rod tip before re-casting. As a result, when fishing a mid to long line, the angler may have to retrieve 20 yards or more of running line before re-casting. As the line swings through the stream, hand-lining until the head is just outside the rod tip increases the fly's "swim-time" and ultimately, the coverage of the pool.

Hardy Rocket Series Light Scandi Spey Tip Set
What are the disadvantages?
Although shooting heads can extend the time the fly is swimming in the water, this comes at a cost. The main disadvantage of these lines is the management of a large amount of running line that must be gathered prior to the forward cast. When using a shooting head, the angler has to retrieve the back of the shooting head to within inches of the rod tip. If the line is cast with too much thin running line overhanging from the rod tip, the lighter, thinner running line will not have enough energy to turn over the head. So you must retrieve a large amount of the running line, which if not properly managed is very susceptible to tangling as it travels through the rod rings. So, one of the best ways to manage the running line is to form loops as the line is retrieved. To avoid line bunching on the forward delivery, form two of three larger loops of the line rather than multiple loops, which will invariably tangle at the butt ring.

What is "overhang"?
Irrespective of which casting style you employ to fish your shooting head, one very important aspect of using this profile of fly-line is "overhang". "Overhang" is how much running line is outside the rod tip prior to the cast. Different head weights/lengths, rod action and the caster's ability mean there is no set length, but any more than 6ft of overhang will become difficult to control. To optimise the amount of overhang for your particular rod/line set-up, start by casting the line with the back of the head touching the tip ring of the rod. After a few casts, extend the overhang by a few inches and feel how the rod responds to the additional running line outside the rod tip.

Continue the process until the rod starts to —kick" in your hand. This indicates the point where there is too much overhang and the thin running line can't turn over the weight of the shooting head. This will also be visible by how the casting loop unfolds in the air. Now reverse the process and shorten the amount of overhang every few casts until you reach a point where rod and line feel balanced and the loop on the forward delivery is not only tight but smooth as the line unfolds in the air. At this point, you've found the sweet spot! Consider using a black permanent pen to mark the running line with a reference point where the first finger of the uppermost hand touches the thin line.

What line size should I buy?
When it comes to buying manufactured shooting heads, there are two options. The most popular choice are heads of various densities that are looped at both ends and ready to use straight from the box. These heads are easily balanced to your rod by simply purchasing the recommended line rating for your particular rod. The other option is to buy a line that is designed to be cut to the angler's required length. These lines offer the opportunity to customise the head by cutting the back of the line until the preferred length and weight are reached. This can be done by feel, with the angler casting the line, cutting the line, casting the line and cutting the line until the set-up feels balanced. This, of course, is not without its inherent dangers! Be careful to cut only small sections from the back of the line each time. Although it's stating the obvious, take your time with the process - once it's out there's no going back! The other way to customise the line is to cut it to a set weight. Using a set of digital scales, the line can be very accurately cut back to a certain weight for a particular rod. For example, if you're looking to make a shooting head for your 10-weight rod, cut the line until it weighs 40 grams. If you want the head to load the rod slightly deeper, cut the line until it weighs 42 grams.

Greys Platinum Shooting Head Kits
The following gram weights are a general cutting guide for the head: 7wt= 25 grams, 8wt= 29grams, 9wt = 33 grams, 10wt= 40 grams and 11wt = 44 grams. Once the head has been cut, either attach a good-quality braided loop or, ideally, strip the plastic coating to expose the line's braided core to make a home-made loop. A good strong loop can be made by folding over the braided core and binding with fly-tying thread, then coating with waterproof glue or some form of varnish.

Shooting-head lines are not only excellent for good water coverage, but they are a very portable system. As highlighted, armed with one fly reel loaded with running line and three or four heads, you are all set to travel light for a day on any water. A shooting-head system also offers as many depth-control options as any other fly-line profile available to today's salmon-fisher.

A quick loop-to-loop connection system makes it easy to change head density depending on the depth of water and the strength of stream for any given pool. When using shooting heads, an angler is not confined to one method of casting. These lines perform well within the various disciplines of double-handed casting techniques. Casters of all levels enjoying not only an effective method of salmon fly presentation but also a system that is great fun to use.

This article was brought to you in association with Trout & Salmon Magazine.