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Shooting Heads Revealed - written by Robert Gilliespie
One of my favourite forms of two-handed fly-casting is casting with shooting heads. They are exciting to use and open up a range of possibilities to the salmon angler. The shooting head is a very versatile salmon fly fishing tool that allows for a lot of effective salmon angling presentation using any type of line from floating to very fast sinking with relative ease. Versatility is the shooting head’s strong point. I first understood the real effectiveness of the shooting head for salmon angling from fishing with Paddy Bonner who is a very experienced shooting head fisher. I have many times since experienced the effectiveness of shooting heads and they are especially useful for sunk line fishing and also for fishing in confined spaces.
A shooting head system increases the amount of good presentation time in the difficult circumstances of high to very high water levels and using a shooting head is I believe the best way of dealing with those conditions on a larger river. For general fishing it is also a fairly user friendly set up that will soon have novices fishing relatively effectively without too much trouble for them.
As well as overhead casting there are three main styles of Spey casting with shooting heads - pure Underhand style as used and popularised by Goran Andersson, more modern Scandinavian Spey style casting as used by many Scandinavian casters today and people like Henrik Mortensen or Andre Scholtz. This more modern style is often called Scandi Spey style. Also Traditional Scottish Spey casting techniques used with the shooting head. There are also more specialised Scottish shooting head techniques with longer heads used on the Tummel and Tay in particular.
Not everyone is fully aware of the differences between using classic Underhand style casting, modern Scandinavian or Scandi Spey style, and traditional Scottish style Spey casting with shooting heads so I will explain them later. First I will explain the set up. Now you may do things differently or cast differently and that is fine, I am only explaining here what I have found works for me.
Heads are short heavy fly lines usually of 10 to 13 metres. They are designated between 30 to 50 ft in the American Spey line rating system. However they can be made up to 15 or 17 metres. They are usually tapered so that they are thicker at the end which is attached to the running line and thinner at the end where the leader and fly is attached. They are usually looped at both ends for using loop-to-loop connections to the running line and to the leader or poly leader or tip. As the head is usually only 10 to 13 metres long and a quick change can be made of the head because of the loop-to-loop connections. Heads are usually stored in a wallet. To store in the wallet they are doubled over and then rolled around the hand from the bend in the middle where it was doubled over.
Thin, usually slick, tangle free running line is used behind the head and between the head and the normal gel spun backing. The advantage of the head for casting is that the entire grain weight of the line is normally placed outside the rod tip. It is then easy to project the head weight shooting out only the slick running line to achieve distance. Over shorter range, very close range fishing, the head may be used as a normal line.
There are some disadvantages to using a head, the main one being that in a head wind the line will not unroll out into it as well as a Spey line as there is not enough tension created on the bottom leg of the loop by the thin running line to unroll the top leg of the loop formed by the head fully out into the head wind. With a Spey line this will not be a problem and a Spey line will penetrate any wind, the top leg rolling out in a tight V loop. However with a shooting head braking the running line with the line hand at the right moment, the use of more overhang and the right trajectory helps, all explained later. It is however rare to have to be casting into a strong head wind.
Heads are available in all sorts of weights and sink rates or densities and sometimes with differing densities in different sections of the head. For instance it is possible to have a head rated S1/S2, which means most of the head, the rear part of the head is a class one sinker and the front part of the head is a class two sinker, or any combination, usually with a faster sinking at the front end. There is an F/S5 where the main rear part of the head is floating but the front section of the head is a class five sinker. I like shooting heads that are tapered and I find the Vision Ace to be the best head for this reason, presentation always matters to me, even when using a head. I also like the Scierra system, the Henrick Mortensen Modified Weight Forward system. Apart from standard heads there are also custom made heads and Ken Sawada and Loop supply heads for your own tailoring to your rod. Or you can purchase D.T. Lines about two or three sizes heavier than the rod is rated for and cut them to the right length. D.T. 12’s are considerably harder to find than they used to be. You can get two heads out of a Double taper line. Cut them at exactly the right loading after some experiment. I’ll not get into the grain weight detail and will let some technophile explain all that, I just do it by feel.
Sometimes shooting head casters will deliberately over line slightly with a commercially produced shooting head. Which may sometimes (or may not) make things even easier for short to medium range fishing. Some for instance use a 9/10 shooting head on an 8/9 rod. Vision also does a slightly longer head than standard for spring fishing with heavier rods.
There are also now Scandi Spey lines available now from Snowbee. These are in effect shooting heads with the running line seamlessly attached without any loop-to-loop connection. They are excellent lines.
Running line is designed to usually be tangle free though normally it will need to be stretched before use to remove the reel memory. Running line diameter is usually matched to the weight of the head so that it does not cause too much resistance. The thin running line is slick and creates little resistance along the rings of the rod. There are two main diameters of running line; I prefer to always use the fine diameter even with heavier heads as I don’t like too much resistance. I also like the lesser water resistance of the thinner running line for sunken line fishing.
Tips / Poly Leaders
Tips are optional attachments for the front of shooting heads as are poly leaders, more or less the same thing. Heads are very suitable for attaching tips to, especially when using Spey style techniques with them, the short heavy head has good command over the tip or poly leader. Tips are available in differing densities and lengths. They are attached by loop-to-loop connections. I can thoroughly recommend the Scierra modified weight forward system tips, which are very well made. I deliberately under line with a tip as the head has more command over it. I would use a tip for an 8/9 head with a 9/10 head. The leader is then attached to the tip or poly leader.
Like heads you can make your own poly leaders easily in different lengths and densities from sections of sinking trout or salmon lines. Buy the bargain lines and make your own loop-to-loop connections with tying thread and super glue. Di 7’s or 5’s make good tips in short lengths.
If I am going to do any amount of overhead casting I do not use tips or poly leaders with the head but select a head of the right density and use a normal leader, usually a short heavy leader if sunk line fishing. The whole purpose of overhead casting with a head is to generate line speed, the hinging effect of poly leaders and leaders destroys this principle and so I prefer to use the head alone when overhead casting especially on larger rivers, more explained later. It is one of the best set ups for throwing bigger flies such as Sunray shadows or bottle tubes at distance.
Other important factors –
The amount of running line outside the top eye is called overhang and when using a shooting head the amount has to be controlled. Normally a foot or two and up to about two yards outside the top eye can be used. An excessive amount of running line out the top eye will spoil the cast as the thin running line has not the density or weight to control the head. Up to a certain point the more overhang the tighter the V loop created in front on the final delivery.
To increase the amount of overhang used on the last back cast when overhead casting and when the head already has high momentum backwards generated, some of the running line can be slipped out in addition to the normal amount of overhang being used. An extra couple of yards or so is let slip by momentarily loosening the grip on the running line and then tightening it again. This extends the head out further behind and so then helps catapult the head away on the final delivery and importantly maintains a tighter V loop for longer on the forward cast as the head unrolls out slower.
Stripping In Running Line
Shooting head casting is often criticised because it requires stripping in the running line and managing the running line in large loops. That’s all simply completely irrelevant when you are used to it. That’s about the same thing as criticising a manual gear change car for not being an automatic. You just don’t think about using the clutch and changing gears when you are driving as it is so familiar it is done automatically by you anyway, as well as doing the steering and indicating and looking after whatever else is going on. You change gears and use the clutch almost without any thought process whatsoever. After you become used to handling it, this is exactly how stripping running line and running line management is done with a shooting head outfit. It becomes automatic, someone would have to point out to you what you were doing for you to realise what you were doing. You can be talking to someone the whole time and looking at them and do this all without thought or looking at your hands once you are used to it. You will check where your overhang is at a glance and that’s about it.
Running line is held in different fingers of the stripping hand as it is stripped in. Four five or six pull are made and then a loop is caught and held by the little finger. The same amount of pulls again or one pull less and then that loop is held by the ring finger. The next by the middle finger and the next by the index finger. On the final delivery all the loops are let go by opening out the fingers.
There is only two types of fishing time to me, down time or effective presentation time. If using a head gives me more effective presentation time overall during a fishing day in high to very high water levels, then my stripping time, although not presentation time is still therefore not a waste of time. Overall this necessary preparation still allows for more effective presentation time because of the superior efficiency of the technique overall in the circumstances. Having to strip in a lot of line is beneficial actually, it tells you there was a longer cast and better angle, slower presentation. Most importantly, in such circumstances - hold the running line taut and the rod tip out after making a cast until everything is at the right angle before letting it swing round, otherwise you will belly or balloon the set up downstream causing the fly to fish round too fast and defeating the purpose or advantage of the distance achieved. Despite perceptions there is no problem making a mend with the running line and rod after the initial cast, or holding it taut until the right angle is achieved when necessary.
Rod action and style can vary but you can Underhand or Scandi Spey cast with a traditional Spey casting rod and vice versa. It is perhaps slightly better to have a rod fine-tuned to the style for pure Underhand style. Scandinavian style two-handed rods have slightly shorter butts as the hands are normally held slightly closer together. They have a progressive hyperbolic curve and thin tips. Thinner tips generally than are on traditional Spey casting rods. Consequently they load very deeply on a short stroke but with the high modulus carbon recover quickly. I have a Henrik Mortensen Mk 2 signature series 13 ft for grilse and small river fishing but use my normal Spey casting rods in 14 and 15 ft for larger river fishing. I prefer the older blue Henrik Mortensen rod blanks which are not as fast and have more feel. I also liked the old Loop Adventure. Of course most people associate fast action rods with shooting heads and they do make a good combination, especially for overhead casting. However it is a personal thing with me and I like more feel and deeper loading rods, even for overhead. On the Tay system the Scots use 16 and 17 ft Spey casting rods for their specialised style. A Scandinavian style rod also Spey casts a shooting head exceptionally well when using it with the longer stroke traditional Scottish Spey casting style. Traditional Scottish Spey casting techniques work very well with a shooting head too and they are effective when used with classic Underhand style casting or modern Scandinavian style Spey Casting. Shooting heads and shooting head set-ups are generally versatile.
Shooting Head Casting Styles
It is not necessary to use the classic Underhand cast with a shooting head outfit and modern Scandinavian style is now popular also. It is useful out of interest and best to know the original Underhand style. Having used it for quite a while I quite like classic Underhand personally but generally prefer the traditional Scottish Spey or modern Scandi Spey casting styles with the shooting head as it is not necessary to use the longer leaders if one does not wish to. When you learn the various styles you can use which you like or use elements from some in your own hybrid version. Shooting heads are particularly suited to use with modern poly leaders and tips when doing any type of Spey or Underhand casting with them. However if you start overhead casting with them, although manageable it is not anywhere near so practical or easy as simply using the straight head and a shorter leader. For overhead it is better just to use a head alone of the right density for the water conditions and a shorter leader - otherwise you can encounter all sorts of hinging problems and will sacrifice some speed, which is really the main benefit of overhead casting with a shooting head. As there are very many types of head made nowadays including those with various sinking rates or sink tips integral to the head itself, so it is not necessary to use poly leaders or tips for overhead casting. I would recommend using a head with a good taper.
The main differences between the styles are in the grip, the stroke length, how much body movement is used and leader lengths used. Basically traditional Scottish Spey style is a long stroke style with circling up behind and using both upper body rotation as well as realignment. Also using weight shift. A normal shoulder width grip is used. The top hand may be used as much or more for the final delivery. Underhand casting as used by Goran Andersson is a short stroke style that involves working in front of oneself, shorter movements, practically no arm swinging or upper body rotation at all. Usually upper body realignment only is used. A shortened grip is used with the top hand brought down the handle. Long leaders are used. The bottom hand is very dominant in the final delivery.
Modern Scandinavian Style is now common with Scandinavian shooting head casters. It is in effect the modern straight line Spey Cast using some upper body rotation and weight shift, using a slightly longer stroke length than classic Underhand. The rod is still kept in front of the caster but the body weight shift is used more and a much more compressed and dynamic loop is formed. The normal width grip is also used although the handle on the Scandinavian style rod may be slightly shorter than on traditional style Spey casting rods. The long leaders of Underhand are not necessary though of course tips/poly leaders and tapered leaders may be used. If not and a standard tapered leader length is used some of the head may be placed on the water - or not some of the head as the caster prefers. This modern Scandinavian set up is then often more versatile for overhead casting as if the standard leader is used it does not cause any problems.
Original Underhand style in detail
Note: Stroke length is the distance the top hand moves during the sweep. Poly leaders and tips are effectively the same thing.
Underhand casting is a specific short stroke style of Spey casting using a shooting head where only the long leader, or leader and poly leader or tip touches the water to form the anchor and the shooting head forms the D loop. To ensure only the tip and leader touch the water and not the head, a level sweep round of the rod tip (parallel to the water surface) with no dip during the sweep is critical. The leader or leader and poly leader combination is up to 24 ft long. The grip on the rod is different for Underhand style casting and the hands are much closer together with the top hand slid down the handle more than for traditional Spey casting. This allows pushing out of the bottom hand more while still retaining the right rod angle behind when in the Key or firing position, (just before you make the forward cast). In other words the bottom hand can be pushed out without the rod tip dropping too low behind and dumping line on the water behind. It also allows for faster rod tip turnover speed. Faster rod tip speed is generated from the closer fulcrum of the top grip on the final delivery. The rod is stopped high on the final delivery to create a tight loop. The top hand also usually forms a ring around the cork using the thumb and one or two fingers only, (index and middle). It is not a tight grip and used more of a fulcrum than anything especially on the set up. The bottom grip is the Scandinavian grip where the button of the rod is placed in the palm of the hand and the thumb is wrapped around the cork. This allows two or two and a half fingers also to wrap around the rod end. The hands can be moved closer together in this style because less power is required to make the cast as the head length is short. How far the angler moves the top hand forward on the final delivery is a matter of style and also perhaps wind direction and strength. An oncoming wind will need a lower trajectory and more push through.
Up until the head is outside the top eye the shooting head line is used as a normal line on short casts. When the head is outside the top eye then underhand casting technique may take over. Underhand casting is practiced with a foot or two of running line out of the top eye, the amount of running line outside the top eye after the head is called overhang. The amount of overhang being used is critical and only a short amount of overhang may be used, up to about two yards. A little extra overhang tightens up the loop on the final delivery. The longer the overhang the tighter the loop, only up to a point - too long and problems arise of the loop collapsing.
How the lift and set or sweep is made is one of the main differences between the two styles. The emphasis is also on the use of a short stroke and the bottom hand to apply most power and leverage on the final delivery. Underhand is better translated into English as bottom hand casting. That is what it is. Underhand casting involves keeping the rod in front of yourself and making the sweep with the whole upper body trunk turning to alignment but not sweeping the arms. The body turns to alignment with the final delivery direction only, further upper body rotation and circling up behind is not used. The arms rise to the key position as you turn the body for the main part of the sweep. There is a level path made of the rod tip and think of staying parallel with the water surface for most of the sweep, the tip raising up to the key position at the end Ė after it passes the anglers position.
Most importantly initially a tap inwards by turning the body, or a slight curve inward in the opposite direction to the sweep is made at the start of the sweep. This is absolutely critical and ensures that the head leaves the water below the angler. It prevents excessive rod loading on the sweep from too much water resistance building up from the line over the first half of the short sweep, then the head breaking free and flying out over the river too far with the pressure of the release and centrifugal force. The head is so short and heavy that it can easily be powered too far away from the angler.
During the sweep round made by turning the trunk of the body only, the rod is tilting to the side by about 45 degrees by pushing to the side with the bottom hand (as both hands are simultaneously raise to the key position). The rod tip should then come round parallel to the water surface with no dip. As the sweep finishes and the rod is well raised to the key or firing position, the bottom hand is pushed well out. The thumb will be at least at the top of the ear level in elevation. If the sweep was level only the leader or leader and poly leader will touch down cleanly on the water. Perfectly straight as there was no dip. The end of the head and leader joint should land in a position level with the anglerís position. The leader is on front of him and the head behind him. There is a slight pause to allow this to happen. Years ago only long tapered leaders were used made by loop. Now many people use tips or poly leaders (same thing) and standard length tapered leaders, both items together making the long leader for the anchor. Underhand casters can be really very fussy about leaders clipping off inches and trying them again to get it right in length for fly turnover.
The forward cast is made mainly by pulling in the bottom hand and the top hand does not move far forward, the rod drops down slightly as the pivot is made. A high stop of the rod tip is made to form a tight loop. The loop forms and the head will easily pull out lots of running line. The running line should be slick and not too thick in diameter so as not to cause too much friction or resistance. It will have been held in the fingers of the bottom hand and they are opened to allow the running line to escape.
To make a more dynamic distance cast with a higher line speed, a shunt downwards of the rod butt is made with both hands at the end of the forward power arc, when practiced correctly this creates extra rod loading and a more dynamic final delivery. For Underhand casting in a downstream wind a circle cast followed by a short jump roll on the downstream side, or more usually a Snake roll cast is used with the hands brought up to the key position or firing position at the end of the snake roll so that only the leader and tip touch the water. I donít like reverse casting (casting off the off side shoulder) generally but admit that the reverse snake roll with a shooting head has got something in terms of torque that makes it work well and I enjoy it.
Underhand casting is an excellent way of fishing sunken lines. The most widely known is Goran Anderssonís style described above and he is the originator of the method. Fortunately I first learned it from a Danish friend taught by Goran Andersson. I was then able to have a lesson from him when he was in England opening the Sportfish store at Reading. Fortunately I had been doing the right thing all along.
Scandinavian Style or Scandi Spey Style
Modern Scandinavian Spey casting uses a normal a normal grip width and normal top grip usually. It is not necessary to make a ring. The bottom hand grip is the Scandinavian grip. It also used more normal leader lengths and poly leaders and tips may or may not be used and often they are not. The D loop formed is not an open loop as in classic Underhand style but much more compressed and moving faster. The sweep is lower and straighter than pure Underhand. Longer heads may also be used though not necessarily. More body movement is used in the cast with weight shift and some (a little) upper body rotation as well as realignment being used. The grip used is the normal approx shoulder width grip. The leader only may still be the only thing that touches the water or the leader and some of the front part of the head. The forward hit is made with the top hand being used more as in normal Spey casting though it is still a power application suited to a shooting head, crisp and fast, a crisp acceleration that gives speed without excessive power or force. At the end of the back cast the angler may pause slightly to allow the leader to touch down and the loop to form and then make the forward cast after this slight pause rather than to use a longer stroke and circle up behind. The line is sweetly popped back on an incline after some momentum was generated on the sweep from weight shift and some upper body rotation was used.
As the head is short I have seen some Scandinavian anglers do a roll cast pick up from the dangle using a very slight change of direction and then sweep the line back to form the D loop.
Traditional Scottish Spey Style
Alternatively a shooting head casting outfit may be used in standard Scottish Spey casting style. Outside of overhead casting - or lets say in all styles where a loop is thrown under the rod tip instead of over it - traditional Scottish Spey casting style is my own favorite way of using the Shooting head outfit. I actually prefer Spey casting with the Underhand set up rather than pure Underhand style. The leader and poly leader can though be made shorter (to better suit overhead casting) and some of the head may be placed in the water instead of just the leader and poly leader though that is optional and depends on other things, not least what the individual caster prefers to do.
A sweep of the arms, upper body rotation, and a little circling up behind is used (what suits the head length) and some of the head is placed on the water as if it was a short Spey line. Single or Double Spey may be used with ease and on a single Spey the back cast blends into the forward cast and running line is simply shot out on the final delivery to achieve distance. The Scandinavians donít seem to use the double Spey much and rely on the snake roll more, however I personally also like the Double Spey Scottish style with the shooting head.
The only drawback with a shooting head outfit is if the wind is facing you head on. The tension on the bottom leg of a loop in a Spey line will ensure that the top leg rolls out, driving or cutting into the wind. There is just not enough tension in the bottom leg of the loop formed by a shooting head as it is slick running line designed to shoot easily. Therefore the wind can quickly kill the shooting head loop and it can turn into a pile of spaghetti and collapse as there is then no efficient aerodynamics. Increasing overhang and getting a tighter loop for longer as a result and aiming in the right trajectory will overcome some of the difficulty. It is unusual however to find yourself in that situation. Alternatively when the wind is from any quarter behind it can be used to carry the head an incredible distance.
Tay / Tummel Style
I have been fortunate to witness the ultimate masters of the shooting head for traditional and Scandi style Spey casting, no it was not the Scandinavians though they are exceptionally good, but the Scots in operation on the Tay and Tummel with their specialised shooting head techniques. They were joking me and saying to send the Scandinavians over and that they would teach them how to Underhand cast. While it was good fun I was soon to see that it was probably a statement related to fact. The Scots on the Tay / Tummel are among the best shooting head Scandi or Underhand style casters I have ever seen. However they still use traditional Scottish Spey casting rods and longer heads for this with some ingenious combination casting techniques for handling the longer heads. As I always say people are products of their environment.
The rods they use are 16 and 17 ft rods. They use heavy heads up to 18yds long but usually 15 to 17 yds. Some homemade heads may be made from lines of AFTM 13 to 15. Some use Snowbee Scandi Spey lines with poly leaders. When the loops are hand lined in, the middle finger holds a loop when the head is one or two yards outside the top eye. The longer head is then drawn on in through the rings to approx the bottom joint or bottom couple of eyes of the rod and that last loop is held with the index finger. The line is rolled up if a sunken line - which it usually is - and either a double Spey or an in swing single Spey is used to make the change of direction. On the delivery after the initial change of direction the last loop is let go and the head then pops out on top of the water in line with the final delivery direction but only to the yard or two of overhang is outside the top eye. Then immediately the line is swept back in a jump roll and in Underhand or Scandi Style.
Often the straight double Spey is used with the head outside the top eye and the final delivery made without any initial set up as the double Spey is an efficient cast for sunken line fishing. However with the single Spey the change of direction set up is always used first then a jump roll. When it is done right with this longer heavy head set up a very impressive distance cast may be made with very little effort. This specialised style is the best shooting head casting I have ever seen and I watched Alastair Gowans practice it on the Tummel to great effect.
Overhead casting a Shooting head
Though I generally donít use poly leaders when overhead casting with shooting heads they can be used in shorter lengths. Overhead casting with a shooting head is all about speed and trajectory of the final delivery. It is generally a short stroke style with a crisp delivery and an abrupt stop, though some drift may be used for a better lead in to the final delivery. The amount of overhang used is absolutely critical and some line slip may be used very effectively on longer casts. Longer poly leaders will reduce potential speed and may hinge, - and they may require the use of a motorcycle crash helmet when overhead casting with a heavier fly.
Basically there are two methods. They usually involve combination casting first in order to place the line in the right place and in line with the final delivery direction, especially with sunk lines. One uses a roll (if using a sunk line) and then snake roll or double Spey set up on the right bank, in swing single Spey on the left bank, to put the line straight in front with exactly the right amount of overhang, about two yards, and then a single back cast made with power using the water loading and a then single forward cast. A little line slip behind may be used depending on the speed and rod loading used in the back cast.
The other style has the same necessary set up to put the head in line with the final delivery but makes one false cast forward gently and aimed high and then makes a powered back cast dropping a little behind with some line slip and then the final delivery. This way the last back cast is in plane as far as line height is concerned with the final trajectory. It is aimed slightly lower behind and usually a tighter loop behind is possible. It takes a little longer as there is one false cast but if a really big distance is required this is often the best way. Happy Shooting head casting - without the crash helmet hopefully.
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