Saltwater Fly Fishing In The United Kingdom

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†Just Shoot Me! - The Shooting Head

Since the invention of the good old Weight forward line, the ďMarketing guysĒ have told us that we need a different taper line for just about every situation you can think of. For years we made do without Wind tapers, Presentation taper, Distance tapers and a whole myriad of other tapers concocted, mainly by the marketing departments of fly line companies rather than the fishing side. After all, why have one fly line that can do everything when you can have a Wind taper, a Presentation taper, a Nymph taper and a Distance taper?

The ordinary WF all rounder was superseded and we now all own every taper possible.

However, there is a reason that the good old WF all rounder is exactly that. It does everything well. Itís quite true that a distance taper may get you an extra 4 yards on the right day but you can bet it will lose performance in other areas as a result. The same goes for all of the other tapers. We may gain in one area of performance but to the detriment of other areas. The same can be said for shooting heads.

The benefits of shooting heads are as follows.
1) You only need one reel and one spool. Each head fits on the same running line saving a small fortune in spare spools. (And the lines to go on them!)
2) They can generally be cast further, with less effort than a WF line.
3) You can very quickly change heads to match the exact depth or presentation required without re-stringing the whole rod.
4) Shooting heads can be tuned to produce an exact result time after time after time.

However, they also have the following drawbacks.
1) They have to be retrieved to the exact casting point before being recast if a fish rises elsewhere when we have just cast.
2) We have to feed them out to the exact casting point having retrieved the cast so the head is inside the rod.
3) If they are tunes to do a specific thing (more on this later) itís difficult to get them to do something else.
4) You have bulky joints to content with going through the rod rings.
5) The running line is more prone to tangling than a standard running line.
6) You have to tune them (which means you have to *know* how to tune them!)
So letís get to it!

First of all, what do you want from your head? No Idea? They why are you even considering using shooting heads? Usually we turn to shooting heads because we need them for an exact reason. This could be distance, or ease of casting, or the requirement for a shorter head due to restricted back cast or many other reasons.

Letís say we require a head that will allow us to cast 30 meters repeatedly with less effort than it would take for a WF line (the usual reason!) we are going to need to tune the head and the running line.

But first lets look at the differences in casting shooting heads in comparison to a WF line. Casting a shooting head is quite different to casting a WF line because all we are looking for is a perfect loop. We donít need the same amount of power because we have a thinner running line. Secondly, we donít require a lot of false casting because we donít feed out a shooting head once we are on the running line. Next, we donít need any power at all for the false casts because we are only looking for a good loop to release. So false casting becomes a thing of grace and beauty. We also no longer need to extend the casting stroke (stroke is the distance the hand travels during the cast) as we donít need to extend the line (long line long stroke, short line short stroke). So over a day, this lack of energetic casting means we are far less fatigued than we would usually be.

What exactly is a shooting head? Well as the name suggests itís a fly line head that is designed to shoot carrying a running line with it. There are two ways of casting along way. To hold up lots of line and shoot a little (the WF) or to hold up a little line and shoot a long way (the Shooting head).

The Physics bit. Donít worry, we arenít going into serious equations but we do need to know whatís going on so we can fine-tune our system.

When we cast a shooting head we are using our loop (the head) to pull out not only our running line but also the fly. In casting a shooting head we require, above all else, a stable loop. A stable loop will fly further before unrolling fully and so carry our running line and fly further. If we have an unstable loop, from, for example, from an overpowered cast, it will fold up and fall way before the stable loop.

The time it takes for the loop (head) to unroll is based on two main things.
1) The length of the head.
2) The resistance of the running line, that is causing the loop to unroll.
Obviously, the longer the head, the longer the head takes to unroll and so the further it will travel before doing so. Conversely, the shorter the head, the quicker it is to unroll for the same resistance on the running line.

The less resistance on the running line the slower the head unrolls and so the further it will fly before turning over and hence the further the cast will be. The greater the resistance from the running line the quicker the loop will turn over and so the distance it will travel before turning over is reduced.

Finally, if your head fails to turn over before it hits the ground then you have too little resistance in your running line and this failed to keep the head turning over fast enough.

There is also another factor than can affect the rate of turn over and this is the point at which we release the line with the hauling hand. If we are late in letting go and donít release the moment the rod flicks straight, we cause premature turn over. If this happens to be something you are affected by, then using a running line with less resistance will counteract the effect but as always, it is better to fix the problem than compensate for it.

Now thatís all well and good and one may be tempted to go and make some 16-meter heads that are going to fly a long way. However, they would soon find out that fishing a head of this length is a pain in real fishing situations. Usually, anything longer that 12 meters is difficult to use in anything less than perfect conditions. In this case, it is better to use a shorter head and a running line with less resistance to achieve distance.

So where should you start?
Well there are sneaky things that you may not be aware of that could help. Each Fly Line actually has two AFTMA weights. You will not be aware of them because they donít tell you about the second one. Letís take an 8-weight line for example. At the AFTMA mark an 8-weight line weighs approximately 14 grams. But at the back of the head, regardless of the head length or brand, it weighs 22 grams. This is because an 8-weight rod is ďoptimallyĒ loaded at the AFTMA point with 12 grams but is loaded for final shoot at the back of the head. Therefore, if we require a shooting head for an 8-weight rod, we require one of about 22 grams, regardless of length. The figures for a 7 weight are 12 grams at the AFTMA point and 18 grams at the back of the head. So for a 7-weight rod we require an 18-gram shooting head regardless of length.

Now, to get the weight we require in a head that may be significantly shorter than the head of a WF line we are going to have to use a line of a heavier AFTMA rating to make our heads. Usually this is quite close to being 2 line sixes up for shorter heads and one line size up for longer heads.

So where to begin?
Well a good head length for the beginner is about 10.5 meters. This is quite a good length for fishing with and also flies a good way due to the length. Its about the best compromise of length versus ease if use. Of course, if you want a head that flies further than this you are free to use a 12 meter, or longer head.

So for our 8 weight we need a 10.5-meter head that weighs 22 grams. Where on earth are we going to get that? Well, from the AFTMA table below we can see the lines weight at 10 yards (9.27 meters) in grams.

AFTM Table

So for our 8-weight 22 gram shooting head the 11 weight is going to be too heavy as that weighs about 22 grams at 9.27 meters and we require 10.5 meters so the 10 weight it is. Interestingly, we see that the weight if the 10 weight line at the AFTMA point is the same as the whole head length of a WF 7 line. Handy to know should you require a head for a 7-weight rod that is 9.27 meters long?

But, if we wanted a longer head of say 12.5 meters we would be looking at the 9 weight line to give us a head that weighed 22 grams at that length. So we buy some mill ends and start chopping?

Line cuts

Well not really, There are some well known shops out there that sell half a dozen Mill end DT lines for about £15 and youíll probably buy some of these. But before you start chopping have a look at the front taper because these are mill ends and we donít know what we are getting. Usually the Mill end lines have a length of thin tip that we can remove before we start cutting (donít throw this away). Cut this back to the start of the front taper. This will give you a much better turnover later. Once you have the line like this then measure back 10.5 meters and cut. I would recommend that you leave another 10-20 cm on for making looks and mistakes when making loops

So now you have a 10.5 meter (or whatever length of head you chose) head. Now we need to attach a loop to it. This can be done in various ways and there are some excellent methods in the Tips section of the forum for this. Personally, I use a 6cm piece of the thin end we cut off earlier and simply Nail knot this to the back of the head with 30lb mono. There are better ways and I use this at this stage because itís quick and I may want to change the length of my shooting head in the field when fine tuning it. The result I get is thus:

The Loop

At the other end I make a loop by folding the line over and nail knotting it the same way. And get:

Loop to Loop

You can use whatever method you like for this and a quick search of Google will throw up a multitude of ways.

Now we are ready to attach the running line.

This is where things get interesting. Those that have used Shooting heads for a while will no doubt have many choices of a running line to use. Anything from braided mono to single strand mono to specially designed running line is available. Each has itís own practicalities and more importantly, each has itís own resistance in the rod rings.

We wanted a line that will fly 30 meters consistently, with minimum effort and carry a fly. So letís start wit Braided mono. This is a High resistance running line but is excellent for not tangling and is a popular choice for fishing as it is nice to hold. If you have the inclination you can make it even less prone to tangling by sliding thin mono up the core with a needle. Itís a laborious job but some swear by it (and sometimes at it!). So with the head attached loop to loop off we goes for a test. We have our tapered leader on the front and some fluff to act as a fly.

We gently cast it in a field and it repeatedly falls at about 26 meters. 4 meters short of where we want it to. So we need a running line with less resistance. Letís try 30lbs mono. This will tangle a little more but should give us the distance we are looking for. And sure enough, the resistance is less and the head falls consistently at 30 meters when cast. Result! But hold on! Just for a laugh, lets use 15lb mono. Whoosh! Itís landed at 40 meters! Whehey! Letís try 6lb mono! Blimey! 47 meters! Shame we canít use 6lb for fishing. Well, next time you canít reach them mackeral, you will know that by using 10lb running line you can!

OK, now we need to know how to cast a head and where to have the back of the head when casting. We know that we canít cast the head with too much running line out of the tip (overhang) as weíll get slack in the system and the head will be full of wiggles. If you are a non-hauler this is easy. Simply pull in the head so the back of it is touching the rod tip ring. However, things are a little different for haulers because if we do that, the back of the head will end up in the rod when we do so. So we need to do things differently. We need to put the back of the head at the rod tip but then we need to reach back along the running line to where our hand usually is at the end of the final haul when we release. This will mean that at this point, the point of release; the back of the head will be as close to the rod tip as possible but not touching. If you head clicking of the head against the rod tip when hauling you need to let a little more line out (but not too much).

When casting remember we are not looking for power here, we are looking for a perfect, stable loop. Less is definitely more in casting shooting heads. Gently does it.

Now, there are some things we can do to aid the casting of shooting heads. The difficulty of casting a shooting head with overhang is due to the thin running line not being able to transfer the energy from the rod to the head very well and this is why it must be kept as close to the rod tip as possible. The huge difference between the thickness of the running line and the back of a 10 weight shooting head also doesnít help. So we can add a back taper! This helps in the ability of the head when overhanging and reduces the effect. However, adding a rear taper to your heads will increase their length so you may want to trim your heads down and check the weight of the head and rear taper together to make sure they still weigh about 22 grams. The rear taper is taken from either the front of a spare DT line piece that you have from making your heads or from the rear taper of an old WF line. It only needs to be about 6 ft (1.5 meters) Attach the thin end to the running line and the fat end to the rear of your head. If you have shortened your head this will mean that the head and the new rear taper will be 10.5 meters long. The rear taper is them left on the running line and if a different head is required then the head is changed at the fat end of the taper and not at the running line.

Alternatively, you can use an old WF line as your template for this and just cut off the head of the WF line and use the rear taper and the running line as your running line for your shooting heads. Like this:

Shooting Head Shooting Head

This also means you keep the general ease of use of a WF line whilst gaining the benefits of a Shooting head system. You canít fine tine the running line but you can have a whole host of heads for the set up. The best lines for this are the shooting head type lines on the market with short heads and long running lines such as the Shoot Distance line or the Vision Extreme Distance. Both have a coloured section for hauling too.

So thatís about it, All youíll ever need to know about shooting heads. You can buy shooting heads off the shelf if the above doesnít make you jump up and down with excitement but they all tent to be a little short at around 30 ft. This usually means distances of around 25 meters with most running lines and although a respectable distances, they would go a lot further if they were a meter or two longer. Or why not try adding a 1.5-meter rear taper to them. This makes them a very useful 10.8 meters.

As always, if you have any questions Iím over in the Forum

Tight loops,


Carl Hutchinson

Carl Hutchinson is a qualified instructor with the FFFE and FFFUSA and runs saltwater fly fishing Mullet with He is a member of the board of the British fly Casting Club and has fished extensively in many saltwater locations and specialises in saltwater fly fishing for Salmon in Canada.









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