I will begin with by discussing the length of a shootinghead. The longer the head, the longer the cast, this is logic. A line only casts for as long as it is unrolling in the air, and the longer the head, the longer time it will take to unroll. But this does not mean we should be fishing 20 metre long shootingheads. Indeed one of the very advantages of the shootinghead is to have a rather short piece of line to aerialise and still be able to load the rod well.
If one is fishing in an area with restricted room to make a backcast, a short shootinghead can be a real blessing when long casts are called for. If one has ample room for backcasts, longer ones are more pleasant to work with. Longer heads are smoother to cast and it looks better and that's important, right? Long heads can be a curse in strong winds, unless casting into it. I think a longer head performs better and I'd much rather fish a WF into the wind anyway :), but in strong winds (coming from behind) I'd usually prefer a shorter head for the ease of casting a fully extended backcast.
Tapers are a jungle and preferred choices are very personal. As on the WF, some people prefer long front taper and no backtaper, others prefer a long backtaper and a short front taper, long front tapers and long backtapers and the combinations are endless. Guideline makes a shootinghead (Guideline Powertaper) with a front taper similar to the Windcutter from Rio, Loop's have always had quite a steep front taper and so on.
For a long time only factory ready-made shootingheads were available and if you wanted a head longer than 30 feet, you needed to cut up a doubletaper (or the belly of a WF). Many of these lines might not have tapers suited for shootingheads and I think it was Loop who first introduced long heads that were meant to be cut down to your desired length. These were the Loop Custom Lines. This has since become standard for many of the Scandinavian designed heads like Guideline, the SA SSD heads, Vision and so on.
For some reason the other American companies haven't really picked this up yet, not to my knowledge anyway! I can't even tell you about my own preferred heads since I fish both Loop Custom lines, Guideline Powertapers, cut up DT's and even a Rio prototype that is being developed by Danish shop owner Kim Rasmussen (Salmon Fly, Copenhagen). My best heads are either the Loop Custom Lines or my own customized, vandalized and cut up Shakespeare Neutral DT lines!!! Although the Powertapers from Guideline are quite good as well.
Shootingheads really became popular here in Scandinavia with a man called Göran Anderson. He developed what he calls the Underhand Cast, which is essentially a Spey cast (with differences though) performed with faster rods and a shootinghead system. He evolved the system as a means to fish difficult locations, primarily I think in River Orkla in Norway. For doublehanders the shootinghead system has almost become the benchmark line in Scandinavia. In Denmark the saltwater fishing for seatrout with the flyrod began with several people in the late sixties, but primarily by a man called Jan Grunwald. I do believe that he also early on began experimenting with shootingheads. So they are not a new invention (as several of the Board members will witness :).
Matching heads and rods
So how do you choose a shootinghead to match you rod? Well, for a long time the standard has been to buy an 8-wt shootinghead for a 7-wt rod. This still goes, to some extend, but with the possibilities at hand, one really needs to first decide on the length of the shootinghead one wishes to fish. This can of course be difficult if you're a first-time user. Think of the prevailing conditions under which you propose to use the system. Is it often windy? Is there wide, open space or are you fishing with trees in the backcast? Do you need REALLY long casts, or is medium distance all that's required? Consider rod action (we'll dwell on this later) and so on.
If you prefer a long shootinghead (let's define long and short. I'll say short is less than 9.5 meters, medium is less than 11.5 meters and long is longer than 11.5 meters), you shouldn't overline your rod. Buy a SH (one of the long ones meant for customizing) and cut it at around 12.5 meters (this could be the full length of the SH, although sometimes they are 13 meters long).
Make a quick loop and go casting on the grass. If the SH feels heavy and you can't get enough linespeed, cut off a little (no more than 10 cm) and try again. At one point you'll feel you get to something that really goes and then remember to consider that the head will often feel just a little bit heavier when fishing, due to the water on the line (very little though).
How big is your head?
You might end up with a head somewhere between 11,8 and 12,5 meters long. If you prefer a medium length head, overline the rod rating by one and cut the SH to a little less than 12 meters: 11.5 or so. You'll probably find that you end up with something around 10.3 to 10.8 meters.
A short shootinghead should overline the rod rating by two and will probably end up being in the vicinity of 8.8 to 9.3 meters. So basically, in order to keep the weight of the head within the range the given rod can handle, you should use lines of different rating in relation to the length of head you require.
With one of each you're really set up to fish under all conditions. You need to consider also the density of the head. Often, sinkers are easiest handled when they are around 9.5-10 meters long and the same actually goes for intermediate shootingheads.
Rods for shooting
When cast and I fish WF-lines, I often find that progressive rods handle long lines better than very stiff ones. When considering shootingheads, I have found that the stiffer the rod, the shorter the head seems to go well together. I had a Sage SP+, a superb rod in many ways, but I never seemed to get along with long head on it. I mostly fished (95% of the time) a short, 9.3 metre 8-wt Loop Custom head (the rod was a 6-wt).
I now have a somewhat “slower” rod, more progressive and it will bend straight to the handle and it works a lot better with longer heads than short ones. 10.3 meters is now my standard and it's better still with longer, but they are harder to handle on the waters I fish! These things have to be taken into consideration and they can only be learned the hard way, by trial and error (or you can find them here at Sexyloops ;).
If you are making your shootingheads mainly to be used on rivers with Switch, Underhand or Spey casts, you should make them a tad heavier to load the rod properly. And often it'll be an advantage to keep them in the short range.
Remember that if you weigh an old head to give some guidelines when making a new one, a short shootinghead usually needs to be heavier than a long one for the same rod. Exactly why it is so I can't say, but I suppose that it has to with the need for more energy to get a long SH moving along at the same speed as the short one. To illustrate the example, my short heads my 6-wt weighs 215 grains and the longer ones weigh 200 grains. Now, I was reluctant to give these directions as 100 people will use 100 different shootingheads on the same rod, but I thought this piece wouldn't be complete if I didn't include this information.
Experience also tells me that beginners and intermediate casters are best served with heads that are heavier than those preferred by experienced casters. My own heads have been getting lighter over the years as my casting has become better. I can get more line speed with a lighter head than I can with a heavier one.
Should you end up choosing to buy a standard, 30 feet head for your rod in order to keep everything simple, you should certainly overline the rod-rating by two, possibly even three.
As for tapers, I can only say that this is down to personal preference!!! Observe though that many DT lines, should you wish to use for making your own shootingheads, have quite a long fronttaper and you are well served by cutting it back a little. For this purpose, you can easily use mill end lines and even share one with your best fishing-buddy. Mill end flylines are also good for experimentation.
And since reading this, you are guaranteed that even your worn-out WF-lines won't go to waste anymore. I've used several “bellies” from old WF-lines and they make exceptionally fine shootingheads. One of my favourite shootingheads right now is made from the belly/head portion of a Rio Windcutter. The runningline was worn out and had cracked a short distance behind the backtaper of the line and I simply cut it off and made a blind-splice. The head from Triangle Tapers also make excellent shootingheads. So think twice before discarding old lines, they might still have some use!
Next week: Running lines and getting connected
Lars Chr. Bentson
Related reading: Beginners AFTM