Head Length

Head Length

Paul Arden | Tuesday, 25 July 2023

This is an interesting topic, that I thought I would delve into and give you my opinions.

Firstly, while like me, you probably think of me as being a young stud, who’s just coming into his prime, the truth is that I have actually been around the block a few times, and have been fly fishing for over 40 years. And let me tell you, 40 years ago the fly line market was very different from today. Basically we had the AFTM table which actually meant something and flylines were either DTs or quite simple WFs with 30-40ft heads.

As a teenager I was mostly fishing DTs. There were a few WFs around with longer heads; Cortland Rocket Taper and SA Ultra Specialist 2 line (or something like that). The point is this; the DT is an awesome fishing line, and personally, given the choice between a DT and many of today’s current tapers, I would absolutely choose a DT. The problem is that often that choice doesn’t exist.

The head length discussion basically comes down to carry vs shoot. When the head length is restricted then carry is restricted. When the head length is unrestricted then shoot is restricted.

This is because when you carry too much overhang (running line between the rod tip and the end of the head) the loop starts to become unstable, and when you try to haul and shoot with the head inside the rod, the increased friction restricts your shoot.

My go-to fishing line for trout or similar (in the northern hemisphere at least) is a DT4. I don’t need huge flies. I don’t need to throw 100’, although I certainly can with this line. I don’t have to shoot to 70’; I can just carry if necessary. I can make mends and curves at distance. I can make long roll casts. My DT has a “head length” of 90’.

A really good distance caster can carry a 90’ DT to the backing knot. But if we really want distance, then we are better off hauling running line through the rings and having just enough running line, so that the end of the head is positioned at the very top of the loop when it forms. Enter the long belly WF line…

One of the best known long belly lines is the SA Mastery Expert Distance line. It has a head length of 68.5’ in 5WT, 70.5’ in 6WT and 72.5’ in 7WT. Now there are individual variables — arm length, rod length, the technique we are using — but for me, to position the head at the very top of the loop, at the point of loop formation, takes approximately a 90’ carry.  Bingo. That is our 90’ DT carry that has been optimised to a WF profile.  I didn’t learn a 90’ carry with the MED; I learned it with a DT (the MED/XXD line didn’t exist at the time). And every time I practised lengthening carry, I would strip measure back to the backing knot, until I could eventually hold the backing knot while false casting.

This is one very good reason why carry is measured to your line hand by the way. For the people interested in measuring carry, if they know the length of their flyline, then they can easily strip measure from their carry point to the backing knot and know their carry without constantly using a tape measure. And it’s become a universal measurement. (I remember the arguments about how we should do this on the Board 20 years ago!!).

My next consideration, taking me away from a 90 DT, is a fishing one and it’s not distance casting; it is distance Spey casting. In other words, how much line can I comfortably pick up with a 9’ rod, spin around into a D-loop and make a dynamic roll cast. For me it’s not 80’ outside the rod tip, I know that! My comfortable maximum pickup is very close to 70’, or the head length of the MED. I personally think the MED, despite its compound front head, is an excellent long distance single-handed Spey casting line, because of its head length… given one proviso: I’m standing at water level and not knee, waist or chest deep. If I’m up to my neck in water, then I cannot turn that amount of line around (or for that matter carry 90’).  That doesn’t mean that I can’t Spey cast, of course; it just means my Spey casts will have a restricted shoot.

My next fishing consideration is mends and curves. 70 or 80’ is a very long (but fishable) distance when it comes to presentation casts, and possible with a DT or long belly WF. Totally impossible with a short WF line. If I have to overpower curve cast the flyline around a tree at 70’, which I sometimes do, then a short WF head is out of the question. If I want to curve mend at 70’, then a short WF line simply doesn’t work. And, for that matter, if I have to blast into a cyclone then I need to carry on the backcast, because a short WF line will not shoot into a cyclone. No problems with a DT and in all these cases this is a flyline that does the business.

That’s not to say that I don’t think that short belly lines have their uses, because they most certainly do: deep wading, fishing large expanses of water while deep wading (give me a shooting head and a line tray), deep wading while Spey Casting, fishing large expanses of water with restricted back space – these are all reasons for short belly WF lines. Highly specialised in my opinion and not the general fishing applications I experience in my fishing life.. For general fly fishing, a DT is your all-round best option, at least it is for me.

Of course the current primary use of short WF lines is not for specialist fishing applications but instead is to compensate for poor casting technique. That’s one reason why they are often significantly overweight. But if you want to learn to cast truly well, you simply won’t be able to learn by using such a “brick on a string.” Buy a DT, or a MED, or similar. That is how you will learn to truly fly cast and perform fishing casts really well.

So bearing all this in mind, there are two ways you can take this:

1 — Find your maximum carry / maximum Spey casting pickup length and choose a head length that suits what you can do.


2 — Buy a DT and learn to develop your carry and Spey casting pickup length.

The first will not challenge you. The second most certainly will.

Actually, the third and probably the most pragmatic option is to do both. Train with DT or a long belly line and fish with what is currently optimised to your current abilities.

Now that I’ve written this, I’m sure it won’t be controversial in any way at all. I sure hope not – because, as you will remember, I introduced it as being “my opinion.” Which of course means it’s perfectly right… for me.

I don’t know why suggesting learning with a DT line would be controversial anyway. In the past that’s what everyone used and some of us still do. It always was a great fishing line and it still is.

Today, I’m uploading a conversation I had recently with Bruce Richards, who is a wonderful fellow. A meticulous angler and just a great chap to know. He lives in the sticks of Montana in log cabin and is always fighting bears. He’s had a quite eventful life so far, of street car racing and designing flylines. Definitely a hard core angler, who, coincidentally, designed the MED as the first fly line that he designed for “himself”.

It’s an absolute pleasure to talk to Bruce and I hope to get over and see him again real soon, next summer. Last time he kicked my arse in pool. That may or may not happen again next time. We shall see!!

In any case, one of the all-time greats in our amazing world.