Fly fishing using a single hand fly rod and shooting heads.
The river is perfect this evening, you quietly approach the water and in the run you see the splash of a big salmon. You pull a few yards of line off the reel, preparing for a perfect presentation of the fly in front of the salmon. The shooting head is delivered far out into the current, and as the salmon grabs the fly and you lift the delicate single hand fly rod to set the hook, you are experiencing THE summer dream.
Fly fishing for salmon and sea trout using single hand fly rods and shooting heads is wonderfully exciting. Using this fly line system will hugely improve the efficiency of your fishing; challenges such as strong winds, tight positions, long casts, spey casts, large flies and sinking line fishing are easier to overcome using a modern shooting head system.
I have fished single hand rods in combination with shooting heads for more than 20 years now, and during this time I have crossed many barriers in terms of what is possible to do with a single hand fly rod. So far I have landed 18 salmon exceeding 10 kilos on single hand fly rods, largely thanks to sinking line fishing. These days it is actually quite easy to fish sinking lines on a single hand fly rod, due to the modern shooting heads.
What do you need?
A complete shooting head system is made up from two parts, and the first of these is the running line, which is connected to the backing. There is a good selection of running lines available, enabling you to choose one that suits you and your fishing (for further information, see the “Running lines” section later in the article). The second part is the shooting head itself, attached to the running line using a loop to loop system. As with running lines, there is a wide selection of shooting heads available (see the ”Shooting head alternatives” section later in this article).
How do shooting heads work?
When casting, the whole shooting head should be outside the top ring of the rod; the length from the rod tip should be the same length as what you need in order to perform a double haul, this is called “the overhang”. During the build-up of the cast, you are not going to let any more line out the way you would when using a regular weight forward line. When using shooting heads, a constant amount of line is kept airborne, and then you “shoot” the line out across the water from the same position. In other words, you will work with the whole weight of the line outside the rod tip, enabling you to maximally load the rod with ease, thus it is easier to cast further in all kinds of situations, even with a single hand rod. Remember that the forward rod motion should be stopped at a point equalling around 10 o’ clock on an analogue watch dial, it will also be advantageous if you manage to stop the rod motion abruptly as you let go of the fly line, this will enable you to really load the rod to its full potential.
I use shooting heads made by Guideline. They are designed for our modern rod actions, in such a way that there are no differences in speed or behaviour between the rod and the line. Unfortunately it is quite common for many fishermen to have lines that do not match their rod’s action, which creates an imbalance in terms of the speed and behaviour of the line and rod. This is what makes it difficult to fish in windy conditions, or to stretch the leader perfectly on the water.
If you are using single hand fly rods ranging from weight classes 6-9, you should try shooting heads for your fishing. Most people today fishing for salmon and sea trout using rods in weight classes 6-7 use weight forward lines, it is more usual to use shooting heads from weight classes 8-9. I am not saying that you should stop using weight forward lines, but in many situations you will fish more effectively with a shooting head, therefore a combination of using both the line systems would be the best.
The advantage of a shooting head, when compared to a weight forward line, is that you will cast further with less effort when employing a shooting head, all you really need is one back cast before shooting the line out. A shooting head also makes it easier to cast in stronger winds, due to the much higher line speed it generates, which aids in pushing the line through the wind. And should you wish to fish large flies or tube flies, or if you fish in tight spots where you need to use a spey cast or a snake roll cast, this is done much easier by using a modern shooting head. Last, but not least; due to the loop to loop system of the shooting heads, it is very quick and simple to change to a different line should you wish to change your fishing strategy in terms of the depth in which you want to fish.
A world of opportunities!
Shooting heads will let you fish as effectively as possible in any given situation. You can adjust the length and weight of your shooting head, with this system you can design your own fly lines, enabling you to utilise every bit of power in your rod at all times.
What is available?
There are three different categories of shooting heads:
No 1 include floating lines, these are used for the normal summer fishing with smaller flies for surface fishing.
No 2 include floating/sink lines, these are my absolute favourites. The selection of these include floating/sink1, floating/sink3, and floating/sink5. These lines will help you to fish deeper in an easier way, as you have a floating back section and a sinking tip, thus it is easier to lift the line out of the water to cast. I use these lines as “summer sinking lines” for my salmon fishing, when the river is low and warm it is often very effective to fish the fly “deep and fast”. This will see you hook up with the large salmon more often. And these lines are perfect for this fishing technique. And if you are stillwater fishing for trout in cold water when there are no hatches, these fly lines are fantastic.
No 3 are the sinking lines, there is a great selection of sinking lines for the single hand rod. These come in everything from “Hover” to “sink 6”. Guideline’s new sinking lines are very good; these lines have a “3D” construction. This means that the back part is made up of a lighter sinking rate than the middle part and the front part of the line. This again makes it easier to lift the lines off the water for the next cast. This concept also allows you to fish deeper than you could with the “old” sinking lines. These lines cast like a dream and is much more manageable than you might think, as these lines, due to the “3D” construction, are gradually heavier towards the tip, thus the roll-out of the line will be slowed down, which enable you to cast very far. I fish sinking lines a lot during the season, there are many river conditions and currents speaking for a sinking line, in many situations it is very important to get the fly down to where the salmon is holding.
Shooting heads – for salmon fishing only?
In Norway and Sweden it is normal to use shooting heads for river salmon fishing, however many fishermen also use shooting heads for sea trout fishing in the sea. The advantage of shooting heads for stillwater fishing is the distances covered, if you want to achieve greater casting distances, these are the best fly lines for the job. If it is windy where you are fishing, you can still fish effectively with a single hand rod due to the speed of the shooting head. And should you wish to fish deeper, a shooting head is very effective.
For stillwater fishing, both from the bank and from a boat, you will cast further than you have ever dreamt of before. Choosing the right running line is very important here.
As stated previously, shooting heads generate higher line speeds during casting; this means that many trout fishermen do not use a shooting head when fishing dry flies or nymphs, where presentation is of outmost importance. However, it is very much possible to use a shooting head if you so wish, especially for heavier trout fishing and when you need especially long casts. I often fish dry flies and nymphs when salmon fishing, using 5 and 6 weight rods, and to achieve a nice presentation I cast with less power when it comes to both the double haul and arm movements otherwise. At the same time, I slow down the speed of the running line by creating some added friction with my fingers, and this result in a very nice presentation with long leaders and small flies. I would also like to add that I often fish for salmon with light weight single hand rods – this is extremely exciting. My biggest salmon to date on a 6 weight single hand fly rod weighed in at 10 kilos, caught using a floating shooting head and a size 10 Streaking Caddis single hook. My biggest salmon on a 5 weight rod was around 5 kilos, the fly was a Rackelhanen size 14, and the salmon took the fly like a large trout, I promise you that I will never forget that fight.
Shooting heads are not very practical when fishing small lakes or rivers, where you often do not have to cast further than 8-15 metres. This is due to the loop in loop system; the loops will disturb the cast as they are pulled back and forth through the top ring of the rod. However, as soon as you need casts exceeding 15-20 metres, a shooting head will be very effective in terms of roll casts, spey casts, and substantial directional changes.
There are two different categories of running lines.
No 1 include coated running lines, many people prefer these as they are thicker and thus easier to hold with the fingers. Coated running lines are also well suited for boat fishing, as these running lines do not tangle easily and are easier to de-tangle should a tangle occur. The limitation of these running lines is casting distance; this variant generates more friction through the rod guides, which results in shorter casting lengths. Also, it is not that easy to use the double haul with these lines, as you will get a “slow down” effect against the lower rod guide.
Photographer: Jussi Sjölund.
No 2 are the modern “slick running lines”, and these are my absolute favourites. With this type of running line you will cast much further than with a coated one. There are two variants of the “slick running lines” within the Guideline system. One is a floating running line named Shooter, it has hollow chambers inside and as such it floats better. This is the running line of choice if you do a lot of wading when fishing, it lets go of the water more easily due to its floating properties.
The other variants is named “Compline”, this one sinks below the surface, as its construction is massive, i.e. without the hollow chambers. This is the best running line for bank fishing and also for the faster flowing parts of the river, as it is much more abrasion resistant in terms of contact with rocks. This running line is also stiffer, and its oval shape means that it will steer the fly line loop better, which is important when casting from the bank or from a boat as you will generate immense line speeds when not wading with this running line. Thus, if you want a “slick” running line for your stillwater fishing from the bank or from a boat, this is the one.
The “slick” running lines do have some memory due to the materials they are produced from, and some fishermen feels that this makes them more difficult to use. But all you really need to do is to stretch them before fishing; I do this by stretching metre by metre as I increase casting distance. Just tighten the line between your hands and stretch. When you have done this a couple of times, both these running lines are perfect.
The casting technique.
You will experience a whole new life at the end of the single hand fly rod when you use a shooting head, you can use all possible casting techniques; spey cast, overhead cast, snake roll, combinations of these, and all the back hand techniques. That feeling you get when you either combine a roll cast or the first phase of a spey cast with an overhead cast with the single hand rod is just fantastic, and that is just the beginning of the casting experience. You will be able to cast effectively in the tightest of fishing situations, and with directional changes all the way up to 180 degrees for stillwater fishing by using the snake roll technique you can present the fly quickly in the rise of that dream fish. The shooting head helps you to fully load your rod with ease; no other fly lines can do this as effective. With a normal casting technique using the double haul, combined with a modern rod action suited for shooting head fishing, you will most definitively have new experiences on your fishing trips.
When you are wading, it is helpful to place the running line between your fingers in a useful manner, this helps you to control the running line so that it does not tangle and gets stuck in the rod guides when casting. When you are about to make a new cast, organise the running line in the following fashion: the first loop should be one metre longer than the next one, and the same goes for loop number two and three. Now you will have 2-3 loops of line between your fingers, loops that are gradually becoming shorter as you strip in the running line in preparation for your next cast. Place the running line in between your fingers like this: the first and longest loop is placed between your index finger and the middle finger, loop number two is placed between the middle and ring finger, and loop number three is placed between your ring and little finger. When casting, you hold the running line between your thumb and your index finger, this ensures that the running line will travel through the rod guides without tangling.
When bank fishing or fishing from a boat, it is enough to just spread the running line below you in controlled loops.
Adapting the shooting head.
Many people find this difficult, the challenge is to know how long and/or heavy the shooting head should be in terms of the weight class of your rod, and the rod action. It can also be tricky to buy the correct weight class of your shooting head. I have the following advice for you:
1) For fishing in normal places, where you can use a standard overhead cast or a spey cast if the wind is strong, you get a shooting head matching the rods’ weight class. An 8 weight rod should as such be paired with a shooting head classified as 7-8.
2) For fishing in tight spots where you need a spey cast or a snake roll, purchase a line classified as 8-9 SH for this rod. This line will be a bit shorter than the one in 7-8, but will weight the same. The rods can take a somewhat heavier shooting head if used only for spey casting and snake rolls. Thus you will be able to fully load the rod more easily in tight fishing spots.
The below figures are created for single hand fly rods with a fairly modern rod action. The gram weights can differ to some extent from one rod manufacturer to another, with different rod actions.
Recommend gram weights for the combination of spey and overhead casting in normal positions:
6 weight: 15 grams.
7 weight: 17 grams.
8 weight: 19 grams.
9 weight: 20 grams.
Recommend gram weights for shooting heads used only for spey and snake roll casts in tight positions:.
6 weight: 17 grams.
7 weight: 19 grams.
8 weight: 21 grams.
9 weight: 22 grams.
Try salmon fishing with a single had fly rod, this is very exciting and often very effective when the river is flowing at a water level somewhere between normal to low.
Have a great fishing trip!
Jan Erik Granbo.