Image: RIO Products
Standard fly lines can already be pretty confusing, but now you might have to worry about shooting heads?!?!?
Luckily, for many people shooting heads will be of no concern. They are mostly used by anglers targeting steelhead, salmon, certain saltwater species, or those fishing with two-handed rods, but all things considered their usage isn't super widespread. Sure they lack popularity, but they can still be very useful!
What is a Shooting Head?
A shooting head (or some may use other names like "shooting taper") is a length of heavy fly line traditionally around 30 feet long that can be tapered or have little to no taper. The head is attached to a thin, level running line which fills up the remainder of the fly reel spool on top of the backing. Heads can be bought individually (which attach to the separate running line via knot or loop-to-loop connection) or integrated which means the head and running line are permanently attached from the factory.
Why Use One?
A shooting head system is a great way to cast far or fish deep. Heads range from floating to extremely fast sinking and are typically used one or two sizes heavier than the rod's rating. For example, a 9 weight saltwater fly rod does well with a 350-grain shooting head which is actually closer to what a standard 11 weight floating fly line weighs.
The heavy, short head design helps load the rod fast and allows for quick, powerful casts with very minimal friction from the thin diameter running line as it zips through the guides. A standard single-handed cast to present the fly is typically made after the full head and just a few feet of running line has been worked outside of the guides. With a strong double-haul and single back cast, you can shoot a long way.
A thin-diameter running line offers low resistance in the water which allows a fast-sinking head to get down in a hurry. This makes a shooting head an efficient means of fishing deep—including extremely deep. To put it in perspective, you can buy shooting head line that sinks at over 10 inches-per-second!
Head Types and Options
Individual shooting heads can be bought ready-to-go with loops on either end (one end to the leader, the other to the running line), or they can also be purchased in longer lengths for those anglers that prefer to weigh and cut their own custom size for a particular rod. Individual heads are nice because they can be easily swapped out while fishing to better adapt to different water types. They also take up minimal vest or pack storage space.
Integrated shooting heads function much like a regular fly line—the head and running line is one smooth, seamless unit. They feel a little nicer than individual heads while casting, and another big plus is you don't have the knot or loop-to-loop connection (where the shooting head and running line would join) clanking through the guides when you cast or strip. Integrated heads do lack versatility, though. If you need to adapt to various conditions, you'll have to carry spare spools with different integrated lines on them. This is costly and takes up more space.
More About Running Lines
Running lines are usually monofilament, braided, or basically a flat, thin fly line. One end connects to the shooting head and the other to the backing. Typically measuring around 100 feet, running lines are thin, level, and are made to shoot well with few line control issues. I have used both the popular "Amnesia" monofilament running line as well as braided types in the past and they definitely casted well, but I can still remember picking out some pretty gnarly tangles with both.
In my past years of tossing shooting heads for striped bass and other fish, I wouldn't say shooting head systems are exactly fun to cast. While they can launch a fly wayyy out there and fish deep very efficiently, these specialized lines can feel somewhat clunky and awkward. They lack finesse and it's tough being super accurate with them, but that's what regular fly lines are for. When it comes to cutting through wind, dredging deep, casting big flies, or simply just long-bombing flies into the next time zone, some type of shooting head may be the solution you are looking for!
Individual Shooting Head — Scientific Anglers Sinking Shooting Fly Line
Integrated Shooting Head — Airflo 40+
Running Line — RIO ConnectCore Metered Shooting Line