Tips for using a shooting head

How to use a shooting headWinter is the time when keen fly-fishers brave the cold to target trout that stack up around the stream mouths waiting for a fresh to make their way upstream to spawn.

During the day these fish often hold beyond a distant drop-off, and the best way to reach them is with a shooting head setup. A fast-sinking shooting-head is also the preferred line to fish Booby flies and big ‘heave and leave’ Glo-bugs.

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Indeed, shooting-heads are now the wet-liner’s weapon of choice, and one would be hard-pressed to find a full-bodied sinking line anywhere on the Tongaririo River.

What is a shooting-head?

Although their thin running lines mean it’s impossible to mend them, and delicate presentation is difficult at greater distances, shooting-heads more than compensate for these disadvantages by being pure distance rockets. They can be cast further and with less effort than any other flyline.

Shooting-heads have the two essential elements of weight-forward lines: the casting head and the running line. But, unlike WF lines, both parts can be individually customised and changed. It is this flexibility that makes the shooting-head setup so versatile.

The ‘head’ is the casting weight, and it’s joined to a shooting line that’s lighter than the running line of a typical weight-forward line. Monofilament nylon is the number-one choice for running lines, as it is light, thin and creates minimum friction through the guides and in the air. Other options include braided monofilament or a thin, level flyline. The connection between the head and the shooting line can be either temporary, as in a loop-to-loop arrangement, or a permanent knot or splice.

By customising heads and shooting lines, tournament distance casters have reached amazing distances, always following the principal of delaying turnover by increasing the length of the heads (15 metres and longer) and reducing line inertia by selecting a lighter/thinner shooting line. A longer head increases the turnover time, during which the head drags out more light running line.

For practical fishing, a standard head of 10 metres and 15kg shooting nylon will easily produce casts of 30 to 40 metres.

What is a shooting line?

Shooting line is any loose line that has not been aerialised during false casting. In other words, it is whatever hangs between your line hand and the reel. The ideal shooting line for shooting-head casting should be light so inertia and friction are minimised, but somewhat stiff to avoid tangles. For me, memory-free oval nylon works best.

A shooting line can also be a very thin level floating flyline especially developed for this purpose. Its advantage over nylon is that it can still be mended with a slide mend in situations where a fast mid-current has developed an unworkable belly. On the downside, such a line restricts casting distance and soon gets dragged under by a deep sinking head.

Some time ago, line manufacturers recognised the advantages of this combination and joined the head and line into one unit. The most readily available in New Zealand is the Airflo 40+ distance rocket. It is so well balanced that even casters who have never used conventional shooting-heads before can achieve quite remarkable distances.

Ultimately, what matters most is tangle-free performance, and the choice of shooting line very much depends on an individual’s preference. Whatever type you select though, make sure it has a breaking strain greater than your shooting head or leader.

Line speed revisited

Without considering other things, the faster the departing shooting head travels, the more energy it has to drag out the shooting line. In theory, a good caster using a standard belly weight-forward line can shoot just about the same length of line that he has in the air during false casting. With the shorter shooting head and nylon backing, he should be able to double or even triple that. To do this though, the departing line has to travel at great speed.

Casting shooting heads

Because shooting heads can be cast quite a long way, even by relative novice casters, most anglers never learn to fully utilise their true potential. Few realise that shooting heads have to be cast differently to full lines. The main difference in technique is in false casting the very dense shooting heads.

False casting

When casting normal flylines, false casting serves to: increase the amount of aerialised line, straighten it out, and place it into the correct casting plane for the forward cast. This applies even more so to distance work. A wrinkle-free back cast allows the caster to generate line acceleration from the very beginning of the forward cast.

It is important to understand that false casting does not contribute to line-speed delivery with shooting heads.

Here, then, is a problem most New Zealand casters have when attempting to cast shooting heads. Nearly all our shooting heads are sinkers, and the vast majority are very thin, super-fast, high-density heads of aftma 9 and above. Such lines are heavy and ultra slim. Instead of sailing like a floating line they slice through the air like a knife.

Consequently, even a normal back cast will propel these lines at such a speed that the line bounces and recoils after it has straightened. So instead of finishing with a straight line, the back cast takes on the shape of a concertina. Needless to say, these wrinkles have to be pulled out during the first part of the forward cast, thus wasting some of the casting stroke and double-haul.

The solution is to back cast HI-D shooting-heads very gently, just fast enough to keep the line flowing smoothly without kinks and bumps.

The double-haul – an essential ingredient

The double-haul is to shooting-head casting what oxygen is to a fire. Its judicious application will create maximum line speed while smoothing line flow. Even during false casting, the double-haul plays an important function by maintaining tension on the slowly moving line at all times. It is carried out at a lazy pace to maintain the ‘feel of the line’ and to synchronise timing.

At the delivery shoot, the double-haul changes purpose: it becomes a pure accelerant. Its speed changes from a slow pull at the beginning to a lightning-fast snap just prior to the line’s departure point.


The term ‘overhang’ refers to the amount of shooting line (not head) outside the tip guide during false casting. For normal fishing distances, say up to 35 metres, use only enough overhang to permit double-hauling without repeatedly pulling the splice between head and shooting line through the guides. Two metres of overhang is about right.

However, in competition distance casting, the length of the overhang controls the speed of the shooting head’s turnover. If the overhang is too short, the head turns over too quickly. Once that has happened the heavier line butt overtakes the lighter tip section, causing the still moving line to pile up in a jumbled heap; too much overhang can delay the turnover so much that when the line stops its forward movement, the loop has not straightened out.

It follows that selecting the right amount of overhang is another critical part of the fine balancing act a caster has to perform if he/she wants to get the best out of the tackle and the conditions on the day. As you will soon find out, if there’s too much overhang, you will start to lose control over the moving line.

Water hauling

Smooth false casting is greatly assisted by water hauling the line at the start of each back cast. The natural tension of the water on the line permits a soft and slow loading action that eliminates all kinks from the moving line. When the line comes free, it can be thrown back with a light snap of the wrist and a corresponding down nudge with your line hand. Go through this sequence a few times and enjoy its calming influence on your timing. However, always lay the line on the water before starting another casting cycle; water hauling is unlikely to disturb your target fish, which will be much further away.


In shooting-head casting, timing is everything. The delivery cast needs to depart at such speed that any timing lapses will steal many metres from the most promising cast. Water hauling works best for me to get my timing right. The routine of repeatedly laying the line on the water and then literally sucking it out has a mesmerising effect that aids my concentration.

The shoot

While the false-casting cycle should be slow and smooth, the shoot is anything but slow. Once a caster has made up his mind during false casting that the timing is right, he needs to act decisively. From the very start of the forward cast, line acceleration is the name of the game. The speed-up finishes with a forward drive of the wrist, terminating in a hard stop to accomplish the turnover. The same dynamics also apply to the line hand, which conducts the double-haul. From the moment the loop overtakes the rod tip, all attention should be focussed on holding the rod at an angle that allows the line emerging from the shooting basket to enter the first stripper without creating unnecessary friction.


Gravity never sleeps, and dense, tungsten-loaded shooting heads drop faster than a stone. Apart from high line speed, the only other thing that keeps them airborne longer (so more shooting line is dragged out) is a higher trajectory on the forward delivery cast. However, a higher trajectory also calls for a lower back cast, which can cause water slapping behind you when deeply wading. Such wading also restricts the working space of your line hand for an efficient double-haul. It is often smarter to wade back a few metres into shallower water to launch a big rocket that sails well out past the distance you could have reached with a cramped cast while submerged up to your armpits.

Line storage

How to use a shooting headShooting-head devotees often use stripping baskets tied around their waists for line storage. This is essential equipment for wading in lakes, as any loose nylon quickly sinks below the surface. Despite their advantages though, shooting baskets frequently cause line tangles. This problem can be largely overcome with the inclusion of a dozen or so cable ties sticking up from the bottom of the basket. This simple addition somehow allows the line to issue from the basket without catching a loop of line lower down and pulling the lot out at once. Since I have installed this cheap option in my various shooting baskets, my shooting-line tangle problems have all but disappeared.

When fishing big rivers, like the Tongariro or any of the South Island salmon rivers, I have never bothered with a basket. At the end of the downstream swing I strip my line in three very large coils. The first I clamp between my lips; the next two I hold in my left hand. The current keeps them neatly trailing near the surface. When I am ready to cast, I get the head inside the tip top, roll the heavy line to the surface, pick it up, shoot two metres of nylon on the back cast, get my timing right, and lay into the delivery. All I have to do is open my lips and fingers and the nylon peels off the water for a 30-metres-plus cast.

On dry land I drop shooting line in loose coils at my feet, providing the ground is reasonably free of line-trapping snags like sticks or long grass. Then, as long as you don’t step on it at the last moment, the line should peel from the ground as the shooting-head sails towards the horizon.

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This article is reproduced with express permission of
NZ Fishing News

written by Herb Spannagl - 2012
Re-publishing elsewhere is prohibited

Originally published in New Zealand Fishing News


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