History and Development of the Shooting Taper in America
By Dan Blanton
This is where it all really started
The Sunset Line and Twine Company of Petaluma, California marketed the first commercially produced shooting head in August 1950 and “Shooting Head” is the company’s registered trade mark. This is why you’ll always see them referred to as “Shooting Tapers” on packaging and in the catalogs of other line manufactures. The concept of shooting heads goes back much further than 1950, though, having its origins in tournament casting.
Marvin Hedge of Portland,Oregon, was the first caster to use a shooting taper in competition when he unveiled a homemade 50-footer fashioned from various diameters of braided silk and size I, silk shooting line. That was back in the early 1930’s when Mr. Hedge set the casting world on fire with his unbelievably long throws, establishing a distance record of 147 feet in 1934, a record subsequently bested by G. L. McLeod in 1936 with a toss of 149 feet, that later eclipsed with a stunning cast of 183 feet in 1937 by Dick Miller. McLeod and Miller were both using a shooting taper similar in design to Hedge’s.
In those days Hedge’s 50-foot braided silk head was joined to the braided, size I silk shooting line with a short section of line slightly larger in diameter than the shooting line, called a “holding” line. The holding line’s function was similar to the monofilament casting trace used by surf casters: it performed as a shock/abrasion absorber, without which, the shooting line would soon part from the stresses of repeatedly hauling the line in and out of the rod tip during casting. This was the basic shooting taper configuration until 1946, when by accident, a new dimension was added.
Jim Green, famous rod designer and Phil Miravalle, acclaimed tournament caster, of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Casting Club were practicing for the national championships with the typical shooting heads of the time, when Jim, who has always been an innovator, decided to tie some 8-pound monofilament from his newly acquired spinning reel to the holding line of the head. During the course of the session, the holding line broke and Jim decided to tie the monofilament directly to the shooting taper. As Jim explained it, “The line took off like a bullet, adding at least 15 feet to our distance.”
Until the championships at Indianapolis, shooting tapers with monofilament shooting line were a closely guarded secret. Jim Green swept the field with top honors and the rest of the team also cleaned up. From that moment, the shooting-taper/mono combination became the accepted tackle for tournament casting – but, others had different plans.
Charles Barfield, a fellow member of the Golden Gate Casting Club at the time, is credited with being the first fly rodder to use mono shooting line behind a head in actual fishing. Jim Green had built Charlie a typical shooting head around the time of the championships in 1946, and while Jim went to Indianapolis, Charlie went steelhead fishing – probably on theRussian River, although I could never actually document it. His enthusiasm about this new shooting head combo for West Coast steelheading prodded others to try it, and mono shooting line became standard equipment for fall salmon and winter steelheading throughout thePacific Northwest, where long casts are the rule rather than the exception.
While the first shooting tapers of braided silk were homemade by tournament casters, self-made shooting heads, fashioned from other, non-traditional materials, such a lead-core trolling line, found their way into the fly fishing scene more than 50 years ago. And while I can’t say for sure who was the first angler to make and use a lead-core shooting head, it is generally accepted that Myron Gregory, a West Coast fly fishing legend, was the first angler to use a lead-core shooting head in saltwater to take Pacific salmon and rockfish; and, If I were to guess, I’d say he was probably the first to make and cast a lead-core head.
He later showed the Late Bill Schaadt, who became “The Legend” among western salmon and steelhead fly rodders, a lead-core head and how effective it was at taking deep-dwelling rockfish. Bill realized this line was the answer to taking King salmon from deep pools on California’s Smith River and it quickly became a most used and valued tool.
Despite the standard lead-core line’s ability to dredge bottom during normal flows, it couldn’t get the job done when the rivers were nearly at flood stage, so Bill developed a new idea. Taking a length of heavy Dacron fishing line, he inserted lead fuse wire to make a lead-core shooting head of considerable density. The result became known as “The Cable.” It can be made from 2-, 3-, or 4-ampere fuse wire, weighing anywhere from 550 to 1200 grains, capable of sinking a fly so deep it’ll catch fish with headlights. Of course these lines cast just like their name implied, and neeless to say, you didn’t aerialize the false cast. Water-hauling (some times referred to as water-loading) was the only safe approach to casting the cable [note: they cast much better on today’s modern rods].
A system can always be improved, and Frank Bertaina of Santa Rosa,California, added a new twist to Bill’s Cable. Frank removed 22 feet of the 1-ampere fuse wire from a 30-foot length of standard lead trolling line and replaced it with 2-, 3-, or 4-ampere fuse wire, creating a tapered lead core shooting head. These cables were used for years to overcome extreme conditions, until modern, nearly as fast sinking but more easily castable versions were manufactured by leading fly line companies. Extreme water conditions were the prime factor that required pulling a Cable from your line wallet, because they were, indeed, “extreme” lines. I still have a few of those that I made more than 25 years ago, and have occasionally used them when the flood gates burst or when plying the bowels of bluewater. And, again, it’s interesting to note, that the Cable handles much better when cast by modern, carbon fiber rods.
Lead-core heads made of standard trolling line are still used frequently today, by salmon, steelhead and marine fly fishermen, despite the fact modern, vinyl-coated, extruded heads that sink nearly as fast (faster in some cases), are now available. Level tungsten lines such asRio’s T-8, T-11 and T-14 and T-17 are now extremely popular as shooting tapers. I personally, never leave home without a couple of lead-core or tungsten shooting tapers. And, there are now special, integrated T-lines, with a level intermediate shooting line that cast like shooting heads, fish deep and well, without the traditional connecting loop. Both SA and Rio produce these lines.
While it is little known, there was a movement back in the early 70’s to cast dispersion and stigma upon the use of metal-core fly lines. A few traditionalists, most from northwest steelhead regions, who felt using a line of this type wasn’t fly fishing, or that any sinking fly line resulted in too many steelhead being killed, tried to get the Federation of Fly Fishermen (as it was called at the time) to endorse regulations banning the use of all metal-core fly lines in “fly fishing only waters”. While they were quick to state in their cover letter to the F.F.F. that the rules wouldn’t effect marine fly anglers (I was one of those they were referring to), I and several others (I was an F.F.F. director at the time), felt the Federation shouldn’t endorse these types of regulations, which would ultimately stigmatize all sinking fly lines, not just metal-core versions, and possibly severely hinder the development of equally fast sinking fly lines without metal cores, by leading manufactures. The late Jim Eriser, then President of the F.F.F., and Paul Collier, his VP agreed with me when I called them with my view that Federation shouldn’t touch this one. The move was stopped cold! Thank God! Today we have a marvelous selection of sinking lines that allow us to effectively fish the entire water column. Oh, the regulations to ban the use of metal-core fly lines in fly-only waters were imposed on many northwest steelhead waters, but without the endorsement of the F.F.F. Today, on some of those same watercourses, you are also banned from using “indicators” when fishing for steelhead – another classic case of someone regulating someone else to only do things their way…
As stated earlier, Sunset Line and Twine Company marketed the first commercially manufactured shooting head in 1950. It was labeled “Stream King”, and was made by tapering a braided nylon core, and then coating the entire core with several coats of Linseed oil, polishing the line after each application. It was extremely supple and had the feel of being “used”, a desirable quality since it made the line feel similar to braided silk. You could order the line in lengths ranging from 30 to 33 feet and the line cost $5.50. Its specific gravity (density as related to water) was about the same as water, and would be equal to today’s intermediate density fly lines. It would fish dry if dressed, sink very slowly if not. I still have one of those old heads, given to me by Bob Nauheim in the early 70’s, and it fishes very well when salmon or steelhead are holding in slow, shallow runs or in tidewaters.
Sunset also made faster sinking lines by actually integrating thin strands of lead wire with the nylon threads when the line’s tapered core was braided. It was a great idea for the era, giving fly anglers the ability to probe just a little deeper.
The year 1946 marked a new era for all fly lines, with the development of polyvinyl chloride (plastic) coating, which revolutionized the fly line manufacturing process. The first good lines with a plastic coating, such asCortland’s 333, produced in the early 1950’s, utilized a tapered nylon core over which a plastic coating was placed. The thickness and taper was determined almost exclusively by the braided core. Braiding tapered nylon cores was an extremely time-consuming and costly (even for that era) process. Things got much better though.
In 1952, Scientific Anglers, a company which was then, and still is today, one of the leaders in research and development of new fly lines, invented a process which allowed the plastic coating to be tapered instead of the core. Any line with a single diameter core could be pulled through a vat of liquid plastic, and then extruded through a diaphragm-like opening, which opened and closed like the diaphragm of a camera, determining the line’s diameter and thickness (taper). Aside from refining materials which made a line float higher, shoot farther, or sink faster, not much has changed in the way fly lines are manufactured today.
While Sunset Line and Twine did indeed, manufacture the first shooting head in 1950, Scientific Anglers produced the first tapered, plastic-coated shooting head in 1952. It was a type II, fast-sinking density, cast like a dream and became an invaluable tool for the taking of steelhead, salmon, shad and others. It was made to sink by mixing lead powder in the vinyl. The more lead, the denser the line, the faster it would sink. Lead powder, however, was hazardous to work with, and was not especially great for the environment. Today, lines are made to sink by mixing tungsten into the vinyl, a safer, even denser metal, which is extremely expensive, but worth the added cost.
Scientific Anglers’ fast sinking shooting head was a boon to western steelhead and salmon anglers, but it couldn’t cover all the bases. We still needed lines that sank faster, and lead-core shooting heads were still a major part of our game plan. Getting down quickly was not only important for sweet-water anglers, but for old salts, too.
I’ll never forget the first time I met the incomparable and legendary, Harry Kime back in the late 60’s, and he told me how he was making his own super sinking shooting heads by mixing lead powder and Plyobond glue and then coating a small-diameter level line with the stuff. I walked into his back yard to see, in amazement, his homemade lead lines hanging from a clothes line. Harry, a consummate innovator, also made lead-coated leaders the same way. Using his homemade deep-divers, Harry fished the Baja, taking countless species on fly from abysmal waters. When I showed him commercial lead core trolling line, and how we Northern Californians made our shooting heads from it, he quit making his glue and lead powdered tapers, opting instead to follow the easier route.
All through the decades following 1952, western anglers (and I’m sure some from the east) pleaded with leading line manufactures to produce a range of sinking shooting tapers (standard length lines, too) that would permit us to ply the entire water column, regardless of conditions. Of those leading producers, only one was continually willing to invest R&D dollars before an actual market for the line was established. That company was Scientific Anglers, particularly in the years following its acquisition by 3M.
Indeed,S.A. lead the field in fly line development, particularly with regard to sinking lines.
Of course there are other excellent producers of fly lines, and shooting tapers; but two of the best of the recent two decades have be Rio and Scientific Anglers. These two manufactures have done more than we can imagine, to provide us the tools needed to pursue our love of fly fishing.
Today, fly anglers armed with a system of shooting tapers, consisting of a half dozen or more lines, contained in a compact line wallet, and the willingness to shed the shackles of tradition and rigid thinking, can pursue fly fishing almost anywhere, regardless of current speed or water depth. No longer are we limited to those situations where a floating fly is the accepted approach or where short, well-place casts are the order of business. With these lines, we can meet every angling challenge from dry fly fishing to casting duster-sized flies to billfish, and hugging the bottom when the dam bursts or probing more than 50 feet below the surface of lake or ocean. Even for the average angler, casts approaching 100 feet or more can be routine. Thank you, Sunset, Scientific Anglers andCortland!