The Shooting Head Casting Basics

By Dan Blanton

There has long been debate, particularly among flats guides, regarding the importance of distance casting. Some say casts beyond 50 feet aren’t necessary. Most experienced Fly fishermen, however – those men and women who spend a great deal of time on the water – know with absolute certainty, those who can routinely cast a long line, under all conditions, will take the lion’s share of the fish over time. This holds true for both freshwater and saltwater, regardless of the species.

Sure there are many times when the fish are almost at your feet: the New England surf; or when chumming up tuna and such. On a recent trip to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, I was fly fishing for false albacore with Tyler Stone, half owner of the Intracoastal Angler Fly Shop in Wilmington. At times we had the Alberts busting so close to the boat we hooked them with only the leader and two feet of line extended – “slap casting” is what I called it. Later, though, when those same fish had been beaten on for a while, they became boat and motor shy and if you couldn’t throw a long haul into the teeth of a gusting 15 knots, you were “out of it”. Period! Using shooting heads, Tyler and I were both able to get the job done, hooking considerably more fish than anyone else in the area.

Shooting heads (regardless if your preference is for a weight forward taper or Teeny line), should be part of your fly line arsenal. Using either 30 pound Amnesia mono, braided mono, or Scientific Anglers new (absolutely excellent) Mastery Saltwater Shooting line (.032), you’ll be able to change line density to counter any adverse condition, such as wind, current or depth. Tyler and I each were using floating heads but quickly changed to an intermediate or a mono core head when the wind began to screech, blowing our floaters around like a spinnaker. By switching to sinking densities we were able to markedly increase our distance over the beefier floaters. This is just one example of how you can increase your odds by using shooting heads and learning how to cast them better. The following is specifically intended to help you do just that.


While shooting heads can be cast with a remarkable degree of accuracy, the basic function of a shooting head (SH) is distance casting. If you want to make an 80-foot cast, you would first begin by stripping off the 30-foot SH and 50 feet of shooting-line from the reel, straightening both by stretching the line tightly between your hands in three- to four-foot increments to illuminate line coils, reducing tangling. With the shooting line stretched neatly on the deck (or in a stripping basket), you would then false-cast until the SH and at least five or six feet of shooting-line (called “overhang”) were extended beyond the rod tip (caution here: never extend more overhang than you can handle [about 8 feet, max], or you’ll get into trouble). You would false-cast the head and a few feet of overhang in about the same manner as you would if using a standard line. Then you simply “shoot line”, directing the cast with the rod tip as though you were aiming toward the horizon. The SH will take off like a missile, if your timing is right, pulling the 50 feet of shooting line easily behind it. A tip to help add extra distance to your cast once the head is on its way, is to lift the rod butt, causing the entire rod to be somewhat parallel to the surface so the shooting-line doesn’t have to climb uphill through the guides. Also, turn the reel handle toward the sky, doing this does two things: keeps the line from fouling on the handle, and helps reduce line-friction. For a 100-foot cast, strip 70 feet of shooting-line from the reel, and so on.

Casting a SH is not difficult, but using one for the first time (even for an experienced caster ), may feel foreign and be somewhat intimidating at first. The most noticeable difference between a SH and a full-length line is that the head feels extremely heavy and difficult to handle, even though it weighs the same when compared to the first 30 feet of another line of equal size designation. It is the “hinging” effect caused by the junction with the small-diameter shooting line that accounts for this feeling of heaviness, which is even more acute when using mono shooting line. Additionally, sinking lines are markedly smaller in diameter and are more dense than floaters, which makes them drop more quickly once the line-loop unrolls because they do not possess the “sailing” properties of fat, floating lines. Conversely, being smaller in diameter with more mass, equates to greater line speed, and this is the reason why skinny sinking lines carry large flies through the air farther, with greater ease. Even when fishing near or even on the surface, if you can get by with using an intermediate or even faster sinking density – your casts will sail easily farther, particularly in the wind.


Shooting heads can be aerialized during false-casting until the presentation is made, just like any standard, full-length line. However, a much easier and more efficient method of false-casting, called “Water-hauling” is often a preferred technique. Here is how it’s done.

Instead of making an aerial forward cast, you lay the line out on the surface (the only time you purposely create a wide, open loop), immediately lifting it back off and making a normal, tight-looped backcast. The tension of the water against the line helps keep the line straight, curl-free, and loads the rod better, resulting in a better backcast by increasing line speed (a good backcast is the key to making long tosses). You extend over-hang on the first lay-down (laying the line back down on the surface again), one backcast is made (another water-haul), and the line is shot on the first foreword cast. If you are not pleased with the timing, lay the line down again, and give it another go. This is by far, the safest way to cast a head in a tight lineup or in a boat, when the cast will course through the boat.

Water-hauling eliminates the need for energy-expending and time-wasting, aerial false-casting!

Another difficulty for the rookie is getting sinking lines, including lead-cores, into the air. To begin with, you must roll-cast (called a “roll cast pickup”) the line to the surface, pulling it out of the water and laying it momentarily on top. Don’t try to roll-cast the full 30-foot head with the overhang extended. Retrieve the line until the attaching loop between the head and shooting-line is in your hand; this will result in having to roll-cast about 20 feet of line instead of 30. Once the head is on the surface, lift it off and execute a backcast before it sinks again. Lift the line from the surface smoothly, removing all of the S-curves (slack) before making the backcast power stroke.

One of the single largest turn-offs to using shooting heads is the fact that the shooting line seems to tangle more frequently than the permanently affixed shooting line (running line) of full length tapers. All Shooting line tangles! It’s just part of the game. Shooting line is a tool, learn how to use it. Some tips: always keep the shooting line clean and well dressed. I like a Maxima Mono Slick which I re-fill with a good liquid line cleaner, dressing the line several times a day, particularly if it is dry and windy.

Keeping the shooting line wet is a tremendous tangle-preventing aid. I even go so far as to pour water on the deck, or lay a wet towel down, stripping my line onto it. Another great line-handling tool, particularly if the wind is blowing the shooting line out of the boat, is Orvis’ “Coil Keeper”, a device that holds the loose coils of lines in a cam-levered slot. Not only is this device great for boat work, it’s perfect for working along jetty’s, rocky or weedy banks – all line catchers. Of course properly designed stripping baskets can be a real boon, depending upon conditions. Above all, always stretch and straighten your shooting line (every time it’s wound on the reel), restacking the coils on the deck in proper casting order, before attempting a toss. And, finally, if you are using a mono shooting line – change the stuff frequently – it’s the cheapest part of your equipment, but is one of the most important elements of your system.

Regardless of which type of fly line you choose to use, knowing how to make a “Double Haul”, a technique which doubles line speed, with only half the effort, is essential to good casting, particularly when using a SH. Describing how to do a double haul with text, however just won’t get it. It is the rare angler indeed, who learns the technique by reading about it. Get someone to show you how, and then practice, until it becomes second nature.

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