When I started fly-fishing in earnest, almost four decades ago, the sport was still in its infancy in many respects. For example, the choices in fly lines were very limited. If you wanted a sinking line or a shooting head, you had to make your own. My first real sinking line came courtesy of the late Harry Kime, who painted floating lines with a lead-based concoction he mixed up at home. The late Myron Gregory graced me with my first properly matched shooting head. Gregory, a casting champion from northern California, was instrumental in getting the tackle industry to change to a uniform numerical grain-weight designation for fly lines. Today these types of lines are as common as tippet material, and the selections available from leading manufacturers can easily bewilder even experienced fly-fishers.
Along with the increasing specialization of fly lines, there are two other considerations. You not only have to take care to select the appropriate line for a given set of conditions, but also know how to cast it properly. This may take additional practice.
Sinking lines and shooting-head setups don't require totally different casting techniques, but they do perform and feel differently than standard weight-forward floating lines even when cast with identical rods. I like to use an automobile analogy. The traditional weight-forward floating line is akin to the family sedan. On the other hand, sinking lines, particularly in a shooting-head configuration, take on the characteristics of a high-performance sports car. A note of caution to fly-fishers who may be more attracted to the latter: Just because the lines exhibit different dynamics does not mean that one is more desirable than the other. The point is to choose a line that's appropriate for the fishing conditions you will encounter.
Shooting heads are designed to maximize distance with an absolute minimum of false casts. Since most user-friendly heads tend to be 26 to 30 feet long, to get the job done they will be considerably heavier than a comparable length of a standard weight-forward line. In fact, the traditional rule of thumb is to choose a head that is rated two line sizes heavier than the rod's rating. So if you're using a 9-weight rod, you'd use an 11-weight shooting head.
To cast this type of line effectively, the entire head must be outside the rod's tip-top. A length of the running or shooting line that follows the head must also extend from the rod's tip. Most inexperienced casters have problems determining how much; however, there is no exact formula. As a general guideline, 3 to approximately 7 feet of running line should extend past the rod tip in preparation for the forward cast. A common fault is having too much because the comparatively small-diameter running line cannot support the heavy head. So if you extend too much line outside the rod tip, the running line will collapse and you won't be able to make the cast. Only practice will tell you how much running line you can comfortably handle.
On a Roll
When fishing for species known for striking close in, it's common to retrieve the fly until the shooting head is well inside the rod guides. To properly set up for the next presentation, you must learn how to make effective roll casts. The purpose of the roll cast in this situation is twofold. First, it's necessary to bring the sinking-head section back up to the surface. Second, a properly executed roll cast will enable you to work the entire head or at least a substantial portion of it outside the rod tip. Even if the line is a slower-sinking intermediate type, because it may be only a few inches down in the water column you cannot simply lift it from the water like you would a floating line. This is really the only disadvantage of casting a sinking line relative to a floater. In preparation for the backcast, you must roll cast to pull the head back to the surface so you can slide it off the water for the backcast. Sometimes the combination of a fast-sinking head and a heavily weighted fly make it difficult to work the entire head outside the rod tip on the roll cast. This, coupled with the fact that a few additional feet of running line must also be outside the rod tip, frequently necessitates at least one false cast.
Here's how it works. After retrieving the fly the desired distance, make a roll cast to bring the head to the surface. Then make a backcast followed by a forward cast where the whole head and the required section of running line extend out through the rod tip. Immediately slide this entire length of line off the surface (if you hesitate too long, the line will begin to sink and you'll have to make another roll cast to bring it back to the surface) and make a backcast followed by a forward cast. Reading this may make it seem more complicated than it really is. In practice it's a very efficient way to fly-fish, because with a minimum of false casts you don't needlessly tire yourself and the fly ends up spending a lot more time in the water where it should be.
A second characteristic of these lines, particularly the extra-fast sinking types, is that their air speed is considerably faster than that of comparable floaters. This is understandable since sinking lines tend to have much smaller diameters than floating ones, and they don't slow down as the loop unfolds. However, to return to the automobile analogy, as with a high-performance car, to derive any benefit from this added speed you must learn to control it. In casting terms this means that you must avoid violently executed casting strokes, especially on the backcast.
A very common mistake is to make an exaggerated backcast. The casting stroke is often much too fast. Instead of a gradual acceleration, many fly-fishers apply all their energy as soon as they begin the cast. Because the head feels considerably heavier, there's often a tendency to apply extra force in the casting stroke. Unfortunately this is self-defeating. You already have a line that travels quite fast. If you speed things up even more with an exaggerated stroke on the backcast, you will lose control and ruin the cast. When using a fast-sinking head, it is important to make the most effortless backcast possible. Start the stroke slowly, but end it with a very abrupt stop. Once the line finishes unrolling behind you, you begin your forward stroke. But bear in mind that this happens quickly with a heavy sinking head.
To cast a shooting head with any amount of effectiveness and to generate line speed (which translates into distance), you must perfect your double haul. If you need to familiarize yourself with this technique, check out the casting column in the November/December 2004 issue.
Don't let these specialty lines intimidate you. Using the proper method, you'll quickly see that they are quite easy to handle, and they will put you into fish in situations you may never have thought accessible before.