Spey rods are not an expense, they are a long-term investment. A fine two-handed rod will be your faithful fishing partner for many years on many wonderful adventures throwing many thousands upon thousands of casts in pursuit of trophy fish. They can cost as little as $250 or as much as $1,000. Regardless of how much dough you cut loose on your next two-hander, try to capitalize on this investment by getting multiple heads (lines). The modular system that spey lines encompass can take one rod and allow it to do a multitude of things. It can be a short range heavy hauler for big weighted flies and sink tips (using skagit line), or it can provide high speed long distance delivery (scandi line). There are different heads for each job and for $55 an extra head or two is a great way to make the most out of your investment in a fine spey rod.
The running line/head system also allows you to use the same reel and running line on various rods which is just smart financing. I use the same 2 reels on about 5 rods and simply change the heads when I change rods.
Don't Get Your Butt Kicked
I got my butt kicked on some big water recently by the other fisherman I was with because I wasn't prepared. I work at one of the biggest fly shops in the country and I wasn't prepared. That is horrible! The guys I was fishing with were long time guests and I had even sold them half their gear, yet they were more prepared than me haha!
This will NEVER happen again ;). The spey realm can be darn confusing with all of the options on heads, running lines, Scandi this, and Skagit that. I did some "pre-game" this last week in preparation for my next trip and I experimented with a bunch of different heads, lines, and flies and vow to get more dialed in before my next fishing trip. Which is going to be... tomorrow! Yes, I am heading to the Wenatchee River which is a big wide stream and I plan to catch steelhead on spey gear or die trying.
I am going to go through all the basic heads and lines and explain why each spey caster might want each one.
First off, you need to understand how a spey line is put together. The "sink tip" component can also be a "floating tip or polyleader" as I will explain below.
Why I got My Butt Kicked
I had come straight from the Klickitat River where we make short casts, often with brush behind us and I like a Skagit head with a heavy sink tip (or a Switch Chucker) which casts very similar to a Skagit head on a switch rod. We got blown out and I took my 2 switch rods and my 12'6" spey rod with me to the Grand Ronde and the Snake Rivers. I had the wrong rods and more importantly the wrong lines! One of the guys I was with simply out fished me because he was setup with a longer rod, longer head, and was better prepared to make long casts with floating lines. The steelhead on the Grand Ronde and Snake also tend to like smaller flies which you can cast on longer shooting heads and the fish also like to eat flies on floating lines. I was under-gunned!
What I Plan to Do About It
First, I am going to always have a 13'6" spey rod around. The extra 12-24" of length versus my other rods gives far more range with less effort. Plain and simple. You shouldn't hunt open country mule deer with grandpa's .30-.30
Second, while Skagit heads are nice for the "Ninja Spey" game they are not the right tool for the job for big open water where casting 80' or more is routine. All the extra strips of line wastes time. I would say I am a very advanced caster, but while I was busy stripping line my pal was busy Snake Roll casting his next shot out to 100' and stepping downstream. And then he was fighting a fish. I need to be carrying extra heads with me at all times.
Essential Spey Shooting Heads
Every angler that invests their money and time into getting to Steelhead water should have several heads to choose from. Since your spey reel is setup as a "modular" system you can use the same reel and running line for various heads and even various rods. Changing heads takes about 2-3 minutes and can make all the difference.
How to Figure Out What Grain Weight or Size Line You need:
1. Refer to one of the following charts:
2. Index your rod's make/model against the desired line
3. If you have a slight preference to cast with the "tip" of the rod and don't need to feel the rod bend you are an "A" style caster and should go on the light side of the manufacturer's recommendation. If you prefer to feel the rod bend deep and rebound, you are a "B" style caster and can choose a line on the heavier side of the manufacturer's recommendation.
Skagit Floating - Shooting Head
*BIG flies like this with dumbell eyes and a big profile are best cast on Skagit heads. In fact, they should only be cast on Skagit heads.
A Skagit head is everyone's first spey line, or at least it should be. It is about 23' long depending on manufacturer and weight. It is designed for easy casting with big flies and great for the Ninja Spey in the brush where backcasts are extremely limited. It fishes to 60-80' quite well with lots of line being "shot" after each cast.
With a Skagit Head you NEED to combine it with a sink tip in order for the head length and line weight to work with the rod. 10' tips are standard, 15' tips fish very well on 13' - 14' rods. You can fish it as a straight floating line with a floating tip as well.
Skagit Intermediate - Shooting Head
*Skagit Intermediate heads can help keep large unweighted flies fishing deep throughout the swing.
This line is my "go to" now on rivers with a lot of surface current. It is almost all I fish if I am using sink tips. This line gets em. One thing to know about rivers, especially with quick currents is that the surface currents are the fastest. A portion of the head sinks which gets your line under the fastest surface currents and slows the fly presentation down immensely. It is all about presentation and the Skagit Intermediate really swings slow and level. It anchors the line down and your line doesn't get pushed out of the run by the fast surface currents. Floating heads get pushed out of the run way too fast when there are swift surface currents.
Airflo Rage Shooting Head
*the Airflo Rage is IDEAL for fishing floating lines and traditional spey flies. Rivers like the Deschutes, John Day, Clearwater, Snake, Grande Ronde, Wenatchee, and Methow are fished well using floating lines and smaller flies.
This is a very cool line. I just recently got some water time on this line and was really impressed. When combined with a 10' floating polyleader, the 30' becomes a 40' floating head and is VERY stable in flight with lightweight flies. I spend most of my time on a very short Skagit style head which is very chunky and unstable in flight. The Airflo Rage is very stable and holds its loop profile and direction very well in the wind. I really like this line for throwing long casts with floating lines or very light sinking leaders.
Scandinavian Style Shooting Heads
This is the funnest way to fish and cast lightweight flies and floating lines or lightweight sinking leaders. It is quick, fast paced, and the casts are generally long with very tight loops. The heads are longer yet, the range from 30-38' depending on the weight, model, and specifics of that particular line. Anglers that have advanced a bit in their casting typically prefer Scandi lines and appreciated the advantages of a slightly longer head.
LONGER HEADS ARE MORE STABLE IN FLIGHT. Never forget this. When it comes to getting clean presentation and accuracy longer heads fish better. Skagit heads get lots of "bounce back" creating wrinkles, bellies, and a swing that isn't "clean". Scandi heads will unroll and present the fly in leader in a very organized manner on long casts that fish better in situations requiring longer leaders and light flies.