Sunday 28 August 2022

Casting in Fog - Understanding lines, tips and leaders

 One of the biggest challenges for any salmon fishing novice is getting through the fog of jargon. The meaningless words and phrases that rod manufacturers employ to promote their products are unhelpful and confusing.  But the worst area, by far, is the bewildering jungle of names and terms relating to lines, tips and leaders, invented by their manufacturers and compounded by the influence of the United States and their abuse of the English language.  Judging by the frequency of posts on the Salmon Fishing Forum seeking clarification, there is no other subject that novices find as confusing.

Accordingly, in this post I shall attempt to break the subject down into short components to provide a simple guide through the jungle.

It helps. to remember that there are comparatively few companies that actually manufacture lines (e.g. Rio, 3M, Airflo etc).  Most of the other brands are therefore made by someone else to the seller's specification. Although salmon fly lines are expensive, and you can get copies from China at a fraction of the price, this is a domain where you do get what you pay for.  There are no bad fly lines in the mainstream market.  How they perform for you is a matter of personal preference, and every brand has its adherents.

Please note that my use of many Rio examples is simply because their website photos are clearer and more explanatory than other manufacturers'.


The defining feature of salmon fly lines is the length of the head, the portion of the line that is outside the top ring when you cast.  For general fishing this covers a range from about 75 feet (24 metres) down to 24 feet (7 metres).

Full Spey Lines

This term applies loosely to lines with a head length between 55 and 75 feet, which are most suitable for casting with rods of 13' 6" and longer.  The key advantage of the full Spey lines is that they allow you to cover a great deal of water with minimum stripping in of excess line between casts.  The disadvantage is that they require greater skill and practice to cast well than the shorter shooting heads.

This is the very popular and highly regarded Gaelforce Equaliser with a length of 63 feet at #9/10.    Their other lines cover the full span of length from 54 up to 80 feet.

Rio, a major US brand, covers the full Spey range with two lines, Long at 65-70 feet, and Mid at 55-60 feet.

Short Spey Lines

At the bottom end of the length range are a group of lines most easily described as Short Spey, with heads in the range 40-45 feet, depending on design and weight.

Rio are explicit in their naming 'Short'.  This line first appeared in the late 1990s under the name of Windcutter.  This was my first modern Spey line and it was indeed a revelation in ease of casting compared to the very long double tapered lines with which I had wrestled before its arrival.

The US giant 3M, operating as Scientific Anglers, are less explicit  and typically American confusing, because they call all of their two handed lines 'Spey' irrespective of their length.  This example with 'Spey' on the box is actually a 33 foot shooting head.  Nevertheless, 3M are important in a European and UK context because they make Spey lines for a variety of well known brands.

Shooting Heads

The term shooting head generally describes a line system comprising a short head with a separate running line joined with a loop to loop connection.  They are also available as 'integrated' lines with the head tapering directly into the running line.


Reflecting their development and popularisation by Scandinavian anglers, heads described as 'Scandi' are in the range 30-40 feet long.  They have a relatively short front taper, which enhances their ability to deliver heavy flies and leaders.  They are easy to cast and are ideal for use in situation where the back-cast space is limited, but have the disadvantage of requiring to strip in lots of running line between casts.  Scandi heads are available as fully floating or in a wide range of densities to achieve different sink rates.  As a result of the overall balance of advantage, Scandi heads are now the most commonly used salmon lines in the UK and Europe.


The inelegant name of these very short (18-28 feet) shooting heads is derived from the Skagit River in Washington state in the USA, where the conditions demanded the otherwise conflicting requirements of minimal back-cast space and the ability to deliver very heavy lures on ultra-fast sinking leaders.  Such conditions aren't common in the UK, although there are circumstances where a Skagit capability can be indispensable.  An example is Dick Dub on the Ure: wading is impossible; there's zero back-cast space; and the fish lie in 8-10 feet of water.

Virtually every seller has a Skagit line in their inventory.  Some like Vision offer a range of densities and sink rates.


Shooting head lines are available as either fully floating or sinking at various densities.  Changing the sink rate requires the change of the entire head, and the angler has to carry a selection of heads.  The advent of multi-tip heads delivered a good, if partial, solution to those issues by making the last 15-20 feet of the line detachable and interchangeable.  The angler can carry a selection of tips in a small compact wallet in a wading jacket pocket to provide a simple and flexible solution to changing conditions.  These tips have a wide range of trades names: VersiTip (Rio); Multi-Tip (Guideline, Gaelforce), TC-Tip (3M-SA); Tips (Airflo); Flexi-Tip (Loop).

The important point to remember is that with multi-tip lines, the tip is an integral part of the line in terms of mass, balance and taper.  For example, a Rio Scandi shooting head body (24') (picture to left) with a matching 15' VersiTip (below)(Rio's trade name), is identical to the 39' Scandi line shown above.

Given that the tip is integral to the line, it isn't anything to do with the leader that attaches the fly to the line.  With all of the examples shown below you can buy the tips separately.  Indeed, buying the body and just 2 or 3 tips can be much cheaper than the whole outfit.  Tips are most commonly 10 or 15' long, and cover the whole density span from floating to ultra-fast sinking (S6/7).

The Gaelforce multi-tip offering, which is of the highest quality.

Guideline, which is the market leader in Scandinavia for a host of good reasons.  Their sinking Scandi heads are superb.

This is the standard Rio Scandi Versi-Tip with 15' tips or SVT.

The same body with 10' tips is the Scandi Short Versi-Tip (SSVT)

Airflo - this is the very popular Rage kit, which comprises running line, head and two tips.  The Rage is at the shorter end of the Scandi zone.  As a result it is extremely good at shifting heavy flies on sinking tips, and very easy to cast.

Skagit multi-tips are different to those made to match Scandi lines.  Most commonly because they cater for extreme sink rates.  The Vision tip shown here is made of T14 (weighing 14 grains per foot), which sinks like a stone and so is ideal for fish in very deep and/or fast flowing rivers where you need to get big flies down quickly to be effective.  The T-tip range goes all the way up to T-21.

You can also get hybrid Skagit tips with differential sink rates.  The 10' Rio example shown here (their Skagit tips are called 'MOW') comprises 7' 6" of intermediate/slow sink with a short length of T-14, which would present a mid-weight tube fly somewhere around 12-15" below the surface in a walking pace flow.


The leader provides the connection between the end of your line system to the fly.  Often your leader will be a length of plain nylon monofilament.  But on many occasions you will wish to fish your fly deeper, which requires a sinking leader to take it down.  In that respect, note that it's always better to add weight to the leader before you reach for a heavier fly, because the casting will be more satisfactory.  These multi-leaders of whatever name aren't interchangeable with the tips of the line system.

The confusion in this area is driven by brand naming, in which Rio is the biggest villain.  I've lost count of the number of times I've been asked to explain the difference between a Versi-Tip and a Versi-Leader.  The answer of course is that the Tip is part of the line system, and the Leader goes on the end.

But no matter what you call them, these things are indispensable.  With a huge range of densities and sink rates from Intermediate to Ultra-Fast sinking, you can cover every requirement and change between them in a couple of minutes.

The Airflo PolyLeader is the biggest seller in the UK for lots of good reasons.  With a wide range of lengths - 5, 10 & 15' - and of densities, they cover every base at a reasonable price.  They aren't tapered and so don't offer the casting perfection of the Rio, but at half the price, would a Yorkshireman care?  I've used them for the past 20 years and have never had any issues.

Some points to bear in mind with poly/versi/multi leaders:

  • The sink rates are 'nominal', i.e. they are measured in still water.  Owing to hydrodynamic lift in moving water they don't sink so fast in practice.
  • Longer sinks further than shorter, but the short poly leaders are very handy if you want to get just below the surface in quicker water when your fly might otherwise bounce on the top.
  • They are ideal for adding onto the floating and especially the sink tip component of a multi-tip line system.  The trick here is to add a poly leader of the same or ideally one step quicker sink rate, which gives a nice straight continuum from the line to the fly, making presentation better and the extraction for the back cast easier.
  • The extra weight of the poly leader is a huge help when casting heavier flies like weighted tubes.  Their extra mass and momentum in the very last stage of the cast will turn the fly over nicely, laying the leader out straight, meaning that the fly will fish effectively from the outset.