A comparison of Skagit and Scandinavian shooting head line design, casting and fishing philosophies
The science of Spey casting/fishing seems to have diversified along three main schools or philosophies. Those are regularly called the Traditional, Skagit and Scandinavian methods.
Traditional Spey casting methods have evolved slowly over the past several hundred years. This evolution was fueled by incremental changes in rod/line technology which resulted in improvements in the use of materials that were available. Understanding of casting dynamics often arose from these changes in technology. More responsive rods and lines led to new casting techniques.
For a couple hundred years progress was slow because of the relative sameness of woods and animal fibers from which all fly rods and lines were constructed. When superior synthetic materials for rods and line construction became available, casting techniques also began to change. During this same period, scientific methods also became available for analyzing the dynamics of fly casting. This led to a quantum leap in how much fly line speed could be developed. At first these new materials were applied to the same general designs that had been proven with older materials. Then slowly the entire concept of what a fly line or fly rod could be began to change. The change in fly line designs affected fly rod designs, and visa versa.
As a result, fly casting became more efficient. Smaller, lighter-weight rods equipped with more compact lines could accomplish ample fishing distances with less work. The main areas where this revolutionary thinking and technological change happened was on Scandinavian salmon rivers and in steelhead rivers of the Pacific Northwest of North America, hence: Scandi for Scandinavian and Skagit named after the Skagit River.
The Scandinavian and Skagit methods have each evolved over the last twenty-five years. The two methods have evolved independently on opposite sides of the planet. The Skagit method could be termed a Pacific Northwest winter steelhead method. Skagit and Scandi methods each have applications appropriate for steelhead fishing. At first, the differences between Scandinavian and Skagit styles doesn't seem very apparent. Both employ lightweight, medium-length, two-hand fly rods and shooting head fly lines. Both methods insist that the cast is thrown with emphasis on the under-hand (if you are Scandinavian), or bottom-hand (if you are North American). Yet, within the subtle differences between rod/line designs and casting methods, there is an interesting divergence in actual fishing application.
In the beginning, Scandinavian rods were stiffer and faster action than Skagit rods, which are actually fairly "traditional action." Scandinavian action rods are very fast and the most popular Skagit rods are pretty moderate. The Scandi rods store the most power in the tip of the rod, while Skagit rods concentrate power lower into the butt. The difference in casting strokes between the two methods might be characterized by the fact that the Skagit cast can use a hard, extended anchor on the water and a continuous acceleration to the stop. The Scandinavian method uses a very light anchor on the water and a slight deceleration and then re-acceleration in the formation of the D-loop. The Scandinavian cast ordinarily uses a longer, narrower D-loop than the Skagit cast. Part of the reason is that Scandinavian flies are usually slightly smaller and lighter in weight than many of the flies used in the Pacific Northwest during the winter season. Also, apparently Atlantic salmon are more prone to come to the surface than are our winter steelhead. When fishing for steelhead, the Scandinavian method fishes the fly downstream at a steep angle that brings the fly across slowly on a steady predictable course. The Skagit method often presents the fly more across-stream, or even slightly upstream, then the fly is allowed to drift and sink before coming under full tension. When both methods are applied in their purest form, you can readily see how the tackle and casting methods evolved along divergent paths.
In fly line design, very small amounts of weight shifted from one part of the line to another can make huge differences in the casting performance of that line. Designing fly line tapers involves unique physics, that drives a specialized science that is ever evolving. There are few other kinds of products where general consumers are as critical as fly fishers. The race to build the most accepted Scandi and Skagit lines is basically between three companies: Airflo, RIO and Scientific Anglers. The competition is fierce, and improvements have come in rapid succession.
The main differences between Scandi and Skagit lines is that the Skagit line design concentrates more weight in a shorter mass, especially in the sinking tip portion, which helps turn over heavy, bulky flies. All Skagit lines need a tip attached to the head portion of the line to enable it to function properly. To some degree, the attached tip functions as the forward taper of the line, which in turn helps stabilize the line as it flies through the air. This same mass in the tip of the line is also often constructed from dense material to enable a fly to sink quickly. Because the tip of the line helps control the sink rate of the fly being used, many different lengths and densities of tips may be used with the same Skagit head. Each tip/fly combination will affect the casting properties of the line. Multi-density M.O.W. Tips are now the most popular type of tips used with Skagit shooting heads. Leaders used with Skagit lines are often fairly short, no more than 5', more often 3'. Most Skagit leaders are not tapered and instead are a single piece of spooled monofilament.
Scandi tackle and casting techniques are in many ways a radical departure from both traditional Spey and Skagit tackle and techniques. Whereas both the Skagit and traditional cast have a hard anchor on the water, a Scandi anchor is more of a soft kiss. In its purest form, a mere touch of the fly upon the water is a sufficient anchor with a Scandi cast. Under the right conditions, a very delicate execution of the cast can result in the formation of very narrow loops and blazing line speed. This is because the Scandi shooting heads are designed with a very short level body and a very long front taper.
A fly line extends itself during a cast by rolling down a loop. For as long as the line is in the loop it has forward momentum. As soon as the line goes straight, most of the forward momentum is gone. The longer a line stays in the loop, the farther it will cast. That is why all Spey distance competition lines are in the traditional Spey configuration. Lines with longer heads stay in the loop longer, and will cast farther. However, lines with long heads take more room to operate, and they take more skill. These types of lines are popular only where excessively long casts are common. Many salmon and steelhead rivers have natural vegetation close to the water. Long D-loops are not handy in this situation. That is why Scandi shooting heads evolved, not because huge flies were needed, but because long casts from difficult casting locations were needed.
Adjusting the shape of the line to fit the needs resulted in a short shooting head that could have a long flight time. The back taper and belly on a Scandi line are short. This belly creates mass that loads the rod quickly for a lot of line speed. Then that energy flows into a very long front taper. Front tapers dissipate (or bleed off) energy so the line stays in the loop for an extended period to enhance flight time. This results in a compact line design for working close to vegetated shorelines, but which enable an angler to reach far out into a river. The only downside is that because of the long taper and fine tip of these lines, they have trouble delivering a heavy pay load. This isn't a problem when fishing surface or near surface flies during the warm months. As a matter of fact, Scandi shooting heads are perfect for this work. But Skagit heads are more efficient when large heavy flies are needed.
Anglers casting Scandi Heads often install a Polyleader/VersiLeader to extend the front taper length. Polyleaders are actually made from fly line material and when added to a shooting head, become part of the total length and mass of the head. When their influence on the line is portrayed on paper, the overall design of the Scandi shooting head doesn't seem radical, but their influence on our sport has been revolutionary..
With the design of more responsive, lighter weight rods and more compact shooting head lines, the differences between Skagit and Scandi method and respective tackle is becoming less pronounced. The fact is, both Skagit and Scandi lines and techniques can be used on the same rods. This allows an angler to use the same rods year round with both small flies fished near the surface and large, heavy flies to be fished deep.