Your choices in tackle will have effects on every presentation you make.
Skagit shooting heads were originally designed to catch anadromous fish from large fast flowing rivers in western North America. Many of these fish arrive from the Ocean during colder parts of the year. Because of low water temperatures and the sexual maturity of these fish, they will eat flies, but they rarely rise to the surface of the water to get them. They prefer large, heavy flies fished deep in the water column. Prior to the early 1990’s conventional fly fishing tackle was only moderately effective when used to catch Pacific salmon and winter steelhead. Local anglers started modifying two-handed fly fishing tackle to become more in tune with these unique fish and their habitat. Fast sinking tips were adapted to short, heavy floating shooting heads. One of the early developers of these fishing methods was Skagit River steelhead guide, Ed Ward. He explained the tackle and methods on the popular Spey Pages fly fishing forum, and a British angler replied that the methodology should not be called “Spey Fishing”, it was too different. Ed agreed and replied that it should be called Skagit Casting/Skagit Fishing because it had been developed primarily on the Skagit River in Northern Washington. This adaptation started around 1990 and by 2000 the Skagit Style Revolution had become a relevant fishing methodology on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
What are we trying to accomplish?
The early practitioners of the Skagit method figured that if the fly was fished halfway between the surface of the water and the bottom of the river it would be close enough to elicit a strike from any steelhead holding within their casting range. If the holding water is less than 5-feet deep and undisturbed by boats or other anglers, this theory works if the fish are fresh and aggressive. However, with the onslaught of modern civilization few steelhead are undisturbed for very long. Steelhead that are constantly being moved around by boats and anglers lose their aggression quickly and can become timid. Many will still strike but will not move very far to capture a fly. My theory is that the closer the fly is presented to the fish's mouth, the more of them will eat the fly. I call it "the convenience factor". If the nearest grocery store is 100 miles away, you will not go there very often. But if the grocery store is only 50 yards away, you might go there several times a day. It is just more convenient. From my observations, steelhead prefer to hang out within a foot of the bottom. When the water is cold, they rarely will move more than a foot in any direction to grab a fly. They are more likely to rise slightly to capture a fly than to go down to get the fly. Therefore, the most convenient place for the fly is within 18 inches of the bottom. If you could fish your fly like it was a wire controlled missile and make it follow the contour at about 18 inches from the bottom of the river, your catch rate would probably go up. From my experience, the days that I can make this happen without getting the fly snagged on the bottom are usually productive days. The days that I am hung up on the bottom multiple times are invariably unproductive. The reasons are obvious. Being hung up results in walking or wading to change angles, or jerking on the line causing noise, and all the while the fly is out of play. Then there is the resulting re-rigging, sharpening hooks and/or replacing scarred up leaders wasting more time. You can only catch fish when you are actually fishing.
No Skagit Shooting head casts smoothly without a tip attached.
A Skagit Head with a sinking tip attached was designed and built to provide extra weight to sink the fly towards the bottom of moderately fast moving water while using a very compact casting stroke to avoid riverbank obstructions on wild rain-forest rivers.
A line tip is just and extension of the shooting head. The head and the tips are often made with similar materials and technology. They start with a braided core which is then coated with polymer. In the construction of floating lines tiny glass micro balloons are added to the coating mix to make the line lighter than water. In the case of sinking lines tungsten powder is added instead of micro balloons to make the line sink.
Heavier tips retain more kinetic energy to cast heavy flies easier (mass moves mass). If all sizes of sinking tips were the same density, they would likely have the same sink rate. But since sinking tips are formed over a core designed to give the line tensile strength, and that core being neutral density or nearly the same weight as water, only the coating makes the line sink. The higher the coating to core ratio, the faster the line will sink. Therefore, heavier tips sink faster than lightweight ones because the coating covering the core is thicker.
A Skagit head is normally much heavier (in grains per foot) than the attached sinking tip. A general rule is that a Skagit head should weigh about twice as many grains per foot as the sinking tip that is attached to it. So, if your rod is rated for an 8/9 head (570-600 grains at 23’ = 25-27 grains per foot) it will handle T-14. If the head is reduced to 20’ in length it will also turn over T-17 and even larger/heavier flies. Shorter heads work best with shorter rods. To get the best casting and fishing performance every outfit should be a matched set to catch a specific size and kind of fish: fly/sinking tip/Skagit head/shooting line/backing/reel/rod. If the targets are large Alaskan King Salmon your preferred fishing outfit will be much different than the ones used for Deschutes River summer steelhead because both the flies and the fish are much different sizes.
In the mid 1990’s one of Ed Ward’s favorite Skagit tips was made from the sinking head of a T300 Teeny Line. Teeny Lines were invented and made popular master angler Jim Teeny. The sinking head section was 24’ long and heavily loaded with tungsten powder and seamlessly integrated with 60’ of fine diameter floating shooting line, for a total length of 84’. They came in a variety of weights: T-130, T-200, T-300, T-400, T-500, T-600. The T-300 weighed 12.5 grains per foot, about halfway between the T-11 and T-14 tips that are common today. Ed commonly tied what he called an Intruder, a sparrow sized fly tied on a cotter pin and hackled with a section of bronze turkey center tail feather. During this period Intruders were commonly cast straight across the current or slightly upstream with a reach cast, then the slack was pulled out of the line and the fly was fished broadside to the current. It was called a deep greased-line presentation. In those days it was revolutionary, top secret and deadly. Then as now it was/is hard to accomplish. This type of presentation is easier to accomplish with a short sinking tip, hence the popularity of the nine foot long tip.
The tackle development of that era has lead us to the most popular Skagit sinking tips that are used today.
About RIO Skagit M.O.W. Tips
M.O.W. stands for McCune, O'Donnell & Ward, or more precisely: Mike McCune, Scott O'Donnell and Ed Ward; three mature innovative fly fishing guides who conspired with RIO Products to revolutionize Skagit casting and fishing.
In the beginning of the Spey revolution in North America all rods/reels were either made in Europe or were copies of English/European Atlantic Salmon tackle. During that era most rods were 14'-15' long and rated for 9/10 weight lines and most sinking tips were 15' long. The Skagit revolution had not yet begun. As American adapted Spey tackle to steelhead and Pacific Salmon they used new technology and materials, which allowed rods and shooting heads to get shorter and lighter in weight. As rods got shorter in length, sinking tips also had to be made shorter. In the modern era, steelhead rods are from 12'-13' long. The most popular size of steelhead rod is now 13' long for a #7 line, which balances with a 450-grain Scandi line or a 525-grain Skagit head. It is very difficult for most anglers to cast a 15' long sinking tip with a 13' long rod, especially while large or heavy flies are being used.
Spey casts could be divided into two main types depending on the kind of anchor being used. Casts such as Single Spey casts and Snake Roll casts use "touch and go" anchors which touch the surface of the water lightly and briefly. In these kinds of casts, the anchor forms when the line tip, leader and fly are pointed straight at the target. These casts work best with floating lines and small flies. Skagit casts using fast sinking tips and weighted flies often require "sustained anchor casts" such as Snap-Tee or Double Spey casts, which land the line perpendicular to the path of the forward cast. This is because much of the energy to make the cast is used up just to get the sunken tip and fly to the surface of the water where the change of the direction (rotation) and delivery of the fly is made by a second stage (or cast) to line it up with the target. Long tips are often under rotated and part the sinking tip is still perpendicular to the path of the forward delivery resulting what is called a "Bloody-L". The ell shape of line in the water makes so much resistance that it rarely comes out of the water cleanly. Often there is so much friction in the anchor that the cast dies before it leaves the water, or the tip of the line leave the water perpendicular to the forward cast and the line tangles in the air.
After watching their clients struggle with long sinking tips, the afore mentioned M.O.W. brothers solved the Bloody-L problem by shortening their tips to ten feet. They then made the tips even easier to cast by making their tips part floating and part sinking. In that way they found that they could control the depth of their presentation and still have enough mass to turn over large, heavy flies. Eventually some Skagit Heads were changed from floating to multi density to help anglers achieve deeper presentations than were possible with full floating heads. Some M.O.W. tips were made with intermediate sections replacing the floating ones. These are called iMOW tips for attaching to multi density RIO Game Changer type Skagit heads.
The combination of multi density heads and multi density tips allows fishing swung flies at depth being more and more under an angler’s control.
For additional information on Skagit casting/fishing/tackle we suggest that you read:
Why Different Lengths of Skagit Heads
Everything About Intruders, Part 1