Skagit heads explained

Making sense of Skagit heads
Tom Larimer Steelhead - understanding skagit heads
Photo: Tom Larimer

In the modern world of Spey fishing, anglers have a multitude of choices when it comes to selecting a fly line. In addition to a variety of lengths, the market offers lines built for specific fishing situations. Below, we'll put the microscope on the Skagit family of lines in an effort to help you make an informed product decision.

Skagit History

Skagit lines were born out of necessity. In the late 90’s, a few elite Northwest anglers realized the effectiveness of presenting very large flies on heavy sink-tips for steelhead. At the time, the average commercially produced lines were 50’ to 60’ long and lacked the ability to turn over such setups. Knowing that mass equates to turn over, these anglers spawned equipment that allowed them to fish these gargantuan offerings. A short, fat line gave them the required firepower. As an added benefit, a shorter line also gave anglers the ability to make a cast with very little back cast room. These first homemade lines were actually shooting heads looped to a mono running line.

I distinctly remember casting my first Skagit head. I was guiding a client that had previously fished on Washington’s Skagit River with Ed Ward. Based on Ed’s formula, he had built his own Skagit system. It only took one cast to realize how brilliant the idea was. These innovative steelhead anglers created a line that changed the sink-tip game forever. A few years later the first commercially built Skagit hit the market.

The head length (without a sink-tip) on the first commercially built Skagit lines was 27’ long and came integrated with a running line. As the Skagit revolution grew, many anglers wanted a choice in their running line. Consequently, most of today’s Skagit lines have reverted back to a head system. Additionally, today’s Skagit lines have trended shorter than the first commercial lines.

Manufacturers have also answered the call of anglers outside of the steelhead world that have realized how fun and effective Skagit lines are for a variety of species. Skagit heads are now being built in a wide range of sizes covering the heaviest king salmon rods all the way down to the small trout Spey rods. In addition, we now have heads specifically built for shorter two-handed rods. To add to the mix, intermediate sinking Skagit heads give anglers new ways to swing their fly.

With all the choices in the world of Skagit, it’s critical to know the advantages and disadvantages of each line when building your arsenal.

Skagit Head Options

Traditional Skagit Heads (26’ to 22’)

Since the conception of Skagit heads the idea has been refined. Today’s lines have aggressive front tapers that help turn the fly over and smooth out the cast. More thought has been given to the rear taper which controls the load on the rod as well as stroke length. In short, Skagit lines have done to Spey fishing what shaped skis did for skiing. They are easy and fun to cast. As I mentioned earlier, today’s traditional Skagit heads, such as the Airflo Skagit Compact. have trended shorter with an average length about 26’ to 22’ long. This length is very appropriate for rods ranging from 12’7" to 14’ in length.

Switch or Short Skagit Heads (19’6 to 20’6)

If a shorter two-handed rod is more appropriate for your fishery you’ll need to match your Skagit head accordingly. Most of the shorter Skagit heads on the market range from 18' to 20’6" in length. While these lines were originally designed for rods in the 10’6" to 12’6" lengths, many anglers have realized the benefits of using these short heads on rods as long as 13’6. Simply put, a shorter head, like the Airflo Skagit Switch, gives you the ability to make a fairly long cast with almost no room behind you. Although you do compromise a little casting distance when compared to a full length Skagit, if your fishery doesn’t have those nice open gravel bars where trees are of no concern, a switch head on a long rod is a very efficient fishing tool.

Intermediate Skagit Heads (22’-25’)

A few years ago, I came up with the idea of building an intermediate sinking Skagit head after fishing with my old guide friends in the Great Lakes. Because of the complex surface currents in some of the larger “Third Coast” rivers, a traditional floating Skagit would get surfed around, not allowing for a smooth swing. In addition to tricky currents, Great Lakes rivers can be extremely cold from Late October through February -- prime time for swinging flies. A slow, deep swing is often necessary to coax a steelhead to the fly. Airflo distributor Tim Rajeff and I developed a number of prototypes that my Midwest friends helped us test and which eventually became the Airflo Skagit Compact Intermediate.

We found that making the front 2/3 of the head intermediate sink gave anglers the ability to get a controlled deep swing yet still offered an easy way to cast heavy sink-tips and large flies. I suspected these lines would have some other applications on the West Coast though I never realized how popular the Skagit Intermediate would become. Anglers from Alaska to northern California are now using them in runs were a deep slow swing gets the ghost. Furthermore, they are extremely effective for king salmon. As for length and matching your rod, these heads are typically 22’-25’ in length and are appropriate for rods in the 11'6" to 14’ category.

Different Strokes for Different Folks

While rod length and fishing conditions play a huge role in the Skagit you choose to fish, body type should be a consideration. If you’re tall and have a long reach, chances are you’ll have a longer stroke length. Consequently you may like a traditional Skagit for its length. Conversely, if you’re a shorter person, a short Skagit will match your natural stroke length and you’ll find it easier to lift sink-tips out of the water when wading deep, which is relatively deeper than a taller angler.

To be clear, a tall caster can fish a short head if they adjust their stroke. I’m an average bear; 5’11 tall. Personally, I switch between heads both in lengths and density based on the fishing conditions. That being said, if I had to choose one rod and Skagit combo for a wide range of steelhead fishing conditions it would be a 13’3 #7 weight Winston BIII TH rigged with an Airflo Skagit Switch head. I would also carry a Skagit Intermediate for those times when I need more depth and control.

At the end of the day you should find a head(s) that works well for your stroke and the fishing conditions you face. When trying to find the best line, consider hiring a reputable casting instructor, visiting a retailer that specializes in Spey (many have demo lines available) or attending one of the many Spey claves around the country.


Still got an issue I don't understand here. Rod redington prospector 7 wt 11.3 475 + -50 .
So low wt 425 + 25 = 450. Now add 10 ft of T10 total = 550 , this is over the max for this rod . To add to my issue I bought a 480 airflo skagit short
So I'm now at 580 correct?.

That rod is designed to throw a head weight of 475 +/- 50gr, I would suggest 475gr Skagit Short. This weight will give you the mass to turnover tips and weighted flies, but will all so allow ample tip recovery for line speed. If you want more turnover go to a 500 or 525gr Short, but this will take rod recovery away and you'll lose lines speed. Sink tips are part of the anchor when casting, where floating tips add to the load.

In Skagit, or for that matter any water anchored spey casts, the rod load comes from the part of the line that makes up your D-loop, of which the tip isn't a part. Or to explain it in another way; the tip stays in the water and while it is part of anchoring the line it is the part over the surface, that is the shooting head that loads the rod. Thus, you never include the tip weight when determining the weight of shooting head you need: if the rod need 475 gr the actual shooting head needs to weight 475 gr, regardless of wether the tip weigh in at50 or 500 gr. The factors that goes into selecting the tip weight is fly weight/size, the distance you need to cast and how fast you want it to sink, not rod load capability. Granted, you will have trouble getting a 400 gr tip moving very far with a #3 class rod and a 150 gr micro head, but it will not affect how the rod loads.