Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sink-tips For Skagit Heads

Skagit heads combined with Spey rods have changed our approach to sink-tip fishing for steelhead.  We now have the ability to fish heavier sink-tips and bigger flies than ever.  However, with this change has come some confusion.  With the wide range of sink-tip materials available, how do you know what’s right for your fishery? More so, how do you know what’s right for your Spey rod?  Many of us have old shooting head wallets stuffed with sink-tips from Spey lines from past eras.  Here at SteelheadBum, we’re often asked if these old sink-tips can be used on the newer Skagit lines.   Many folks also seem confused by how long their tips should be.  We hope to answer all of these questions and more in this article.

Sink-tip Grain Weight
In order to start talking about how to match sink-tips to your Spey rod, we need to understand a little about sink-tip grain weight and density.  The weight of fly lines and sink-tips are measured in grains.  One grain equals 0.06479891 grams.  Before we loose you by getting too technical, the important thing is to realize is most sink-tip packages will tell you how many grains you’re dealing with.  For example, Rio’s T-14 sink-tip material is 14 grains per foot.  That being said, a 10’ sink-tip of T-14 would weigh 140 grains.  (14 grains x 10 feet = 140 grains)  Besides T-14, Rio also makes T-17, T-11, T-8 sink-tip material.  These sink-tips come in 30’ rolls that are designed to be cut into different lengths.  For example. you could cut the 30’ roll into three different sink-tips of 12’, 10, and 8’ in length.  The package comes with three braided loop sleeves that are secured to the sink-tips once cut.  The loops must be nail knotted and Aqua Sealed (flexible glue) before using them.  Airflo offers two sink-tip materials, CCT200 (10 grains per foot) and CCT330 (16 grains per foot), both of which are designed to be cut to length.  (CCT stands for Custom Cut Tip)  The Airflo material comes in a 20’ length with factory loops on both ends.  You cut it somewhere in the middle and end up with two sink-tips with factory welded loops.  In 2010, Airflo is coming out with Custom Cut 18’ sink-tips with a factory loop on one end.  You can cut it down to whatever length you desire.  As an added bonus, the loops are color coated for different sink-rates.  For those of you that don’t want to deal with braided loops and Aqua Seal, go with the Airflo Custom Cut Tips.  Both Rio’s “T” series and Airflo’s Custom Cut Tips are impregnated with Tungsten and sink extremely fast.  Rio also makes 15’ sink-tips in Type 8, Type 6, Type 3, and intermediate sink rates that come pre-looped.

Understanding grain weight is important for two reasons.  First is the sink-rate, or density, of the sink-tip.  Usually, the higher the number on the package, the faster it sinks.  That said, Rio’s T-14 sinks at 9 inches per second while their T-8 sinks at 7 inches per second.  However, Rio’s 15’ Type 8, Type 6, Type 3 and intermediate sink-tips are rated by sink-rate and grain weight.  A Type 6 for a #12 weight line weighs 190 grains.  Conversely, a Type 6 for a #5 weight weighs 75 grains.  They both sink at 6 to 7 inches per second, but the grain weight is dramatically different.  You must consider this when choosing a sink-tip.  The second reason is how much grain weight your Spey rod can handle.  If you put a 15’ sink-tip of T-14 (210 grains) on a little Spey rod like a #5 or #6 weight, the cast would crumble.  There isn’t enough energy in the rod and Skagit line to turn over that heavy of a sink-tip.  You might even break the rod!  Conversely, if you put a #5 weight, 15’ Type 3 sink-tip (73 grains) on a #10 weight rod, the sink-tip would hinge terribly.  There is too much mass turning over too fast for that little amount of sink-tip grain weight.  It’s essential to understand the balance between your sink-tips and your Spey rod for maximum casting efficiency.  Below we have broken down average sink-tip grain windows for rod weight.  The “grain window” is how much weight a rod can cast comfortably.  Keep in mind a faster action rod will handle more weight than a slower action rod in the same line size.

Sink-tip Grain Windows For Spey Rods

#10 Weight Rods:  255 grains to 165 grains
#9 Weight Rods:  220 grains to 130 grains
#8 Weight Rods:  190 grains to 100 grains
#7 Weight Rods:  140 grains to 80 grains
#6 Weight Rods:  110 grains to 60 grains
#5 Weight Rods:  90 grains to 50 grains

Remember this is a general guideline!  Every rod is different.  We’ve seen some super-fast action #7 weights handle sink-tips in the #9 weight range.  Not to mention caster ability.  A really good caster might be able to cast ten feet of T-14 (140 grains) on a #6 weight rod.  These windows are based on the average medium to medium-fast action rods and guiding experience.  IE: What works best for the average steelhead angler.

Old Sink-tips…  We all have them

Many folks have sink-tips from older generation Spey lines like Rio’s Windcutter or Airflo’s Delta Spey.  Usually, they’re completely tangled up in some old shooting head wallet.  They live in our gear bag but never get used.  Guides love it when you ask if you can use them, especially when you have no clue what they are or where they came from.  The good news is you can use these sink-tips -if they are the proper grain weight for your rod.   You can weigh your old tips with a grain scale to determine their weight.  However, many times it’s difficult to distinguish sink densities.  As a general rule of thumb, the darker the color of the sink-tip, the faster it will sink.  A dark gray sink-tip (usually type 6) will sink faster than a brown sink-tip. (Usually type 3)

Sink-tip Length

While sink-tip weight is extremely important, we cannot overlook length.  There was a formula in the world of Skagit that said your total length of your Skagit head and sink-tip should be about 3 to 3 ½ times your rod length.  Say what???  Not only did that formula confuse the hell out of the majority of anglers, it goes against the point of casting Skagit heads.  In an effort to create a formula to standardize the length of Skagit heads, it made this way more complicated than it already is. 
This isn’t rocket surgery people…

Sink-tip length is a matter of personal preference and casting style.  An angler that stands 6’4” is going to cast very different than an angler that is 5’4”.  The taller angler will naturally have a longer casting stroke.  Consequently, they will probably like a little longer sink-tip, say 12’ to 15’.  The shorter caster will more than likely gravitate towards shorter sink-tips in the 9’ to 12’ range.  To add to the mix, casting style will effect how long your tips should be.  Two different casters with the exact body type may cast completely different.  One might have a long or “open” casting stroke, while the other has a very compact or “closed” casting stroke.  The caster with the longer stroke will prefer longer sink-tips.  Another factor to consider in sink-tip length is rod length.  A 15’ Spey rod will handle much longer tips than a 12’ rod. 

Before we complicate this anymore, lets make it simple…  Most anglers casting a 12’6 to 14’ Spey rod feel very comfortable with a 12’ sink-tip.  A 12’ sink-tip will cover the majority of fishing situations for both the West Coast and Great Lakes. 

If you are hesitant to buy a brand new sink-tip and start whacking it apart with a scissors just because we said 12’ would work just fine, a good rule of thumb is to start by cutting your heaviest sink-tip to the length of your rod.  Go to the river and cast it, see how it feels.  Don’t use yarn because it’s easy to cast… Tie on a fly that you’ll actually fish for steelhead.  You can always start at your rod length and cut back six inches at a time until you find the magic length for your stroke.   It’s critical to start with your heaviest sink-tip.   This formula came to us from steelhead guru Jeff Mischler –ex guide, producer of New Water Productions, and overall bad-ass steelhead angler.

Once you’ve found your preferred tip length with your heaviest sink-tip, then you can cut down your other tips to match the length and grain weight.  Let’s say your heaviest sink-tip for your 13’6 for a #7 weight Spey rod is 12’ of Airflo CCT 200.  At ten grains per foot, your heaviest tip is 120 grains.   Your slower sinking tips should weigh no more than 120 grains, and no longer than the preferred length you found with the heaviest sink-tip.  The slower sinking tips should be no lighter than about 95 grains.  That gives you a “window” of 25 grains to work with.  For your Type 6 sink-tip, you could start out with a 15’ Rio Type 6 for a #10 weight.  Out of the package it weighs 150 grains.  If we figure out the grains per foot, (150 divided by 15’) we get 10 grains per foot.  If we cut our 15’ tip back to 12’, we remove 30 grains and get a sink-tip that weighs 120 grains.  Know you have two different sink-rates at the same length and the same grain weight.

Ultimately, your goal is to end up with a set of sink-tips that fit your casting stroke and grain window of your rod.  If you decide 12’ is your preferred length, all of your sink-tips should be around 12’.  By having a consistent length and weight of sink-tips, your casting stroke won’t have to change every time you change your sink-tip.  It is possible to cast different lengths of sink-tips, however, you will have to change your casting stroke as your sink-tip length changes.  For strong Spey casters, changing lengths is not that difficult.  However, beginner and intermediate anglers will really improve by having a consistent casting stroke.

Short Sink-tips and Cheaters

Some of the best West Coast and Great Lakes steelhead guides we know like to fish short sink-tips for specific fishing situations.  A 12’ tip will have a tendency to hang up when fishing boulder gardens.  This is especially true when fishing soft winter water with massive rocks.  Another scenario is during times of high, off-colored water and the fish are holding tight to the shore.  A longer tip will often find the bottom on the inside of the swing.  Many Great Lakes’ rivers and smaller West Coast rivers just don’t require a long sink-tip.  Problem is, if you have a sink-tip of seven feet, you have changed both the length and grain weight significantly.  Plus, a short sink-tip becomes really difficult to cast.  There just isn’t enough fly line on the water to anchor the Spey cast.  Enter the Rio Skagit Cheater.  Cheaters come in lengths of 2’ ½ , 5’, and 7’ ½ in both floating and intermediate densities.   In order to obtain the proper grain weight and length, you can add a “Cheater” between the Skagit head and the sink-tip.  By doing so, you can fish shorter sink-tips without having to change your casting stroke.  To give you an example, lets say your heaviest sink-tip for your 13’6  for a #8 weight Spey rod is 12’ of Rio T-14. (168 grains)  A 7’ sink-tip of Rio T-14 weighs 98 grains.  If you add a 5’ Skagit Cheater that weighs 65 grains (7/8/9), you will end up with an over-all length of 12’ weighing 163 grains total.  You have stayed within your preferred length and sink-tip grain window.   Rio has now introduced their new MOW sink-tips, which come in T-14, T-11 and T-8.  Each tip is 10’ long.  They come in full floating, 7.5’ of sink-tip, 5’ of sink tip, and 2.5’ of sink-tip.

The Perfect Spey Set-up for Steelhead

We asked the steelhead guides associated with this website what the most popular Spey rods were in there boats for both summer and winter fishing.  A 13’ to 13’6 for a #7 weight rod seamed to be the average stick most clients show up with.   Some good examples are the Sage 7136-4 Z-Axis, the Winston 7133-4 BIIx, the Burkheimer 7133-3, and the Echo 7130-4 TR.  We asked them what sink-tips they would want for a #7 weight in both winter and summer.  Here it is…

Most used sink-tip: 

12’ of Rio T-11 (132 grains) or Airflo CCT T-10 (120 grains)

Other sink-tips:

12’ of Rio #10 weight Type 3 (103 grains)

12’ of Rio #10 weight Type 6 (103 grains)

7.5’ of Rio T-14 MOW sink-tip

If you know the river you’re going to be fishing requires heavier and longer sink-tips than your seven weight can handle, you might consider packing a #8 or #9 weight rod instead of the #7 weight.  To see what professional guides fish on the best steelhead rivers in the country, check out the Steelhead Guides page.  Each guide page has recommended gear for their fisheries.

Hopefully we’ve given you some insights into selecting the right sink-tip for your Spey rods and Skagit lines without confusing the hell out of you.  If you have any other questions, please feel free to give us a call or shoot us an email.


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