Understanding Leaders Means Better Fly-fishing

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Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

When it cones to fly-fishing leaders there are lots of right answers.

There has been an ocean of ink spilled over the subject of leader formulas. It’s pretty common for anglers who are learning to tie leaders to obsess over leader formulas, and the press has made the most of it. I’ll warn you now, I’m not going to give you any leader formulas. What I am going to do is try and help you understand how a leader functions and how to start designing leaders that will work best in a wide range of conditions.

What does a leader do?

To understand how to craft a leader that’s best for the fishing conditions, you need to understand what a leader does. A fly fishing leader has one purpose. 

A leader translates the energy of the fly line to the fly in a way that creates the best presentation.

edit-6999That’s it. Period. If, like me, you believe that there is nothing more important in fly fishing than presentation, you have to appreciate the importance of the leader. If you look closely at that sentence, you will also recognize that the term, ‘best presentation’ is highly subjective. What, exactly, the best presentation means is dependent on a factors like target species, fishing conditions and fly selection, just to name a few. It’s easy to see that no one leader formula can deliver the best presentation in every situation.

A word about store bought leaders. They are fine and you can get by with a store bought leader for most of your fly fishing. They will never work as well as a hand tied leader because there are limitations in the manufacturing. In general, pre-made tapered leaders all have hinge points and, in many situations, have butt sections which do not effectively transfer energy. Quite a few anglers will protest that the knots on a hand tied leader cause tangles. That’s simply not true. I’m not trying to be a wise -guy, but if you are having that issue, it’s a casting problem not your leader. Read this to fix it.

What determines how a leader functions? 

A hand tied leader is made up of short sections of conventional fishing line which transfer and dissipate energy from the fly line. There are several choices the angler makes about each section when crafting a leader that control how it functions. Let’s look at each of these choices and how it effects leader performance.

Line diameter 

Leaders start out heavy on the butt end, next to the fly line, and become finer as they taper down to the fly. The finer the material, the limper it is and the less energy it transfers. As each smaller section turns over it takes energy out of the system, making your presentation softer and more accurate. The finer the tippet, the final section to which the fly is tied, the softer the presentation.  However, if your tippet is too small, it may not turn over larger flies, so you have to strike a balance. 6X tippet will work fine for a tiny BWO dry, but you may need 3X to turn over a hopper pattern.

DSC_7109As you build the taper, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. The change in diameter needs to be subtle. Any time the there is a drastic change in line diameter, there will be a hinge point. A leader hinges when energy is dissipated too quickly. This hing kills your loop and limits your ability to deliver the fly accurately. The diameter of the butt section will be determined by the weight of your fly line. You want to match heavier leader material to heavier lines and lighter material to lighter lines. If the butt section of the leader does not match your line, it will hinge.

For example, when building a leader for a 5 weight, I will start with a butt section .021” in diameter, then step down to .017” for the second sections, and .013” for the third. I try not to step down more than .005” at each junction, especially in the heavier butt end of the leader. If I was building a leader for a 3 weight, I would start with .017” and for an 8 weight .027”.

Most anglers will talk about the sections of their leader in terms of break strength. Twenty pound, or thirty pound. The break strength of the material is not directly linked to it’s diameter or it’s stiff ness. That varies by material, so it’s much better to pay attention to the diameter of the material.

Section length 

edit-4156The length of each section also effects how energy is transferred through the leader. Heavier materials will turn over across longer sections where finer sections may run out of energy. On heavier saltwater leaders, I usually tie my sections in equal lengths of about two feet each. The heavier material transfers the energy nicely through the full leader and delivers flies accurately in windy conditions. If I am tying a leader that will end in 5X I will start to shorten each section after the third section. The last couple of sections before my tippet will be only about a foot long. Assuming I am wanting to dead drift flies in moving water, my tippet will be at least two feet long.

I will alter the lengths I use in each section to achieve the energy transfer I need for certain conditions. For example, if I an bonefishing and the wind is howling, I may make the butt section of my leader six feet long and step down in shorter sections from there. My leader ends up the same length as normal but it turns over much more aggressively. I use the same kind of leader for big streamers. I might do the exact opposite when using a right-angle indicator set up for nymphing. You can read about that here.

Material stiffness

All leader materials are not equally stiff at a given diameter. Fluorocarbon materials, for example, are much more supple than monofilament. Even within material types there are variations in stiffness. RIO’s Hard Alloy Mono, quite possible my favorite product in fly fishing, is remarkably stiff. It does an amazing job of turning over in the wind. I use it in all of my saltwater leaders and some freshwater. Remember that stiffer materials transfer more energy. I often match stiff material butt sections with limper material towards my tippet.

Special material properties

DSCF0911-EditEach leader material has it’s own properties. We are usually talking about mono vs fluorocarbon, though there are others. Mono absorbs water and becomes more elastic and therefore less abrasion resistant than fluorocarbon. It also floats where fluorocarbon sinks. These differences allow you to build leaders that do some nifty tricks. When nymphing I will frequently tie full fluorocarbon leaders, which sink faster than mono leaders. When fishing dry flies I almost always use mono leaders with fluorocarbon tippet. I do this because the tippet sinks just below the film and does not create the bright depressions on the water created by floating mono. The mono section of the leader remains mendable. This makes a huge difference when targeting pressured fish.

I also use fluorocarbon tippet on all of my saltwater leaders, for it’s abrasion resistance. Especially when I am using a bite guard, the only time my material diameter increases as it joins the fly. In truth, most of my leaders use both mono and fluorocarbon, but you have to be careful how you join them. The two materials have different stretch coefficients and only certain knots will hold at full strength. A blood knot is not one of them!

I like the Seaguar’s knot or triple surgeons knot for this. They are very similar and some folks argue the same. The Seaguar’s knot is extremely strong and easy to tie.

Here’s a great video of Justin Pickett tying a Seaguar’s knot and calling it a triple surgeon’s. I encourage you to heckle him in the comments.

Understanding how leaders work, and how the choices you make when tying them effect their performance will allow you to create leaders that do exactly what you want them to.

It takes a little practice and experimentation, but once you get the hang of it, you can make quick adjustments on the water that will make your fishing more productive and more pleasant. You’ll also learn to troubleshoot leaders that aren’t turning over like they should. I encourage you to stop thinking about the formula, and start thinking about the conditions and all of your options for productive fishing.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
www.ginkandgasoline.com
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8 thoughts on “Understanding Leaders Means Better Fly-fishing

  1. Great article. I recently started tying my own leaders, about a year ago actually, and will never go back to buying tapered. Problem I was having with tapered leaders was that they seemed brittle and not as strong as rated. I was cutting off half of the leader and tying on 2 new sections so it was a natural progression to just start from scratch. My hand tied leaders turn over better and are stronger.

  2. “Fluorocarbon materials, for example, are much more supple than monofilament. ”

    I was always told the opposite, and in my experience, fluoro is stiffer.

    • Yeah fluoro is much more rigid. I like tapered leaders much more than hand tied to me they lay out much better and are much smooter than a leader with 6 blood knots. All my hand tied leaders are only two sections butt and tippet. I think the whole “leader formula” craze is just a ploy to get you to buy spools of tippet you dont need. Ive met people that fish with 9 ft straight tippet 3lb test

  3. Have been using Bruce Chard’s leader formula. Get it on YouTube. Instead of bloods, I use double uni’s. Never never ever have broken off a bonefish including some big ones. The next-to-last 12# section makes me a little nervous so I have fiddled with it by subst. 15# fluoro then adding, to that, the tippet. But even the 12# section never broke! Anyway, I know I’m geeked out but a happy confident geek.

  4. 1. Leader’s no.1 purpose is to separate fly line from fly so as not to scare fish.
    2. Fluorocarbon also floats. When fluoro and mono are submerged fluoro sinks slightly faster.

  5. 3. Knots in leader will cause the occasional tangle. Not every cast can be perfect.
    4. Knots in leader will often pick up junk floating in water. Worse in stillwater.
    5.Various monos have different memory characteristics. Straightening a knotted mono leader requires patience. Flourocarbon has little memory so straightens quickly.

  6. Nylon has a specific gravity of 1.4, Fluro has a specific gravity of 1.8. That is a significant difference for sinking.

  7. Pingback: Leader Materials Revisited | Fly Fishing | Gink and Gasoline | How to Fly Fish | Trout Fishing | Fly Tying | Fly Fishing Blog

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