Everything You Wanted To Know About Flyfishing Leaders But Were Afraid To Ask

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

By Kevin Howell

When I began fly fishing, quality leaders were very hard to find.

The best leaders were hand tied by the Dan Baily Company in Livingston, Montana or the Orvis Company. The problem is that the tying process involved wetting the knots which, when stored over a period of time, made the knots weak and anglers would use a new leader only to have it break at the knot. Today there are countless options for anglers to choose from — not only do anglers have to choose a length and a taper design, but leaders are available utilizing Monofilament, Fluorocarbon, Braided and Furled technology.

The leader is responsible for transferring the energy from the fly line to the fly resulting in fly turnover and how it lands on the water. Leaders consist of three sections — the butt section, the midsection and tippet. The tippet is generally the last 18-24” of the leader where it connects to the fly. The midsection is the next two feet, and butt section is generally 4-5 feet and considerably stiffer. The leader should start about the same diameter as your fly line and then taper down gradually and continually until it reaches the tippet which will be a 18-24” section of the same diameter.

Of the four major types of leaders on the market, the Monofilament leader is by far the most common, with Fluorocarbon claiming second followed by braided and then furled. Today’s pre-drawn mono leaders are leaps and bounds ahead of previous mono leaders. They are strong, well designed with quality tapers, and are even starting to specialize. You will find leaders meant just for nymph fishing, leaders for dry fly fishing and everything in between.

The only downside to the mono leader is that when it gets abraded or a wind knot, it is going to break every time resulting in lost rigs or lost fish. Fluorocarbon leaders are available in the same tapers as monofilament and also very abrasion-resistant, but come at a much higher price– 2-3 times more expensive than mono. Fluorocarbon leaders are also denser than water, so they tend to sink slowly. If you are trying to fish dry flies or watch your leader for strikes, this becomes quite difficult with a leader that is slowly sinking.

Braided leaders offer excellent turnover and are almost indestructible; you simply replace the tippet when needed. However, if you are fishing over-spooky or pressured fish, they will spook the fish every time. Water sprays out of the braided leader on the forward cast and it slaps the water when landing. Braided leaders are also heavy and struggle to float especially after being fished a little. They pick up water scum and dirt, causing them to sink more than they float.

FurrFurled leaders do not spray water as badly as a braided leader do but do spray some water on the forward cast. They also tend to sink as soon as they are fished a little bit and absorb dirt and water. Since furled leaders are not commercially produced you will have to find someone to make them for you or invest in the jigs and material to produce them yourself.

After twenty years in the guiding and outfitting business, I have found a quality monofilament leader with a fluorocarbon tippet to be the best all-around leader.

The reasons are fairly simple — if you get a knot or a tangle, simply clip the knot, retie and you are back fishing in a matter of minutes. And let’s face it, you are going to get tangled — or at least I am. When you tangle a braided leader, if you cut it you have destroyed the leader and cannot reuse it. You are left sitting on the bank for an hour while your buddy catches fish in the evening hatch. You can grease a mono leader and make it float like a cork, but once waterlogged you cannot get enough Mucilen to float a braided or furled leader.

Now the harder decision: do you want a continuous pre-drawn tapered leader or do you want a hand-tied leader? Both have advantages and disadvantages.

Hand-tied leaders are not commercially produced anymore so you will have to learn to tie your own — experiment and find the correct taper, or rely on a friend or expert that is willing to share their formula with you. Another downside to the hand-tied leader is that if you are fishing in an area with a lot of leaves, moss or aquatic vegetation, it will likely hang on your knots. You will also have to learn to check your knots each time you go fishing to be sure they are still strong and capable of handling a large fish. Finally, they are not great for skating flies.

As for advantages, you can construct the leader to be more supple for dry fly fishing or stiffer to turn over large nymphs and streamers. If you break off your tippet with a hand-tied leader you simple go to the closest knot, clip off the knot and retie the tippet without nearly the guess work of how much tippet to tie on. If it breaks and you retie at the first knot, you know to retie 18” of tippet. If it is the second knot, you need tippet plus the section right before the tippet.

If a leader gets out of balance, it is easier to detect where the problem is. Leaders can become unbalanced if you are replacing different parts of the leader. An out-of-balance leader will result in failure to turn the fly over, leaving your fly floating in a tangled pile of monofilament. The most common causes for an out-of-balance leader are a tippet section which is too long, or a smaller diameter of leader material tied between two larger diameters of material.

If your tippet is too long, you will simply run out of energy before you can turn the fly over. While finer diameter tippet allows a nymph to sink quicker, if you have a section over 4’ long you are going to see a lot of piled up, tangled up cast. To achieve a better turnover you will do better to, for example, tie in 2 feet of 3x then 2 feet of 4x. This will give you a lot better turnover than 4 feet of 4x.

When replacing the mid-section of the leader, be certain that you are always using smaller diameter material as you get closer to the tippet. This will prevent a softer section in the middle and keep your fly turning over more quickly. Finally, you can use the knots of your hand-tied leader as micro strike indicators, greatly increasing your success rate.

500-0Pre-drawn leaders are commercially available at every fly shop in the world and make it easy to have the correct taper and design for what you are doing. Other advantages are that the smooth leader does not pick up nearly as much aquatic debris as a knotted leader. Pre-drawn leaders make it very easy to skate flies like an Elk Hair Caddis or Spider style flies. On the down side, when you break a leader you have no idea what diameter of tippet you should be tying on, which makes it really easy to get a leader out of balance.

If you break the tippet in half, you have no idea of how much tippet is left. If you want to add a fluorocarbon tippet you have to buy a leader one diameter higher than what you want to fish. Otherwise you run the chance of starting with a leader that is not in balance. You will also have to use some form of a commercial strike indicator.

So what is correct, you ask?

Well a lot of it comes down to personal choice. However, what I recommend to a lot of clients that seems to simplify things is start by determining what size leader you are going to be fishing. For 98% of all fly fishing, a leader ranging in length from 9-12 feet is going to be the desired length. For this article we are going to assume we are wanting to fish with a 9-foot long leader tapered to 5x tippet. Begin by purchasing a standard monofilament leader in the 7-foot six-inch length. Once you have this leader, attach 18” of 5x fluorocarbon tippet to it. We know have a 9-foot leader tapered to 5x with a fluorocarbon tippet.

Chances are when the leader breaks, it will break at the connection knot of the tippet or in the tippet itself. Simply go to the original knot where you attached the 5x tippet, cut the knot off and reattach the tippet. This process will keep you from getting your leader out of balance. It also provides a nice leader that will still fish a skating fly and will not hang in nearly as much aquatic debris.

[ Note: a common cause for this leader breaking at the knot is stretch coefficient. Monofilament and Fluorocarbon have different stretch coefficients and this can cause failure in blood knots and surgeon’s knots. Try the Seaguar knot. It’s easy and effective.]

Once you master this technique, you will be amazed at how few a leaders you use in a year. This leaves you a lot more money to purchase that special fly.

Good Fishing,


Kevin Howell
Gink & Gasoline
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7 thoughts on “Everything You Wanted To Know About Flyfishing Leaders But Were Afraid To Ask

  1. as beginner I found it to be interesting reading
    does this apply to saltwater leaders fishing heavy flies1/0 2/0


  2. If I’m nymphing a size 20 zebra midge instead of a 6x pre drawn leader (more than four feet of tippet) should I something else?

  3. I would strongly you check Cutthroat Leaders. Your explanation of what happens when fishing braided leaders is nothing like I experience when fishing Cutthroat. They need to be treated with floatant occasionally, but this no problem and I have not experienced them picking up any kind of debris.

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