Presented from Issue 94
Leaders are the important connection between the flyline and the fly, but are often overlooked in terms of how they affect the presentation and movement of the fly, and overall fishing success. So here are a few tips for getting the most out of your leader, and the rest of your fly fishing equipment as a result.
Leaders are the section of monofilament or fluorocarbon line that attach to your flyline on one end, and the fly on the other. Their lengths vary to suit the purpose, from about 6 foot to 12 foot (leaders are usually measured in units of feet and inches), and the common breaking strains for trout range from 4lbs to 8lb.
The most common leaders, and by far the best, are knotless tapered leaders that start out thick at the butt end, and end up thin at the tip end. As an example, a 6lb tapered leader from Orvis starts out at .61mm thick at the butt end, and 0.18mm thick at the tip end. The reasoning for this is exactly the same as that behind flyline tapers: both are tapered to help the energy travel down the line, helping to unroll the leader and fly, neatly and powerfully.
There are other variations on leaders. The first are still tapered leaders, with the difference that they are ‘knotted’ and made from a series of differing diameter lines. These are usually custom or home- tied leaders, and often present the fly beautifully. The pit-fall are the knots that join the sections, which can catch the rest of the leader on bad casts, and create more drag on long drifts. These tangles can be a nightmare, and make it harder to learn and fish.
The second variation on leader set-ups is a ‘level’ leader: a leader created from a single piece of non- tapered monofilament. These provide no casting benefit to the angler, are horrible in the wind, and defeat the purpose of having a nicely tapered flyline. They are useable, but they just serve to handicap the set-up. They have their place – on lakes, fishing down-wind - especially from a boat, or when fishing wets, but I’d limit it to that.
Parts of the leader
Each fly fishing leader has a few key components: The butt-end, the taper, the tippet and the breaking strain.
The butt-end is the thickest part of the leader, and connects to the flyline with a loop-to-loop connection or nail-knot. This part of the leader determines how much force the butt of the leader will turnover with. A thick butt will turn over big flies, or into big winds, whilst a thin butt will turn over flies with more of a gentle presentation.
The taper itself is important, as it helps to determine the overall presentation. A fast taper from thick to thin will turnover the fly quickly and forcefully, whilst a longer or slower taper (such as those found on 12 foot leaders as opposed to 9 foot leaders) will turn over the fly with more precision and delicacy.
The tip end of the leader (known as the tippet) dictates the breaking strain, and can be added to with tippet material. Apart from breaking strain, the tippet is important as overall presentation can be manipulated by lengthening or shortening the tippet. As an example, a tippet that lands too hard for a tiny dry fly can be manipulated to deliver a softer landing by simply extending the tippet by two or more feet.
Finally, the breaking strain is important. When tapered leaders are made, they are extruded into length and taper. Whilst the tolerances are quite accurate, the result is not exact and I find that the very end of the leader can be less than the stated breaking strain. To ensure that things go to plan, I usually discard the last 6 inches of each new leader. To this I like to add about 1 foot of my preferred tippet – either 5.5lb in Rio or Orvis, or 4lb Maxima Ultragreen, which is much thicker for its breaking strain.
Fluorocarbon is another alternative leader and tippet material, and has useful properties that include a higher density which results in a faster sink rate, and lower stretch for better take detection.
There is an adverse property to fluorocarbon though: discarded fluorocarbon lasts more than one hundred times longer as compared with monofilament, before it breaks down. With the environment in mind, I avoid fluorocarbon.
Different leaders for different jobs
The leader is a part of the fly fishing set-up that you change to suit the conditions. As an example, my leader for Brumbys Creek and long drifts with small dry flies is totally different to my ‘hopper fishing leader. On Brumbys I like a long and supple leader, which presents the fly gently, and with enough slack to allow for nice long drifts, without drag. My favourite are the 9 foot Maxima tapered leaders (6lb / 4X), with the Chameleon butt-end for stiffness, and ultragreen tip-end for suppleness. I like to trim 6 inches off the tip of the new leader, and add 2 feet of straight 4lb maxima. By adding 2 feet or so of straight 4lb tippet, the taper is leveled out to provide for a gentle presentation.
For ‘hopper fishing by contrast, I like a heavier leader such as an Orvis Super Strong, this time in 8.5lb / 3X. By choosing a heavier breaking strain, I’m getting a thicker butt-end on the tapered leader. This enables the leader to easily turn over big size 8 dry flies with a pronounced splat on landing, which is the perfect hopper presentation. If the fish are proving a bit shy, once again we can lengthen the leader with a small section of tippet–perhaps a bit of 5lb Maxima this time.
Leader and tippet knots
There are only two knots you need to know when starting out. The first is a nail-knot, easily performed with an Terry Sutton style Innovator or Orvis nail knot tool. This knot joins the butt-end of the leader to the flyline, and is my preferred way to connect a leader. The alternative is to join the two with a loop- to-loop connection, as most modern flylines come with welded loops built-in.
For joining tippets to leaders, a three- turn surgeon’s knot is the easiest and most reliable method. Blood knot to blood knot is popular, but is hard to do, especially with cold hands. If you have trouble with either of these knots, feel free to drop by our flyshop and I can help you out.
Tools for the job
I like to have a few tools with me to help manage my leader and fly changes. The first are nippers. They’re simple things, they save ruining teeth when cutting leaders, and they make it easier to clear the eye of the fly, should it need it. Choose a clipper with a stainless steel or tungsten-carbide nipper edge, and the addition of a needle for clearing clogged hook eyes is a great idea. Dr Slick make a good nipper with a file and hook-eye pin, or combination forceps / scissors / pin.
When fishing I like to make sure that the butt-end of my leader is greased with floatant, so it floats nice and high to avoid pulling the fly under, and helps with line pick-ups. There’s plenty of products to achieve this. Conversely, many anglers like to sink their tippet to help avoid shine off the line, and Snake River Mud from Loon is the best I’ve used for this.
So there you have it, a run down on leaders for river fishing. Leaders are important, and learning to manipulate your set-up to suit your fishing can make things easier, and help to catch more trout.