Fly leaders - the vital connection
Leaders are the vital link between the fly line and fly. Neil Grose looks at their development, plus their different applications and requirements.
Fly fishing leaders have evolved from complex weaving's of horse hair, to tapered "silk worm gut" leaders which required soaking prior to each use, to the highly specialised synthetic materials of today. It is now common to be besieged in tackle stores by literally hundreds of different leaders, all ostensibly for the same purpose, but most having different designs that aid the delivery of the fly in accordance with the intended application. While some of these leaders claim to be multi-purpose, rarely will anglers find a leader that will be all things to all methods.
Fly anglers these days are confronted by a multitude of techniques for catching trout, classic dry fly, up stream nymphing, general wet fly searching, loch style, deep nymphing in lakes with fast sinking lines, and indicator nymphing to name a few. Each one if to be pursued successfully will require special considerations with leader design. Given that there is such a wide choice, it is therefore no surprise that a considerable amount of anguish is associated with leader choice and use. Many anglers spend much time and money on leaders searching for the best all round leader; the reality being that different uses will demand different features in leader design. As such, it is worthwhile uncovering some of the issues co-related with fishing techniques and leader design.
Leader design is based on the premise that the leader should taper down from a thick butt section connected to the fly line to the thinnest part to which the fly is attached. The taper of the leader is important, the transfer of energy from thick to thin is fundamental to good fly presentation. Tapers vary from steep tapers for turning over heavy flies or casting into the wind, to more slight tapers for small dry flies or in situations where the wind is behind you all the time. The most common type that is purchased are the knotless tapered kind, where the taper is smoothly reduced from thick to thin with no knots.
Knotless tapered leaders are initially the best option for those who are new to the sport, or those who fish only occasionally. These leaders are probably also a good option for those who fish with only one fly at a time. Most of these leaders are excellent in their design, although the cheaper ones have some very dubious tapers, which can be detrimental for beginning casters. With leaders you certainly get what you pay for. The best and most cost effective way to utilise manufactured leaders is to purchase a spool of the appropriate sized tippet material with the leader. When the taper becomes too short, with the result being that the end is too thick, then simply tie a new section on instead of replacing the whole leader. A spool of tippet material will cost around the same as a tapered leader, but will last nearly a whole season for most anglers. The only difficulty with manufactured leaders is that they are hard to use effectively across the spectrum of fly fishing techniques.
Hand tied leaders
Anglers can avoid the search for the holy grail of shop bought leaders by either hand tying their own leaders totally, or by using tapered knotless leaders which are modified by the angler to suit the individuals" needs. Interest in hand tied leaders has re-emerged with the increasing popularity of loch style fishing, and as such many anglers are now using hand tied leaders for all their fishing. The benefit to tying your own leaders is that the characteristics that you require can be incorporated as you wish. All that is required is some basic leader designs, a good strong and simple knot for joining the different sections, and the appropriate leader material.
There are several very good recipes for tying general purpose leaders, among them the Ritz formula (see diagram). This formula has two longish butt sections to transfer the energy from the fly line, three short middle sections to turn over the following two sections of finer tippet material. This formula is excellent for general fishing, either wet or dry, and has the added optional benefit of leaving one of the tag sections longer to facilitate the use of two flies. This can be particularly good for dry fly fishing, as the only thing better that one dry fly is two dry flies. (Particularly when it comes to Red Tags)
For general wet fly fishing from a boat with a following breeze, the leader set up can be very simple, as the wind will aid in the turn over of the flies. A general loch style leader can simply be 2 metres of ten pound, a metre of eight pound, and a metre of six pound, with a fly attached to each join by leaving one of the tags from the knot hanging long. The need for complex tapers is overcome with this style by the wind being always behind you.
As anglers study more closely the techniques used overseas to catch trout on the fly there is a growing realisation that the use of sinking lines of varying densities will result in consistent catches of above average trout. The leader design for this type of fishing is simple, but none the less very important. While the make up of the leader doesn't effect the casting presentation with these lines, it does effect the way the fly behaves behind the sinking line. If the angler uses a fast sinking line in conjunction with a long leader, the depth attained by the fly will be reduced by the inherent buoyancy in the leader material. (See diagram) Sinking lines only need short leaders, a fast sink line with one fly needs only two metres maximum of leader, and usually will not require any sort of taper. The thickness is not critical either, use a good strong line, nothing less than eight pounds.
The use of intermediate lines is also becoming more popular, due to their ability to fish the flies slightly deeper in the water column than a floating line. However, anglers who wish to have the same effect without the need for a sinking or intermediate line can achieve this simply by using a longer leader and a weighted fly, or flies on a floating line. All that is needed is a leader of around 20 feet, or six metres. They are not that hard to cast, just practice with a leader of this length for a while before your next outing. If you are at all interested in using long leaders with a single fly, then buy 12 foot tapered leaders that have an end tippet strength of eight or ten pounds. All that is then required is an eight foot section of six pound to be attached, and you have a well tapered twenty foot leader that will help you both cast effectively, and get you to the right depth.
Many anglers have in the past been deterred from hand tying leaders because of the impression that the knots are too hard to tie. The knot that I and many others use to join the different sections of leader is the four turn water knot, which is very easy to tie, and has the additional benefit of being effortless to tie in low light, or with cold fingers. (Hard to imagine at this time of the year!) The four turn water (or Surgeon's) knot is one of the strongest knots to use, tests have demonstrated that it retains about 95% of line strength, quite a deal higher than the traditional full blood knot. See the diagram for how to tie it. Remember as with any knot it is vital that you lubricate it well with saliva as you tighten it, this prevents heat friction from weakening the knot, and therefore your leader. This knot can also be used for adding droppers to an existing leader to create multiple fly set ups by simply adding a short section where it is needed. The piece that is used for the dropper is the one that points down, not up. The one that points up will hold the fly out better, but is prone to break-offs; the downward one is much stronger. If the fly is needed to be stood out from the line, then simply tie it in a half hitch BELOW the knot (see diagram). This will make the fly stand out from the leader and will not result in a weaker knot.
If we are to use a system of different leaders for different fishing applications, then we also need a way of interchanging those leaders onto our fly line. Most fly fishers only have one line that they predominantly use, and it therefore makes good economic sense to be able to interchange leaders quickly, easily, and without continually shortening the fly line by knotting the leader directly to the fly line. The best way to make your existing fly line more versatile is to use a loop to loop join between fly line and leader.
The best knot for constructing a loop in the leader material is the perfection loop, it gives a good straight loop, and retains line strength of around 90%. See the diagram for how to tie it. It takes a little practice to get it right every time, but well worth the investment in time to learn it.
Loop to loop connections
There are two ways of making a loop on the fly line. Both are a little fiddly, but well worth the effort. Either fit a braided loop or make a loop using the core of the fly line. If a braided loop is purchased from a tackle store, the instructions for fitting it are included in the packet. These loops are generally quite expensive, and can be quite bulky. The alternative which gives a very streamlined look is to strip the coating off the fly line for about 75 mm, and then with the core exposed, construct a loop from the core of the line itself. The easiest way to strip off the coating is to soak the required length in nail polish remover for about three minutes, and it then comes off with your thumb nail. I generally stitch the loop together using a needle and dacron fly tying thread, and then bind the loop securely, finishing off by whip finishing the dacron with a rotary whip finish tool. All that's left to do then is coat the join with flexible knot cement (Loons). In four years of making these loops I have not had any failures, nor have I had a problem with the line/leader join sticking in the rod tip when playing fish.
When it comes to what is the best leader material, there is no clear way in which to decide what is best. Each different method or discipline of fly fishing will require different properties in leader materials. The loch style enthusiast will need a good stiff material, the river angler a supple material, the dry fly fisher may want a matt finish, the polaroider may need something that is nearly invisible for the western lakes. It really is a case of horses for courses, and if you fish a wide variety of locations and techniques, then like me you probably have enough different leader materials to start your own tackle store.
There are a some innovative leader manufacturers producing some excellent products at the moment, the advances that some of these companies have made really place the advantage with the angler, not the trout. One of the developments in recent years has been the Flourocarbon leader material. This is claimed to have a near invisible appearance in the water, as well as being denser than normal nylon, meaning it will cut through the surface easily. Some clever anglers have been using this material in the Western Lakes region lately and have reported excellent results on really bright days. Reports in overseas magazines back up these results for bright days, but interestingly, they don't recommend it for dull days, instead advocating the use of normal nylon. I have been using the Black Magic brand of Flourocarbon material in bright conditions, and have found it to be very good. However, bright days are not always with us, and mostly we fish in dull conditions, usually with the wind being a constant factor. In these conditions when fishing the wet fly, one of the best all round leader materials is the Maxima Green. It is great for loch style leaders, as it is quite stiff, easily untangled, and very cheap in comparison to some other brands. It has a great knot strength, and usually breaks at around 2 pound above its rated breaking strain. If you are looking for a material to begin making your own leaders, then Maxima Green is a good bet. For the predominantly river anglers, a material which has a finer diameter, accompanied with suppleness is preferred to those that are stiffer. Two brands stand out from my experience, Umpqua, and Scientific Anglers. I have long been a user of Umpqua in the rivers, usually teamed up with light three weight rods and small dry flies. This material has served me well over the years, both as tapered leaders and as spools of tippet material. Scientific Anglers are undoubtably at the cutting edge of fly line design, and have designed a range of tapered leaders to compliment their Mastery Series fly lines. The Scientific Anglers leaders have always been good, and are now improved with longer and heavier butt sections to turn over the fly with greater efficiency. These two manufacturers would be the highest sellers of all the leaders, a testament to their effectiveness. (A locally imported material "Extreme" is also an excellent. Extreme is available in 30 metre and 300 metre spools and is used by the editor for all hand tied leaders.)
Once you have decided on the types of leaders you need to use, the only remaining consideration is how do you store them when they are not required. There are a whole host of methods for this, specially designed leader wallets, old empty spools, little plastic bags or circles of cardboard. (A good alternative is a compact disc wallet with plastic leaves. These can be found quite cheaply and will fit in your fly vest. Ed.) Which ever method you choose, make sure that they are easily accessed, and don't have to be like solving Rubiks cube to unravel them.
When ever you fish, and however you fish, remember that fly fishing is a sport where conditions change very quickly, fish one minute can be feeding like crazy on top, and then disappear. You can either go home, or you can change your method. It makes good sense to change the technique when confronted by those changes, and changing the leader as well as the flies is part of the key to unlocking the door to the next challenge.
Neil Grose has been fly fishing since 14 years old and has fished in five Tasmanian Fly Fishing Championships, two Australian and one International competition. Neil has been guiding for two years and guides with Peter Hayes Guided Fishing.