Picking the Perfect Fly-Fishing Leader
January 22, 2018
With your future boss, going on a first date, meeting your girlfriend's parents for the first time, or presenting a fly to a large brown trout, first impressions are everything. Rarely do you get a second chance to make up for a poor first impression. In fly fishing, the likelihood of a good first impression improves when you match the correct leader to the conditions you face onstream. While the line is important, it is the leader and tippet that delivers the most critical part of the presentation—the fly.
Ask ten of the best anglers you know what their favorite leader design is, and you'll get ten different answers. And their answers will likely change if you begin discussing specific fishing tactics or other rivers. Leaders, as with most fly-fishing tools/equipment, are a matter of personal preference, just as it is with fly patterns and rods.
My goal with this article is to highlight essential fly-fishing leader facts and helpful tips for choosing the right leaders for specialized nymphing, streamer, and dry-fly fishing. Once you have confidence with these tools, you'll find your fly-fishing success reaching new levels.
Dry flies are designed to imitate floating insects on or near the surface. These insects usually drift at the same pace as the surface current, and our goal is often a dead-drift where the line has as little influence on the hook as possible. The right leader has enough power in the butt section to turn over the nearly weightless object, but has a tippet section long enough to allow plenty of slack for a drag-free float.
Regardless of the leader you're using, it's important to remember the taper design so you can maintain and repair the leader after several break-offs or fly changes. For example, if you are casting wind-resistant dry flies on a small mountain stream, you'll likely need a short, stout leader capable of turning over the large dry in tight brush. If the tippet section is too long, the leader will not have the power to punch the fly under an obstacle. Instead, the fly will likely ride high and grab the overhanging limb.
Knowing how to tweak any fly-fishing leader to match the conditions increases your enjoyment, decreases frustration, and makes you a better fly fisher.
Orvis Braided Leaders. This article gave me an excuse to give braided leaders another try. Although I still prefer a traditional nylon butt section for most leaders, I was impressed with how supple these leaders are. Orvis claims these braided nylon leaders are four times as supple as nylon monofilament, and I've used them to generate slack presentations for Trico spinners on several challenging Pennsylvania spring creeks.
These braided nylon leaders are reusuable over and over again and are looped on both ends. Each leader comes with five 5' tippet sections wrapped on a tippet spool. Each tippet has a Bimini twist loop on the end so it's easy to loop in a new tippet and get fishing as soon as possible. We found that the braided portion of the leader is so limp you can get away with using slightly larger tippet diameters. The braided leaders come in different diameters to match line weights 3 to 5 or 4 to 7; and in lengths of 9' or 71/2' not including the Bimini tippet section. $20|orvis.com
Due to their limp nature, I don't recommend them for casting wind-resistant dry flies. However, they are excellent anytime you need a delicate dry-fly presentation. The braided loop on either end allows easy connections to both line and tippet, and helps extend the life of the leader. You get five 5-foot Bimini tippet sections on the spool that's included with the leader, so you can easily loop on the tippet sections. You can build your own tapered tippet section as well.Joe Mahler Illustration
French Slow Action Leader. I came across this fly-fishing leader in Jonathon White's book Nymphing The New Way: French Leader Fishing for Trout. Many of France's famed trout waters are known for their wary trout. As a result, some of France's top fly fishers use what they call a slow-action leader. In the U.S. we are accustomed to aggressive butt sections, where the leader goes from a very heavy butt section and quickly tapers into a smaller diameter. This aggressive taper is useful for turning over wind-resistant dry flies or heavy indicator rigs, but lacks delicacy for dry flies and leader-shy trout. Instead of the largest-diameter section being the longest, the slow-action leader design has a short butt section with the smaller-diameter sections getting progressively longer. This slow taper creates slack and shows the trout as little as possible.
These 14' 4X to 7X leaders are much longer than most commercial trout leaders, and most of that length is in the midsection and the tippet so you can get more slack into the leader and your fly is less influenced by subtle surface currents. They are perfect for dry-fly fishing with smaller flies and on highly pressured tailwaters and spring creeks where the trout suspiciously looking for anything unusual. Don't use these for big bushy drys or for casting in the wind. $6|trouthunt.com
TroutHunter René Harrop. If you prefer to buy dry-fly leaders rather than build them yourself, these should be your first choice. I couldn't think of a better place than the Henry's Fork to design leaders for the most challenging trout on the continent. What I appreciate about the 14' 4X leader I frequently use is the lack of an aggressive taper in the butt—similar to the French leader discussed above. It turns over like the best hand-tied dry-fly leaders but requires no assembly. Like all extruded leaders, the final 18" of tippet is not as strong as tippet material coming off a fresh spool. I snip 18" of tippet off the tapered leader, and replace it with my own tippet.
For sake of organization, I'm going to break down nymphing leaders into two categories: without an indicator (aka Euro, tight-line, or contact nymphing) and with an indicator. In both cases, the tippet (the entire section immediately below your indicator or sighter) should be level. A level tippet sinks at the same rate along its entire length, whereas a tapered tippet section sinks unevenly due to the difference in diameters. Thicker tippet sections (nylon or fluorocarbon) always sink slower than thinner-diameter material, and thicker material is more likely to be influenced by the current and create drag.
I'm completely sold on using fluorocarbon for nymphing tippet material due to its resistance to abrasions, especially in smaller diameters. I'm not fond of the price, but I am confident that I save money as I lose fewer nymphs with fluorocarbon. Also, fluorocarbon is a good choice if you plan to use split-shot. Split-shot tends to weaken thin nylon easier.
Two of the best fluorocarbons on the market are TroutHunter and Cortland Ultra Premium. TroutHunter has been the standard go-to material for many of my guide friends for quite a few years. It first gained popularity because the knots seat better than other fluorocarbons, it's supple when compared to other brands, and comes in a large-arbor spool to reduce memory.
A newer option is Cortland Ultra Premium, which has gained a lot of attention in a short period of time, especially through some top competitive fly fishers.
Although I only used the product for three weeks near the end of the summer, I was impressed with its strength when compared to other fluorocarbons. My six-year-old son Logan fished a drop-shot rig on the Madison three straight days using 4X Cortland Ultra Premium. I found a wind knot at the top of the tippet after the first day, but I decided to leave it as a test. Logan landed more than 25 trout and whitefish in heavy, fast water, and he freed countless snags over the course of three days before he was finally able to break the 4X tippet. My experience was the same. It's strong stuff, and the diameters printed on the package are accurate.
Bottom-Bouncing Indicator Rig. Sometimes with heavy nymphing rigs and wind-resistant, balloon-style indicators, guides place the indicator directly on the fly line tip or only several inches away from the fly line tip. This means the leader has little to do with the presentation.Joe Mahler Illustration
Green River guide Doug Roberts shared the details of his bottom-bouncing rig with me, and it's a setup I've used frequently when I need to get deep with a large indicator. He came up with it because he was using five to ten size B split-shot on his nymph rig and needed a large balloon to suspend it all. There is no leader formula out there that will turn over that kind of a rig, so he shortened the leader and relied on his fly line to help turn over the indicator. A long stealthy leader wasn't important due to the higher flows.
All-Purpose Indicator Option. A smaller indicator and greater stealth become important when the water levels drop. A longer leader keeps the fly line farther away from your flies and indicator, but the leader needs to have an aggressive butt section to turn over the indicator and a long enough tippet to delicately present the flies. The indicator option of my All-Purpose Leader works with medium-size indicators like a 1/2" Air-Lock and medium or deep water.
It's also worth mentioning that the leader needs to float if you are going to mend it. A partially sunken leader cannot be mended without dragging the indicator and rig. Grease the fly line tip and the area between the fly line and indicator to help it stay on the surface.
The driving philosophy behind tight-line nymphing is to keep as much line and leader off the water as possible. Instead of using a floating indicator for strike detection, you focus on the behavior of the leader for strike detection. Colored sections of leader material called sighters can help increase the visibility of the leader and help detect more strikes.
It's true that you often feel the trout strike when you're tight-line nymphing, but more often you just see a subtle flinch of the leader. I build colored sighters into all my tight-line nymphing rigs.
Cortland calls this stuff "top secret" but the secret is officially now out of the closet. The diameters are dead-on (we double-checked all the diameters with a micrometer), it knots and seats against the fly better than most fluorocarbons, and it's stronger. It comes in 30-yard spools or in 100-yard spools for $50. cortlandline.com
When deciding on what type of tight-line leader you'll need, it helps to consider how much weight you'll be using. If you plan to two large tungsten stonefly nymphs, the leader taper makes little difference as you'll be using the weight of the rig to cast the flies. Your cast will be nothing more than an overhead flop, similar to a conventional fisherman tossing a heavy Rapala. On the other hand, if you plan to nymph with a lightweight nymph and a long leader to provide a more delicate presentation on skinny water, then you'll need a tapered butt section that helps turn over the light rig.
RIO'S Euro Nymph Leader starts with 9' of milky-white, tapered nylon for extra visibility, attached to 22" of RIO 2X Two Tone Indicator Tippet material, which changes from hot pink to bright chartreuse every 8" for maximum visibility and strike detection. The leader ends with a tippet ring, so you can add your own tippet to match flies you're using and the current water conditions. $10|rioproducts.com
RIO Euro Nymph Leader. Several manufacturers have come out with Euro style leaders, but my favorite is the RIO Euro Nymph Leader. The 9' knotless tapered butt section of this leader is opaque white for visibility. You might think white is difficult to see, but this solid white butt section really lights up and helps you quickly locate the 22" section of sighter material, which has a tippet ring attached so you can quickly add your terminal section. Keep in mind that the sighter in this leader is 2X diameter, so be sure your tippet is 3X or smaller to reduce the chance of breaking off the sighter and/or tippet ring.
GD's Stiff Euro Leader. When fishing lightweight rigs at a distance, a tapered butt section of stiffer monofilament helps turn over the flies. Although this leader can be used at close range, the primary advantage is presenting nymphs from a distance with greater stealth. My goal with this setup is to have only the leader/tippet in contact with the water, and not the fly line. This creates less disturbance. This is my go-to nymphing leader during low-water periods. Joe Mahler Illustration
I use Maxima Chameleon for building long leader butt sections, and 0X Orvis Tactical monofilament for the sighter. The larger diameter of this sighter floats better and is easier to see than most standard sighters, which are often 2X.
I leave the tags on the sighter blood knots as kind of "rabbit ears" on the water to telegraph vibrations. One trade-off is the extra wind resistance of the tags, but I find the added visibility of the tags outweighs the negatives.
Cortland, RIO, and Orvis all have sighter materials designed for tight-line or Euro nymphing. Cortland's opaque white mono sighter material is excellent against dark backgrounds. RIO and Orvis produce multicolor sighter materials that provide more points of contrast and color options for fishing in various lighting conditions.
Another quality I like about both the RIO and Orvis sighter materials is their limpness, which transmits strikes better than a super-stiff material. You'll see a nervous twitch as the rig drifts, and that twitching stops the moment the nymphs grab bottom or is eaten by a trout.
When you're dredging with a giant articulated streamer or popping a compact conehead into a plunge pool, your leader is less complicated and requires fewer steps than other leaders, but it's no less important. Your streamer leader should be shorter and heavier to turn over these flies, and you'll need the thicker diameters for both abrasion resistance and to absorb the blows from aggressive strikes. The good news is that trout seem to toss caution to the wind when they are attempting to scare, injure, or eat a baitfish.
Someone once suggested that I use a level section of 15-pound-test leader to connect my streamer directly to the fly line. "Level" means the diameter of the leader was the same where it was tied into the leader all the way to the fly.
While certainly a simple solution, there is a great deal of hinging that takes place because there's no thick butt section to help turn over the fly. More important, when I got the fly stuck in a tree or on bottom, I lost the whole leader or broke the tip of the fly line due to the heavy 15-pound-test line. After five or six break-offs, I was starting to lose the front end taper of my fly line.
All-Purpose Streamer Option. To prevent losing my whole leader, I use a short 6.5' 2X tapered leader and then attach a tippet ring or a snap swivel. Then I add 24" of 3X fluorocarbon as a tippet. This creates a breaking point as well as an easy recovery point. When streamer fishing, I prefer the snap swivel over a tippet ring because some fly designs have a tendency to twist the leader during casting and retrieving. Swivels greatly reduce this twisting and keep your flies swimming the way they were designed.
The All-Purpose LeaderJoe Mahler Illustration
Admittedly, leader designs like the French Slow Taper or GD's Stiff Euro leader are complex affairs and specially suited to do just one job, and to do it well.
If you plan on using many different techniques over the course of the day, it's better to have one leader to do it all. My All-Purpose Leader has worked great for me over the last three years. While it's not the best for nymphing, dry-fly, or streamer tactics, it's more than functional in getting the job done for all three. The advantage is the leader base remains the same—the only difference is the tippet section tied to the tippet ring.
When I know I'll be fishing the All-Purpose Leader, I pre-rig all my potential dry-fly, nymphing, and streamer rigs and have them ready to transport. Rigging at home allows me to spend more time fishing, and when I'm well prepared, I can switch from a dry-fly rig to nymphing in under a minute.
Orvis Dropper Rig Fly Box
Pre-tied dropper rigs save time on the water but only if you have a functional storage system that keeps the flies and tippet neatly organized and prevents tangling. The Orvis Dropper Rig Fly Box has five removable foam inserts—each insert holds multiple rigs. The box measures 4"x7¼"x1¼" and is also a convenient holder for trashed leaders and tippet. $30| orvis.com
I've tried many boxes and systems to carry these pre-tied tippets with flies, but always find myself coming back to the Orvis Dropper Rig Fly Box. Each box has five foam cartridges with tabs running down both sides of each cartridge. You stick the fly or flies in the foam, and wrap the tippet around the cartridge. Tuck the end of the tippet in one of the many slots on the outside edge of the cartridge, and you're ready to go.
Wrapping it Up
There are countless materials and designs out there to build leaders for any fly-fishing situation. The leaders I've outlined here are just the ones I've found myself using most frequently whether I'm guiding, or floating a river with my family.
Take these designs as suggestions only, and use them as foundations to refine your own leader designs.
Experimenting is part of the fun—at least trout have a shorter-term memory than humans, so if you do make a bad first impression . . . you can always come back the next day and target the same fish.
George Daniel is the author of Strip-Set: Fly-Fishing Techniques, Tactics, & Patterns for Streamers (Stackpole Books, Headwater Books, 2015). He owns and operates the company Livin on the Fly and presents schools, seminars, and private lessons around the country.