Modify your leader to meet changing conditions
I believe leaders are the most misunderstood pieces of equipment in a fly fisher’s tackle bag. In more than 25 years of working in a fly shop, of course the question I answer the most is “What fly do I use?” But after that, I spend a lot of time explaining leaders, tippets, and how to make them work for you, not against you.
With the appearance of the knotless, extruded leader, many anglers are not aware of how a leader is designed, how it works, or that you can modify your leader to make it work better for your fishing situation. A knotless leader can be redesigned to quickly turn a large streamer over, and then rebuilt to gently lay down a size 20 dry. It just takes a little knowledge of how leaders are designed, how they function, and the modifications you can make so they work correctly on the water.
Your leader choice always stems from your fly selection. From a trout-fishing perspective, the tippet (the fly end of the leader) is the thinnest piece of monofilament in the leader. This is not always the case with toothy fish like pike or bluefish, and rough-mouthed fish like tarpon. In these instances, you need a “bite tippet” or “shock tippet,” which is a thick piece of monofilament or wire to make the business end of the leader more durable.
But in trout fishing, the tippet is the thinnest, most vulnerable part of the system, and you adjust your tippet according to the size of fly that you want to use. The guideline for sizing tippet to fly is the Rule of 4. I use a size 12 fly to demonstrate this rule. If you take a size 12 fly, and divide it by 4, you get 3, so for a size 12 fly, use a 3X tippet. If you choose a size 16 fly, then divide by 4, and get 4X tippet. This works for all sizes of flies and helps get the most accurate casting and turnover of the fly.
Some people use the Rule of 3. Using this rule, for a size 18 fly you would use 6X tippet. If you use the Rule of 3 you may be handicapping your casting and fly turnover, but you’ll have a lighter, thinner tippet for better slack-line presentations and dead-drifts.
To understand leaders, you must understand the energy transfer that goes through them. I use the metaphor of water being poured into a gutter to explain leader turnover. If you have a gutter lying flat on the ground, and you splash a bucket of water into one end of it, the water will travel a certain distance down the gutter and then stop. The energy has dissipated.
But if you were to take that gutter and taper it, compressing the path of the water, the water will go much farther before it stops. In essence, this is what a leader does. It starts thick and tapers down to the tippet, and the taper allows the energy from the cast (generated by the fly rod) to flow effectively through the leader.
The front taper of a fly line does exactly the same thing, tapering the energy of the cast into the leader. In essence, the leader is simply an extension of the front taper of the fly line. So, a leader would look like illustration #1 (next page), if seen from the side.
You can see the taper of this leader as it goes from the butt (thick end) down to the tippet (level skinny end), just like our compressed gutter. Illustration #1 shows a 9′ 4X leader, with 7′ of tapered monofilament, and 2′ of level 4X tippet at the end. Following the rules outlined above, this would be suitable for size 12 to 16 hooks.
When you tie on a fly you might use up 4″ of tippet to tie an improved clinch knot or other knot. When you change flies, you lose another 4″ of tippet. After five or six fly changes, you have no more 4X tippet left on your leader. At this point, you use a surgeon’s knot or blood knot to replace the tippet section and protect the integrity of the taper of your leader.
After all those fly changes, let’s say you now decide you need a much larger fly like a size 8 grasshopper imitation. Now things get more interesting.
Using the Rule of 4, you calculate you’ll need a 2X tippet. Illustration #1 shows where there are diameters of 3X, 2X, 1X, and 0X on the leader. To add 2X tippet, cut the tapered section of the leader back to the 2X point. Remember, there are no markings on an actual knotless leader, so you need to judge the diameter by sight or feel (which is not as hard to do as it sounds). Then use a blood knot to add a piece of 2X tippet, a little over 2′ long. You have maintained the taper of your leader, but you have changed your tippet to match your fly.
After trying your #8 grasshopper for a while, you decide that your original #12 Parachute Adams worked better than anything else you tried so far—and you want to go back to it! This goes on more than anyone cares to admit, but it’s all part of the fun of fly fishing.
So, you’ll shorten your 2X tippet to about 15″ to 20″ and use a surgeon’s or blood knot to attach a little more than 2′ of 4X tippet.
Why do we do all this? Economics. It would be expensive (and make shop owners everywhere giddy) if you replaced your entire leader every time you tied on five different flies. Instead, we use our knowledge of the leader taper to maintain efficient energy transfer through the leader.
It gets even more complicated when you need to adjust your leader drastically—such as changing from a 1X tippet to 5X. You’ll need to take several steps down (jargon for making your leader skinnier) using two or three pieces of thinner tippet—not just one piece of tippet as in the previous example.
There are two rules of thumb for maintaining the taper of your leader. First, never drop more than two sizes of tippet at a time. For example, you never want to tie 5X tippet directly to a 1X leader. Instead, go from 1X to 3X, and then from 3X to 4X, and then tie on the 2′ piece of 5X tippet to complete your 5X leader.
This rule maintains the leader taper and the efficient transfer of energy. Going back to the rain gutter example, if you suddenly go from a wide gutter to a narrow gutter, most of the water would spill over the sides, and very little will enter the narrow section of gutter. The water that does enter the narrow part will have little power behind it because the transition was not smooth and energy was wasted. The same principles apply to energy going from a thick piece of tippet (1X) to thin tippet (5X). (See illustration #2.)
These graduated steps also ensure the integrity of your knots. Badly mismatched monofilament diameters produce bulky and weak knots.
Second, when tapering your leader, each piece you add should be shorter than the one that preceded it—until you add the final tippet which is usually the longest section.
As the leader gets thinner, you lose energy (thin can’t carry as much energy as thick). The subsequent piece is always shorter to make sure the energy transferred is sufficient to continue the turnover of the leader.
The final tippet section always breaks that last rule because you want a little squiggle, or slack, in the end of your leader. Slack allows the fly to drift naturally, less affected by the current.
For a fly to drift naturally like a real insect, you’ll need slack in the leader. A tight leader is immediately affected by the different currents in the river, causing the fly to move counter to the current, which is the definition of drag.
If you tied a #12 fly to a piece of rope, and floated that rope in the river, it would drag your fly all over the place. This is a dramatization of what happens when using tippet that is too thick for the fly. If you tied the same #12 dry fly to a length of fine sewing thread, it would float naturally with the currents because there would be no effect from the thin, supple thread.
So why isn’t the entire leader just a thin monofilament like a thread? Because it is too thin and too supple to be able to transfer energy through the leader so it “turns over” or is fully extended at the end of the cast.
The perfect tippet is one that adequately turns over, yet at the same time allows the fly to float freely with the currents. If you only have a couple of inches of tippet on your leader, even if it is correctly matched to the size of the fly, it is still going to be stiffer than if you had a couple of feet of tippet. The shorter piece of tippet will affect the action of the fly, while the longer piece is less likely to affect the fly’s drift.
Once you have a basic leader mastered, and you can modify the taper and the tippet to match your fly size, you’ll likely become interested in either designing or buying leaders that are suited for specific situations and presentations (including fly size).
When nymphing, streamer fishing, or fishing drys, the ability to balance and control your leader is paramount, and your goal—what you want from your leader—changes with each discipline.
The prototypical 9′ 4X leader I outlined above is a great starting point for most trout fishing, but in reality I use specific leader designs for different situations.
For dry-fly fishing, I use a Ritz leader formula (designed by Charles Ritz of Ritz Hotel fame), which is the basis for most of the tapered trout leaders that we buy. It is a simple design, with a 60% butt section, then a 20% midsection that tapers down rapidly, and 20% tippet.
I also follow George Harvey’s advice, using a stiffer monofilament in the butt section, and a softer tippet material for the other 40%. For the stiff butt portion, I use Maxima Clear or Ultra-Green. And since most major tippet manufacturers tend to manufacture a limper monofilament, use the tippet you are most comfortable with for midsections and tippet.
[For an exhaustive review of 30 of the top monofilament brands—including fluorocarbon and nylon—see the article “2012 Tippet Shootout” by James Anderson in the June-July 2012 issue. The Editor.]
I start my dry-fly leaders with a 30″ butt section of .024″ diameter Maxima. I then use 18″ of .020″, 12″ of .017″, 12″ of .013″, and 12″ of .011″. At this point I am finished with the Maxima butt section.
I switch to a softer brand of monofilament and tie on 8″ of .010″ (1X), 6″ of .009″ (2X), and then add a 3X or 4X tippet. If I need a 5X or 6X tippet for small flies, I add a 6″ piece of .007″ (4X). (See illustration #3.)
Notice that all these numbers deal with length and diameter, not the breaking strength of the material. Breaking strength or “pound test” has nothing to do with leader design. All leader design is based on tapers, which is based strictly on diameter. If you can teach yourself to think in terms of diameter and “X” designation, you will be a lot better off as you design your leaders.
This Ritz/Harvey leader design is a wonderful leader because it finds just the right balance between accuracy (turnover) and slack in the tippet end, which helps create good drag-free drifts.
However, there are situations where you don’t need or want a drag-free drift, and turnover becomes the only concern. When you are fishing a streamer for instance—like a Woolly Bugger or a Muddler Minnow—you actively move the fly on a tight line, and there is no need for “drift.” In fact, slack in the line at the end of the cast prevents you from immediately moving your fly, and is often counterproductive to your efforts.
As a result, a well-designed streamer leader has a longer butt section and rapidly tapers to the tippet, so it has the energy to turn over the larger, heavier, more wind-resistant flies.
For my streamer leaders, I use Lefty Kreh’s 4-3-2-1 leader. It’s a simple, rapid taper designed to turn over heavy flies with accuracy. The taper of a 4-3-2-1 leader is 4′ of .024″ Maxima, 3′ of .020″ Maxima, 2′ of .015″ Maxima, and then 1′ of 0X fluorocarbon. (See illustration #6.) The same leader design is useful for other tight-line presentations such as with bass and panfish poppers.
I don’t use light tippets on my streamer leaders for two reasons. One, I catch huge fish when I’m streamer fishing . . . okay, truth-in-advertising laws force me to say I want to catch monster fish, and I like to be prepared for it. And I do catch my fair share of big fish, meaning very few.
The real reason I use a heavy 0X leader for streamer fishing is accuracy. A thick, stiff leader carries a fly better than a thin one, as previously stated. I am not looking for delicacy, at least not with the heavily weighted streamers I chuck.
When banging the banks with streamers, the difference between 1 foot from the bank and 3 inches from the bank can be the difference between failure and success, so accuracy is paramount, and a stiff, thick leader allows me that level of accuracy.
I use fluorocarbon for the tippet because I’ve been told it’s invisible in the water, and I like to think that I am fooling the fish with my superior stealth. It makes me feel better about things when I believe I’m taking every possible step. But I used nylon monofilament for years before fluorocarbon came around, and I caught fish back then too, so it’s not necessary.
I usually fish streamers with a floating line, and a 10′ leader distances my sinking fly from the floating fly line, and allows my fly to sink.
If you’re using a sinking line, use the shortest leader you feel comfortable with, so the fly line has maximum effect on your fly depth. If you use a longer leader, the fly will tend to ride up and away from the sinking line. In other words, a long leader defeats the purpose of a sinking line.
My leader for a sinking line is 1′ of butt section, about .017″, tied directly to the fly line, and 18″ of 0X fluorocarbon tippet. The only reason I use 18″ of tippet is so I can change flies several times before replacing my tippet section. Otherwise I would use an even shorter tippet!
I know this breaks the rule about tying thick monofilament to thin, but the leader is so short and the fly is normally so heavy that turnover is not a problem. And fish are not too afraid of things that come by them at their own level, so the sinking fly line doesn’t spook them the way a floating line does.
There is a special nymphing leader that I tie, an offshoot of my standard nymph leader, and I use it with a Thingamabobber.
Fly fishers usually call these devices “strike indicators” but the Thingamabobber can actually suspend heavy flies just like a regular old-fashioned bobber, and I enjoy calling a spade a spade. It floats with no problems, or dressing, or any other foolishness, and the ring-eye for attaching the leader allows you to create a 90-degree nymphing leader where the flies hang straight down below the bobber where you want them.
Many people just loop the Thingamabobber onto their leader, but this puts a kink in the leader that is almost impossible to remove. I find this annoying when I switch from nymphs to drys and back again, so I designed a leader specifically for Thingamabobbers. It starts with 1′ of .019″ Maxima, 1′ of .015″ Maxima, and 1′ of .011″ Maxima.
This short, rapidly tapered leader has the power to drive the wind-resistant plastic bubble into the wind, and I tie it directly into the ring-eye at the bottom of the Thingamabobber.
I then take 2′ of 2X tippet and attach it to the same eyelet, which creates a 90-degree bend in the leader so your weighted nymphs are more likely to hang directly below the bobber. From this point, I add tippet as needed to lengthen the underwater section of leader to attain the proper depth. I keep a couple of these short leaders tucked into a small Ziploc bag along with my Thingamabobbers for quick and easy changes to my favorite nymph rig.
I don’t always use a bobber when nymphing, and my standard nymphing leader is basically the same, with an additional 1′ piece of .022″ Maxima at the butt end, and without the Thingamabobber.
I’m willing to put up with the rapid taper to the thinner sinking section of the leader, because 2X and finer tippets cut through the water and sink a lot faster than thicker monofilaments. It’s a bit unwieldy to cast, but it sinks quickly, which is the most critical aspect of a nymphing leader. And because I fish beadheads or weighted nymphs almost exclusively, straightening this leader at the end of the cast is not totally dependent on the leader, as the flies themselves have weight and momentum.
As you can see, there are many rules to leader construction and design, and most of them can be broken—indeed, they should be broken—in some situations. Understanding the principles behind tapered leaders, and gaining experience on the water, are the best ways to learn when you should and should not break the rules!
I take my leaders pretty seriously. It’s the one piece of tackle that directly impacts my success or failure. Built with taper knowledge, and the ability to balance tippet size to fly size, your leaders should improve your fishing.
George Kesel worked behind the counter in fly shops for 27 years, where he learned more from his customers than he taught them. He lives in Missoula, Montana, because he’s fundamentally lazy and hates driving more than 25 minutes to fish. This is his first contribution to Fly Fisherman.