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George Harvey: New Leader Formula

George Harvey: New Leader Formula

At my age, I have probably done more research on fly tying, fly fishing, and fly-fishing methods than most of the so-called experts in this field.

I taught the first (noncredit) fly-fishing and fly-tying course in the United States in 1934 and the first credited course in the U.S. in 1947 at Penn State University. I taught courses on the campus every year until I retired in 1972; while I worked at the university I also taught 72 classes in 68 different cities in Pennsylvania. Each class met for 5 evenings.

Since retirement I have taught classes every year around the U.S. and in Pennsylvania and will continue to teach as long as I am able!

I have written many articles and several books on techniques and flies I have originated. However, the most important article for all fly fishermen was the article I wrote on leader construction for Fly Fisherman in the mid-eighties. That article influenced thousands of fly fishermen and helped them catch more trout. However, since that time I have improved the leader design and casting methods to get a slack-leader cast. These are the most important parts of one's fly-fishing equipment and methods. I have shared and demonstrated this new leader to many men and women, and they catch more trout than most others.

The Leader

Over the years I have improved my leader design. Originally, my basic leader was made of stiff nylon. Now I make all of my leaders from the softest leader material I can purchase. My basic leader is smaller in size than all commercial leaders I have checked.

I tie my basic leaders in the following sizes .015", .013", .011", and .009". Each section is approximately 18" to 19" long. I attach this basic leader to my line using a nail knot and use it for all my leaders. To this basic leader, I add 3X, 4X, and 5X in lengths appropriate for the fly I am using to get a slack-leader cast.

The fly's air resistance determines the length of the terminal tippet. You cannot use one construction for all fly sizes because the less air resistance of the fly you are using, the longer the tippet must be.

The following is how I add to the basic leader. If I am going to 4X, I add 15" of 3X to the basic leader, then 36" of 4X.

When I go to 5X, I add 15" of 4X to the 3X, then 36" of 5X.

After I have the leader built, I tie on the fly and make a short cast. If the leader piles up, I cut off a short section and try again. When you have it right you will get a good slack-leader cast.

Leaders made from soft nylon provide a better drag-free float than one with a stiff nylon base. You can also use heavier terminal tippets, which allow you to put more pressure on the trout and land and release them quicker.


Those who must use 6X, 7X, and 8X tippets to get trout to take play the fish much too long, which results in the death of many trout. Personally, I now catch all trout on nothing smaller than 4X or 5X tippets. I only use 5X on the smallest flies because I cannot get 4X through the eye of the hook. When fishing the Green Drake and other large flies, I use 2X and 3X tippets.

I recently took three women, with whom I have worked for 21/2 years teaching them to tie flies, build leaders, and make a slack-leader cast, out fishing during the Green Drake hatch on private water. I had them tie their leaders with 2X tippets. Can you believe it? They caught over 60 trout, and a third of them were over 20" long.

This leader design is the most important part of our fishing equipment. I use an 81/2-foot rod built for a 5-weight line when using this leader.

The Cast

Now it's time to teach you to cast, so you will get a good slack leader. I generally do not make a cast over 35 feet unless circumstances call for a longer cast. However, I catch most of my trout at a distance of less than 40 feet.

With the shorter line, you can get a better slack leader. With the thumb on the top of the front end of the handle, I use very little arm action. The back cast is made with little arm action but a fast snap of the wrist, so that the line goes straight back and about 9 or 10 feet above the water. As the line straightens out before it starts to fall, make the forward cast with fast wrist action, so the line will straighten out 5 or 6 feet above the water. Follow the line down to the water with the rod tip. This will give you a good slack-leader cast. Raise the rod tip slowly as the line drifts back. If you raise it up too fast it will straighten out the leader.

As you make this cast, use the thumb as you would the sight on a gun. If you do this you can place the fly within a few inches of where you want it to land. If it's a windy day, it is harder to judge where the fly will land. Wind will also straighten out some of the slack in the leader. Under these situations it's best to only make the forward cast 3 or 4 feet above the water.

Be careful to avoid the leader piling up at the fly end. If it does, shorten the leader just a little. It should have ever-increasing "S" curves from the fly to the line.

I have received many letters from around the United States about my old leader design. This new leader with the soft nylon will give you top performance. I recently received a letter from Bill Stieger from St. Paul, an outdoor writer and fly fisherman of note, saying, "Thanks again for all the trout your leader formula allowed me to catch. Best thing that ever happened to my fly fishing."

Good luck with this new leader formula!

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