How to Select the Best Saltwater Leader
January 22, 2018
In the last 25 years of guiding, the most common questions I get from fly fishers are about saltwater leaders. "What's the best leader I should buy or build to bring on my next saltwater trip?" It's a smart question because we are seemingly inundated with information about the best rods, reels, and lines, but that final connection between your line and the fly is often overlooked.
The leader is important not just for its strength and durability in landing fish. Remember that first you have to hook that tarpon, permit, or bonefish. If you can't deliver the fly correctly, it doesn't matter how strong the leader is.
Tight loops in combination with the correct leader system allow you to transfer valuable energy smoothly, efficiently, and aggressively all the way to the fly. This is vital to lay out the fly line and leader straight with a slackless presentation. Trout anglers often build leaders to create slack. In the salt, we want exactly the opposite—a ruler-straight presentation without slack, and right on target so when you start stripping line, you immediately also start moving the fly the way you intend.
Details Make a Difference
How many times have you gone saltwater fishing, and the first thing your guide does when you step into the boat is change either your leader or your fly? Guides have one-on-one daily interactions with many fly fishers of different experience levels. They observe the performance of hundreds of different rod/line/leader combinations. After years of witnessing the casting and fishing results of all these different combinations, I've developed some strong convictions about what leaders work best with what rod, line, and fly in specific conditions.
I've had some fly fishers claim that you don't need to get overly technical with saltwater leaders, and these statements often come from people paying top dollar for the best tackle and dedicating weeks of their lives pursuing the most difficult saltwater fish in the world. I'd argue that with this level of commitment, getting the best leader possible is a bare minimum. It's also fairly easy and inexpensive. It's a matter of paying attention to details. Of course, practice is vital but even if you practice until you fall over dead, if your line and leader setup is working against you, your outcome can be dramatically jeopardized.
All About that Butt
You just committed to a great bonefishing trip to the Bahamas. Now you need to pack the correct tackle. You get to leaders and wonder: "Which commercial leaders should I bring with me? Where do I start?" Here are some questions to ask yourself before you purchase any commercial saltwater leaders.
What size fly? When you use bigger and heavier flies, we all know you should increase the weight of the rod and fly line. Tossing heavy permit crabs on a 7-weight is not very comfortable or effective. Heavier and more wind-resistant flies require heavier line weights. A 10-weight line gives you more mass and more energy to roll that heavy crab fly out straight.
Leaders work in the same way. Just like the fly line, more diameter or mass in the leader material transfers more energy. So if leaders work just like fly lines, why don't we just make our leaders to act like a continuation of our fly lines? Well, we do. Or at least, we should.
One of the primary principles of having the right saltwater leader is to closely match the diameter of the fly line tip and the diameter of the butt of the leader so there is as little loss in the transfer of energy as possible.
When you have a large diameter difference at the connection of the leader and fly line, you have the potential for a connection that can hinge or collapse. This happens when the butt section can't handle the amount of energy being transferred from the fly line.
Most people reading this article won't run out and use a micrometer to measure the tip diameters of their favorite saltwater fly lines, and this information is not generally printed on the packaging. But as an example, the fly line tip diameters of the Airflo Chard Tropical Punch fly line measure .042" for the 8-weight up to .049" for the 12-weight.
The most commonly available tapered saltwater leaders have butt sections ranging from .022" to .026" and they are, in my opinion, too thin to match with heavier saltwater lines.
Often, these leaders have the same butt diameters as freshwater leaders with comparable breaking strengths. A 0X trout leader often has the same butt diameter as a 20-pound-test saltwater leader, although one is most likely to be used on a 5-weight line, and the other is more likely to be on a 10-weight.
To overcome this common fault, just add a thicker butt section to your tapered saltwater leader. When I tie my own bonefish leader, I start with an 18-inch butt section of .032" monofilament. It's fairly easy to simply add this same piece to the butt section of a tapered leader to aid your turnover and smooth the power transition from the fly line tip, which likely has a diameter of .040" to .050".
Just the Tip
The length, stiffness, and diameter of the tip of the leader or tippet can also make a huge difference in transferring energy efficiently all the way to the fly.
Saltwater fly fishers are often guilty of looking only at the breaking strength of the tippet and paying little attention to the diameter. Trout fishers pay close attention to the diameters and construction of their leaders because they want the cast to fall in a way that creates slack in the tippet section for drag-free drifts. They choose dry-fly leaders with long, thin tip sections to create that slack. Charles Ritz advocated trout leaders that are 60% butt section, 20% midsection, and 20% tippet, and most commercial tapered leaders (fresh- and saltwater) roughly follow this design.
In salt water, we should build leaders or look for commercial saltwater leaders that don't taper too quickly and transfer power all the way to the fly for that straight-line presentation. Less than 10% of your overall leader should be thin tippet material. Instead of 60/20/20, shoot for 70/20/10 or 60/30/10. Adding a section to the butt (as detailed above) and trimming back the tippet section by the same length can improve your leader ratio by giving you more butt and less tip.
You might not be able to find a leader that exactly fits your liking, but with a little tweaking on either the tippet or butt section side, you can get to where you're going.
Stiff or Soft?
Most freshwater leaders are made from soft nylon monofilament. Softer leader material helps form tighter loops (it's easier to bend) and it helps introduce slack into the leader for drag-free drifts, but it's less efficient at transferring energy to help lay out a long leader with a heavy fly straight into the wind.
Stiffer leader material better supports the weight of heavier flies while casting, and tends to lay out straight with less slack. In salt water, stiffer is almost always better. Not only does it give you better (straight) presentations, its harder exterior is also more abrasion-resistant, which helps if you're dealing with a fish with a rough mouth, teeth, or if you're fishing in an environment where there's coral and other rough surfaces.
Nylon is a copolymer that can come in different formulations. Most brands have a saltwater nylon formulation that is often denoted by use of the terms "stiff" or "hard." RIO Hard Mono, Mason Hard Type Mono, and Scientific Anglers Hard Mono AR are some examples.
Fluorocarbon is by nature stiffer and more abrasion-resistant than nylon, but it's not always the best solution. It sinks quickly, and sometimes when I'm bonefishing that means my fly snags the bottom too easily. When you're tarpon fishing, the fly needs to be suspended where the fish can see it. Monofilament leaders are a better choice anytime you require a neutral buoyancy.
Tie Your Own
Building your own leader isn't difficult. Even if your default is to use purchased tapered leaders, if you know how to make a tapered leader, and why it works, you'll be more capable of modifying or merely repairing the leader you bought at the fly shop. I use Hatch Professional Saltwater Series Med/Hard nylon monofilament to tie most of my permit, bonefish, and tarpon leaders, and usually have a fluorocarbon tippet section to protect against abrasion and sink the fly to where I want it. I use a perfection loop on the butt section because the loop is straight, unlike a overhand loop, which is usually canted to one side. Use saliva or lip balm to lubricate each blood knot before you tighten.
Whether you tie your own leaders, or modify a tapered leader to get where you're going, I think you'll notice a difference, and hopefully have more hook-ups as a result.
Hatch Professional Series $15-$20
Hatch Professional Series Saltwater Leader is a hard/stiff nylon polymer manufactured in Japan. Stiffer monofilament lays out straighter than limper material, so you can contact your fly immediately when you start the retrieve, and unlike fluorocarbon, it has almost neutral density, so you won't be raking the bottom. It's easy to be "stiff" with oversize diameters, but Hatch Professional Series is true to diameter (we tested it), knots easily, and comes in 50-meter spools. hatchoutdoors.com
Scientific Anglers Hard Mono AR $5
Saltwater flats fishing is a shallow game where the bottom is a constant real and present threat. Most nylons are easily battered by mussel beds, coral, and barnacle-crusted dock pilings, but Scientific Anglers Hard Mono AR weathers the storm. We used Hard Mono AR for Louisiana redfish over and around sharp rocks and erosion control structures, for mangrove snappers hugging oil rig structures, and it even held up to the teeth of a random 25-pound alligator gar in the bayou. It comes in 30-meter spools. scientificanglers.com
RIO Bonefish Leader $5
Made of medium-stiff material for turning over saltwater flies in the wind, RIO's bonefish leader has the largest butt diameter of any comparable commercial leader, coming in at .027" in all sizes from 8-pound-test to 12-pound-test. They are 10', a perfect length right out of the package if the water is calm and you're fishing shallow flats where the bones are spooky. That extra length means that if it's windy, or you're having trouble turning over the leader completely, you can cut 12" or 24" off, gain a higher proportion of butt section, and still be working with a respectable leader that keeps the fish from seeing your fly line tip. rioproducts.com
Seaguar Fluoro Premier $15-$50
This is Seaguar's best fluorocarbon monofilament, and it's made by the company that invented fluorocarbon fishing line. This is "double structure" fluorocarbon, which means that the exterior is made from a different resin than the interior. That exterior surface helps the knots seat better, giving you a strong connection to the fish. Fluoro doesn't absorb water and it doesn't degrade from UV exposure, so that spool of Fluoro Premier you have in your center console or hip pack is still good one year or three years later. You should throw away your nylon at the end of each season. The price is for 25 yards, but varies according to diameter. seaguar.com
Bruce Chard has been a Florida Keys guide for 25 years. His last story in Fly Fisherman was Tarpon Caviar in the June-July 2016 issue.