Written by: Art Scheck
The fly-fishing leader is a complicated subject. Countless articles and book chapters, and even entire books, have been devoted to leaders. And still that tapered length of monofilament confuses many anglers, particularly beginners.
Maybe we make leaders more complicated than necessary. I’m not going to say that leaders are simple. They’re not. But they shouldn’t cause endless trouble and confusion, either. Getting a reasonably good leader to do its basic jobs–straightening at the end of each casting cycle and dropping the fly with a modicum of delicacy–is not a complex business.
Leaders come in two main varieties: hand-tied and knotless. The merits and drawbacks of each are topics for other articles or barroom discussions. Since this post is aimed at beginning and intermediate anglers, let’s focus on knotless, extruded leaders. Nearly everyone starts out with those, and many good fly fishers stick with them.
Table of Contents
Accuse the Right Culprit
If your terminal tackle collapses in a tangled heap when you cast, don’t automatically blame the pileup on the leader. Look first to your casting. In particular, study your backcast. Does it unroll in a neat, tight loop and straighten completely? Until it does, you’re not going to get any leader to perform well.
It’s possible to have a genuinely bad leader or one that’s wrong for the job you want it to do. But modern knotless leaders are, for most part, at least pretty good. If you can’t straighten a name-brand, 9-foot leader with a size 14 dry fly at the end, you need to work on your casting. Any good instructor will tell you that most leader problems are, in fact, casting problems. That’s good news, because you can learn to cast well enough to make a reasonably good leader turn over. Efficient casting also lets you make a leader do tricky things, such as landing with slack in it or curving off to one side.
Hand-tied or knotless, a tapered leader has three parts. The butt is the fat end that attaches to the fly line. It should make up at least a third of the leader’s total length. The butt of a well-designed leader usually takes up 50 to 60 percent of the leader’s length. In the United States, we measure leader butts in thousandths of an inch: 0.021, 0.022, or whatever. Most trout-fishing leaders have butts from 0.019 to 0.023 in diameter.
An overly short leader butt can impair casting. If a leader refuses to behave even when you make a good cast, draw the butt section between your thumb and forefinger. If you detect a marked decrease in diameter within the first few feet, try another leader with a longer butt. You might find that your casts start turning over more reliably.
In the middle or taper section, the leader’s diameter decreases rapidly. Depending on whose formula you’re reading, the taper section should constitute 20 to 30 percent of the leader’s total length. In that short distance (two to three feet, typically), the diameter of the line drops from, say, 0.021 inch at the butt to 0.008 or even smaller.
The tippet is the skinny end to which you attach the fly. American and British anglers describe tippets with the X system, which has nothing to do with breaking strength. But the X system does tell you the thickness of a tippet. It’s called the Rule of 11. Subtract the X number from 11, and the result is the material’s diameter in thousandths of an inch. A 4X tippet, then, has a diameter of 0.007: 11 minus 4 equals 7.
The three most common lengths for knotless trout-fishing leaders are 7½, 9, and 12 feet. Other things being equal, a shorter leader is easier to turn over than a longer one. So, you should use a 7½-footer, right? Not necessarily. For one thing, the greater the distance between the fat, opaque fly line and the fly, the more likely a fish is to eat the fly. And a longer leader presents a fly more delicately and allows it a better drift.
So, should you use a 12-foot leader? Well, it depends. Can you get it to turn over and straighten today, at your present level of casting skill? Even the best leader won’t do you any good if the cast ends in a tangled mess. Do not doubt that you can learn to make perfect presentations with a 12-foot (or longer) leader. But if you can’t cast well enough to do that today–be honest, now–use a 9-foot leader. You can move up to the 12-footer after your next casting lesson.
Consider the fly, too. You’ll probably find a big Marabou Muddler easier to throw with a 7½-foot leader than with a 12-footer. Dry flies don’t weigh anything, but a big, bushy one can have considerable wind resistance. You’ll find a fluffy dry fly easier to cast with a 9-foot leader than with something a lot longer.
But while a shorter leader can make for easier casting with a streamer, it might not make for better fishing. With a floating line, a streamer or wet fly will swim deeper on a 9-foot leader than on a 7½-footer. Take your pick: a shorter leader might make a weighted fly easier to cast, but a longer leader will let you reach the same depth with less weight. The line, of course, matters very much. A heavier outfit–a 6-weight instead of a 4-weight–lets you use a longer leader with a heavy fly.
On a windy day, you’ll find a shorter leader easier and less troublesome to cast. It’s also more accurate in a breeze.
You can often match the leader to the water. On a fast mountain brook hemmed in by shrubbery, you’re not going to make long casts. With a shorter leader, you’ll have more fly line in the air to load the rod. Here, I’d use a 7½-foot leader. But on a calm pool in a midsize river, you want a long leader; try the 12-footer.
By and large, 9 feet is the most versatile and manageable length for trout fishing. It’s long enough for most dry-fly and nymph fishing on freestone streams, and short enough for slinging streamers and big nymphs. By adding a longer tippet, you can stretch it to 10 feet for more delicate work.
But carry a 7½-footer in case the wind picks up or you need to heave a beast of a fly. And work on your casting until you can turn over a 12-foot leader.
The longer and finer the tippet, the more bites you’ll get. That’s true with pretty much any kind of fly. The problem, sometimes, is getting a long, skinny tippet to turn over.
The relationship between the size of a fly and the specifications of a tippet is not absolute because flies come in so many varieties. A dry fly won’t travel far under its own momentum; your leader and tippet have to carry the fly almost all the way to its destination. With most dry flies, you can divide the hook size by three to get a rough idea of the right tippet diameter. Try these matchups: with a size 12 dry fly, a 3X or 4X tippet; with a size 14 fly, 4X or 5X; size 16, 5X or 6X; size 18 and 20, 6X. Use at least two feet of tippet.
With wet flies and most nymphs, you can use a lighter tippet than you would with a dry fly of the same size. You don’t have to “turn over” a size 12 Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph. Once that dense, streamlined fly is moving at a good clip, it will sail to its destination without much help. I’ve long used 5X tippets for nearly all nymphs and wet flies from size 8 down to size 14, and 6X for size 16 and smaller nymphs. Here, too, use about 24 inches of tippet.
A streamer in motion also sails pretty well. I hardly ever go heavier than 3X with a streamer. With smaller streamers, I use 4X and even 5X tippets. [Editor’s note: Art is a lover of small streams; for bigger streamers on bigger rivers, man anglers use much heavier tippets.] The lighter the tippet, the better a fly’s action. You do, however, need to produce a fair amount of line speed, which comes not from a mighty heave, but from longer casting strokes that accelerate smoothly.
Pay attention to your knots if you use light tippets with relatively big flies. A clinch or improved clinch may fail if it’s used to attach a heavy-wire hook to a 5X tippet. Any time the thickness of the hook wire exceeds the thickness of the tippet material, use a Trilene knot or nonslip mono loop.
A Basic Leader Kit
Start with a couple of 9-foot leaders, one tapering to 4X or 5X, and the other ending with 2X or 3X. The finer leader will handle most of your dry-fly, wet-fly, and nymph fishing. Use the heavier one for streamers and perhaps for big nymphs. Pick up a 7½-foot, 3X leader for casting big or heavy flies, particularly on breezy days. Get a 12-footer with a 4X or 5X tip for fishing slow, calm water.
Those four will cover most of your trout fishing. Unless you regularly cast immense streamers, you can get by with spare 3X through 6X tippet material.
Knotless leaders taper almost imperceptibly, which can make it tough to know when to add tippet. Try this method. Take your new 9-foot, 4X leader, measure back 24 inches from the tip, and cut it there. Tie on a piece of 4X material with a blood knot or surgeon’s knot. The knot becomes a marker; it lets you see that the tippet is getting short. When you need a new tippet, cut back the 4X material to a length of about 6 inches, and tie the fresh tippet to that. If you want a longer, finer leader, cut the 4X stuff back to about 12 inches, and add 24 inches of 5X. You can treat each of your leaders similarly, tying on a new tippet at home so that you will have a reference mark in the field.
In time, you will acquire a lot more leaders. Maybe you’ll start tying your own, experimenting with lengths, materials, and taper designs. Eventually, you might carry a wallet full of specialized leaders ranging from 7 to 16 feet, with tippets from 1X to 8X. Perhaps you’ll overhaul your leader for each new pool or run, as some fanatics do.
The endless tinkering is part of the fun of fly fishing. And you do need more than one leader. For most of your trout fishing, though, a small, simple assortment of leaders and tippet material will do the job. The main thing is to use a leader well. Perfect your casting first, and then worry about making tiny adjustments in the taper of a 15-foot leader.
Art Scheck is a former editor of American Angler, Fly Tyer, and Saltwater Fly Fishing. He is also the author of Fly Fish Better, A Fishing Life is Hard Work, and Fly Rod Building Made Easy. He lives in South Carolina.