FF foundations - Leaders

by Steve May - April 16, 2019

I am really surprised when most fly anglers ask about gearing up for a fishing trip. They will ask about flies, rods and where to put their flies to get them in front of fish, but I rarely hear questions about leaders. Leaders are the forgotten connection between you and the fish.

They are more important than most people think. Understanding leaders will help you catch more fish. Parts of the leader are the butt, or base of the leader, the mid section and the tippet.

The leader butt helps to transfer the energy from your tapered fly line through the leader to your fly. It helps things turn over and get the fly away from the thick fly line. The bigger the fly the beefier the butt you need to handle it.

The taper of the leader is where the thick butt shrinks to the thinner line you tie your fly to. The taper can be a series of knots connecting progressively thinner monofilament or a tapered knotless type. The taper transfers the energy of your cast to the tippet which is where you attach your fly.

Fly leader and tippet material uses a different system to size line than the more common “pound test” system used by spin anglers. With spinning lines varying diameters can be labelled as the same “pound test”. The actual diameter of the line is more important for fly leaders.

The “X” system used by fly fishers helps pick match tippet to the flies being cast. The bigger the “X” number is the lighter the line and smaller the fly it works well with. “0X” or “1X” is great for beefy #2 or #4 flies that imitate minnows or leeches, 5X material matches many common trout nymphs and dries and “7X” is for anglers using tiny flies that require reading glasses to tie on. Having a few spools of different diameters of tippet material can help you adapt to the flies and conditions you find on-stream with a single leader. With a simple knot like the surgeon’s knot you can adjust your leader as needed.

There is a time and a place for long and short leaders. A rule of thumb, start with a leader that is close to the length of your rod. If the fish are tougher to catch I usually go lighter and longer by knotting more tippet material to the end of the leader. Long leaders help because they keep the thick fly line away from the fish and the fly acts more natural on the tippet. If I am throwing bulky flies or the fish are not leader shy, shorter and heavier is fine.

With a sinking line a leader around three feet keeps the fly down with the line. A longer leader allows the fly to ride up above the sinking line and bottom-hugging fish. If the water is ultra clear I go slightly longer and add a split shot near the fly.

Next time you are getting ready for a trip or are having trouble hooking up take a second though about that leader that connects you and your fly line to the fish. Knowing more about the vital connection between you and the fish can help you become a better angler.

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