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Leader Basics

By Jason Borger - February 24th, 2003

One of the most under-appreciated, yet vitally important, pieces of fly fishing equipment is the leader. It is the connection between fly line and fly, and depending on design, can help or hinder a fly fisher greatly. There are a number of materials and methods from which leaders can be constructed, but simple monofilament is still a very viable material and it allows for broad design latitude. If you know the Surgeon's Knot you can build any of the leaders discussed below.

Construction and Factors

  • A monofilament leader is typically divided into three sections: (1) the "butt," the large-diameter portion that attaches to the fly line; (2) the "taper," the transition section from the large-diameter butt to the thinner-diameter "tippet;" (3) the tippet, the final segment to which the fly is attached. Butt section plus tapered section together form the "leader body." There are also "compound tippets." A compound tippet is made of two or more segments of tippet material, the last section(s) typically being shorter than the first.
  • There are three basic factors that underlie monofilament leader design: length, diameter and stiffness (or suppleness) of material. Each has dependencies on the others in terms of total leader performance, and each needs to be considered when buying or tying monofilament leaders that perform as you want them to. If you want maximum control over the fly, think shorter and thicker overall. If you want maximum potential drag reduction for the fly, think longer and thinner overall. A general guideline for monofilament leaders in to start with a butt section that approximates the stiffness of the tip of the fly line and build from there.
Building Leaders
  • When fishing a tiny dry fly or emerger that needs to be dead-drifted on the surface (i.e. floated drag-free), a leader that provides extra slack when cast and has minimal interference with the fly's drift is necessary. Such a leader would need to be long and thin overall, particularly in the taper and tippet. A design might look like this: 4 feet of .020", 3 feet of .013", 2 feet of .010" (1X), 2 feet of .007" (4X) and 2 feet of .005" (6X). The leader falls in "S"-curves, helping to fight drag from the moment it touches down (use a Puddle or Wiggle-style Cast to compliment this leader design).
  • When it comes time to fish a larger nymph down on the bottom, a different type of leader is needed. The leader has to be long enough to get down efficiently, yet be made with a relatively thick butt section and abrasion-resistant tippet materials. It might look like this: 4 feet of .022", 1 foot of .015", 4 feet of .010" (1X), 6-8 inches of .007" (4X). Weight would go above the 1X/4X juncture, allowing the 1X to take the abuse of weight and the bottom, while allowing the fly to move on the 4X (use a Tuck Cast to compliment this leader design).
  • Casting and rapidly retrieving big, juicy streamers requires a leader that straightens very rapidly and offers immediate control of the fly. A short, large diameter design made with tough materials is the ticket. Something like this: 3 feet of .024," 2 feet of .015", 1 foot of .010" (1X), and maybe 6-8 inches of .009" (2X) or .008" (3X). Use a well-aimed Oval-style Cast to compliment this leader and to help keep the heavy fly away from your head.

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