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Choosing Fly-Fishing Leaders and Tippets
written by Wayne E. Snyder

There are many things in the world of fly-fishing that aren't completely obvious, and leaders are one of them. This article will provide you with the basics for purchasing the right leader for the kind of fish you want to pursue.
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Fly-Fishing Leaders
Consider length, strength and material when choosing a leader. These variables are determined by water conditions and the species pursued.

Leaders seem to foster a little confusion among beginning and even a few more advanced fly fishers. Anyone who's ever worked in a fly shop eventually encounters the question, "Ok, how do you tie these tiny flies to that big, fat fly line?"
    
"Well," you say "you need a leader."
    
"What's a leader?"
    
When you think it over it's a very good question, and you have to give the questioner a little credit. In the world of fly-fishing, there are a thousand things that aren't straight up obvious, and leaders happen to be one of them.
    
What is a Leader?
    
The simple answer: A fly leader is a part of the terminal tackle system that provides a nearly invisible transition from the fly line to the tippet. While we're into definitions, let's also say that the tippet is the part of the leader to which the fly is tied and is the last 24 or so inches of the leader. Tapered leaders are usually made of monofilament or fluorocarbon, and they are available in many different lengths, strengths and taper designs.
    
What Does a Leader Do?
    
The primary function of a leader is to separate the fly from the fly line. Fly lines, being somewhat thick and heavy, tend to hit the water hard creating a disturbance that can spook fish. The leader provides that separation. The leader must also deceive the fish by being nearly invisible, thus the necessity of transparent materials like monofilament and fluorocarbon.

The leader also performs a role in the casting process. A leader of proper taper design will "turn-over" efficiently. By "turn-over" we mean that as the fly line rolls out on the forward cast and the loop straightens, the leader will continue on, roll out and straighten, dropping the fly on the water. Ultimately the fly should land on the water with the last of the cast's energy, well away from the fly line, and should appear completely unattached to anything.
    
Leader Lengths

The most common leaders are 7-1/2 to 9-feet long but can be anywhere from 3- to 20-feet long depending on the kind of fish you're after and/or certain water conditions. The chart below will give you an idea of the more common leader lengths and the conditions they are best suited for.

 

Leader Length

Best Suited For...

6 foot Sinking lines of all types, panfish, bass and trout in tiny, brushy streams.
7-1/2 foot Trout in streams from 10-20 feet wide, intermediate and sinking tip lines in lakes and saltwater conditions where the fish are not terribly spooky. Also streamer fishing for trout with big flies or with heavy nymphs and big indicators.
9 foot Trout streams larger than 20 feet wide where the water is mostly riffled, or else the fish are not spooky. In salt water, fish in shallow water under bright, clear conditions.
12 foot Trout in most lakes with floating lines. Trout in streams with flies smaller than size 16 when the water is flat, low or very clear.
15 foot Spooky trout in extremely clear water in both lakes and rivers.

 

Leader Strength

When we talk about leader strength we are talking about the strength of the tippet. The tippet is the weak link in the backing>fly line>leader chain, and so it is given the most attention. Tippet strength is stated in two ways: 1) in the pound test or 2) by assigning an "X" size to specific tippet diameters. Using the chart below you can determine that a nine-foot leader with a tippet diameter of .008-inch is called a "9 Foot 3X Leader" and is labeled as such on the leader package. This system of labeling is the same regardless of the leader manufacturer.

Tippet Size

Tippet Diameter 

Pound Test

Fish Size

03X

.015"

25 lb.

Big Game Species

02X

.013"

20 lb.

Large Salmon

01X

.012"

18.5 lb.

Striped Bass

0X

.011"

15.5 lb.

Salmon, Steelhead

1X

.010"

13.5 lb.

Bonefish, Redfish, Permit

2X

.009"

11.5 lb.

Large & Smallmouth Bass

3X

.008"

8.5 lb.

Large Trout & Panfish

4X

.007"

6 lb.

Small Trout & Panfish

5X

.006"

4.75 lb.

6X

.005"

3.5 lb.

Small Trout Using Very Small Flies

7X

.004"

2.5 lb.

8X

.003"

1.75 lb.

 

 

What Leader Strength Should I Use?

The strength of the tippet you should use can be determined by the size-class of the fish you think you're most likely to catch. Use the chart above as a general guide.

Leader Taper Designs

Tapered leaders decrease in diameter from the heavy butt section (the part that attaches to the fly line), a mid-section and, finally, the tippet. Without getting too technical, let's just say there are quite a few different leader taper design formulas out there, but these special formulas are used mostly by those that design and build their own leaders. However, over-the-counter, packaged leaders are typically manufactured to a taper formula which consists of about 60 percent level butt section, a 20 percent tapered mid-section and a 20 percent level tippet. For most general-purpose leaders this formula will "turn-over" the most efficiently.

"Species Specific" Leaders

To make leader selection even easier a few manufacturers have now developed "Species Specific" leaders. In other words if you want to go bass fishing you buy a "Bass" leader; trout fishing a "Trout" leader; tarpon fishing ... you got it, a "Tarpon" leader. There is some wisdom to all this and these leaders were designed by consulting fly-fishing experts of particular fish species to determine the best features of the leaders they use; those features being length, strength, taper design, stiffness of the leader material and the tippet material.

How Long Should a Leader Last?

A tapered leader should last one or two outings without being damaged too badly. One way a leader can be damaged is by snapping off flies caught in trees or snagging on underwater debris. When this happens the fly is usually lost but so may be a good part of the tippet. A large fish's teeth can severely weaken a tippet, causing you to cut two or three inches off. If nothing else, the most common way is by the repeated process of tying on flies and cutting them off. Every time you change flies you'll lose an inch or two of tippet in the process. Consequently, a leader can be simply replaced whole, or you can repair it with tippet material.

Tippet Material

Tippet material is sold on small spools and is labeled with the same "X" size and pound test ratings as leaders. After you have lost about two feet of, say 4X-leader tippet, you can tie on another two-foot section of 4X-tippet material to restore the leader's original length. A simple knot to use is the Surgeons Knot. We do this to save a little money. It is much less expensive to fix a leader than to replace the whole thing.

A leader can be repaired up to four times before it has to be completely replaced. Repairing a leader will also restore its casting performance. But one of the best reasons to buy tippet material is because it is soooo cool to have those tippet spools hanging from your vest or lanyard. It's one of the signs of a true seasoned fly-fisher.

Fluorocarbon

While I mentioned above that tapered leaders are usually made of nylon monofilament, leaders are also made of another material called fluorocarbon (polyvinylidene fluouride). Fluorocarbon has its advantages and disadvantages. One advantage is that it is less visible than nylon in water, so it is used when fish are known to be "leader shy." Another is that fluorocarbon is significantly more abrasion resistant that nylon. For those that fish for steelhead or salmon and drag weighted flies across boulders and other stream-bottom debris, this is an obvious plus. Also, being a somewhat more dense material than nylon it will sink a bit faster. The biggest disadvantage is the relative cost when compared to nylon monofilament. Fluorocarbon leaders and tippet material can cost up to 4 times as much as monofilament.

Although it may seem a bit expensive for a little coil of fishing line, there is a lot of thought and design work put into a leader. In nearly every kind of fly-fishing, a leader of proper design and quality is of great importance; arguably, more important than the fly. Fortunately, quality leaders are readily available and, unless you build your own leaders, all of the design work has been done for you.

Finally, your customer gets around to another very good question: "Ok, now what fly do I tie on to my tippet to catch a 20-inch rainbow?"

Like I said, you have to give them a little credit.

Tips to Remember When Purchasing Leaders & Tippet

* It is recommended that you use tippet material made by the same manufacturer as your leaders. The knots seem to seat better when the material is the same, resulting in a stronger connection.

* Leaders and tippet material should be fresh. Nylon does get more brittle with exposure to sun, heat and oxygen. It's hard to do but you should toss out any that is over two years old. If you've ever lost a good fish to an old, possibly brittle, leader, you'll know why.

* Almost all tapered leaders are packaged in coils and tend to stay a little curled after they're removed from the envelope. You can straighten most of the curls out of nylon leaders by slowly pulling and stretching the leader through a leather leader straightener.

* Leaders can be purchased either with or without loops at the butt section. Leaders without loops cost somewhat less than those that do. It is easy to tie your own with a Surgeons Loop.

Wayne Snyder is a Fly Fishing Team Leader at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

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