What is a Fly Fishing Leader?
In fly fishing, a leader is a length of thin, transparent line that is attached to the front end of the fly line and then to the fly, forming an important component of a fly angler’s terminal tackle. Leaders, whether hand-tied by an angler or pre-packaged and sold at a fly shop, are generally tapered, consisting of a thick level butt section, a tapering midsection, and a thing level terminal portion called the tippet.
Leaders perform two basic functions. First, their taper allows energy to travel seamlessly from the weighted fly line to the terminal tackle, preserving the power created by the casting stroke and delivering the relatively weightless fly to the target as efficiently as possible. A well-balanced leader is responsible for that sweet unfurling action at the end of a perfect cast.
The leader’s second function is to create a length of lighter, transparent line between the heavier, opaque fly line and the fly lure itself. This section of “hidden line” will help minimize the impact of a weighted fly line on the water’s surface near the target and will help mask the conspicuous presence of a colored fly line in the fish’s feeding lane.
An effective leader must be strong and flexible to perform its basic functions and accordingly, there are a variety of durable and supple synthetic materials employed in fly leader construction. The two most common leader types are fluorocarbon leaders and nylon leaders.
Fluorocarbon leaders are designed primarily to fish heavier subsurface flies such as nymphs, streamers, and wet flies. The special polymer used to construct a fluorocarbon leader is heavier than the material employed in nylon leaders, resulting in a faster sink rate. Fluorocarbon also boasts almost the same refraction index as water, thereby reducing its visibility while increasing your chances of fooling a fish with a subsurface offering. Leaders made of fluorocarbon also retain their dry break strength throughout the day, making them less prone to breakage and more abrasion resistant, a must when fishing heavy flies deep in the water column. However, fluorocarbon does not degrade like nylon, so use it sparingly…Mother Earth will thank you.
Nylon leaders are considerably less expensive than fluorocarbon leaders and are much more supple than their heavier counterparts, making them an excellent choice for classic trout fishing. Delicate presentations and high flotation are almost guaranteed by today’s modernized and improved nylon leaders. Blended of a special mix of copolymers, the nylon leaders available today are of nearly the same density as water, making them excellent for surface fishing with dry flies in your favorite stream.
Braided leaders are also widely available to the modern fly angler. A braided leader is constructed using a braiding system that steadily “drops out” strands of the nylon or fluorocarbon as the leader progresses from the butt section to the terminal tippet. These leaders are quite supple even in large tippet diameters and are quite popular among die hard dry fly purists who regularly deal with easily spooked fish and challenging currents in their angling pursuits. Note: These leaders can be confusing and hard to find for purchase. It’s just fine to fish nylon.
Leaders are classified by three measures: tippet diameter, break strength, and length. Tippet diameter is the diameter of the leader material at the thinnest point in its taper, the termination point of the tippet section. Break strength is rated in a standard and familiar “pound test” notation, and length covers the length of the leader itself as measured from the thick level butt section to the terminal end of the tippet.
A freshwater leader is usually classified by the diameter of it’s tippet using the X numbering system: the higher the X number, the lighter the tippet. For example, a 6X (.004 inches dia.) leader will handle 3 pounds of pressure before breaking, whereas a 2X (.009 in. dia.) leader’s break strength is 8 pounds.
Some saltwater leaders also use the X system, but since they can be quite thicker and stronger for larger fish, they can alternatively be rated by tippet diameter described in thousandths of inches (example .015) or by breaking strength categories established by the International Game Fish Association (example IGFA 10 KG -22 lbs.)
As a general rule, bigger wind resistant and weighted flies are more difficult to cast and require a thicker, heavier leader to turn them over. The bigger the game fish you fight, the higher the poundage break strength is required for successfully landing the fish.
When it comes to fly fishing for trout, you’ll commonly hear that a nine foot, five X tapered leader is a good all around choice. However, we’ve found that a longer tapered leader not only aids in casting, as the longer leader helps stabilize your loop of fly line, it also separates your fly further from your fly line. This makes it easier to catch trout in clear water. Our favorite is the proven Leland 12’4x Leader.
Now that we know what a leader is, let’s learn three simple knots that will work for the rest of your fly fishing life.