Between the right fly line and the right fly pattern, you need the right leader system for the job. The right leader is more than just a clear piece of monofilament. You need to consider the right length, taper and tippet strength for the task. We've assembled the most common leaders you'll need to efficiently and accurately cast your fly and land your fish.
The water was crystal clear. No matter where you looked, it seemed that there was something moving under the surface. Shadows flitting over the riverbed. Bubbles catching and refracting light. Undulations of moss that mimicked the tailing of a fish. In this aquarium-like lucidity, the slightest surface disturbance took on strong amplification. This was what was known as spooky water.
Tying on the right leader and tippet is just as important as tying on the right fly. The leader is directly responsible for presentation, and it’s the most vulnerable to abrasion and breakage. Choosing the correct leader and tippet section maximizes your chances at a hook-up and minimizes worries about breaking off that once-in-a-lifetime fish.
Construction and Function
The leader is comprised of a thick level butt section, a tapering midsection, and the thin level terminal portion called the tippet. Comprised of nylon copolymers or fluorocarbon, the leader is a durable, relatively clear, and supple attachment to your fly. It is tapered to transfer energy and unfurl (turnover) without a hitch, laying out your fly at the maximum distance. In present day fly fishing, most leaders come pre-tapered in one single machine extruded piece to achieve maximum turnover and to eliminate unecessary knots. The leader’s transparency and flexibility allows the fly to behave as if it were attached to nothing at all, creating a natural action in the water.
Break Strength and Diameter
Leaders are primarily classified by tippet diameter, break strength, and length. 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. Following manufacturer’s recommendations as to what leader to use for what fish makes the process of choosing a leader simple: if you’re headed after stripers, look for a Striped Bass leader that will fit your needs. Or if it’s bonefishing on Christmas Island, leaders designed for the sizes and behavior of your quarry will guarantee you have the right strength and diameter for the flies you’re fishing.
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 (.005 inches dia.) leader will handle about 4 pounds of pressure before breaking, whereas a 2X (.009 in. dia.) leader’s break strength is over 9 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.)
Generally speaking, the longer the leader, the smaller flies and the more delicate the presentation. If you are fishing size 22 tricos to Montana brown trout, you’re going to want a leader that presents your fly with the least amount of drag at the maximum controllable distance. Look into a leader like Scientific Angler’s Trout in the nine foot length, tapered to 6x or 7x, tied with several feet of 6x or 7x tippet. However, if you’re slinging big flies to larger prey, choose a shorter leader with a high break strength, such as an 8 foot Scientific Angler’s Striped Bass Leader with 10 pound test.
Fluorocarbon versus Nylon
Modern nylon leaders are much stronger and more supple than in the past, thanks to a blending of copolymers. Since nylon has a similar density as water, it floats when treated and is, therefore, the choice for all dry fly fishing. The recent innovation of fluorocarbon leader has led to a greater precision in the sub-surface presentations of nymphs, streamers, steelhead and saltwater flies. Fluorocarbon is much heavier than
nylon and sinks at a faster rate. It has nearly the same refraction index as water, reducing its visibility and increasing the chance that a fish will take your fly. Fluorocarbon does not absorb as much water as nylon, retaining its dry break strength throughout the fishing day. Also, fluorocarbon offers greater abrasion resistance and higher structural stability against ultra-violet radiation than nylon, resulting in greater durability. Although nylon is still the best value when looking for a leader, fluorocarbon offers superior fishing capabilities beneath the water’s surface.
The rays of the dipping sun reflect off creamy brown fins. You’re at just the right angle to see the fish work, the white of their mouths opening and closing. As you cast, the leader catches the failing light like a gossamer thread. Your fly alights upon the water, seamlessly integrated among the naturals. This may be the perfect drift.