Swedish version

Leaders Get No Respect

Fly-fishing has become major business for tackle manufacturers. Fly rod models change more often than automobiles. Reel makers spring up like mushrooms. Breathable waders are so popular that there are new brands of breathable materials seemingly born every day. Fly lines are marked with lasers and have coating that are limp, or stiff, or heat resistant, etc. Not to mention fly-fishing vests with suspenders, load bearing yokes, and designer linings. All of these products, and hundreds more, are marketed with all of the publicity of a Hollywood movie extravaganza by a used car salesman.

However, to catch fish you must still present the fly properly. To do that you need a leader to turn over the fly. Leaders are critical to fly fishermen and fly-fishing. Leaders are also the least understood piece of fly fishing equipment.

A leader is used to "turn over" and present the fly to the fish. As such, it is the most vital link between the fly and the fisherman. Therefore, understanding leaders is of great importance to every fly fisherman.

Today leaders are generally of two types. The newer type is the braided leader. This type of leader consists of a length of tapered braided polymeric strands with a monofilament polymeric tippet section attached to the finer end of the braided section. The braided leader can be either a floating or a sinking version. The other common type of leader consists of a polymeric monofilament strand, which is tapered to a fine tippet section. These leaders can be of either a knotless or a knotted construction. In addition, the monofilament leader can be either a floating or a sinking version. Further, the monofilament can consist of various compositions and combinations of two or more polymeric compositions.

Interestingly, manufacturers do not disclose to the fisherman the compositions and taper formulae beyond vague generalities. Thus, the fly fisherman has no way to find a proper leader for his purpose except through trial and error.

In the U. S., most fly fishermen pick a leader by brand loyalty. They really have nothing else to go on. The particular leader is chosen by the tippet diameter based on the old gut leader "X" system. This system allows the fly fisherman to determine the nominal diameter, in inches, of the tippet portion of a leader. Or does it? Actually, today, it does not. Most, if not all, monofilament extruded into leaders today is done in Japan or Europe. Both areas use only metric measurement in these industrial processes. So leaders are made in millimeters. The makers then convert and "round off" these metric diameters to diameter in inches. There is no standard for this translating. Also most makers oversize their material so it has greater breaking strength for a given nominal diameter. Thus, a 5X (0.006 inch dia.) tippet could be anywhere from 7X (0.004 inch dia.) to 3X (0.008 inch dia.). Most often, this difference is on the heavy side. On the other end of the leader, you have the same problem, if the butt diameter is even given. In addition, to complete the mystery, the taper specifications are not disclosed either. Thus, the fly fisherman really has no idea of the actual specifications of the leader he is buying.

How do we overcome these problems? There are two methods. The first is trial and error testing of different leaders until one is found that works properly. The second is to build your own leaders to the specifications necessary to make the leader work properly.

The operative phrase is "works properly". No one leader can possibly work properly for all conditions. Limiting ourselves to trout fishing still means that we will need several different types of leaders. For dry fly fishing, we need a leader that turns over the fly but lands with a number of S curves. This is necessary to allow the fly to float drag free while the current straightens out the leader. For nymph fishing we need a leader that straightens out at the end of the cast so that we can feel the fish taking the nymph. At the same time, the nymph leader must be fine enough to allow the fly to sink to the bottom of the stream. For fishing streamers, we need a short stout leader to turn over the larger heavier flies and protect against breakage due to generally savage strikes by larger fish.

For those fly fishermen using pre-made leaders there are several guidelines you can follow to get a leader that will work for each kind of fishing situation. Leaders are generally marked with some type of descriptive label that can assist you in picking the proper leader. Leaders that are labeled as Trout Leaders generally have a butt section diameter suitable for fly lines in the 2 wt. to 5 wt. range of fly lines. They are also generally made for dry fly fishing in that they do not straighten out completely under normal casting conditions. Instead, they land with a number of S curves to allow for a period of drag free float for the fly. Some makers also produce leaders labeled as Nymph Leaders. Generally, these leaders are made of a stiffer polymeric composition or have longer butt and/or midsections or both. This allows the leader to straighten out completely under normal casting conditions. This in turn puts the fly fisherman in direct contact with his sunken fly. I have not seen any leaders labeled as streamer leaders, but there may be such a product out there. Where such descriptions are not available, the fly fisherman can still obtain the proper leader by understanding what he is trying to achieve. As we have seen, if the leader is labeled only as a Trout Leader it is almost certainly a dry fly leader. For leaders for nymphing and wet fly fishing, you have several options. You can purchase a dry fly leader that is several feet longer than you wish to fish and cut it back that several feet from the tippet end. This removes the fine section and gets you back into the midsection that is heavier. Another option is to purchase a Bass Leader. This leader is generally has longer, and heavier butt and midsections and a shorter tippet section than the comparable Trout Leader. For streamer fishing you can cut the Bass Leader back into the midsection and get the short stout leader you require. Finally, you can purchase a brand of leader that uses stiffer monofilament for use in nymphing and streamer fishing. Brands such as Maxima are stiffer than comparable leaders of Orvis or Umpqua for example.

Now we will explore making your own knotted monofilament leaders. Before jumping in however, we need to have some basic background information. In order to tie leaders we must know how to properly tie two knots. The first is either the perfection loop or the surgeons loop, and the second is the blood knot. Diagrams of each of these knots can be found in any book on fishing knots.

Additionally, you need to remember to wet every knot before pulling it up tight. Once wetted the knot must be pulled tight with a smooth even continuous tension and never by jerking the monofilament. Further, in the case of the blood knot when joining two pieces of monofilament having more that 3X or 4X difference in diameter you get a far stronger knot when you double the smaller diameter monofilament to tie the knot or use the Gary Borger 5/7 Blood Knot. This also makes it much easier to draw the knot tight.

The perfection loop is tied without the aid of any tools. The blood knot may be tied either solely by hand or with the aid of a blood knot tool. There are a number of blood knot tying tools commercially available. All will assist you in producing good strong knots once you take the time to learn how to use them correctly. I have a favorite blood knot tool. It is the Moodus Sport Tool Products blood knot tool. I prefer this tool because it is easy to learn to use, ties perfect blood knots every time, and can be modified easily to fit in a fly tying vise so you have both hands free for knot tying. The only modification needed to use this tool in a fly tying vise is to file the tongue at the back of the tool so it is thin enough to fit in your fly tying vise jaws.

Dry Fly Leaders

Until recently most dry fly leaders were constructed using the George Harvey style or formula. George Harvey developed this style of leader in the 1940’s and they still work well today. This style of leader construction does not allow the leader to straighten out completely when cast. Instead the leader lands on the water with a series of S curves. That is, it partially collapses at the end of the cast. This is the critical thing necessary to allow for the dry fly to have a drag free float. The fly is floating naturally, without drag induced by the conflicting currents between the fly and the angler, during the time it takes for the S curves to be straightened out. This was a major step forward for dry fly fishing. However, to create such leaders you must use numerous short pieces of monofilament of differing diameters. This in turn requires a multitude of blood knots in each leader. A few George Harvey style leader formulae are given below to illustrate. They are good leaders for dry fly fishing and worth the time to tie and take fishing.

George Harvey Style Dry Fly Leaders

For size 20 and smaller flies:

10 Foot Leader:

Butt: 48" of 0.019-inch
Mid-section: 18" of 0.015-inch
12" of 0.013-inch
6" of 0.011-inch
6" of 0.009-inch
6" of 0.007-inch
Tippet: 24" of 0.005-inch

12 Foot Leader:

Butt: 54" of 0.021-inch
24" of 0.017-inch
Mid-section: 12" of 0.013-inch
10" of 0.011-inch
8" of 0.009-inch
6" of 0.007-inch
Tippet: 6" of 0.005-inch
24" of 0.004-inch

A new way of looking at dry fly leader design came from the fertile mind of Gary Borger and was published in his fly fishing system approach book Presentation in 1995. What Gary Borger found was that he could achieve the required S curves in a dry fly leader during casting without having to tie so many individual pieces of monofilament together. As a consequence there were far fewer blood knots to tie. As you see from the Gary Borger leader formulae below the leaders consist of a butt section, one or two midsections, and a tippet section. Thus, you are only required to tie two or three blood knots for each leader. These leaders work equally as well as the George Harvey style, but with a lot less blood letting by the person tying the blood knots.

Gary Borger Style Dry Fly Leaders

Size 10 through 14 flies:

Butt: 48" of 0.013-inch
Mid-section: 12" of 0.010-inch
Tippet: 48" of 0.007-inch (4X)

Size 20 and smaller:

Butt: 12" of 0.013-inch
Mid-section: 48" of 0.010-inch
48" of 0.007-inch
Tippet: 12" of 0.004 or 0.005-inch

The basis for the Gary Borger dry fly leader is the fact that it is not necessary to have no more than a 0.002-inch diameter difference between pieces of leader material in order to have the leader turn over. In deed, what Gary found was that the cross-sectional area of the leader can be reduced by 60 percent and the leader will not hinge, but will turn the leader over properly. Gary points out that a 60 percent reduction in cross-section area is the same as a 35 percent reduction in diameter.

"So, instead of instead of stepping a leader down from 0.020, to 0.018, to 0.016, to 0.014, to 0.012, to 0.010 inch, the fly fisher can step down from 0.020 to 0.013 to 0.008. (Multiply the size of the material by 0.65 (65%) to get the next smaller size that you can use; for example, 0.020 x 0.65 = 0.013)." (Presentation, p. 181).

When you use this 60 percent reduction method you must modify the way you tie the blood knot. Gary Borger explains, "But if there’s more than 0.002 inch difference between the two pieces of material being joined, then the Blood Knot tends to slip." (Presentation, p. 187). The answer is Gary’s 5/7 Blood Knot. "Instead of making 5 turns with each end of the material, the angler ties the knot using 5 turns with the heavy material and 7 turns with the light material. … The extra turns with the lighter material produces a knot that pulls up evenly; each side slides tight at the same rate and the knot forms perfectly. It’s the same length from the center to either end of the knot." (Presentation, p. 188).

In both styles of construction, the tippet needs to be made using a very soft, or limp, monofilament material. This will allow the leader to produce the S curves that you are trying to produce when casting a dry fly.

Give both of these dry fly leader construction styles a go. Tie a few of each and fish them each a bit. See what works best for your style of casting and fishing and then stick with that formula. Remember however, that when the fishing conditions change, or the size of the flies changes, you need to think about the leader required to turn over that fly under those conditions, and still achieve a drag free float.

Now we turn to leaders that are designed for nymph and wet fly fishing.

In dry fly fishing, we need the leader to collapse over some portion of the tippet end to provide the slack necessary to allow some period of drag free float of the fly. In nymph fishing, on the other hand, we need the leader to tell us were to look for our fly. Why is this so? Because the fly is under water and not visible to us in most instances. We must instead concentrate on where the fly is underwater and watch it with our mind’s eye. If the leader partially collapses into coils of slack we cannot determine where the fly, which is out of sight, is in the stream. Ideally, we want the leader to extend in a straight line directly out from the end of the fly line. Then we are able to concentrate on watching the correct area in the stream to detect the strike of a fish. In many forms of nymph fishing the use of a strike indicator of some type can be helpful. Nevertheless, do not be lulled into thinking that watching the strike indicator will make you a good nymph fisherman. It will not. I can personally attest to the fact that bass and walleye, for example, can, and do, suck in a lure and expel it without ever causing a strike indicator to move. While I have not fished under conditions where I could watch the trout, I do not doubt they too do take far more lures than we ever realize. Nymph fishing means spending long periods concentrating on our unseen fly interspersed with short periods of adrenaline rushes when we raise our rod and a fish is on. The intense concentration on where our sunken fly is tells us when to raise our rod to receive the adrenaline rush! If your attention span is no longer than the 20-second sound bites on the evening news you will never be very successful nymphing, no matter how many strike indicators you use.

How do we construct a leader that will allow the best presentation of a sunken fly while providing us with the best detection ability? First, we use a relatively stiff material throughout the leader. This means that the tippet is stiff enough so that it will not collapse when casting a nymph. Instead it will turn over the nymph and push it straight out from the fly line. It becomes an extension of the fly line all the way out to the fly itself. One of the best leader materials to accomplish this is Maxima chameleon brand monofilament. This particular material has the correct stiffness even in the 7X size for nymph leaders. Additionally, it is very abrasion-resistant and has great knot strength.

Leader formulae for nymph leaders are somewhat more simplistic than comparable dry fly leader formulae. The following nymphing leader recipes will give you a good starting point as well as several very good nymphing leaders. Both recipes are from Gary Borger. Four feet of 0.020" dia., one foot of 0.013" dia., four feet of 2X, and 6" to 8" of 5X monofilament. This is a good leader when we use lead to get the fly down deep quickly. Attach the lead just about the knot between the 2X and 5X material. When not using lead or for use with streamers try four feet of 0.020" dia., 1 foot of 0.013" dia., two feet of 2X, and one foot of 5X. This leader will turn over the fly straightened out and ready to fish as soon as the fly hits the water. All material used for these leaders is Maxima Chameleon brand monofilament.

© 1999  Bruce E. Harang

Back to equipment page


To get the best experience of the Magazine it is important that you have the right settings
Here are my recommended settings
Please respect the copyright regulations and do not copy any materials from this or any other of the pages in the Rackelhanen Flyfishing Magazine.

© Mats Sjöstrand 2002

If you have any comments or questions about the Magazine, feel free to contact me.

Mats Sjöstrand, Sweden

Please excuse me if you find misspelled words or any other grammatical errors.
I will be grateful if you contact
me about the errors you find.