Published Apr 25. 2007 - 9 years ago
Updated or edited May 23. 2016

Fly fishing leader construction

The leader is an essential part of the fly fishing setup. This article tells you a bit about designing leaders

The Leader Concept

I'll give you the bottom line now: No matter how experienced you are in fly fishing, don't neglect the leader! It pays to know as much as you can about how your leader affects your cast and the presentation and drift of your fly. Just knowing the basics will give you more confidence in your ability to put the fly in front of the fish's nose. During a day of tough conditions in fly fishing, your choice of leader style can spell the difference between success and failure.
Tapered leaders, when designed properly, will present a fly in a stealthy, life-like manner to your quarry.
Proper selection of leaders for your fishing environment is the single-most important element in fooling fish to the take.

Leaders serve several purposes:

  • Providing a nearly invisible connection between you and your offering
  • Aiding in the proper presentation of the fly
  • Allowing the fly to respond in a lifelike manner
  • Transferring and dissipating the energy of the cast towards the fly

The fly line is designed to efficiently transmit and maintain the energy from the cast. In contrast, the leader is designed to absorb, disperse and transmit a smooth, but decreasing flow of energy to the fly.

Types of Tapered Leaders & Their Characteristics

There are literally thousands of leader designs. They can be roughly categorized in the following manner:

  • Dry
  • Stillwater or spring creek leaders. Long, limp, wispy, thin
  • Nymph
  • Streamer - straightens very rapidly and offers immediate control of the fly. A short, large diameter design made with tough, stiff materials is the ticket.
  • Bass/Panfish – relatively short and stiff
  • Pike/Muskie - made for toothy fishes
  • Steelhead/Salmon - durability and strength are key
  • Saltwater – Stiff, strong and abrasion resistant, transparency is less of an issue.

The length of the leader, the tippet size and the taper all play a vital role in the success of the leader "turning over" or delivering the fly to the target. Since a leader that optimally turns over a fly is the ideal goal, we can decipher that the taper is the single most critical element of the leader. But, like any puzzle, there are several solutions to an acceptable end result. To complicate the puzzle, there are many intangibles to consider when designing/tying a hand-made leader. Consider:

  • Your casting speed and style
  • The rod's action (fast, medium, slow)
  • Length of required cast
  • Wind conditions
  • Water surface currents for dry fly and nymph fishing
  • Sub-surface water currents for nymphing
  • Water clarity
  • Water depth
  • Water temperature (affects the "stiffness" and pliability of the leader material)
  • Underwater structure that may nick and abrade the leader material
  • The quarry you are after (size, "toothyness",
    fighting style, etc.)
  • The characteristics of the leader material (stiffness, suppleness, color, abrasive-resistance, etc.)

Given the many variables listed above and the countless variables in leader taper design, you can easily see where one could actually tie a leader for each specific pocket, run, riffle and pool in every stream you fish. Example: If I started upstream of a classic riffle/run/pocket/pool stream scenario where I wanted to fish dries, nymphs and streamers, I could theoretically be forced to use a minimum of 12 different leader combinations to fish that one stretch (4 streams sections, 3 ways to fish them each). But if I did that, I would spend more time tying on leaders and flies than actually casting to fish. Thus, the challenge to you is: it is your decision to find the optimum leader for your fishing conditions and styles. Is it possible to design a combination leader that serves many functions? Sure!

Table 1
Recommended Leader Butt Diameters

Line Weight (mm's)
Butt Diameter
(inches)
Butt Diameter
3 .45-.50 .017"-.020"
4 .45-.55 .019"-.021"
5 .50-.55 .020"-.022"
6 .55-.60 .021"-.023"
7 .60-.65 .022"-.024"
8 .60-.65 .023"-.026"
9 .60-.70 .024"-.027"
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