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Hyper-Compleat Principles of Leader Design
The most comprehensive tool for calculating classical and contemporary leaders - and designing your own formulas for knotted leaders
By Steve Schweitzer
IntroductionHand tied leader formulas offer the angler an unlimited portfolio of leader options. There have been literally thousands of hand-tied leader formulas developed and published over the years, all of which are based upon the fundamental 3-part principle of butt/taper/tippet. Hand tied leaders cost pennies per inch when compared to commercially machine-tapered leaders, which is a big incentive in itself for tying your own. Hand-tied leaders also offer you the flexibility of designing tapers that best fit your own personal needs, thus not limiting you to the tapers of commercially available leaders. It’s also easier to modify a hand-tied leader on stream to meet your exact requirements by adding or removing some tippet material. But the biggest advantage to tying your own leaders is the "success factor". There’s no feeling greater than knowing you had 100% complete control in presenting the business end of the fly line to a fish. Think back to the first fish you caught with a fly you tied. Amazing isn’t it?! It is my hope that you find LeaderCalc and this accompanying Guide useful and together they help you tie leaders that work best for you.
When I started out tying my own leaders, it was purely out of interest in the "how-to" and not the "need-to." I wasn't interested in saving money by tying my own and I wasn't ready to invest the time to learn another facet of this increasingly complex sport called fly fishing. Plainly speaking, I just was curious. But, as my interest grew, my frustration began.
I practiced plenty of patience searching for bits and pieces from books, magazines, friends and internet resources. So, as I found them, I realized that comprehensive resources on tying leaders were few and far between. There are lots and lots of general articles, but none that had all the information I needed to really understand leader design and mechanics. I began to collect them and over a two-year period, I amassed a collection of tips, guidelines and formula variations not worthy to keep to myself. In essence, it is my hope that this document and the accompanying leader calculation tool, LeaderCalc , will help you to understand the method behind the madness of tying your own leaders. At the same time LeaderCalc will help you easily sort through the seemingly infinite leader formulas to find the specific leaders that will work in the fishing situations you encounter most often.
This document focuses on the basic techniques and tidbits associated with non-braided, tapered, mono-filament leaders for freshwater and basic saltwater applications. The LeaderCalc tool does not presently include: big-game leaders, or specialty leaders for toothy saltwater critters. Nor does it include shooting, running, double-taper or straight-line mono leaders.
A FEW FAQ's...
What is GFF's Leader Guide?GFF's Leader Guide is a PDF booklet designed to be used for classroom or personal use. Since 1997 when LeaderCalc got its' start on the web, we have had countless requests to use the article and software in classrooms, fishing clubs and non-profit use. Taking all those requests and suggestions into consideration, the result is a freely downloadable booklet which includes the text of this article and a complete user's guide to using LeaderCalc2007. No matter what your intended purpose, GFF's Leader Guide is an essential download companion to the LeaderCalc2007 software itself. Go to the downloads section to get the software and leader guide now.
What is New in LeaderCalc2007?LeaderCalc is the most comprehensive leader formula database of classical and contemporary fly fishing leaders. Currently with 121 leader formulas comprising 450 possible leader-tippet combinations, it boasts the largest collection of leader formulas available today. By entering 2 simple parameters (leader length & desired ending tippet), one can easily see all the formulas that perform the best and match the criteria entered.
Where can I get LeaderCalc?LeaderCalc is distributed solely by The Global Fly Fisher (http://www.globalflyfisher.com). LeaderCalc is free “SheetWare”. It is not to be repackaged or resold in any form. If you downloaded GFF's Leader Guide and any version of LeaderCalc from a website other than The Global Fly Fisher, it is most likely out of date and pirated by the site you got it from. Please note GFF does not support any version of LeaderCalc downloaded from sources other than this site.
How did LeaderCalc get its’ start?When I started out tying my own leaders, it was purely out of interest in the "how-to" and not the "need-to." I wasn’t interested in saving money by tying my own and I wasn’t ready to invest the time to learn another facet of this increasingly complex sport called fly fishing. Plainly speaking, I just was curious. But, as my interest grew, my frustration began.
I practiced plenty of patience searching for bits and pieces from books, magazines, friends and internet resources. So, as I found them, I realized that comprehensive resources on tying leaders were few and far between. There are lots and lots of general articles, but none that had all the information I needed to really understand leader design and mechanics. I began to collect them…and since 1997, I have amassed a collection of tips, guidelines and formula variations not worthy to keep…to myself. In essence, it is my hope that this document and the accompanying leader calculation tool LeaderCalc will help you to understand the method behind the madness of tying your own leaders. At the same time LeaderCalc will help you easily sort through the seemingly infinite leader formulas to find the specific leaders that will work in the fishing situations you encounter most often.
What can I expect from this document?This document focuses on the basic techniques and tidbits associated with non-braided, tapered, mono-filament leaders for freshwater and basic saltwater applications. The LeaderCalc tool does not presently include: big-game leaders, or specialty leaders for toothy saltwater critters. Nor does it include shooting, running, double-taper or straight-line mono leaders. These leaders really don’t fit within the confines of LeaderCalc.
I spot an error. Who do I contact?We want LeaderCalc and this Guide to be the best product of its’ kind available. If you see an error or omission in this document or LeaderCalc itself, contact Martin and clearly document your finding.
Can I use this Guide and LeaderCalc in my classroom?Yes, you can use this Guide and LeaderCalc in teaching the art of tying leaders. You do not have to ask permission in advance, just download and go! We respectfully request that this Guide and LeaderCalc be freely provided to your students. At no time should this Guide and LeaderCalc be offered for a fee, or charged for in any manner. If this Guide and LeaderCalc is made part of a class and the class has a “materials fee” or any fee for instruction, the fees should only cover the cost of tuition and leader material. The fees may cover the costs of reproducing this Guide booklet and the LeaderCalc software, however.
Why are the spreadsheets password protected?There is a significant amount of data and programming logic behind the workings of LeaderCalc. The core database structure, proprietary logic development and programming took place over an initial three-year period and has been updated/modified since 1997. To prevent the actual leader database and logic from being used in developing similar tools, the spreadsheet has been entirely protected. Don’t worry, none of the functions required to operate LeaderCalc are made inoperable. You do not need to unlock the spreadsheet in order to use it.
Can I get the password to unlock the spreadsheet?No.
PrintingIn each spreadsheet tab, the print ranges have already been setup and formatted for you. To print, click the “Print” button built into the spreadsheet tab or choose File:Print:OK. Alternatively, you may click the print page icon on your toolbar. Each printout is designed to print on an 8.5” by 11” sheet of paper and will work fine for A2 sized paper as well.
The font on screen is so small...can I make it bigger?Yes you can! This is a function of Microsoft Excel ®. Within Excel ®, choose the View menu, and then choose Zoom. Adjust the percentage larger so that the font is more easily read. By zooming the spreadsheet, you may have to scroll side-to-side more.
Prerequisites & Working KnowledgeIt is required that you have access to and a working knowledge of Microsoft Excel ® version 5.0 or newer.
How can I get support?Feel free to email Martin with any questions or concerns you may have. Support is limited to the use of LeaderCalc itself. We do not support any questions regarding the use of Microsoft Excel ®, your PC or Mac computer platform or any printing device connected to your computer. We try to answer every support email in a timely manner. We reserve the right to forego support if it falls outside the scope of using LeaderCalc. Remember, we are just a bunch of guys providing this for free, as well as the entire site of The Global Fly Fisher, so we think our time is more valuable fishing!
Why Hand-Tied Leaders?Hand tied leader formulas offer the angler an unlimited portfolio of leader options. There have literally been thousands of hand-tied leader formulas developed and published over the years, all of which are based upon the fundamental 3-part principle of butt/taper/tippet. Hand tied leaders cost pennies per inch when compared to commercially machine-tapered leaders, which is a big incentive in itself for tying your own. Hand-tied leaders also offer you the flexibility of designing tapers that best fit your own personal needs, thus not limiting you to the tapers of commercially available leaders. It's also easier to modify a hand-tied leader on stream to meet your exact requirements by adding or removing some tippet material. But the biggest advantage to tying your own leaders is the "success factor". That's where using your own hand-tied leader and your own hand-tied fly successfully fooled and hooked your quarry. There's no feeling greater than knowing you had 100% complete control in presenting the business end of the fly line to your fish. Think back to the first fish you caught with a fly you tied. Amazing isn't it?!
The economics of tying your own fly leaders are another appealing notion. Quality, machine- tapered leaders go for $3.50 US each. A typical leader kit sells for around $32 US. There are 10 - 13 spools in each kit, where each spool has 20 to 30 meters. Let's assume there are 10 spools of 25 meters: that's 250 meters of material in our example kit. At $32 US for 250 meters, that works out to be $0.13 per meter, $0.11 per yard or $0.04 per foot! If we use a 9 foot leader (2.7 meters) as our standard, that works out to cost us $0.35 for a 9 foot leader (2.7 meters). Compare that to paying $3.50 for a machined tapered leader! You're paying 1/10th the price for a customizable leader!
The Leader ConceptI'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:
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 CharacteristicsThere are literally thousands of leader designs. They can be roughly categorized in the following manner:
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:
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!
Components of a LeaderThere are three main components of a leader: Butt, Taper (also called mid-section or graduation), and Tippet. The most common formula basis for the leader is 60% butt, 20% taper, 20% tippet. Other formulas such as double taper formulas offer 40%,20%,40%, but for the most part, formulas are derivatives of the 60/20/20 rule.
Other sub-parts of a leader are: Shock Butt, Shock Tippets and Wire Tippets. These components are geared toward specialty fishing situations like toothy fresh and saltwater critters. This document will not go into great detail in these areas.
Types of Leader MaterialClear Monofilament Nylon
Monofilament nylon, or "mono" as it is referred, is by far the most popular leader material in use today. Extruded nylon and co-polymer nylons comprise the best leader materials today. Stiffer mono, such as Maxima or Amnesia line offer great material as butt and taper sections. Co-polymer, being softer materials, such as Orvis SuperStrong, Umpqua, Dai Riki Velvet and Rio PowerFlex, make for great taper and tippet materials.
What the Manufacturers Don't Tell You Stiffness RatingManufacturers will tell you the diameter and pound test and maybe even the color, but they don't tell you a stiffness rating. Mason mono is hard, we all know, and Orvis SuperStrong is soft, but you couldn't tell by the names or the packages.
A simple method to determine if the stiffness of the leader material matches the stiffness of your fly line is to bend a section of each in half with your fingers and "feel" the approximate stiffness of each. You'll easily be able to feel the difference in the resistance to the bend. If you use a butt material that is too flimsy, you'll experience the "hinge" effect when you cast. The leader will not turn over properly and hinge where the fly line and leader connection is made. Get over this hurdle and you're well on your way to a designing proper leader.
Leader Pound/Test FormulaWhile each manufacturer of leader material boasts a different pound test rating, they all generally are within a predictable range. For example, most 8x tippets are around 1.2 lbs test. Likewise, most 0X tippets approximate 12 lbs test. I've developed a formula to approximate the pound test of the average Monofilament leader material. The formula is based upon the tippet diameter having a direct relation to the pound test a tippet can withstand. Specifically, the formula is
((diameter x 1000)2 / 11) + (diameter x 100)Knowing that this formula is cumbersome to remember, a quick method formula can replicate similar estimation results. The Quick Formula is:
((diameter x 1000)2 / 10).The formula is compared to a dataset of 15 different leader monofilaments showing the high test rating, the low test rating and the average test rating. As you can see by the wide variety of diameter-to-pound/test ratings, there is no industry standard...or even industry average. The formulas I've developed try to 'even out' the playing field and fairly estimate with some degree of reasonableness, pound tests for a given diameter of leader material. The tables below show calculations for 8X through 08X tippets.
Leader Design PrinciplesAs mentioned above, the leader absorbs and disburses the energy created by the cast. It is the goal to control energy absorption as best as possible. Given that, we can decipher that the taper is the most single important aspect of a leader. A taper that is too short or stiff will snap your fly over during the presentation and a taper that is too long or supple will "hinge" and not turn over at all. Additionally, a leader that turns over nicely on a short cast, may be too supple to turn over on a long cast. As you can see, there are many things to consider when designing a leader. This article will not go too deep into the theory of leader design, but will consider the following principle rules-of-thumb when designing your own leader tapers:
Discussion of Proper Leader LengthClearly, one of the looming debates that has never been solved through the ages is "What is the proper leader length for a given circumstance". I can give you the answer right now: It's the leader length that you will use and have confidence to catch fish. So, what I am saying is, after you have assessed the circumstances surrounding catching your quarry, you'll tie on the leader you know you can cast and present the fly in the best possible manner. Let's explore a few opinions from masters of the art.
George Harvey, Gary Borger, Ray Bergman and others have become advocates of longer leader lengths, especially for dry-fly fishing. The belief is the longer leaders will deliver the fly and allow it to drift as though it weren't attached to anything. Others believe longer leaders extend the distance from the fly line to the fly making the connection less obvious. However, longer leaders require longer casts to be effective. Enter William C. Black.
William C. Black, however, subscribes to the theory that leader length is mis-interpreted, mis-used and over-hyped. In his book, "The Art of Flyfishing Smaller Streams", Black writes "Theoretically, the longer and thinner the leader, the better the camouflage. Among flyfishing intelligentsia there is a tendency to regard the length of an angler's leader as commensurate with his degree of skill and sophistication." Black further reduces his concept to casting requirements. Using long leaders for short casts of, say, less than 25 feet, is futile. "Whipping near pure monofilament about (referring to long leaders and only a few feet of flyline) is very much like whistling in the breeze. Thus, the length of your leader has increasing impact on tackle performance as casts grow shorter." Reducing Black's opinions then, tells us to be smart about using long leaders. If you have short casts, where there will be very little flyline to load the rod, there will be very little energy to turn over a long leader. Shorter casts require shorter leaders, longer casts can activate longer leaders. Incidentally, Black typically uses leaders from 4 to 9 feet and may use longer slack-line leaders for bigger water where a drag-free float is required.
Symptoms of Poor Leader Design
Leader Knots(For complete tying instructions for the following knots, refer to any quality fly fishing book. These are standard fly fishing knots and are illustrated and discussed in most quality fly fishing books.)
According to extensive research done by Jim Vincent of RIO, the blood knot and the triple surgeon's knot prove the strongest knots to use when combining leader material. He recommends using the blood knot for tippet diameters greater than .007"/0.178 (4X) and the triple surgeon's knot for tippet sizes less than .007"/0.178 (4X).
I tie a 3/3 blood knot on my leader butt material, a 4/4 blood knot on my taper material and a combination of a 5/5 blood knot and a surgeon's knot for my tippet sections. For bass, steelhead and salmon leaders, I tie all blood knots.
(a 3/3 blood knot means there are 3 twists of leader material on either side of the knot and so on )
Discussions of the Perfection Loop
Discussions of the Blood Knot
A Handy Tip: Pick up a copy of Orvis' "Waterproof Vest Pocket Knot Booklet" by Doug Truax. It not only has clear diagrams of tying over 10 basic fly fishing knots, but it also contains tips on tippet selection/care, a hook size chart and some basic leader formulas. (the formulas are included in LeaderCalc ) Knotless leaders
offer one major advantage over hand-tied leaders: no knots! If you are fishing a weedy lake or cress-filled spring creek, a knot with the slightest of tags will catch anything, and I mean anything floating in the water, including the leader itself. But there is a way to minimize the pesky effect of knots. A little drop of clear acrylic fingernail polish or head cement, layered on
a couple of times forms a nice smooth finish the shape of a football over the knot. Climax offers a similar product specifically formulated for tying leaders. It is offered as part of their leader kits.
Non-typical Leader DesignsStraight mono
There is nothing overly complicated or special about straight mono leaders. Just knowing the length of line desired and tippet thickness will get you by. In the Midwest USA, straight mono leaders are useful for salmon and steelheading. Straight mono leaders are also used in slow water nymphing and streamer fishing.
The Accompanying Tool: LeaderCalc2007
The LeaderCalc spreadsheet is a tool to calculate the length and diameter for each segment in a hand-tied leader. It is the most comprehensive tool available. LeaderCalc2007 contains 70+ of the most common and popular leader formulas ranging from delicate dry fly fishing to stout bass popper fishing. The development of this tool encompasses over 2 years of initial research, programming and the countless contributions of many of my internet friends. Since 1997, I've upgraded and added many more formulas, making LeaderCalc2007 the most comprehensive leader design tool available.
LeaderCalc is simple to use! You choose three design elements: Metric or English measurements, the leader length and the tippet diameter. LeaderCalc does the rest. Print the LeaderCalc spreadsheet, save it in a notebook, and you have ready reference to your favorite leader formulas. LeaderCalc also contains a Leader Label Generator so you can professionally create leader labels to slip in little plastic leader ziplock bags. An added feature of the Label Generator is a place for you to store your own notes about the leader formulas contained in LeaderCalc . You can even choose to have your notes printed on your custom leader labels. LeaderCalc is unique and unparalleled in leader design tools!
LeaderCalc SupportLeaderCalc is warranted for use as developed and tested.
NOTICE: Direct all user comments, feedback and problem reports to Martin
Steve Schweitzer cannot respond to all emails. Problem or error reports will take priority.
Distribution & Use PolicyLeaderCalc, this article and associated help files (Files) are copyrighted property of S. Schweitzer and The Global Fly Fisher (GFF), 1999-current. The Files are designed for personal use and are distributed free-of-charge for a single personal use installation. At no time will the Files be made available or packaged for resale. The Files are exclusive property of GFF and are to be exclusively distributed by GFF and may not be distributed in part or in whole by any other electronic means, including but not limited to, personal website distribution, diskette or re-writeable CD-ROMs. Hyperlinks to the Files from personal websites or other HTML-based forms is acceptable. Bulk or multiple-copy distribution rights for non-profit clubs & organizations by prior written consent only.