Leader Design and Construction

by Dave Engerbretson

Most novice fly fishers are well aware of the need to consider very thoughtfully the selection of tackle that is appropriate to their specific needs. They take a great deal of time when choosing their first fly rods, lines and reels. Quite likely they will spend many hours pouring over books and catalogs in order to determine exactly which flies are needed.

Unfortunately, one important link in the tackle system is often neglected, and is selected almost as an afterthought with little understanding of its importance to casting and fishing success -- the leader.

In fly fishing the leader must perform many functions. It must transmit the casting energy from the line to the fly in order to permit the fly to turn over and land properly upon the water. At the same time, it must progressively dissipate the casting energy so the fly will land gently upon the water like the natural insect, rather than plop down with an audible "splat." The leader must provide an almost invisible link between the bulky fly line and the delicate fly. And finally, the leader must allow a fly to drift freely on or under the water to give the appearance of a naturally drifting insect. The leader should not create drag on the fly.

A poorly designed leader is an abomination. It will cause the fly to land in a tangled mess of nylon, or cause the fly to land loudly upon the water and frighten wary fish. It will break just as you hook the largest fish of your life, or will be so fat that no fish will approach your fly. It will cause your dry fly or nymph to twist, turn and skate through the water like no insect that has ever lived. Small wonder, then, that experienced anglers expend considerable effort to obtain the correct leaders for their particular fishing situations. The leader can often spell fishing success or failure.

IIn its simplest form, a leader is merely a level strand of nylon monofilament tied to the end of the fly line. Unfortunately, except possibly for fishing for panfish where the delicacy of the fly presentation is less important, a level leader is a very poor choice. Such a leader will not turn over properly unless it is quite short, and then it will not deliver the fly lightly to the water. A beginner would do well to take a tip from the experts and avoid the level leader.

Just as fly lines are tapered for greater efficiency in casting and delicacy in presentation of the fly, the best leaders are also tapered.

Tapered leaders are available in three styles--one piece knotless tapers, braided tapers and compound tapers. The latter are made by joining successively smaller pieces of level monofilament with blood knots until the desired length and taper is obtained. Each style has its own advantages and disadvantages.

Knotless tapered leaders are convenient to use, and are particularly good when weeds or debris in the water would tend to collect on the knots of a compound tapered leader. On the other hand, since it is impossible to make your own knotless leaders, they must be purchased, and thus may be more expensive than those you can produce yourself. Then too, it may not always be possible to obtain a leader with precisely the desired taper. And, of course, once such a leader has been shortened by a few changes of flies, a new tippet must be tied on, and you then have a knotted leader.

Many experienced fly fishers generally use compound tapered or braided leaders. Braided leaders generally consist of several feet of a braided butt section with one or more knotted tippet sections. Though they are considerably more expensive than other types of leaders, the braided leaders last much longer, and only the regular monofilament sections are replaced. Some anglers, however, find that braided leaders tend to hold water which then can spray out during the cast and frighten wary fish.

Commercially tied compound leaders usually are well designed and function very well, and they are available in a wide variety of lengths and breaking strengths. The real advantage of the compound taper, though, is that they can be easily made at home -- or right on the stream -- at a fraction of the cost of a ready made leader, and you can build exactly the taper that is needed in a given situation.

While many anglers have their pet leader designs, most of them are based upon the "60/20/20" formula. According to this formula, approximately 60% of the leader's length is composed of fairly large diameter material, 20% of the length is made up of short pieces which rapidly decrease in diameter, and the final 20% is one or two pieces of fine diameter material to make up the light "tippet" which attaches to the fly. Leaders tied to this formula will turn over properly and present the fly fairly well.

When building a leader according to the 60/20/20 formula, it is usual to begin with a butt section that is about 2/3 the diameter of the tip of the fly line. In most cases this will be approximately .019-.021" in diameter. A leader butt of this diameter will bend smoothly with the fly line, and will not cause a collapsing "hinge" effect which will prevent the fly from turning over. The butt section is joined to the fly line with either a nail knot, needle knot or uni-knot.

The successive pieces of material which are joined together should vary from one another by no more than .002" in order to maintain knot strength, and to allow the proper transmission of energy. The most widely used knot for joining leader sections is the "blood knot."

In order to avoid having to tie the needle or nail knot when changing leaders on the stream, many anglers leave the butt section of the leader permanently attached to the line, and make the leader change at the first butt section blood knot, or with a loop-to-loop connection.

The accompanying table lists a variety of leaders which are designed according to the 60/20/20 formula. Any of these tapers will produce an excellent leader, and it is strongly recommended that you follow these patterns for your first attempt at "rolling your own."

It should be noted that in listing the patterns for the leaders in the table, the nylon material is listed according to its diameter and not its breaking strength. The ability of the leader to transmit the casting energy is based upon its relative diameter, and unfortunately, materials from different manufacturers which have similar breaking strengths probably have different diameters. Thus, if different brands of materials are used in constructing a leader, and they are put together according to only their breaking strengths, nothing will be known about the actual taper of the leader. In such a situation, it is quite likely that the resulting leader will fail to function properly. Therefore, when purchasing leader material;, be certain that each spool you buy has both the diameter of the material and its breaking strength shown on the label.

You will also note that the leaders listed are identified both according to their lengths and an "X" number, for example, 3X, 4X, 6X and so on. The "X" designation can be a source of confusion until its meaning is understood, Again, the "X" designation refers to the material's diameter and not its breaking strength.

The "X" designation is really quite simple if you remember the "Rule of 11." According to this rule, leader material identified as "0X" has a diameter of .011". Then, every time you subtract .001" from the material's diameter, you add one "X." Thus, material classified as "1X" is .010" in diameter, "2X" is .009", "4X" is .007", "7X" is .004" and so on. While a few companies produce 8X material, the smallest generally available is the very light 7X (.004").

Several factors determine the proper tippet length and diameter when constructing a compound tapered leader. First, it is important for proper leader performance to match the tippet diameter to the size of the fly with which it will be used. If the tippet is too fine it will lack knot strength when secured to a large fly, and it will not allow a large wind resistant fly to turn over properly. On the other hand, if the tippet is too large in diameter, it will cause unnatural drag on a small fly, and may frighten wary fish.

The leader tippet lengths included with the accompanying patterns are very good for general use. However, if particularly air resistant flies are used, and the leader seems to land in a tangled mess rather than neatly turning over, it may be wise to shorten the tippet a few inches at a time until it performs properly. Or, when fishing small flies in very clear water, the tippet may be lengthened. Many expert anglers "fine tune" their tippet lengths with each change of flies.

The accompanying table lists suggested tippet diameters to match various fly sizes. You will note that the categories overlap somewhat. As a general rule, especially with the smaller tippets (5X-7X), it is best to use the listed tippet diameter with fly sizes in the middle of the range shown. However, when necessary, the tippet will work with flies at either end of the range. When fishing for large fish, it may be a good idea to use the heavier of two possible leader tippets, or, when fishing in very clear water, use the smaller of two tippet diameters.

As can be seen from the list of leader patterns, "standard" leaders are often tied either 7 1/2, 9 or 12 feet in length. While there is nothing sacred about these lengths, they do provide an excellent starting point. As you gain experience you may want to vary your leader length considerably to suit the fishing conditions. Personally, I prefer to tie my basic dry fly leader ten feet in length and tapered to 4X at the tippet. Such a configuration permits me to conveniently make needed adjustments as fishing conditions dictate.

For example, should I suddenly come upon a large fish or want to switch to a large fly, I can simply cut the leader back to a heavier section, and I will still have a leader of at least seven feet in length. If I should have to switch to a very small fly or desire a longer leader for very clear water, I can cut back the 4X tippet to about 6-8", add sections of 5, 6, and/or 7X and still have a leader of 12 feet or so in length.

Incidentally, many novice anglers hesitate to use the longer leaders, say those of twelve feet, as they are afraid they won't be able to make them turn over properly. This is a groundless fear, however. If the leader is properly designed, as are those in the table, even a twelve footer will perform beautifully.

The above dry fly leaders function quite well under many circumstances. However, for much of my dry fly fishing, particularly under the most demanding conditions, I prefer a special leader developed by George Harvey. The "Harvey Leader" is designed roughly according to the 60/20/20 formula. However, it begins with a much lighter butt section, and it uses hard (stiff) nylon for the butt two thirds and soft (limp) nylon for the tip one third. It is designed not to straighten out, but to lie down in a series of gentle slack line waves to reduce potential drag on the fly. As George says, "It doesn't make sense to cast a slack line, if your leader is going to be straight."

George takes great pains to fine tune his tippet length with every change of flies. He'll tie on a fly, and cast just the leader and a short length of line to observe how the leader falls to the water. If it fails to land in the proper waves, he'll shorten or lengthen the tippet as necessary. The slight amount of extra time and effort required for this fine tuning, pays off handsomely in more effective presentations and more fish.

The specifications for a "Harvey Leader" are shown in the two accompanying tables:
4X George Harvey Style Leader Chart | 5X George Harvey Style Leader Chart

Leader lengths for streamers, wet flies and nymphs are another matter, and it is here that you will find a greater range of theories among experienced fly fishermen. My own philosophy goes something like this. If I am fishing a fairly shallow stream and am using a floating line with sunken flies, I use my standard dry fly leader as described above. In such cases, I may add a small bit of weight above the first leader knot, tie a section of lead core line into the leader, or use weighted flies to help sink them to the proper depth.

When I am required to switch to a sinking or sinking-tip line in order to sink the fly more deeply in either a lake or a river, I generally shorten my leader considerably. With modern fast sinking lines, the line itself may sink quickly to the desired depth, but if the leader is too long, the fly will tend to ride a good deal higher in the water. By shortening the leader to three feet or less, the fly can be made to ride at the depth of the line.

Today my standard "wet" leader consists of merely a heavy butt section (.019-.021" in diameter) about 12" long with a loop tied in the end. To this butt I then join a tippet of the appropriate diameter and about two feet in length. Under most conditions, such a leader performs admirably, and I have not been able to discern any adverse effect of having the leader so short.

Occasionally, though, conditions will cause me to modify my short leader. If, for example, I'm fishing over heavy weeds, the fly might sink too deeply and constantly become fouled. In that case, I switch to a standard leader of 7 1/2-9 feet in length. Then, though the line may sink into the weeds, the fly tends to ride a little higher, and will miss most of the weeds. Also, if fishing very clear water for difficult fish, I may stretch the sinking leader out to 12 feet or even longer.

Perhaps the most important rule of thumb for sinking leaders is to experiment, find out what works the best for you under most conditions, and then be willing to change as conditions dictate.

In summary, the proper leader is a very important link in the fly fishing system, and care should be taken to insure that it is functioning properly. If your leader fails to perform as it should, check the following points; they are all mistakes commonly made by novice fly fishers.

Is the leader too light in the butt section? If so, it will tend to land in a tangled heap on the water rather than turn over as it should. An improper taper can cause the same problem. When using the Harvey Leader with its light butt, this should not occur if a slight amount of extra "punch" is given to the cast.

Does the leader seem to turn over well except for the last couple of feet? It could be that the tippet is too long or too light for the particular fly being used.

Does the knot often come loose at the fly? Perhaps the tippet is too small in diameter for the fly being used. Or does the leader break at one of the other knots? Check your knot tying technique, and be sure that you have a difference of no more than .002" between adjacent leader sections.

Do fish seem to approach your fly as if they are about to take it, but then turn and reject it at the last instant? If so, the tippet diameter may be so large that it either frightens the fish, or causes unnatural drag on the fly -- try a finer tippet.

The leader is probably the least expensive piece of tackle that you own, but its true value cannot be measured in dollars and cents. If you give a little thought and attention to detail in its construction, it will perform its many tasks admirably, and will help you to consistently catch more fish. And that's the thing fishing reputations are built upon.

4X George Harvey Style Leader Chart

5X George Harvey Style Leader Chart

Orvis Leaders Chart