As I view current material, whether written or in videos, the vast majority of what's out there today is related to Euro nymphing.  You'd think that most fly fishers no longer engage in fishing surface flies.  Fortunately, when I'm out on the water I see evidence that this isn't reality and to that I say, "Hallelujah!"  After all, there's so much more to fly fishing than dredging the depths with nymphs.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I am known to engage in this activity a fair bit, too.  I just don't believe in limiting my opportunities to the point that I wouldn't be able to enjoy fooling trout on dry flies.  A well-rounded fly fisher is a most happy fly fisher!


When it comes to choosing a leader we can take the path most simple or we can take the path more complex.  The most simple path is to purchase a knotless tapered leader and go fishing;  however, even with these stock (versus custom/customized, modified, etc.) leaders we have to make some choices.  There just isn't anything like "one size fits all."   The alternative is a DIY leader which offers a wide variety of options.  There has to be a method to the madness of constructing our own leaders since there is a certain goal for performance expected from the finished product. 


Any leader worthy of being attached to a fly line on one end and a dry fly on the other is going to be tapered.  And, yes, the thick end attaches to the fly line.  While most fly lines - excluding lines specifically for Euro nymphing - start out at about .031" at the tip and get larger as the line size goes up the general guide has the butt of the leader some 2/3 the diameter of the tip of the line.  My experience seems to be that when the leader butt diameter drops to around 1/2 the line diameter or less we're going to run into problems with the leader turning over acceptably to deliver the fly accurately.  

There is something in leader construction called the 60-20-20 rule;  however, I'm telling you there is no rule.  It is a guide and it's a great one.  60-20-20 pertains to the taper formula:  60% butt section, 20% mid-section and 20% tippet.  With a knotless tapered leader someone has already figured that out for us.  It's when we choose to build our own that we can have some fun messing around with this.  And, it's what I like to do! 


When it comes to a knotless tapered leader there are three primary decisions we have to make.  First is the X factor.  Since leaders are made with a variety of tippet diameters which are indicated by an X number - 0X is .011 inch diameter and the higher number is subtracted from .011 to give the tippet diameter - this is then related to the fly size or sizes to be used.  The general guide is to take the size of the fly and divide by 3.  A #16 fly would call for a 5X to 6X tippet.  Not too difficult to figure this one out.  

The next decision required is leader length.  The majority of leaders are available in 7 1/2', 9', 12' and 15' lengths.  I'll venture to say that the most common leader length used is 9'.  When someone asks me what leader length to buy this is what I recommend.  Most of the streams I fish and guide on can be fished effectively with a 9' leader.  Personally, if someone would tell me I could only use one of the other lengths I'd choose the 12' leader.  I normally use longer leaders anyway so this wouldn't inconvenience me at all.

For the average fly fisher I'd say that while a 9' leader would be an all-purpose length the others are a bit more specialized.  The 7 1/2' leader I would recommend for small streams (bluelining, anyone?).  When working with short casts in tight spaces a short leader is easer to control and it also provides for having more fly line beyond the rod tip when casting.  Since it's the weight of the fly line that makes casting a bit easier that's a good thing - even if it's only about a foot and a half more line.

The 12'and 15' leaders are to provide a bit more delicacy in presentation particularly when fishing small flies.  This can be particularly beneficial when casting to rising fish in slow water.  Leader alights on the water with less disturbance than fly line so the thought is that there's less risk of spooking already wary trout since the line drops to the water further away from the fly  

The third decision to be made is whether to purchase a leader with or without a perfection loop at the butt end.  Since most fly lines come with a welded loop at the end of the front taper it may beneficial to get the leader with a welded loop and go with a loop-to-loop connection.  Besides, I believe it's harder to find these leaders without a perfection loop.There are, however, fly fishers who don't like the loop in the fly line.  Used to be they couldn't be trusted.  There were times I'd mount a fly line on a reel and take it out in the yard to cast.  In no time the welded loop came apart.  No way I'd want that to happen while I was playing a fish or even the fish of a lifetime.  I believe the manufacturers have improved the process of welding the loop but I'll admit I still don't trust them 100%.  Some folks don't like the extra weight of the welded loop at the end of the fly line (after all, it's the fly line doubled over itself) and prefer to attach a leader via a nail knot or some other connection.  They can either buy a leader without the perfection loop or get the leader with the loop and remove it.  Either option is acceptable.  There is one caveat:  it may be hard to find leaders without a perfection loop.  For those who don't like the welded loop on the end of the fly line but favor a loop-to-loop connection cut off the welded loop, tie on a short piece of leader material at least as large in diameter as the butt end of the leader, tie a perfection loop and go to it.  When it comes down to it it's a matter of what tickles your fancy.


I've encountered fly fishers who continue to use the same leader not realizing that with each fly change it gets shorter...and shorter...and shorter.  While the manufacturers of these leaders indicate right on the package what size tippet we have there's no indication what is the length of the tippet and I believe this is equally important.  Since the vast majority of my experience is with the 7 1/2' and 9' leaders I've measured the tippet sections and found they are somewhere around 2' in length.  Since it's always good to have friends in the right places I contacted Marlin Roush, formerly of Rio Products, to get the lowdown on the longer leaders.  He informed me that the tippet lengths on the 12' and 15' leaders is around 3'.

The average fly fisher uses about 3 to 4 inches of tippet every time a fly is changed.  When I've been guiding a client and pointed out that their leader wasn't what it used to be when they first started fishing with it I've been told that's no problem .  We can just put on another leader.  No, no.  We don't want to change leaders if it's not absolutely necessary.  What we want to do is add tippet or, if it's really short but salvageable, rebuild it to what will perform.  There's a reason they sell spools of tippet material.  A leader costs about as much as a spool of tippet material.  By replacing tippet we prolong the life of a leader- and save money!!   Oh, and when you add new tippet material go about 6 inches longer.  Now you can go with a couple more fly changes before you have to do it again.  I do my best to carry extra tippet spools from 2X on down.  Anything less and I feel like I forgot my pants!


For the fun of it let's take a look at customizing a knotless tapered leader.  Why would I even consider something like this?  After all, I just spent good money for something that was designed to work already.  True, but I just may want it to work better - for me.       

Remember, with a knotless leader we already have a butt section we know will work.  We also have the ability to add some enhanced performance and versatility to a leader.  Here's an example of what I may do at times.

 Starting out with a 7 1/2' 3X leader I'll cut back from the tippet about 12 to 14 inches.  I'll add a piece of 4X about 8 inches long and then a section of 5X about 3 or 4 feet in length.  The result is a leader in excess of 10' and a longer tippet which can provide a bit better drift since it should land with some slack rather than straight.  If I want to go a 6X tippet I add this to the 4X instead.  Of course, if I want to fish a long 4X tippet that's easy, too.  Instead of 8 inches of 4X I add whatever length - usually longer than 3 feet - of 4X I want and then I go fish.  I can do the same starting out with a 9' leader if I want a longer leader.


Oh, goody.  Here's where it gets fun!  Many materials to choose from and options to consider.  First, let's remember that 60-20-20 business.  It's a guide and I use it as a basis for all of the leaders I construct no matter how long or how short or any length in between.  What we end up with is longer lengths in the butt section, the shortest lengths in the mid-section and longer tippet.  

First, we can choose to use either stiff or soft mono for the butt sections.  Stiff material would include Maxima or Mason.  Maxima material is well-known among fly fishers primarily because it is used in constructing leaders for Euro nymphing;  however, it's really good for constructing leaders for fishing dry flies, as well.  A leader built with a stiff butt is supposed to turn over a bit better than one tied with soft material.  I can't vouch for this even though I've tied leaders with both.

Most other material I'd consider as soft material.  That includes Rio, Orvis, Cortland and Scientific Anglers.  You can add Froghair to this list, too.  All but Scientific Anglers offers tippet material in the larger sizes used for constructing the butt section of a leader.  Orvis, however, does not provide the diameter of their heavier matrial above 0X.  Orvis lists the heavier material by pound test instead.  I think I have it figured out but I won't say without having validation.   We can expand this list by including materials that would otherwise be categorized as spinning line:  Stren, Berkley and some others.  Like I said, there are a lot of choices here.  Even with Stren and Berkley lines we can see the diameter of each one.  Here is one area where I'm always skeptical and I make sure that my micrometer or dial caliper is real handy.  Don't always trust the manufacturer's label.  Example:  Maxima is consistently .002" larger than labeled.  

To be honest, I don't have a really good reason for my choosing to construct my leaders using soft material for the butt section.  It probably stems from the fact that I use Stren spinning line for my butt section on my leaders that I use for fishing dries.  Yup, they include sighters, too.  It's just what I do.  And, yes, I tie them so they turn over well when fishing dries.

Interestingly, George Harvey, considered by many to be the dean of fly-fishing, used stiff mono in his leaders for many years;  however, in later years he switched to all soft mono.  There were a lot of gasps within the fly-fishing community when he revealed this.  As much as Mr. Harvey experimented we have the same opportunity available to us and this is one of the great benefits of making our own.  We can try both and decide which we prefer.  

To me, the real business end of the leader is the tippet.  I'd have to say that a standard tippet length is 2'.  It'll get the job done.  I definitely go with longer tippets.  I don't want my tippet to lay out straight when it lands on the surface;  rather, I want that slack that's easier to get with a longer tippet.  That's why I go with a minimum tippet length of 3' and I'm not averse to going with 4'.  There are exceptions here.  When I'm fishing small streams with a short leader my tippet may even be less than 2'.  

There are some fly fishers who believe that instead of reducing the size of the tippet they can get a better drift just by increasing the tippet length.  I've seen this in action.  I was fishing with a friend several (actually many, many) years ago and he was fishing a #28 dry fly on a very long 5X tippet.  And he was catching fish.  I was right beside him fishing a slightly larger fly on a 7X tippet.  I've known for more years than I'd like to admit that trout are NOT leader (diameter) shy:  they are drag shy.  Even after having seen it with my own eyes I still could not get myself to go the other way.  I still go with fine tippets to try to beat drag.  Finer diameter means more suppleness and that's the route I go.  There is one caution flag I'll raise here.  With very fine tippet I can go too long.  I know it when I see my fly drifting in a pile of 7X tippet material. That ain't good. 

As of today I'm using Orvis or Rio tippet material with some Cortland thrown in the mix.  I've just begun using Trouthunter.  It's not so much that I'm behind the eightball.  The hang-up here is cost.  Trouthunter is a heck of a lot more expensive than the others.  It's going to take a lot of fishing with this stuff to determine if it's worth it and I don't know if I'm willing to part with the extra dollars to do so.  Hrumph!

Another consideration is the supple tippet material that's offered by one or more manufacturers.  Supple should be softer.  Supple material would be more difficult to turn over a fly.  My advise is to keep tippet length shorter if you choose to use the more supple material.

And while I'm at it here's another caution flag.  Beware the "new, improved, stronger" material some companies have rolled out.  I have found they are up to .002" larger diameter than what they're labeled.  Think you're fishing 4X?  It could be the equivalent of 2X!


So, there you have it.  You want simple and you don't want the hassle or challenge or satisfaction of going the DIY route the knotless option is for you.  If you get off on the challenge of experimentation and being able to modify a leader profile to present a fly the way you want it then the DIY option is for you.  Oh, and for those who want to construct their own but don't necessarily have the time nor want to get involved messing around with all the variables there are a lot of recipes on the internet.  And that's the long and short of it...and most everything in between. 

Here's to wishing you some really great dry fly fishing opportunities!!


3 Comentarios

  1. I think the customized leader is super important for the angler that doesn't understand the physics of casting, I've always thought that the base section of the leader is the most important due to transfer of energy. Then there is adaptability from there to address the technique and goal you are trying to achieve.

  2. Dave, have you ever used a tippet ring? What did you think of it?

  3. Great description of a leader formula ... Lots of options Thanks Dave All my best to you Brian Mac