The right leader can mean the difference between magic and mediocre when fly fishing.
Of all the fishing techniques we deploy, fly fishing writers, experts, and purists would lead you to believe that fly fishing is the most challenging. Yes, casting a fly rod consistently with any distance is challenging, as is working a weightless fly that has no action of its own. Even the leaders are different, as well as picking or building the right leaders for the fish you’re targeting and the conditions you’re fishing. At its core, however, fly fishing is no different or more difficult than any other kind of fishing. The truth is, it’s harder to cast with a baitcaster rod than any fly rod and reel. The fly fishing mystique comes from its original writers, who only knew and wrote about fly fishing.
In this short article, we will dispel some of that mystique and talk about leaders used in fly fishing. These include knotted leaders made by anglers and knotless, store-bought leaders.
The Role of the Leader in Fly Fishing
Since fly anglers are casting the line itself, rather than the weight of the lure, the line must be thick and weighted. In fact, it is often thickest at or near the tip of the line, where it connects to the leader. The leader gets thinner as it moves towards the fly itself.
Like a lot of angling, the important skills are going to be the ones you develop on the water. But we can definitely help point you in the right direction when considering what leaders are best for fly fishing.
Fly line leader consists of three basic parts: the butt section, the taper section, and the tippet section. The sections gradually taper from the butt section (thickest) to the taper section (thinner than the butt section) to the tippet section (thinnest and lightest). Leaders are approximately six to fourteen feet in total length, including all three sections. The sections change in pound test, depending on what you’re fishing for and what fly you’re throwing. You can use monofilament, fluorocarbon, or a combination of both to make your fly leaders. A saltwater fly leader might consist of a butt section of 40 lb test, a taper section of 20 lb test, and a tippet of 12 lb test. It’s done this way to create an even transfer of energy or force from the rod to the line and down through the leader. In short, your fly will properly roll over on the water’s surface this way, looking as real as a baitfish. The two main fly leaders are knotted leaders, which the angler custom builds him or herself, or knotless leaders made by fly leader manufactures and purchased in stores or online.
The Butt Section
This section attaches to the main fly line and is the thickest section of the leader. It can be joined with many different knot connections, such as a nail knot, uni knot, perfection loop, or any effective connection of your choice. The butt section usually makes up about 40% of your leader connection.
The Taper Section
This is a thinner piece of monofilament which is tied to the butt section with an albright knot, uni knot, loop knot, or any connection that will hold together two leader sizes of unequal diameter. The taper section makes up another 40% of your leader connection.
The Tippet Section
This section is tied to the taper section with the same knots you use to tie the taper section to the butt section. It’s important to go with the lightest tippet possible. A small fly requires a very light tippet; if your tippet section is too heavy, the fly will never be presented properly. The tippet section makes up the last 20% of your leader. Your fly is now tied onto the end of your tippet with the smallest loop knot you can tie. You can also use fluorocarbon for your tippet because it is invisible and very abrasion resistant.
Some anglers apply a bonding agent to their leader knot connections, but if you tie your knots correctly, there’s no need to take this extra step.
As their name implies, knotless leaders have no knots and taper down from the butt section to the taper section and on to the tippet section. All the specifications of each section are labeled on the package. The butt and taper sections are rated in poundage on the package, so the package would read 30 lb butt section, 15 lb taper section. The tippet sections are rated by their thickness and have a number assigned to them, followed by the letter X. This originates from an old English system, where a lot of fly fishing language comes from. The higher the number, the thinner the tippet leader. The heaviest tippets are 0X, 1X, and 2X.
Fly Fishing Without a Tapered Leader
There are fisher folks that use a simple saltwater leader for fly fishing. If they are comfortable with 20lb test, they put eight or ten feet of 20lb test onto the fly line with a small loop knot (a perfection loop knot for both loops) and tie that to their fly. It works okay when you are fishing for very hungry and cooperative fish, for instance, Mackerel, Jack, or Lady fish in open water. But try catching Snook or Steelhead in clear waters with one leader and you will fall short. That’s where tapers come into play to present and work the fly effectively.
Other Miscellaneous Fly Leaders
Furled leaders are another alternative to tying your own leaders from scratch.
Some fly anglers like to use tippet rings to connect their fly line leader sections. They work, but it’s another piece of terminal tackle that fish can see, plus you have to double your knot connections, which leaves more of a chance for failure.
Leaders are the final connection between that perfect line, the charged and active fly rod you paid a lot of money for and the fly you love so much. Forget the fish. Before you feel the pull, make sure you pick the right leader, connect it correctly, and lay it down perfectly. Then you might really feel the magic.