Fly Fishing Leader 101: Technically Speaking
A leader is the link between the heavy fly line and the fly. It is a critical element in both casting and presentation.
The fly line itself is to be thick and opaque and certainly not the vehicle to present a fly. The tippet is perfect for fly presentation, but impossible to cast. The leader is the link between the two. The basic design of the leaders is to transition from thick to thin, tapering off to the tippet.
The heavier butt section transfers kinetic energy from the fly line through the leader. As it tapers off, the energy lessens.
This is an important physical characteristic. If the thick section is too long, you fly will plop and splash on the water. Undesirable in most situations. If it is too thin, it won’t carry the energy adequately and spiral in a mess right at the end of the fly line.
Generally speaking, there are four types of leaders, without getting into specialty ones. They are:
- Poly Leaders
If you want to teach yourself leader technology, go for a knotted leader. You’ll also become an expert at tying a surgeon's knot or a barrel knot as well as the perfection loop.
A knotted leader contains several sections of tippet material tied together from thick to thin. An example for a 9’4X leader is below.
|Length in Inches||Diameter in Inches|
You use a perfection loop on the butt so you can loop through the fly line and a surgeon’s knot or a barrel know for each section. The fly fishing world started out with these leaders.
If you want to go traditional, this is the way to go. Knotted leaders are more cost effective than other leaders and cost under a buck to make.
The knotless leader is just that, knotless. The leaders are made by extruding the material in one piece with the appropriate taper in them.
This is by far the most popular leader today. There are two types of material used these days, nylon and fluorocarbon.
The advantages of Nylon as compared to Fluorocarbon are it floats well, has some stretch, and is cost effective. The disadvantages are it is more visible in the water and isn’t as strong as fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon has about the same refractive index as water, so it is nearly invisible (shadow excluded) in the water. It is also very strong. It does, however, sink easier than nylon and is more costly.
Personally, I use the nylon leaders most often and tie on a bit of fluorocarbon tippet material which I use almost exclusively.
For super stealth situations, I use Fluorocarbon. There’s a couple of reasons. Those situations tend to have very slow moving water, so the leader is less inclined to sink. I also put on a tiny amount of floatant about the length to help the cause. If you’re in a gin clear spring creek with spooky fish, this is your leader.
In almost any other situation, I’m using nylon and I tie on 24” of Fluorocarbon tippet.
Braided, or sometime referred to as furled, are made by braiding polyester thread.
There are some real distinct advantages using a braided leader. First off, they are durable, you can get a season out of one leader.
Secondly, they cast fantastic. There is no memory in these leaders and they transfer all the energy from you line through the leader.
The disadvantages are they are opaque and hold water. You need to dress them and keep them dry. There is normally a small ring on the end to tie tippet material. You’re going to have to tie on a good 36”-48” of tippet to the end.
Tippet change is a breeze though. You can change out from 4X to 7X in a snap. You just clip off your tippet at the ring, thread through the new one and tie it up with a cinch know and you’re off and running. While expensive on an individual basis, if you realize the length of time you’ll be using one, it’s pretty cost effective.
Poly leaders are a composite with a monofilament core and a polyethylene outer shell. Airflow first coined the name Poly Leader, RIO uses the term Versi Leader. These are leaders vary in material composition, length (from 6 to 15 feet), and sink rates (from floating to 7 inches per second or “ips”).
The purpose of tapering the leader is to store the energy from the fly line on the forward cast and then dissipate that energy smoothly as the cast unrolls and straightens before it settles on the water’s surface. The taper of the leader essentially becomes an extension of the forward taper of the fly line to create the most accurate and efficient presentation possible with the fly.
A system like this eliminates the hinge effective that you find when transferring from one line diameter to a significantly less one like you knotted leaders. Hinge is virtually non-existent with tapered leaders. This creates tighter loops that will defeat nearly any wind and can be used effectively with all but the largest flies. In the case of the sinking leaders, the taper also works to lessen drag – and that allows the leader and fly to sink quickly in the water column.
Both Rio and Airflo manufacture these leaders with welded loops that attach via loop to loop connections to any fly line. The front end has an exposed core at the tip to attach varying lengths of tippet. This is a very popular leader with Steelhead fisherman.