Let's Talk Leaders
*Disclosure* This photo is only for representation purposes.
Leaders are one of the most overlooked pieces of equipment in the fly fishing world, as well as the conventional fishing world. A lot of people put very little thought into the leader and assume that it is nothing more than a piece of clear material to help keep from spooking fish. While there is a little truth in this statement, leaders are so much more and a proper understanding can make a huge difference in casting, the way a fly turns over, and even how the fly behaves in the water. I will try to hit some key elements, without getting too in depth. As always, feel free to email me with any questions.
Purpose of the Leader
There are multiple purposes for a fly fishing leader. Perhaps the most important purpose is the continued transfer of energy from the fly line to the fly. This transfer of energy is what allows a fly to turn over and unroll, for final presentation to the fish. A leader that is not constructed properly will not transfer the energy from the fly line through the leader and to the fly. This will often result in a collapse of the system and the fly and leader become a tangled, piled up mess on the water. Poor construction can be a result of improper sized material, improper construction (length of the various sections), and improper knots. The good news; these are all easy to overcome.
The leader is also used as the final delivery product for the fly, to the fish. The first question a lot of new anglers ask, is what size tippet should I be using? The answer: it all depends. You must consider the fish you are targeting, the fly you are casting, the water you are fishing in, and any potential hazards that may exist. While I typically fish 12 pound tippet for redfish, there are times I have to step down to 8 pound. Clear, calm, shallow water is when I typically step down to smaller tippets, trying to keep the fish from being leader shy. Then there are times when I may have to bump the tippet up to 20 pound; fishing redfish on oyster bars would be a perfect example of this. Extremely light tippets can also make it difficult to turn over bulky or heavy flies. Likewise, a large tippet can ruin the presentation of lighter, more delicate flies.
Pre-Packaged (Extruded) versus Hand-Tied Leaders
When I began fly fishing my line was rigged with a whip-finished loop in the end and I was sold several "knotless" leaders that had a Perfection Loop in the end. This type of rigging made for a very convenient, fast method of changing leaders. I also thought the knotless leaders would make for better presentation and prevent grass from catching on the leader. I became more knowledgeable and began tying my own leaders. I will not argue the convenience of these pre-packaged knotless leaders. They are perfect for people who don't have a lot of time to fish, but decide to wet a line after work. They will also work in a pinch, if you forget your leader material at home. Still, there is nothing better than tying your own leaders.
The biggest issue with knotless leaders is their construction method. The leaders are extruded from a single piece of material, as they pass through a machine. When I managed a fly shop, we took several leaders, from different manufacturers, and checked them. What we found was that each leader was completely different; even though they were supposed to be the same. We only compared like leaders from the same manufacturer to one another, as we knew each company would have their own formula. Despite this, we found some leaders had two feet of tippet, some had six inches, some had more than two feet. Some went from butt section almost to straight tippet, without a proper mid-section. There was absolutely no consistency. By tying your own leaders, you can be guaranteed how the leader is built. It will dramatically improve your casting when you learn to build them properly.
Fluorocarbon versus Mono
This topic is debated all the time. There are anglers who believe you cannot catch a fish without using fluorocarbon material and there are those who despise the material. Who is right? Yes.
The biggest decision I have to make, when deciding which material I use, is what do I want the fly to do? Remember, fluorocarbon sinks while mono typically floats. Sure, fluorocarbon is typically more abrasion resistant (which is why it is used for most bite tippets), but there are also some very good mono materials that are abrasion resistant too. If I need a fly to stay down, I will utilize fluorocarbon. If I need it to stay up or I want it to float properly, I use mono. It really isn't that difficult of a decision for me. I will say that I rarely use a leader tied entirely of fluorocarbon, unless I am dredging flies in deep water. Everyone has their own opinion on this topic and I don't believe there is a right or wrong answer.
I hope this helps a little bit. I know I did not discuss building a leader. That will be coming up. In fact, if everything goes according to plan, Flip Pallot and I will have a short video blog about leader construction next week. Until then, there are tons of sites on the web that will help you. Also, you can send me an email and I will be happy to boar you with all of the monotonous details.
Until next time, Tight Lines and Screaming Drags!