Three leader types
Three leader types

I have covered the ready-made leader in a previous post Now I’ll have a go at the latter two leader types.

When it comes to leader build you need to be very careful. Much is written on leader build, and everyone is THE EXPERT. Don’t get sucked into the black hole of fly fishing leader literature. It only needlessly confuses you and can get terribly anal, causing decision anxiety and leading to a case of fishing paralysis. Pay attention to the three basics: the butt size, the tippet size, and finally, your middle piece/pieces. So, keep it simple, and you will be fine and enjoy your fishing more.

So, here is my attempt to explain and simplify how to understand what a leader is, and how you can subsequently build one yourself, even if it is totally unnecessary, without suffering a nervous breakdown. If you understand the principles, you can build one to fit all your fishing circumstances. A functional leader can be built out of 3-4 (or more) separate mono strands of decreasing diameter. Just consider the butt end, the middle part, and the terminal portion of a leader, i.e. 3 variables.

When you understand the principle – you don’t need any recipes.

Now, the length of the three parts in proportions (%) can vary. Charles Ritz advocated 60/20/20 as a good proportion. That build is quite powerful. For a leader that is not too delicate and not too powerful, Bruce Richards suggests 50/30/20. If you want your leader to be very delicate just increase the length of the terminal tippet, if a more powerful leader is desired, then shorten it. If you don’t want to lengthen your leader, but keep it delicate, you just shorten the first segment (40/30/30 or 35/35/30 for instance). Ritz’s and Richards’s recipes are applicable to standard length leaders (9-10 feet). For longer leaders the butt part needs to be longer. If you apply the 50/30/20 formula to a 15′ leader you get a butt that is too short, taper and tippet that are too long for mortals to cast easily, thus 60/25/15 would work better. For very short leaders the profile is less important. They are all used for streamers, so no delicacy is needed, and because they are short and the flies are big there is always plenty of power.


As you gain experience you might start to build your own leaders. To build a leader from mono you need knots. Obviously, now the connecting knots are the weak links. Two knots are the weakest links and must be strong (well tied): the one that ties the fly to the tippet and the one that ties the tippet to the rest of the leader. All the rest of the knots are tied in much stronger material, even if “weak,” they will be much stronger than the critical two. So, what knots to use is partly determined by that. Most anglers would use blood knots, because they are the neatest and pass through the guides best. The last two knots will probably be something different, for strength. There are certain types of knots for backing to reel, backing to fly line, fly line to the leader, leader to tippet, and finally tippet to the fly. And how we can torture ourselves with endless drivel on these knots! For chrissakes make up your mind, and just choose the bloody knot type. A plethora of knots exist, and many types of knots do the job. Here is one of the sites that display line to line knots.

Here again, the problem of choice rears its ugly head. So, which knots to choose? Actually, it does not matter much which type of knots you choose, just choose one for each job, and stick with it.

Building a leader

For a floating line

Let’s consider a 10′ leader. The butt size/diameter needs to match the fly line diameter tip (70%). I am using a 5# line with a tip diameter of 0.038”. That calls for a butt diameter of 0.026” (0.038” x 0.7 = 0.026”). Therefore, the butt part is already dictated by your fly line. You can influence the power of your leader by adjusting the length of the butt part. Six feet (Ritz’s recipe) will get you a powerful leader, but a shorter one, say 5 feet (Richards’s recipe) will yield neither a powerful one nor one too delicate.

I consider the 50/30/20 to be a standard leader.

  • So, we go with 5′ of 0.026”. Now, skip the middle part for a second.
  • We are using a normal #10 fly. We use the X rule (divide the fly size by three – that’s your tippet X). 10 / 3 = 3 circa, so now we go with a 3x tippet. Rule of eleven states that a 3X tippet has a diameter of 0.008”.
  • Let’s use 2′ of 0.008” for the tippet.
  • Now we have five feet of 0.026” butt section,
  • and two feet of 0.008” for the tippet.
  • That leaves three feet, and we can use a 1.5′ mono of 0.020” + 1.5′ mono of 0.012” to bridge the gap.

Generally when we are building leaders, and the differences in the diameters of the mono make it difficult to tie together, just use two or three sections of mono to step it up or down. That adds one more knot, but not in the critical part, i.e. the tippet of the leader.

The leader you need is dependent on its use. For instance, you need more power to cast a heavy fly than for a dry fly. Your choice for length of the butt section will influence the power of your leader. Your casting abilities play a role, too. Beginning casters need more powerful leaders than elite casters. Weather also plays its role. On a windy day (and most are) you need a more powerful leader. Leader length is a factor, too. Long leaders take much more skill to cast than shorter leaders. I would advise beginners to go for powerful leaders – you can always dial down the energy of your cast.

To put it super simply, the butt length decides the power, the tapering part helps bleed off the energy of the cast, and the tippet needs just enough energy left to turn the fly over.

For a sunken line

Sunken leaders don’t need to be very long, but must have enough mass to temper the line turnover. I recommend about 5′ total, 24″ of heavy butt (at least .026″), then 18″ of maybe .020“, then 18″ heavy tippet, 10-12 lb. test at least. Not elegant (elegance not needed), but works both for casting and fishing. Most people don’t use butt sections that are heavy enough. Butt diameter of 0.026″ is a minimum to temper the line turnover.


Level leaders are only for idiot savant casters for the reasons stated below. An idiot savant caster can use just about anything as a leader, but the rest of us CAN’T.

It is possible to use a level leader from the butt to the tip. We know that the butt part needs to be 0.7 of the diameter of the fly line diameter tip. Let us imagine that we need a tippet with 0.026” for our saltwater line. Take a look at the table below for saltwater tippets. (Incidentally, the tippet has no clue where it is, neither do lines nor rods for that matter. I use my freshwater lines in the salt because I like casting them.) Now you are left with a whopping 50 lb. tippet. Perfect butt size but few are interested in tying a 50 lb. tippet to a fly. The hook to be used must furthermore have an eye that matches the level leader. Additionally, now the leader is the strongest part of the whole casting system. That is potentially unsafe, if you need to break off a fish* (a story on that below).

I have a #6 line called TROUT with a tip that measures 0.039.” Its diameter calls for a 0.027” tippet. If I go with the 50 lb. tippet (butt diameter 0.026) the resultant knot could turn out to be bigger than the fly itself. The trout tippet lineup (above) has its thickest tippet at 0.013 or only half the diameter needed. Because of all those issues I strongly advise against using level leaders. If you only have tippet material left and must use it, choose a diameter between the butt requirement and the fly size requirement. Like most compromises it works, but not well.

Leader recipes

In a blog like this I can’t list leader recipes left and right.

I would like to draw your attention to Keith Richards’s How to… Design Your Leaders Streamside.

Keith’s recipes are based on break strength and are undoubtedly good designs. But remember that it is mass that makes the leaders work, not its break strength. If Keith used older, low tech monofilament the diameter would be large (the mass, too), and surely correct. But if you make your leaders out of newer, high tech monofilament, your diameter/mass will be much lower and the leader butt, and the mid-section will be too light. Use Mason Hard Mono or Scientific Anglers Absolute Hard Mono to guide you to correct diameters of butt and mid sections.

Hrútafjarðará – Salmon in fall 2019


* When you are fishing the blue-ribbon salmon rivers of Iceland, there is a tradition to serve a drink when you return to the lodge for your meals. Punctually at 2pm and 10pm you return for the meals, and get your reward. Steini, one of the great characters of Icelandic fishing lore, was once fishing in Vatnsdalsá. Steini was a very accomplished salmon angler and had frequently caught big salmon (20lb. plus) in Vatnsdalsá. Those big fish are not subdued quickly, if at all. One day he was fishing just before the noon break, and a big salmon nailed his fly and jumped. No doubt – a very big fish was on. Steini went ashen and muttered Another bloody outsize fish. I just can’t stand this. Takes forever to land the bloody f…….Whereupon Steini straight-lined the salmon, gave a hard tug, and broke the fish off. Steini taught me a lot, and I cherish his memory.

English consultant: My good retired neighbor Joe

Technical consultant: Bruce Richards

There are lots of companies offering their leaders. It isn’t practical to go through all of them. I choose to portray some of SA’s leaders simply because I know exactly, what I am getting when I buy those. The diameters (butt-tippet) of each leader is clearly stated. If the diameters are not stated, I will not buy that leader. All companies list the break strength and length.

We have defined the three parts of the leader. First comes the butt end, which needs to be 70% of the diameter of the floating fly line tip. The middle part then tapers, and the leader ends in the level tippet. The tippet needs to match the hook size to a degree. Modern commercial leaders have become fantastic. They are offered in various lengths, tippet/butt diameters, suppleness, and break strengths. You can find a leader for all your fishing needs from various companies. I strongly advise beginners to use the commercially available leaders at the outset. Mono has become much stronger over the years, and the quality of the leader material has improved. If anglers can’t find a leader that works for them – they need to fix their casting!

Ready-made leaders mostly come with a pre-tied loop on the butt end. When you use such a ready-made leader there is only one knot to worry about — the one for the fly. There are certain types of knots that work well for backing to reel, backing to fly line, fly line to the leader, leader to tippet, and finally tippet to the fly. The knot to learn first is therefore in the terminal connection category.

This site lists 34 terminal knots that you can use. There are undoubtedly many more. To tie the fly onto the leader, I use the classic Clinch knot and sometimes the Uni knot. It does not really matter which one you use if they are tied badly! Here again, the problem of choice rears its ugly head. So, which knots to choose? Actually, it does not matter much which type of knot you choose, just choose one for each job, and stick with it.

If you come to a fork in the road – take it (Yogi Berra).

Trout Leader

Trout Leader
Trout Leader

To give you an idea of ready-made leaders you can buy – let’s start with the Trout Leaders. It is simplest to display the information in a table. It is much easier to visualize that way.

So, 22 different trout leaders are available! You don’t really have to make your own. Below are pointers on which ones to use and when. Remember, for beginners the shorter leaders work best. As your casting improves you can cast longer leaders, but they are rarely required.

When and why would we choose a short or long leader? Usually the reason has to do with visibility. If the water is murky or it is night-time, very short leaders and heavy tippets work fine. If the water is gin clear, the sky bright and cloudless, the water calm, and the fish are biting, and enjoy great visibility (think bonefish, or trout), then you need a longer leader, and longer lighter tippet.

Seven feet six-inch leader.

1.         Short, powerful and ideal for casting big/heavy flies/fly. Just remember to open your loops when delivering the heavy load. On a windy day this leader can become a great trout leader. This length leader is the easiest one to cast.

2.         The butt diameter is the easy part – it needs to be 70% of the diameter of the level tip of your terminal floating line.

3.         The break strength is decided by the size of the fish, and the size of the fly you choose (#fly divided by 3 – indicates X size of your tippet).

Nine-foot leader.

1.         This leader length can be viewed as the standard-length leader. This length is my default and is practical in most situations. Just a tad more difficult to cast than the 7.5’ leader for a beginner.

2.         The butt diameter is easy – it needs to be 70% of the diameter of the level tip of your terminal floating line.

3.         The break strength is decided by the size of the fish, and the size of the fly you choose (#fly divided by 3 – indicates X size of your tippet).

Eleven-foot leader.

1.         This leader length can become useful in situations where the fish enjoy great visibility – clear water, mirror surface, sunny day. If the trout are finicky an eleven-foot leader places the end of the fly line further from the fish, which can become advantageous. However, those extra 2 feet will become much harder to cast for a beginner.   

2.         The butt diameter is easy – it needs to be 70% of the diameter of the level tip of your terminal floating line.

3.         The break strength is decided by the size of the fish, and the size of the fly you choose (#fly divided by 3 – indicates X size of your tippet).

Fourteen feet leader.

1.         For the idiot savants of fly casting, NOT to be recommended to beginners

Great Blue Heron
Great Blue Heron

Salmon, Steelhead and Seatrout

For Icelandic readers – steelhead is a seagoing rainbow. For American readers – seatrout is a seagoing brown trout (in British English). So, here we have five nine-foot leaders, and three twelve-foot leaders. It is enough for me. These anglers don’t use the X system, only worrying about the break strength of the tippet and the leader length. Nine-foot leaders are the standard. In low water situations and when the visibility for the fish is good, twelve-foot leaders are handy.

Salmon Steelhead and Seatrout Leader
Salmon Steelhead and Seatrout Leader


Here you have five different leaders to choose from and that’s plenty in my book. Break strength is the all-important factor. This crowd does not pay enough attention to the butt size of their leaders, but they should because the flies are often heavy, and you need optimal energy transfer from the fly line to turn the beasts over. However, these leaders have the optimal butt diameters.

Saltwater Leader
Saltwater Leader

The red thread for all the leaders above

I noticed, when looking at these leaders, that all these leaders have relative thick butts. By relative I mean in respect to the butt diameters I was used to using chasing trout in Iceland twenty years ago. The butt diameters are not a coincidence. This manufacturer knows the importance of matching the leader to the fly line likely to be used, and these leaders cast very well with the correct line.

You also have noticed the marketing “trout leader” “salmon leader” “saltwater leader” terms. These are all high-end copolymer nylon with a relative density of 1.2. They have no awareness and have no idea where they are. The fish don’t care what we call those leaders either. So, you can use them whenever, wherever you are fishing, if the break strength and diameters and length is ok. The leaders above are made to be used with floating lines.

Brown Pelican
Brown Pelican

Sunken leaders

When you are using lines that sink (sinking, sink tip, or intermediate clear tip lines) you do not need a long leader. Sinking lines can have a very heavy terminal end, plus are often used with quite heavy flies. These leaders work very well, but remember to change your casting. Sinking type lines should not be cast as floating lines. Open up your loops and minimize your false casting. On each forward cast lay the line down for an instant, then backcast and gradually shoot the line out. This type of leader can be used to an advantage with floating lines too. If you are casting a very heavy streamer you can use a four-foot leader to ensure that you can turn the streamer over. Floating lines with a clear floating tip do not need long leaders – this leader works well with such a line.

Sinking Leader
Sinking Leader

But which one ……………?

I have tried to explain the fundamental basics of how you choose your leader. When you understand those, you can choose which leader to use in the different scenarios you encounter. So, the answer to the question above is —– use the right one. Remember, that the leader you need to use is dependent on your casting abilities, and to a degree on the weather, too. In bad windy weather go shorter. If there is great visibility for the fish, then go longer but never exceed your casting abilities.

English consultant: My good retired neighbor Joe

Technical consultant: Bruce Richards

The leader is probably the most overlooked or misunderstood part of the fly casting system. It is impossible to do the subject any justice in one blog, therefore I will parse it out. This part covers various generalities on leaders.


Much is written on leaders in fly fishing. A Google search – “fly fishing leaders” – yields about 17,600,000 hits (0.91 seconds). That’s a lot to chew through, and if you missed the 11,111,00th you are in serious trouble. Some pieces are of course excellent, and others are less so. However, leaders are often made out to be very complicated, when they are not. Remember, the leader is a continuum of the fly line that happens to be clear. The front taper of the fly line tapers down to dissipate the energy of the cast, but should leave just enough energy to turn over the leader and the fly. That’s the leader’s function (dissipate energy – turn over fly) – there is no mystery. The standard leader is 9′ long, starts with a butt end, and ends after tapering, in the now thinner tippet end. That’s it – that all there is to it.


When ruminating on leaders, we must make clear, that they are caster dependent. The longer they get, the better you must cast, and the more delicate leaders require better casting. Casting is always a part of leader design. So, remember the leader you use must match your casting abilities. Those who recommend a certain leader, should also state for whom it is intended. If a leader is very long and delicate, it is for the idiot savants of fly casting, but they do not need any help for sure. Our recommendations are for beginners and average casters.

The leader you use trout fishing is also dependent on the general visibility of the day. A calm day with no cloud coverage and clear water, means good visibility for the fish, and calls for a little longer leader. On a dark rainy day the leader can be a bit shorter. The mass of the fly used is very important. Small dries can be cast with delicate leaders whereas a big weighted Wooly Bugger needs a much more powerful leader.

Bonefish released
Bonefish released


Some housekeeping before we dive into it. A commercial leader comes in one piece. The thick first part is the level butt, then we have the mid-section or the taper, and finally the level tippet. The leader starts out level, then tapers down, and then levels out again. As you change your flies the tippet or terminal portion of your leader gets cut, and the leader shortens. Therefore, you carry a spool of mono of similar diameter to the tippet, and tie in pieces to lengthen the leader again. Mono just means single stranded, but the term has drifted (languages do that) to mean nylon in fly fish speak. Fluorocarbon (also mono) is also used as tippet material, often just shortened to fluoro.

Tippet – The rule of eleven

The tippet material is loaded onto spools, and marked with its breaking test – 5 pound or 10 pounds, etc.- and the diameter of tippet which is far more important. Then there is something called X, for instance X, 2X or 5X stamped on the spool label. This X system is used to indicate the diameter of monofilament lines. This X denotation comes from the past like so much in our sport. Leaders were made from silk worm guts. The segments were then drawn through dies that shaved off a little bit every passage. 3X had been 3 times through etc. The higher the X number the thinner the tippet.

Now the standard is set so that 0X is 0.011 inches thick. Subtract the number prefix to the X from 0.011 to find the diameter of the tippet – for 1X we go 0.011 – 1 = 0.010 etc. Take the 2 numbers, add together = 11. Another way to explain this is to say the X rating plus the diameter in thousandths will be equal to 11. (5 thousandths (.005”) + 6X = 11. 3X + 8 thousandths (.008”) = 11). Now, the various sizes can be found in the table below. Of course the diameter of the tippet is also stated making the x system redundant but the “trouters” love it and therefore it stays. The “salters” only pay attention to the breaking test of their tippet when they should be paying attention to the diameter too.

X number and diameter

Mass or break strength

Tippet material has evolved and become very strong. Now for instance, you can get tippet material with 0.011” diameter that has an impressive 16 lb. break strength (diameter of “old tech” 16 lb. Mason Hard mono is 0.020″). Its density has not increased – it is still the same. The mass of such a piece of tippet is therefore smaller than the “older” tippet. However, the turnover of the leader is dependent on the MASS of the leader NOT the break strength og the tippet. Therefore, the diameter (better indicator of mass) of the tippet is the all important factor, not the break strength, when building leaders or adding tippet to a leader. We should emphasize that tensile strength of sections of leaders are unimportant EXCEPT for the tippet, the weak link. Pay no attention to the tensile strength of butt and taper, it will lead you astray, the mass/diameter rule is the important one!

Pay attention to your butt size

So, in the last blog (see below), I explained the importance of having a thick butt on your leader connecting to your fly line. Approximately 70% off the diameter of the tip of the fly line is the goal for the butt’s leader. We arrived at the 70% figure by dividing the relative density of the floating fly line tip or 0.85, with the relative density of 6/6 nylon or 1.2 – 0.85/1.2 = 0.70. This applies only to floating lines. The relative density of the tip of sinking lines is much higher. Therefore open up your loop to minimize the kick, when casting sinking lines. So, it follows that the meatier lines need leaders with thicker butts. You can easily measure the tip off the fly line with a micrometer. The butt diameters of ready-made commercial leaders is now generally of the right size.

Purpose of leader

What’s the purpose of the leader? To deliver the fly, and dissipate the energy of the cast. That’s best achieved by tapering the leader, insuring just enough energy to turn over the fly. Ready made leaders start level, then they taper down and level out again. If you are casting as hard as you can and can’t turn over the leader you need to shorten it and/or use a lighter fly.

The leader ends where we tie in the fly. Not rocket science exactly. But it is obvious that we can’t tie a very thick tippet to a small Collie dog. Conversely, we don’t tie a 3 lb. tippet to a monstrous ten-inch fly. Therefore, it is clear that the tippet size must match the hook size to an extent. You can also divide fly size by 3 and that’s your X size. Adjust up or down 1 size depending on conditions. The recommendation for the tippet size and hook size is more fluid than the recommendation for the butt size, but you’ll get the idea. As you bumble along you get a feel for the size of tippet to use with the various hook sizes.

Salmon released
Salmon released

Light lines can’t cast heavy flies

Some fish (bonefish and salmon for instance) take flies that could easily be cast with light rods. However, you do not want to deal with a salmon equipped with a four-weight rod. Same goes for bonefish. The bonefish flats are wind swept, and you just need heavier lines because of that. If the fight gets prolonged, a shark will eat the exhausted bonefish for sure. It is super important to remember that you can cast small flies with heavy gear, but can’t cast big flies with light gear.

English consultant: My good retired neighbor Joe

Technical consultant: Bruce Richards