One Leader to Rule Them All! Does not exist.
The leader is probably the one most overlooked or ignored part, of our equipment. When I started fly fishing I was under the impression, that I should use the lightest thinnest material possible to catch fish. Maybe you must if you are dry fly fishing, neurotic trout in overfished streams. With the catch and release philosophy, this is flat out wrong in my opinion. I now use the heaviest tippet I can get away with, and shorten the fight for a quicker safer release of fish caught. There is so much dogma out there (like the last sentence), but remember you are fishing for your enjoyment. It is nobody’s business but your own.
Why we use a leader
The leader connects the fly to the fly line and is just a continuation of the fly line that is clear. If a line is cast without a leader it will kick. The energy in the fly line is transferred into the leader to be bled away. However, the butt size of the leader must match the terminal level tip of the floating fly line. Not the size but its weight. 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. The leader thus has two purposes. It must dissipate the surplus energy from the fly line, and turn over smoothly, and still have enough energy to turn over the fly, and it is needed to place our fly where we want it to go.
We have two scenarios when casting out our leader. We can lay it out straight, and that is what we teach initially. The other way is to have the leader land with some curves and squiggles, to get a drag-free drift (puddle cast, etc.). For a straight layout, we need to be able to turn the leader over and the fly we are using, i.e. must be short enough for that. If we desire a collapsed leader (lots of curves) we can use a longer softer leader. Stiff mono will lay straighter but it does not influence the leaders’ turnover (the mass does).
There are many excellent ready-made tapered leaders on offer and they have become better and better. There are leaders for trout, salmon or saltwater to name a few. My advice for a novice is to go with the ready-made one. As you progress you can start building your own. Leaders can be built from different diameter tippet, by successively using smaller diameter from the fly line to the fly. This stepwise tapering down is necessary for energy dissipation and smooth presentation of the fly.
When I started reading about leaders I got really confused. Most of what you read on leaders is from the dry fly fundamentalists. The leader you need to place a #20 Adams upstream of you for a drag-free drift, is not the leader you need when you go saltwater fishing.
I suppose I could just write – for this, this, and that situation – use this, this, and that leader! However, there is scant education in that. When it is time to choose a leader, I want you to think about the situation you are in. From that, you can decide the length and suppleness of the leader. Are the fish likely to be leader shy? If so a longer thinner tippet is called for. Are the fish feeding in the surface or are they deeper? If they are in the surface you do not want your leader to sink like a rock (i.e. no fluorocarbon). Deeper and now you want your leader to sink.
When going for finicky trout with dry flies, you may need a long leader maybe 12´ leader, or even longer. However, longer leaders are much harder to cast. You don’t want to layout your cast straight, because the fly line and the leader will immediately cause drag on the fly (drag leads to unnatural float of the fly – the trout do not get fooled by that). A supple distant part of the leader is a good thing in that situation. The long leader places the end of the fly line farther from the fish. There are several different casts to use if wiggles are desired in your fly line and/or leader such as serpentine cast, puddle cast, etc.
If you are fishing in a lake you want to layout your cast straight. Fish often take the fly moments after it lands, and there is no way you can strike if there is much slack in the leader and line when it lands on the surface. In this situation straight is good, and now a shorter stiffer leader is in order.
If you do not desire a straight layout of the leader it can be longer. If you want it straight it must be to short enough for you to be able to turn the ensemble over. If you cannot your leader is too long.
Because of the energy transfer from the fly line, I like the butt end of my leaders to be thick to match as much as possible the level tip of the fly line (70% diameter of the mono is good). We must match the weight of the level tip of the fly line and the butt of the leader. So, it is the weight that is important not the diameter. It is advantageous to have the leader taper towards the fly. It will dissipate the energy of the cast and lead to the best possible turnover of the leader and the best presentation of your fly. You do not need a factory tapered leader for this, you can make your own by tying together increasingly small segments of tippet.
Practical leader recipe
A good aggressive leader to build is the 60/20/20 leader (Ritz’s leader). The numbers mean lengths of the leader parts in percentage. For a 10´ leader, the first thickest segment is 6´ and the middle segment is 2´ and the terminal thinnest segment is 2’. This leader will turn over aggressively and that suits beginners. Now you can play with the lengths and you should and you will. This is a simple proven recipe for building a leader. Then you can go 50/30/20 for softer turnovers (Richards’s leader).
Which diameters should you use? Remember the butt end needs to be somewhere around 0.026”. When the fly is chosen, you need a certain diameter tippet to match it. Then you just bridge the two segments with one or two pieces of nylon, thinner than the butt, and thicker than the tippet.
Dry fly upstream
Think about what you want to accomplish. Probably a delicate presentation with no drag. Now a leader with a supple distal part that can be on the long side, that floats makes sense, and you cast some slack in the leader or line.
Upstream subsurface fishing. Now we want to get the flies down, so a straight layout is not our goal. The flies will need time to sink before the current starts to influence the fly line and subsequently the flies. Therefore, we want to collapse the leader for the flies to have time to sink for the drift close to the bottom.
Down and across.
Swinging wet flies and streamers. Here I like my leader to lay out straight. If I want the flies down, I cast 90 degrees to the current, and mend the line. Here I want to be able to feel any strikes, so I do not want any slack in my presentation.
A straight leader layout is my choice whether fishing dries or wet flies. I try to have the leader as long I can manage, but short enough to be able to turn over the leader and fly.
There is no one Saltwater Leader. The situations are so different, and that dictates one’s approach. Remember that the breaking test of fly lines is around 30 pounds, and the backing is 20 – 30. It is therefore wise to have the strength of the leader less to have it break first. You do not want to lose any fly line and backing. Most saltwater species do not warrant a leader less than a 5-pound test. Ten pounds is a good all-round strength. I should point out that I favor loops in the line leader connection as the coating of fly lines with a nail knot can easily be stripped off by a pissed off big saltwater fish. It is also quicker to change leaders.
Straight leader and line presentations are needed in the salt. The flies we use are big, often heavy, and wind-resistant. This calls for heavier lines to match the big heavy flies. We must pay attention to our leaders. If we cannot turn over our leader, and layout our cast straight, the leader is too long. For instance, when I cast a big wind resistant popper, I use a short leader 7´6´´. Heavy streamers need heavy lines and leaders that are short enough for the caster to turn over. If there is obvious recoil in the big heavy fly on the forward cast that looks straight more energy needs to be bled from the system and the leader might need to be longer (line leader straight all looks great, then the streamer recoils and leader falls in a heap). By looking at how the leader and fly behave you will get a good idea of what is working and what is not.
Fish that have sharp teeth cut through our leaders like knives through butter (Spanish Mackerel, Barracudas to name some). Then there are fish like Tarpon with abrasive mouths that can saw through our leaders. For these, we use so-called bite or shock tippet. I use nylon coated multi-strand wire, that is easy to tie, as the terminal portion for Spanish Mackerel. Traditional Tarpon leaders taper down, but the terminal end to the fly is thicker (50-60-pound test).
Fly lines and leaders
Most of what is written about leaders is meant for floating lines, but you should not assume that the same goes for the sinking lines. If you are using a fast sinking line it does not do much good, if the fly is hanging much higher in the water column because of your too-long leader.
When you fish sinking lines, you shorten your leader to 3-4′. Just make sure it is thick in the butt and long enough so it does not kick too badly. Curiously when a fly line is submerged right where the fish are holding, it does not seem to bother them, but if you line fish (slap a line on top of a school of fish) they will bolt and they seem to be more warier of a floating line on the surface.
The same goes for the intermediate lines. You get by with short leaders. There are some great clear intermediate lines out there, with those you use short leaders.