I have covered the ready-made leader in a previous post https://everyjonahhasawhale.com/?p=3373. 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.
LEADERS BUILT FROM MONO
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.
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.
STEINI – A PRINCIPLED ANGLER – CLEAR PRIORITIES
* 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