The Leader is without doubt the most important piece of equipment in the fly fisher’s arsenal and probably the most abused!
Before we begin discussing the actual Leader we should touch on what a leader does; firstly it has to be long enough to fool the fish, secondly it should be thin enough to fool the fish, and thirdly it should be strong enough to catch the fish.
In a nutshell the Leader is designed to keep the fly line far enough away from the fish as is necessary and still provide the turnover effect that we desire.
So how long is long enough, well that depends on a number of factors and right at the top is the wariness (spookiness) of the fish. Some fish are often referred to as “Leader shy” which means they are unlikely to take a fly attached to a short leader. The opposite can be said of some fish which are “not Leader shy”! Confusing eh?
Another factor that should determine both the length (and thickness) is the fly size being used. A larger fly needs a thicker leader to turn it over; if you try to get a good presentation with a #6 Stone Fly adult using a 10 foot, 7x tippet it’s just not going to happen! There are plenty of tables out there giving the relationship of Leader size to fly size so get your hands on one for easy reference (and use it!). Generally shorter thicker Leaders are required for bigger flies (if you are “chucking” a #6 Stone Fly then you are not after subtlety).
So how long should it be; well a good rule of thumb is 9 feet although they can go either way depending on the above. My advice is to carry 9 foot Leaders in an assortment of sizes depending on the area you are fishing and you should not go too far wrong. Of course local knowledge is going to help and everyone knows that when they pop into the fly shop at their new fly fishing destination the question that jumps off their lips is “what are they biting on?” That is obviously a pretty important thing to know as you head to the stream although if you had bothered to ask “what kind of Leader do you guys use round here?” then the combination of the correct fly and the correct Leader puts you in a greater position to begin catching fish.
So why do we need a tapered Leader and not just a 9 foot length of monofilament on the end of our fly line? A fly line has evolved over the years into a tapered line (first tapered line appeared in the 17th century) and not just for correctly loading the rod. The first part of the fly line tapers from the tip up to the beginning of the belly section to allow us to reach our target (the fish) without pounding the water with a great lump of line. The front tapered section allows the power to “bleed off’ as the cast unfurls. How much more efficient it would be if we could continue that taper almost up to the fly! Well we do, it’s called the Leader. If you replace the tapered Leader with a parallel section of monofilament then you will lose this added “turnover” bonus. In addition to this factor is that the thin section of monofilament (the thickness required to fool the fish) will cause a “hinging” effect instead of a desired curving effect at the transition between fly line and Leader. The “butt’ section of Leader is a standard size to ensure that we get a natural curve to the junction between fly line and Leader.
So we have established that a tapered Leader is the order of the day, should it be a manufactured one or should I build my own. Some folks (I have a curmudgeonly friend who does!) actually still build their own Leaders using sections of monofilament stepping (stepped, knotted Leader) down in size to the final section which fools the fish. Is this a good idea, well the good thing about this is that you can adjust the formula that is used to build this type of Leader and “fine tune” your casting. The downside is all those knots! That’s not (no pun intended!) because of the weakness, it’s because the knots catch moss and debris.
My personal feeling is that manufacturers have spent hours and hours researching the correct taper that a Leader should have, and I am going to capitalize on this by buying their product! I am not going to get into a shouting match about which manufacturer makes the best Leaders, all I will say is that some make a great product and some make pretty awful product! You choose.
So how does a Leader get abused?
When you get a Leader out of the packet it is ready to go (based on the fact that length and thickness is correct for the fishing you are about to do) and you need do no more that attach your fly. Some people are under the false impression that “Tippet” has to be added to the Leader before you attach the fly. The first section (ranges for 10 inches to a couple of feet) of the Leader (the tip) is also called the Tippet so it is unnecessary to add additional Tippet “Material” (look on the Tippet spool and you will see it says Tippet Material) before you fish. Of course if you only have a 9 foot Leader and the stream requires an 11 foot Leader then it is considered correct utilize the 9 foot Leader by attaching and extra 2 feet of Tippet. Be wary of this though because you are stepping into that situation of fishing with a parallel Leader. Best policy is to use the next size thicker Leader and attach the next size down Tippet to get a “sort of” tapering effect.
OK we are back to the situation where you are fishing with a brand new Leader, nicely tapered and with just the right amount of Tippet section at the tip. You change flies numerous times (one of those days!) and now we are down to a 6 foot Leader. Out comes the Tippet material of the size the Leader was and on goes a 3 foot section. You have just created the same situation you would have encountered if you had attached Tippet material to the tip section of the fly line, namely a hinging action instead of the desired curving action and an excessively long parellel Tippet secton giving incorrect turnover. Another bad aspect of this is that when you tie together two sections of monofilament you need to ensure that the difference in thickness should not exceed 0.002 inches (5x to 3x or 5x to 7x etc).
Moral of the story is to replace the Tippet regularly to maintain the tapering of the Leader. If you find you have to added Tippet to an excessively shortened Leader, do so by adding some thicker Tippet (note the comment above about joining two differing sizes of Tippet) first and “stepping” down to the required size. This way you will get better turn over and catch more fish!
We will see if this generates any conversations about other types of Leader like “braided” or “furled”. What about fluorocarbon? Let’s see what develops.