Written by: Kris Kent
The one thing that seems to cause fly fisherman most confusion is what to put in between the fly line and the fly, their terminal tackle, often referred to as the leader or in the past the ‘cast’.
The purpose of the leader is to distance the delicate fly from the thick fly line and to turn over the cast so that the fly is presented in as natural way as possible.
These days most anglers use knotless tapered leaders. This single length of monofilament has a thick butt end, which attaches to the fly line, and a delicate tip, where the fly is attached. The tapered profile helps the energy from the cast to be transmitted down the leader so turning over the fly.
Modern fly lines normally have a welded loop at the end and most tapered leader come with a pre-tied perfection loop so it is very quick and easy to attach the leader to the fly line using a loop to loop connection. Before tapered leaders where invented anglers made up their own leaders by knotting together progressively thinner diameter lengths of monofilament to create a taper. These knotted tapered, or compound, leaders are still used by some fishermen.
Tapered leaders come in a range of lengths, usually between 7½ and 12 feet, with 9 foot being the most popular. If an angler wants to extend their leader, make it longer, they can add a length of monofilament to the end of the leader, this is usually referred to as tippet. Tippet can be attached to the leader using a water/surgeons knot or a micro tippet ring can be attached to the leader and the tippet tied to the ring.
Leaders and tippet come in a variety diameters / breaking strains and are made from a range of different monofilament materials, copolymer nylon and fluorocarbon being the most common. Fluorocarbon is better for subsurface presentation, nymphs and lures, on rivers and stillwaters as it is denser than water and sinks more quickly. It’s refraction index makes it almost invisible in the water. Copolymer nylons are neutral density and better for surface presentation, dry fly and spiders.
Alternatives to tapered leaders:
Braided or furled leaders are made from a number of stands of monofilament or thread. They are tapered and are an alternative to the thicker butt and mid-section of a tapered leader. They are excellent for delicate presentation of dry flies as they are suppler than monofilament and will turn over longer tippet extensions. They have built in butt loops, for attachment to fly line, and either tip loops or micro-rings for attaching tippet extensions.
Polyleaders come in a variety of densities, floating through to superfast sinking, and are particularly useful on stillwaters were anglers want to get their flies down deep in the water column. Like braided leaders they are pre-looped for quick and easy change overs.
When fishing nymphs on rivers a tapered leader can be a disadvantage as the thicker butt section can slow down the descent of the leader through the water. For subsurface presentation a level length of monofilament can be more effective and provide a better presentation of the flies.
When fishing nymphs, spiders or wet flies anglers often want to fish multiple flies on their cast. This requires the addition of droppers to the leader. Pre-tied leaders with droppers attached are readily available. But they can be easily made up either use micro-rings to attach the droppers or using a water/surgeons knot, leaving the down tag of the knot as the dropper.
Choosing the right leader length:
The length of your leader depends on water conditions, not on the length of your fly rod. While it is easier to cast shorter leaders, especially in the wind, fish in shallow water are far more easily frightened by a fly line landing on top of them than a leader landing above them so use the longest leader you can comfortably cast.
When fly fishing during windy conditions or in small streams where fly casts will be short, go to a shorter leader for better turnover.
Choosing the right tippet size:
Most tippet sizes will support three or four fly sizes before they either get too stiff for a lifelike presentation or too thin to turn over the fly. In general, choose the heavier size if the water is dirty, if it’s windy, or if the fish are unusually strong.
Choose the finer size if the water is very clear and the fish are spooky, or if you are fishing tricky currents and drag is a problem, because a thinner tippet will lessen un-natural drag on your fly.
For average conditions choose the middle size.
Kris Kent has been fly fishing and trotting for brown trout and grayling for over 20 years in the UK, Europe and Scandinavia. He is Chief Guide at Chalk Stream Dreams, Fishing Manager at Orvis in Stockbridge, PR Officer for the Grayling Society and helps out The Wild Trout Trust with their online communications and events.