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Fly fishing leaders and tippets - Why and How

Make your own custom hand-tied fly fishing leaders

Fly Fishing Leader How-To and custom hand-tied leaders images

Why tie my own leaders when I can buy a packaged leader at a local fly shop?  There is no definitive answer when it comes to tying you own leaders in an already complex sport we call fly fishing.  It’s just another intimate way of understanding one aspect of fly fishing, not unlike tying your own flies.

My choice of building and tying my own leaders came down to cutting cost in my own fly fishing guide service, but not the only reason.  I’m used to keeping my old leaders tied on when I’m not guiding or pre-fishing for an upcoming trip.  While preparing for an upcoming guide trip, I clip all of the old leaders off and tie on brand new hand-tied leaders.  It’s not uncommon for me to tie on new leaders two or three times a day.  Now you can understand where the “cost” factor comes into play over the course of an entire fly fishing season.

Leaders take a lot of abuse on a normal day of fly fishing, from wind knots to rubbing on rocks.  Always check your leaders for wind knots and abrasions before, during and after fly fishing.  Wind knots create a weak link in your leader, so don’t lose that fish of a lifetime by using a poor quality leader.  Take a little time before you head out on your next fly fishing trip and try making some hand-tied leaders.

Why tie your own leader?

  • Hand tied leaders cost pennies on the inch compared to factory made leaders costing up to $3.50 and more.
  • The flexibility to tailor your own leaders to specific fly fishing conditions.
  • The advantage of creating your own tapered leader to match your own style of fly fishing, the way you cast, the type of flies you throw and water conditions versus being stuck with a commercially made leader.
  • It’s much easier and quicker to change and re-tie a new hand-tied leader when the local fishing conditions change.
  • You will get great satisfaction knowing you had direct input on how your fly was presented into fooling your catch just like catching your first fish on your very own hand-tied fly.

What is a leader and why use one?

  • A leader provides a connection from the fly line to the fly.
  • A leader helps transfer the energy of the fly line to the fly.  The fly line is used to transfer and store the energy to carry the fly line, leader and fly during the cast.
  • A leader helps by relieving the energy from the fly line for proper presentation of the fly.
  • A leader lets your fly behave in a life like manner.

What are the sections of a fly fishing leader?
Generally there are three basic sections to a tapered leader: Butt, Body and Tippet.  One common way to determine length is by using the 50, 25, 25 rule.  Use 50% of the total length of the leader for the butt section, then 25% for the body and 25% for the tippet leader sections.

  • Butt – One of the most important sections of the tapered leader formula as it begins the transfer of energy from the fly line to the leader material.  Leaders with a diameter near .020” to .026” are good choices to use.  Stiffness is another factor to consider in the butt section. A line too limp will make the leader collapse or fold over.  A line to stiff will not properly roll the line over and not transfer the energy to the body section.
  • Body - This section contains smaller diameter lines and starts to relieve the energy from the fly line, but at the same time keeping control of the fly for proper presentation.
  • Tippet – Tippet lengths from 16” – 24” is a good guide to follow.  Again the smallest diameters of your tapered leader setup down to the lowest breaking strength you are trying to achieve.   There are a many specialty tippets from wire leaders for toothy fish to strong shock tippets for hard hitting fish.

What knots do I use for tying different leader sections together?
The blood knot or surgeons knots are good for quickly joining two sections together. The Uni-to-Uni knot is one the strongest knots to tie, but takes a little more time to tie.  The Uni-to-uni knot keeps two sections of leader material in a more straight and natural line.

Different types of leader material?

  • Monofilament - Mono line is the most common leader material to use.  Mono comes in a variety of sizes, stiffness and diameters.  Most leaders are tied using mono because of the variety, diameters, stiffness, and stretch and abrasion resistance.
  • Fluorocarbon – A synthetic material that claims to be nearly invisible under water by having the same refracting index as water.  The debate is still going on whether Fluorocarbon is better then mono.  Fluorocarbon is good for the last section of tippet on a tapered leader.
  • Mono/Fluorocarbon – A blend of mono and fluorocarbon such as P-Line.  The debate is still out on this one as well.
  • Braided Super Lines – A synthetic line made by weaving thin diameter man-made materials to form a no-stretch, low diameter and very strong line.  Super lines are usually to limp for leaders, but make good tippet material on short leaders.  Use short pieces of braided line with full sinking fly lines and where it's not necessary to have long leaders.  Be very cautious when working with braided line because of small diameter, no stretch and strength.

The different uses of fly fishing leaders:

  • Saltwater fly fishing – Relatively longer with very good transparency.  Strong and durable.
  • Northern Pike and Musky fly fishing – Short, strong with cut resistance tippet section.
  • Dry fly fishing – Long and fine tapering leaders.
  • Streamer fishing – Longer heavy butt section to turn over heavier flies.
  • Andronomous (Salmon and Steelhead) fly fishing – Abrasion resistance and strong.
  • Bass fly fishing – Short and strong for thick cover, heavy butts and shorter lengths for turning over big flies that catch a lot of air like divers.

Other things to think about when building your leader:

  • What type of casting do you like to do such as your cadence and rod length? Do you use fast actions rods or medium action rods.
  • What are the weather and water conditions such as wind or river current?
  • Is the water very clear or dingy and off colored?
  • Are you fly fishing deep water or shallow?
  • What type of fish are you fly fishing for?  Northern pike and musky have very sharp teeth, so a wire or thick mono tippet would be needed.  You might need a good shock resistance leader for Smallmouth bass that are hard hitters.
  • What is the structure or cover like?  Using a highly abrasion resistance line will help around rocks and wood that can very hard on leaders.

There are many leader tools and leader calculators that try to help you figure out what the best lengths should be for you, like LeaderCalc. Most leader calculator tools and programs start with a base for lengths and tippet diameters and this base is ultimately derived from some other person(s), not you.  Some leader calculators do offer recommended lengths and line diameters for certain species of fish and/or type of fly fishing.  The best knowledge still comes from your own experience by getting out there on the water experimenting with different types of lines and different lengths. 

Ouitdee Carson
Arrowhead Fly Angler Guide Service

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