What is a Fly Fishing Leader – Explained

man holding fly fishing reel

Your fly fishing leader may be the single most important part of delivering a fly to the fish. A fly leader is used to transfer energy from the fly line to the fly.

The right leader will lead to more hook up and bites. Choose the wrong leaders, and your fly will tangle, not cast right, or cause your cast to veer off coarse.

With so many leaders on the market how do we know what ones to to use?

Understanding the design of the fly leader and its various details on the packaging will ultimately guide us to the proper leader selection.

That’s not to say that the leader decides how we fish. Actually that not even remotely true. If your buying random leader, then selecting a fly to use, your doing it wrong.

In the next few sections I hope to make you a pro at choosing the right fly leader, so that you can increase the amount of fish you catch.

Components of Fly Fishing Leader

Fly fishing leaders are typically constructed of monofilament or fluorocarbon fishing line. Other materials can be used but only for very specific circumstances.

There are three main pieces to your leader.

  1. Butt Section
  2. Tapered Section
  3. Tippet Section

Tapered leaders are sold in sizes 03x down to 8x. The small the number the bigger the leader. Conversely the bigger the number the small the leader diameter.

The Butt Section

The butt section of the fly fishing leader in the thickest part of the leader. It is also the section that attaches to your fly line.

Where as fly line may vary in styles, weights, and color, fly fishing leaders have few variations.

Where the fly line stops and the butt section of the leader starts you will need to attach the two. There are two methods of doing this that I use.

  • Loop to Loop
  • Nail Knot

Tapered Section

The second part of the fly fishing leader is the tapered section. This is the middle section of the leader between the butt and the tippet.

This is the longest section of the leader. Depending on brand and specific use, sometime the butt section will have a hue of color and as it tapers turns to a clear mono near the fly.

This tapered section is what ultimately disguises the fly line to the fish. The taper will begin almost immediately at the butt and tapper down until the last 2-3 feet of the leader.

Tippet Section

The tippet section of your fishing leader is where the rubber meets the road sort of speak. It is the remaining 2-3 feet of line.

The tippet section of your leader is one uniform diameter all the way through and has the smallest diameter in your fishing line.

The tippet is responsible for distributing the last little bit of energy from the line to the fly. It plays a role in how your fly will ultimately land on the water.

The tippet may also add or subtract movement above the waters surface depending on tippet and fly size.

The tippet section will eventually become shorter due to break offs or simply even changing your flies.

Many fly fisherman will carry a tippet spool on the lanyard. Keep in mind that you must use the right size tippet for your leader. As your leader shortens you may add pieces for tippet to extend your leaders life.

Do not under any circumstance burn through all of your tippet and attach you fly to the tapered section of the leader. This will only work against you in multiple ways.

Instead either tie more tippet to your leader using a surgeons knot or add tippet rings to your leader.

Tippet rings are very small (so small they are hard to handle) rings that you tie to the end of the tapered section of your leader. This way, as you break of or change flies you only have to tie your new tippet to the tippet ring.

How to Choose A Fly Leader

How is that you are choosing your fly fishing leader when you buy them?

Too often anglers are choosing the wrong leader and believe me, their fishing suffers because of it.

What to consider before buy fly leader

  • Size of Fly
  • Weight of Fly
  • Wind Resistance of Fly
  • Species of Fish
  • Presentation

Of these factors the size of the fly is the most important for you to remember. There is a simple equation to help you with this process.

Lets say you arrive at your fishing location and you want to tie on a size 12 Black Stone. Simply take the size of the fly and divide by three.

The diagram below depicts the simple math.

leader math diagrom

So the ideal leader for your size 12 stone is a 4x leader. It’s okay to size down one leader size in most cases. Fishing a 3x leader would be as small as you would want to go.

Another Factor in deciding the what leader you purchase is length.

As a general rule your leader should be the same length as your fly rod. If your fishing a 9 foot fly rod, you should have a 9 foot leader.

As a side note, choosing the right fly rod is equally important as your leader.

When you see this Picture of fly fishing leader, do you understand what it is telling us?

fly fishing leader

Looking at this leader we can tell a few things right off the bat.

  • 5X – This tells us that we will be using a size 14-16 fly.
  • 9FT – This section means I am using my 9 foot fly rod (or close to 9 feet).
  • 4.9LB – The breaking strength in the last 2-3 feet of the leader.

Attaching Your Leader to Line

Now that you have general understanding of leader components and compositions, lets attach them to our fly line.

As stated earlier there are two methods that I prefer to use for this. You can use the loop to loop method or a a

The loop to loop knot works 98 percent of the time for me. It’s a fast way to attach your leader and get to fishing.

Here is a quick video on the loop to loop knot for your fly leader.

The other way and of attaching the leader to the fly line is by using a nail knot.

The nail not has been around for a very long time. Before the time of factory made leader loops and factory welded loops on fly line, the Nail Knot was born.

Tying the nail knot can be tricky if you are new to it. With a little bit of practice you will be able to tie these knots faster and faster.

In the video below he uses a needle to help tie his knot. You can buy a knot tying tool or just use your sunglasses once you get good at it.

Other Leader Consideration

We have covered the main talking points of fly fishing leaders to this point. I will round out the article with a few more bits of information in regards to fly leaders.

Fluorocarbon Fishing Leaders

Fluorocarbon fishing leaders are commonly used for nymph fishing or streamer fishing. The main reason for this is that fluoro leaders sink faster than mono leaders.

If you want to use fluorocarbon make sure to buy the double structure leader. Double structure refers to an inner an outer layer of fluorocarbon. The inner layer is strong, consider it the backbone of the line. The otter layer is soft and supple. This allow for quality knots and reliability throughout the day.

Sink Tip Leader

Sink tip leader is designed to do just what the name implies. Various sink tip lines sink faster or slower than others.

The line is monofilament on the inside and coated with a tungsten coating to add weight.

Use sink tip leader when you are fishing streamers in faster current. In order to get down into the strike zone fast enough sink tip is an option.

Another instance you may want to use sink tip is while fly fishing lakes. When fish are feeding deeper in the water column or near the bottom how else are you going to get you fly down there?

Closing Thoughts

Hopefully by now you have a greater understanding of fly fishing leaders. With the right leaders in place you will see increased accuracy, improved casting distance, and more important, more strikes.

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