What is a fly leader?
The leader in fly fishing is a line (typically monofilament or fluorocarbon) attached at the end of your fly line that presents your fly to the fish. It aids in the transfer of energy from the fly line, turning over your flies while casting. The flies you’re throwing and the fish you’re targeting will drastically change your leader setup. Have no fear – this post will cover just about everything you need to know to have confidence in your leader system.
The easy way out if you don’t want to deep-dive right now.
If you want an easy way out or don’t have the time to deep-dive right now, get pre-made leaders. A general all-around great leader for intracoastal, beach, and mangrove fishing for snook, tarpon, jacks, and more in our local waters is the Rio Redfish/Seatrout Leader in the 16lb option. Add 1.5 feet of Orvis Mirage Tippet in 20-40lb (depending on the fish you are targeting) bite section to the end of the leader with a blood knot. This puts you at a 10.5 foot total length leader.
With that being said – if you want to deep dive into understanding leaders, keep reading.
Understanding the leader system parts and what they are there for.
Let’s start off with the terminology you will be hearing throughout this blog post. These names are what make up a leader system. Understanding what they are, and how they work in your system is crucial.
Butt section: The butt section is the first part of your leader, the part that you attach to the fly line. It should always be heavier than your class so that it transfers the energy from the cast efficiently.
Class: The class of a leader can be defined as the weakest point of your whole leader. It is either the lowest part of the leader, or the second lowest. Lowest meaning closest to the fly. Most leaders will be called out by their class.
For example you would say “She was using a 16lb leader” in both of these cases:
- 16lb was the lightest line in the leader and it was tied directly to the fly
- 16lb was the lightest line in the leader and it was tied to a piece of 40lb fluorocarbon which was tied to the fly
Aside from the casting benefits of tapering down to a class, the class itself plays two fundamental roles.
- It is a baseline to measure your fish fighting abilities
- It protects the fish and your gear
Its properties as a metric for fish fighting abilities are obvious, it’s more difficult to keep a big fish from breaking 8lb line than it is 20lb line. Remember though that you’re testing yourself, not the fish. It is to no-ones advantage to play a fish for hours or til near-death on light tippet. But it is to your advantage and very rewarding to learn the techniques to woop a fish and land it quickly on lighter tippet. Learning will mean failing and breaking off a bunch of fish, but that long fail > learn > succeed journey is part of what makes fly fishing so great and oh so addicting!
Class protects the fish and gear by providing a breaking point. As we said you’ll break fish off accidentally, which is better for the fish than being handled. You’ll also be able to easily break a fish off on purpose, like if the fish is in shark danger. Being able to break off easily will protect your gear (rod and fly line) from damage if you hook a rock, piling or tree. This part is only true if you have a reasonable class tippet, 20lb or lighter.
Bite or shock tippet: In saltwater fishing you’ll often want to protect your class tippet from abrasive or toothy mouths. So your bite or shock tippet (interchangeable words) is going to be the last section in your leader system that attaches to the fly. It’s going to be heavier than your class for abrasion resistance purposes. A bite or shock tippet can be monofilament, fluorocarbon or wire.
Overall length: The overall length is pretty self-explanatory. It’s the total length of your leader including butt and bite sections. Overall length plays a huge role in your presentation of the fly and feeding the fish. Remember your fly line is a potentially offensive color, your leader is clear. This is important to keep in mind when fishing for spooky or weary fish like bonefish, a long leader will work best. Also keep in mind that the longer the leader the more energy is lost from the end of the fly line, which is why it’s more difficult to throw large flies with a longer leader. Remember that when making leaders for fish that are not leader shy and require large flies like musky.
Taper: Understanding how a taper of a leader works is understanding what a fly cast is. It’s a transfer of energy generated by the rod tip. A good taper unrolls the fly cleanly on your target, as opposed to in a mess of line. If you grab a packaged pre-made fly leader off the shelf and run your hand from the butt section to the class tippet – you will notice it goes from thick to thin without any knots.
Buy Or tie?
This is a question we get asked a lot at the shop. The answer is – it just depends. I opt to tie my own leaders. I feel it adds another level of skill in your knots and holds you accountable if something happens within your leader system. It adds a different element knowing that you made all the connections right. If this sounds like you and you want even more of a challenge, I suggest taking the dive into tying your own. Another major thing to note about tying your own leaders is IGFA compliance and building the perfect compliant leader. (See image below from IGFA Fly Leader Rules for more details)
There is no doubt in my mind that pre-made knotless leaders are just more efficient. The benefit of being knotless is that there’s nothing for grass or seaweed to snag on. Knotless leaders generally have only 3 fail points – the knot for the loop of the leader, the bite section you attach, and the connection to the fly. Not to mention knotless leaders provide incredible energy transfer due to their perfect machine-made tapers.
Building Your Own Leaders.
First, let’s start off with knots. The three main knots to get you into leader building are the Albright Knot, the Perfection Loop, and the Blood Knot. With these three knots, you can construct just about any leader you want. Needless to say, these are not the only knots and there are many ways to skin a cat. As you get comfortable building leaders, start trying to optimize them with different knots that you want to learn or knots you think will work well. Being confident in your connections is key.
For the leader material monofilament is by far the most popular choice. For saltwater a medium-stiff monofilament will work best for turnover and presentation. Our favorite is RIO Saltwater Mono. As you get comfortable with tying leaders, experimenting with hard monos (stiffer) can help you optimize leaders for certain conditions. But to us nothing beats building out a good taper with the proper sizes of a medium-stiff mono. Fluorocarbon sinks slightly quicker than monofilament and is slightly thinner than monofilament. These slight advantages play a bigger role in trout fishing than they do in the salt (allowing a nymph to get down). But fluorocarbon is also slightly more abrasion resistant, making it a popular choice for bite sections on a monofilament leader in saltwater.
Building the taper
Let me start by saying there is no secret formula or absolute correct answer for how to build a leader. As long as you follow the principle of thick to thin you’re moving in the right direction. Here’s a general guideline:
#10/#11/#12 fly rod | 4 Feet 50lb ~ 3 Feet 40lb ~ 2 Feet 30lb ~ 15″ 20lb or 16lb ~ 1-2 foot of bite tippet depending on the fishing situation
#7/#8/#9 fly rod | 4 Feet 40lb ~ 3 Feet 30lb ~ 2 Feet 20lb or 16lb ~ 1-2 foot of bite tippet depending on the fishing situation
#5/#6 fly rod | 4 Feet 30lb ~ 3Feet 20lb ~ 2 feet 16lb ~ 1-2 foot of bite Depending on the fishing situation
A 9-10 foot leader is pretty standard in general saltwater fishing and works great for most situations. If you see fish-spooking when that leader hits the water – or you notice your leader too short for the window of error, simply make it longer and try again! If you’re throwing heavy, air-resistant flies, the water is not too clear and the fish aren’t that spooky, try a shorter leader to help turn the fly over.
If you have a welded loop on your fly line already you are golden to do an easy loop to loop connection. If you do not, head on over to What To Do If Your Welded Loop Breaks | The Better Connection and make your own!
For the loop to loop just place the loop of your leader over the fly line loop and put the tag end of the leader through the fly line loop.
Or you can get rid of the loop of the fly line and use an Albright knot to attach the leader straight to the fly line. (Also known as a long butt section).
Both of these options have their strengths and weaknesses. If you are looking for a bombproof method that is a little smoother and more secure, the Albright to the fly line method is my preference. Take note that you can not quickly change your butt section of the leader this way and you will be cutting into the fly line every time you add or need another butt section.
Bite sections protect the leader in two ways. They provide a thicker shield than your class against mouths, teeth, scales and gill plates. They also protect the taper because when you change flies you’re not cutting into your class. If you’re not fishing IGFA legal, use a long enough bite section to change flies multiple times before you need to add another bite section.
General saltwater bite sections for a starting reference:
|Fish size||Bite tippet size|
Again this is just a guideline, as with everything in fly fishing – observe and adjust accordingly.
General rules of thumbs to go by:
- If the fish are spooky – drop down in size
- If the fish are mixed sizes – plan for the biggest one you might hook
- If the water is dirty – you can go up in size
- If you aren’t getting bites – drop down in size
- If you break off often on fish – go up in size
Building confidence in your leaders and yourself
The best way to really understand leaders is by casting and fishing them. Go to the extremes with a few leaders you tie up and throw them. See how they act with heavy flies or with big winds. It’s a game of trial and error and there is no secret formula to mastering leaders, although I wish there was sometimes as well.
Thanks for taking the time to read this we really hope it helped.
As always if you need anything feel free to come by the shop, use the chat function on the site, or give the shop a call.
We’re here to help you have as much success as possible on and off the water.