Take me to your leader.

How Small a trout “Every Day in May Challenge” 


We have all read the “the leader is the most important part of your tackle” articles, in fact I don’t doubt it, the leader can perform a number of functions when correctly constructed but what does “correctly constructed” mean? For that matter what functions should a leader be reasonably supposed to perform?

I have seen books with all manner of leader formulae, twelve and a half inches of this and seven and a half of that, all combined with micrometre measurements for the scientifically minded. I have had leader diagrams thrust upon me accompanied with a look that suggests that one should memorise the information and then swallow the paper. There are a plethora of “secret recipes”  and to be fair more than a few are very serviceable. Pascal Cognard the World Fly Fishing Champion (multiple times) has come up with all manner of degressive tapers and I know a number of anglers who follow his instructions to the letter, all to good effect, you can’t really argue with the man’s credentials. For me though it all gets a little bit too much, not least because what are you going to do if you hang it in a tree? Whip out the micrometre and a ruler in the middle of the stream?

I am sure that the intentions are good but surely there needs a simpler option without all the maths, that will provide effective leader design for the common man. For one thing leaders cannot in my opinion be designed as “all purpose”, correctly balanced the dynamics will change with the direction of the breeze, the size and aerodynamics of the fly and its weight.

I have developed a pragmatic approach to this process which works very well for me, you may like to try it and you don’t need to swallow and digest the instructions.

Personally I am most interested in dry fly leaders, it is the type of fishing that I do most often and perhaps the place where the dynamics of construction are most critical. What I am always aiming for is a leader that will perform the following functions as best as possible.

* Present the fly gently on the water by bleeding off the energy of a powerful and therefor accurate cast.

* Have a built in tendency to fail,(not as spectacularly as the politicians above though 🙂 ). I want the leader to collapse just a bit, feed slack into the system near the fly and delay the onset of drag. A well-built leader will overcome all manner of drag issues if done correctly.

* Slip easily through the rod guides when casting and playing fish (my leaders are always longer than the rod so that becomes an important issue).

* Protect the light tippet which is my normal terminal tackle.

With these things in mind my simplified approach is to use as a base a purchased tapered knotless leader. Knots are always suspect and tend to catch in the guides and pick up weed in the water. I use a nine foot leader with a tippet diameter of approximately 2x more than I want to finish up with. Equally I normally put the leader into boiling water for a few minutes and stretch it, this seems to add a level of springiness which better protects the light tippet when fishing, yet another French innovation.

Tapered leaders have thick butt sections so to eliminate the problem of a fat knot at the end of the fly line they are glued into the line as shown in this video clip. (Superglue leader splice).

To that is added a compound tippet of two three foot sections of copolymer tippet material, these days most often Stroft which I like very much. I don’t enjoy fluorocarbon for dry fly work due to its greater diameter and relative stiffness compared to copolymer or mono.

So the base leader is then a 4x tapered leader, 3ft of 5X and 3ft of 6X. On calm days and flat water I may add an additional 3ft of 7 or even 8X to that.  That means that most of the time the leader is between 15 and 18 feet long.

The real key is to test cast it, if it works all well and good and most times it does, but with a bigger fly perhaps one needs to reduce the amount of 5X in the middle. If the leader is too unstable at the point the final tippet can be cut back whilst if it is going out dead straight without slack one can add a little more to the point. It is always a case of experimentation and amazing how different flies will change things. When operating perfectly the leader will tend to fail should one change from say an Elk Hair Caddis (pretty aerodynamic) to a Parachute Mayfly pattern ( which catches more wind). In the end, getting the result that you want is more important than how you get it.

With this system I manage to adjust things without need of tools and can do so mid-stream if needs be, adjusting things as the day progresses to accommodate different flies, different types of water and variations in the wind. It takes a bit of experience to get it working all the time but once the basics are there it is a simple matter of a little trial and error.

Oh yes, you may think that the length is extreme, I have guided numerous people all of whom claim that they will be totally unable to cast such a construction at the beginning of the day and all of whom are convinced with its effectiveness at the end. The key is to get past the idea of presenting the fly gently by the manner in which you cast. Fire it in there where you want it, the leader’s job is to present the fly, if it isn’t working don’t back off your casting stroke, adjust the leader instead. It really does make life much easier once you get used to it. There is one thing of which I am convinced and that is that a nine foot dry fly leader on its own is close to useless when it comes to presenting a fly.

Please: Do feel free to leave a comment, vent your spleen, let rip or even leave a compliment. The idea is to stimulate thought, debate , a modicum of amusement and perhaps even a little education along the way.

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16 Responses to “Take me to your leader.”

  1. Nick Says:

    Great stuff Tim. Benn playing with longer leaders a while now, i start with 12ft 4x and go from there but seems that 9ft is a better starting point, don’t think i am brave enough to go 7X at this stage but i said that about 6x a few months back :).

  2. paracaddis Says:

    Nick I find the more one fishes the fine stuff the more comfortable one becomes with it, such that I fish 7x as routine. You do want to have a soft rod though or you are going to pop that tippet on every fish. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Nick Says:

    Agreed Tim, maybe you could write a piece on ‘soft rods’ i am forever confused with all these actions….i fish a Sage 2# xp….is that soft enough 😉

  4. Confused Says:

    Tim, how do you “illuminate” a fat knot? Do you splice in a LED and a small battery? 😉

    • paracaddis Says:

      Darryl, yes you can ad an LED, but mostly all you really need to do is try to come up with, write and edit a thousand words a day on a variety of subjects not of your choosing for a few weeks and make the odd typo. But thanks for the heads up, I shall update directly.

  5. howsmallatrout5 Says:

    Terrific, mind-expanding article. I’ve never thought about leader length this way. I’m fishing a lot with Tenkara gear right now, but this is really something to think about. What about furled/braided leaders?

    • paracaddis Says:

      I have to say that personally I disliked both furled and braided leaders when I tried them. Braided worked fine but sprayed a lot of water which displeased me and quite a few trout. Furled leaders I really found troublesome on light gear. Once damp they seemed to weigh more than the line out of the rod, creating dreadful hinging type casts, plus they retain the casting energy and mostly I am trying to get my leaders to bleed it off. I suspect that they may be better on heavier gear. Perhaps.. Thanks for the comment.

  6. herman Says:

    Really , really enjoy your blog – solid nuggets of truths.
    please give an example of how you modify your tippet section for a downstream wind and say a parachute dry.

    • paracaddis Says:

      There isn’t a recipe Herman, but normally taking out some of the 5X will do it, if not a snip back on the final tippet as well. As said “it is the result that is important, not the way you get it”.. Regards

  7. Alan Bithell Says:

    Have you ever tried a furled leader made from tying thread? You’ll be sceptical about its strength but it will happily take a 6lb point (Tippet). They are made of one length of thread and taper very nicely. While casting they give great turnover, on the water they are totally limp. If treated they will float.

    Because of the way they are made you can make them any length from 12″ up.The process of making them is based on rope making, though a taper is built in. There is a how to article on my site. http://www.crackaigflies.co.uk/Spinning%20your%20own.php

    I started using them as I couldn’t get good turnover on a short leader when using my 6′ cane brook rod. Now I use about 5′ of furled leader with another 3′ to 4′ of tippet. If I need to go down as low as 7x I’ll use a couple of feet of 5x then the same of 7x. The leader has a limited amount of stretch which protects the tippet really well.

    They are well worth trying

    • paracaddis Says:

      Yes Alan thank you I have tried them and didn’t like them I have to say, but I am sure some others will appreciate your link and indeed I may as planning to make some for the Tenkara rod.

      • Alan Bithell Says:

        For the Tenkara rod try one made of Kevlar tying thread. The extra bit of weight will help. If you do make them your layout needs to be about 10% longer than the finished leader you want.

      • paracaddis Says:

        Thanks Alan, I saw that about the 10% somewhere else, haven’t even thought about it but a project for our winter. Which it appears is going to start in about three hours. Skies are black. 😦

  8. Tony Watson Says:

    Leaders! A subject which perhaps more than any other polarises fly fishers. Bought? Homemade? Braided? Furled?
    I am a confirmed addict of the last named. They are undoubtendly better in every respect than any other. If your experience has been otherwise, thee is something very wroing with your setup. Perhaps I can help. My 3wt furled leader will land a tiny dry lighter than an anorexic mosquito.

    • paracaddis Says:

      Always open to suggestion Tony and thanks for the comment. Experiments to date have seriously failed to convince me, but please post your information or provide a link. I will test it out, you can always learn something new. Although I must add that there is nothing, seriously or otherwise, wrong with my current set up as I see it and I doubt that any adjustment is going to land the fly more softly or with more slack in the leader. But hell, I try to keep an open mind so bring it on. :-)..

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