One of the most common questions I receive in the boat concerns the reasoning behind the type of leader I am using. I am sure that the saltwater guides, steelhead, salmon, and bass guides receive the same questions.
It is not all that intuitive. Leader choices are vast! When you approach a wall full of leaders in any fly shop there is a staggering number available today! They range from 5’ 1X to 15’ 7X. Which one do I need? What length do I use? Does it matter? What strength and what is that “X” thing? Do I use 3# if I am only catching trout under 3#? A 3 pack of leaders? Do I need more than one? With the number of choices out there I certainly do understand where the confusion stems from.
The confusion regarding the purchasing and the rigging of trout fishing gear can be cleared up if we understand why we are using specific leaders and tippet.
When I first started fishing, most of my fly fishing mentors built leaders by hand. Leader designs by George Harvey, Gary Borger, Jim Vincent, Lefty Kreh, or any one of your trout club buddies. Hand tied leaders were not only popular but common. The consistency and quality of these machine built tapered leaders was not what it is today and some anglers just did not trust them. The quality, consistency, and selection of today’s leader and tippets can be overwhelming! The number of fantastic leader products of yesteryear did not come close to the selection of leaders on the shelf today.
We can find leaders for such specific uses as Bass, Tarpon, Redfish, Muskie, and of course, trout. Most are made of nylon but you can find leaders with coated steel for those toothy critters too!
The Why, What, and How of Trout Fishing Leaders
Dry Fly Leaders
Dry fly leaders are built with the angler in mind! Generally 9’ to 12’, and even 15’, leaders are very good at turning over the light CDC fly you are presenting to the trout. Dry fly leaders are not meant to turn over with the reckless abandon that the nymph leader will, but designed to finish strong, yet land lightly. I like to start at a 9’ 3X or 9’ 4X as my generic dry fly leader. These are great for prospecting with an Adams, an Elk Hair, or any smaller grasshopper or attractor pattern
Simply add some tippet, whether it be a length of 4X onto the 3X leader end, or 5X for the final piece of the 9’ 4X leader. 12” to 48” will suit you fine. Don’t be shy about adding a 48” section onto a 9’ leader. If the formula is right, it is designed to deliver, it will turn over. It never hurts to practice some of this stuff in your yard to discover which leader length is for you.
Why would I use a Fluorocarbon Leader?
How about those Indicator Leaders?
This leader sinks rapidly as well. No knots to slow it down or knots to catch those pesky weeds. Traditionally tapered leaders sink slower. Not always good for nymph fishing when the goal is to get the fly to the fish as soon as possible.
The orange butt is easy to see while fishing and stiff enough to turn over even the heaviest of split shot nymphing rigs. The tough nylon is perfect for attaching sometimes large split shot to the leader. You can make split shot stay put on 1X!
Are there specific leaders for streamer fishing too?
What is the #1 selling leader?
It once was the RIO Powerflex Trout 9’ 4X. Why the change? Who knows. The reality is you could also use this one leader for many uses. Chop for nymphing, lengthen for dry fly, or mutilate for streamer chucking.
Leader & Tippet Maintenance
Leaders do not last forever. I do find leaders even in my own leader wallet that need to be trashed. If you pull a leader out and it is brittle, discolored, or exposed to the sun for too long, it may have been compromised. Use your best judgment and toss accordingly if needed. No sense in losing the big one with either a leader or tippet material that has seen better days! Tippet is the most common offender. I commonly see clients with aged tippet. What if it has been hanging on your spool tender or tippet “T” for 5 years? It is too old. Toss it. Fluorocarbon does have a much longer shelf life. While Fluorocarbon does last for many years, you should always check before using it in trophy situations. I always figure if I can stand to lose that precious fish, then use anything. If you break off a couple of trout without undue stress while fighting the fish, then it may be a tippet issue!
It really is your choice. You will get a feel for what works for you as an angler as you become more familiar with leaders, leader construction and design, and your personal preferences.
You will learn that you can dictate what any specific leader will do, how it will react, and the presentation of said leader. By adding and subtracting tippet material you can truly enhance your fish catch rate! Honest.
The more you know about leader design, specific leaders for difficult situations, what works well for your game the more success you will have on the water!