RIO Leader

by Mark Raisler


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 β€œX” 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

Fly Fishing Leaders are generally tapered. They start with a butt section, let’s say 0.021”-0.25”, and taper to 1X or 0.10” to 7X or 0.004”. Hand tied leaders would have several knots, as many as 7, to achieve the same kind of taper. That is why machine tapered leaders are so easy to use. No knots! Just loop it on your fly line and tie on a piece of tippet to finish out the rig. See the video RIO’s Loop to Loop Connection for proper technique.

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.

Recently, in 2014, I was turned onto the 12’ RIO Powerflex Leaders. Awesome. For tailwater, spring creeks, or pressured fish, this is the right leader for you. I became familiar and quite comfortable with a tippet length of 48”. Total length from fly line to fly? A shocking 16 feet! Works like a charm. I found that if it does not turn over perfectly every time, you need not worry. As the current pulls the line and leader downstream, the slack will help in achieving a perfect drag free drift. Fish are rarely afraid of a perfect drift!
The RIO Powerflex line of leaders will get you through the toughest of trout fishing situations. But if you want a little something extra you may want to consider going the Fluorocarbon route.

Why would I use a Fluorocarbon Leader?

Fluorocarbon leaders are stealthy. A leader that many nymph fishermen use allowing the flies to achieve depth sooner. Fluorocarbon leaders sink. Not like sinking leaders with added weight, but the porous nature of the Fluorocarbon material will not float like its nylon cousin. I find myself using them when the fish have been pressured. Mid summer and late season trout can dictate this useful leader for specific uses. Having a Fluorocarbon leader in your wallet can be a smart thing. Almost like an insurance policy. Use it when you need it.

How about those Indicator Leaders?

Here in Montana the RIO Indicator Leader is tied on my nymph rod for several months. I begin to employ the Indicator Leader in November and it does not come off until mid summer. The 10’ length is perfect. A powerful butt section and a very short 2β€² taper will easily turn over any indicator or heavily weighted split shot rig you may find yourself using. The long and level tip section allows for rapid sink rates. This leader tapers from the butt section to the static diameter remainder after 2 feet. 2 foot of taper from butt to the diameter of your choice. I like to use the 1X/0.010” as my everyday nymph leader. The beauty of the 8 foot level section measuring 1X/0.010β€³ is that I do not have to worry about the taper when adding, subtracting, or fixing a tangled leader. I know that after the very short 2’ taper the leader is 1x or 0.010”. No freaky leader building math needs to be done. Simplicity is what anglers, including me, like!

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?

You bet there are and they are useful. A 6’ Steelhead/Salmon Leader can work well for our trout here in Montana. A great leader for those two handed rod fellas too. If you are trying to match rod length for a 2 hander the 12’ Steelhead/Salmon Leader is good as well. Whether you need it short for tying off of a RIO Outbound Short Streamer line or to get the right leader for your two handed set up, there are leaders designed for every conceivable use.
Some guides use the 7 1/2’ 3X Powerflex Trout Leader for nearly everything. Why? Can you get along with just one leader? You can and some do. The beauty of the 7 1/2’ length is that you can build it much longer for dry fly use. You can shorten it by a couple feet and lash a giant streamer to it. Or you can just use it at 7 1/2’ and tie a nymph directly onto the leader. A generic leader used by many.

What is the #1 selling leader?

The RIO Powerflex Trout 9’ 3X.

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 β€œT” 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!

Angler’s Choice


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!