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  1. Default How to Choose Fly Fishing Leaders & Tippets - by Lefty Kreh

    [img2="left"][/img2]How To Choose Fly-Fishing Leaders and Tippets

    by Lefty Kreh

    Consider the importance of leaders in the sport of fly fishing. Even in the earliest days, fishermen knew that they couldn’t just attach a fly directly to the line and catch fish. Since then, we’ve learned through trial and error the importance of the proper selection of the leader to match the fly, fishing conditions and the species sought.

    In order to better understand leaders and their importance to fly fishing, let’s begin with this "primer" — a short history and discussion on the evolution and selection of leaders.

    Some of the earliest fly lines were made from the strands of hair in a horse’s tail. In an effort to make the presentation more realistic, the number of hairs was gradually diminished so that only two or three were used to attach the fly.

    The first nearly transparent, supple leaders were developed in the early 1700’s, probably in England. They were often called "catgut leaders," but actually were made from strands of silkworm gut braided into a taper. Such leaders needed great care because they were brittle when dry and they required a thorough soaking before each use.

    In the early 1940s, the invention of nylon revolutionized leaders. And since then, its characteristics have been vastly improved. Nylon can now be made with various properties, such as high knot strength, degrees of stretch or stiffness, and abrasion resistance. In order to gain one characteristic, however, another often has to be slightly sacrificed.

    To better understand leaders used in fly fishing, it is important to understand the terms used:


    Butt Section, heaviest portion of the leader, attached to the fly line end

    Mid Section, part of the leader forward of the butt section
    Tippet, thinnest or lightest line strength segment of a tapered leader

    Bite or Shock Tippet, short, heavy section of a leader between the tippet and the fly. The material used can be large diameter monofilament or wire (braided or a single strand). A bite tippet is used where fish have sharp teeth or may abrade through a tippet during the battle.

    X, designates the tippet’s strength. Since nylon can frequently be of slightly different strengths for the same diameter, X is a little nebulous; however, if you want to know the approximate strength of a tippet, subtract the X number from 9 to get the strength of the tippet. For example, a 5X leader subtracted from 9 means about 4 pounds test, and a 2X tippet subtracted from 9 means a tippet strength of approximately 7 pounds.

    Diameter, for correct diameter of an X designation, use a micrometer to measure the section of leader and subtract the X from .011. For example, a 5X leader subtracted from .011 should measure approximately .006. A 3X leader subtracted from .011 means that a 3X leader should have an approximate diameter of .008.


    There are a number of reasons for using a leader. First, it forms a nearly invisible connection between the fly line and the fly. Obviously, a fly tied directly to the line isn’t going to interest most fish. Second, a leader permits the fly to either have proper action or drift drag-free.

    For fishing with a trout streamer, bonefish pattern or similar small fly, it’s not good to use a tippet too large in diameter because the thicker diameter monofilament will destroy any natural action of the fly. For situations where the angler wants to manipulate the fly or permit it to swim freely on water, the leader must be thin and supple enough to allow the fly to move easily.
    Another very important reason for using a leader is to place the splashdown of the fly line far enough away to prevent alarming the fish. The leader falling to the water does little to frighten the fish, but a fly line coming to the surface can ruin the angler’s chances. That is why a trout fisherman on a calm spring creek or slick beaver pond must use a very long leader. When fishing for the same kind of trout in fast water, however, the turbulence of the stream means that a much shorter leader can be used.

    And in those situations where the fish have an abrasive mouth or one filled with sharp teeth, a bite (also called "shock") leader has to be placed in front of the fly.


    There are four basic types of leaders, with variations within each type:

    Level leader: this is a leader made from a single strand of monofilament of the same diameter. It is often used when the angler must fish in vegetation where delicacy of presentation is not a factor and a knotted leader would snag the plants. For example, a level leader may be the choice when seeking largemouth bass in lakes where the surface is cluttered with lily pads and similar aquatic plants.

    Conventional Tapered leader: this is a leader where the butt section is heavy and its diameter gradually diminishes as it reaches the tippet. It’s the standard leader used for almost all fly fishing, other than trout. Such leaders should turn the fly over, as well, at the end of the cast. Used in both fresh and salt water, this leader is used during the retrieve to manipulate the fly.

    Tapered Dry Fly leader: this leader serves several important functions, so the requirements of its construction are more critical than any other type of leader. A dry fly must float freely on the surface, as a natural insect does when it falls to the water. If the dry fly leader is not correctly designed, it will cause the fly to be dragged unnaturally on the water, and the trout will refuse it. The tippet is extremely critical in obtaining the correct drift with the fly.

    There are two basic types of tapered leaders. One is made of a continuous strand of monofilament that diminishes in size, such as trout, bass and bonefish leaders from 3M Scientific Anglers. The other’s diameter is knotted together to form a similar continuous tapered leader. Tapered leaders can be made from solid monofilament, or the rear portion can be a number of fine strands of braided monofilament.

    Bite Tippet leader: fish that have mouths lined with sharp teeth or that are abrasive will soon wear through a delicate tippet. To prevent a cut-off or to keep the tippet from eroding, a heavier section of monofilament or wire (braided or single strand) is attached to the tippet and then connected to the fly. This is called a "bite tippet" or a "shock tippet". It is an absolute necessity with many species — such as tarpon and permit in saltwater situations, and muskie and northern pike in freshwater situations.
    If the teeth are likely to cut through an even large diameter monofilament, wire is used. Solid wire has less diameter than braided wire for the same wire strength, but solid wire tends to kink when anglers battle the fish and the wires must be replaced since the kinked material spoils the action of the fly.
    Scientific Anglers offers the above leaders mentioned by Lefty in both its Mastery Series and standard leader product line-up, including replacement wire.

    Braided wire is more flexible and is usually coated with a clear monofilament to make it easier for the angler to handle. When using nylon-coated braided wire, some of the nylon may shred and hang down from the wire. This requires repairing the wire or replacing it -- usually the latter.

    Regardless of whether large diameter monofilament or wire is used, the rule is to use the shortest wire bite leader possible. Longer bite tippets are very difficult to turn over on the cast, and in clear water, the longer a wire leader, the more likely fish will see it and refuse the fly.


    Monofilament leaders come in a variety of colors. Over the years, most experienced fly fishermen have determined that either a clear or light olive-tinted leader is best for almost all fishing situations.


    Nylon can be manufactured in many degrees of stiffness. For years, it was maintained that leaders needed stiff nylon in the butt section and then a limper section forward of that. A fly line and leader deliver the fly to the target by unrolling. At the end of the forward cast, the line starts unrolling at the rod tip and continues to unroll until the leader straightens. The stiff nylon butt section actually defeats the unrolling process. Nearing the end of the cast, the energy is diminishing and the line is slowing. Since a stiff butt section actually doesn’t unroll as easily as a softer one, this often results in a spoiled cast.

    There is also the problem of a butt section being too limp to carry enough energy forward through the leader to properly present the fly. The answer is to have a heavy butt section of nylon that is neither too stiff or limp. Many leaders today have a butt section that is too limp. A butt section with a heavy mass (a thick diameter) but one that is not too stiff or limp, is the answer.


    Different fishing situations demand different types of leaders, and selecting the correct one is vital to angling success. Generally, manufactured leaders are divided into categories: freshwater and saltwater. The major difference between the two is that the saltwater leaders tend to have a heavier butt section and taper to a stronger tippet.

    Freshwater leaders can further be divided into two areas: trout or heavy freshwater use. Trout generally require the use of small flies, while bass, pike, panfish and other freshwater species will strike larger flies. This means that trout leaders have to make a very delicate presentation and permit the fly to drift drag-free most of the time. A heavy freshwater leader is used in a different manner for the above-mentioned gamefish. In those instances, fly fishermen present the fly and use the fly line and leader to manipulate the fly.

    For most trout fishing, a 7 1/2- to 15-foot leader is ideal, providing that a proper cast is made. If the fly is a heavy one, such as a weighted streamer or large nymph, a 9-foot leader may be required. If the water is turbulent, such as in a riffle or if the surface is ruffled by wind or current, then a short 7 1/2-foot leader is required. If the water is slick calm, the splashdown of the fly line needs to be placed as far away from the fly as possible. The more wary the trout and the calmer the surface, the longer the leader required — as much as 15 feet. The smaller the flies used, the lighter the tippet required to permit the fly to drift in a natural manner.


    When dry fly fishing with small flies on a calm lake or stream, you may need a 15-foot leader tapered to a 5, 6 or 7X.

    On a windy day on the same lake or stream when the surface is rippled by the breeze, a shorter leader such as a 7 1/2-foot leader tapered to a 5, 6 or 7X may be needed.

    When fishing the same size dry flies on a smaller mountain brook where the water is calm but the pools are short, choose a 9-foot leader tapered to a 5, 6 or 7X. This is probably the most popular of trout leaders.

    When fishing emergers or nymphs when the surface is calm or the water is deep, you will need a 12-foot leader. When the surface is rippled or the water is rather shallow, a shorter 9-foot leader may be best.

    When casting heavy streamers and nymphs, the longer leaders make turning over the cast properly a difficult chore. A 9-foot leader works much better.

    When fishing for larger trout, use the strongest tippet that will permit you to drift or work the fly properly. In catch and release fishing, you’re defeating the purpose to hook a larger trout on a 7X tippet and fight the fish until it’s exhausted. You should try to land the fish as quickly as possible so it can be returned in good condition.

    If you are casting where there are obstructions or cover that the trout will try to get during the battle, use a least a 4X or stronger tippet.


    When fishing for largemouth or smallmouth bass in a lake or stream where the water is clear, you’ll are using flies with hooks ranging in size from 8 to 2/0. A leader with an 8- or 10-pound tippet is fine.

    When fishing for bass in a lily-pad covered lake or one with logs and other obstructions, your situation demands a 8-foot leader with a tippet of 14-pound test to help stop the fish from reaching leader-breaking cover.

    Fishing for steelhead or Atlantic salmon — a 10-foot leader tapered to 8, 10 or 12 pounds is perfect.

    When throwing heavy streamers, or fishing water is slightly roiled or dirty — a 9-foot with a 12- or 14-pound tippet is fine.


    For almost all saltwater fly fishing conditions, a 9-foot leader is okay. If the fly is rather small (dressed on hook sizes from 6 to 1/0), a tippet of 8- to 12-pound test is fine. When casting heavier flies or when the wind is blowing, the same 9-foot leader tapered in 12 or 16 pound test is the best selection.

    On very calm days in the shallows when fishing for stripers in a quiet cover, or bonefish and redfish on the flats and cruising snook, a longer leader may be needed. This is when a 12-foot leader is best. For smaller flies, use a 8- to 12-pound test tippet. For larger flies, a 12- or 16-pound tippet is best.


    A leader can be used over and over. But if the tippet becomes abraded by the fish, it will need to be changed when it is used for tying additional flies. For that reason, it is best to buy spools of tippet material. Scientific Anglers offers high-quality spools of tippet material ranging in size from 7X to 20 pounds. Those designed for trout fishing are tinted a light olive color, while saltwater leader tippets are clear.

    Now that you’ve learned how to properly select the leader to match the fly, and how to match it with the fishing conditions and the species sought, you’re ready to put your skills to the test. Class dismissed! See you on the water...

    Article Courtesy of Scientific Angler >>Click Here

    This article and all of it's contents are used on the North American Fly Fishing Forum with direct permission from the author. They may not be reproduced or used in any way without the expressed consent from the author.
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