This topic is the one topic in fly fishing that creates the most confusion for fly fishers. We’re going to break down some of the terminology of these two fly fishing items and discuss how to choose the right one for the circumstances you may be fishing.
There are a few different types of leaders in fly fishing. Folks use steel leaders, braided leaders, compound leaders, furled leaders and the most common, knotless leaders. We’re going to talk about the most common type: knotless leaders. These leaders are usually made out of one of two types of materials: nylon monofilament or fluorocarbon monofilament (polyvinylidene fluouride). Fluorocarbon is a denser material which will not float as well as monofilament. This is ideal when fishing small nymphs or midges subsurface. Monofilament is the most common type of knotless leader because most fly fishers tend to fish dry flies during hatches. Monofilament is about the same density as water and will float or ride on the surface film easily, especially if it is greased. Fluorocarbon is denser, stronger, and more clear than mono. This is why many fishers prefer it over mono. The only disadvantage is that fluorocarbon costs more than mono.
A knotless leader is made up of three sections; the butt section, the tapered section and the tip, also known as the tippet. The butt section of the leader is the thickest part of the leader and is the part of the leader that is attached to your fly line, and usually comprises of about 20% of the overall length. The tapered section is the longest section of the leader. This comprises of approximately 60% of the overall length and tapers to the tippet section. The tippet section also comprises about 20% of the overall length and is the part of the leader that dictates the leader’s “size”. Here’s an example of a tapered leader: a nine foot 5X leader will have a butt section of about 25 or 30 lb. test and taper down to a 5 lb. test. When constructing leaders most fishers will discuss leader formulas with diameter in mind not test strength.
Leader length is usually decided based on the conditions such as “spookiness” of the fish you are chasing; the spookier the fish, the longer the leader. For example: fishing popping bugs on a pond might require a 7 to 8 ft leader, while fishing a river for trout might require a 9 to 12 foot leader. Some waters that hold easily spooked fish may call for a leader 14 to 16 feet in length.
Sizing is the most confusing part of leader and tippet selection. Leaders were made from cat-gut many years ago and in order for a person to decrease the size (diameter) of their leader one would “draw” their leader through a board of grommet holes. Every time you’d draw your leader it would decrease its size. So if you were to run your leader through your draw board it would be a size 1X leader, if you were to draw it again it would be a 2X leader, and so on. When leaders were made from nylon during the first half of the last century, the sizing stuck. Today when you buy a 7X leader it has a smaller diameter (and weight class/pound test) than a 3X leader.
Leader and tippet size is dictated by the size of fly you are casting. There is a general rule of thumb when figuring out what size you may need. Divide the size of your fly by the number three and this will give you the right leader/tippet size. For example: a size twelve prince nymph is what you’d like to cast. You’d want to use a 4X tippet/leader, but an 18 midge would require a 6X leader/tippet. You’d like to keep this as close as possible for the best presentation and casting of your fly.
Tippet spools are bought for two main reasons; to lengthen a leader and to change the tippet size at the end of the leader. When fishing over the period of a day one may find that after changing flies several times that their leader had shortened. Let’s say a nine foot leader is now only six feet long. This would be about the time you’d change your leader for a longer one. Having several different sized spools of tippet you could easily just cut a 3 foot section of tippet from the spool and tie it to the end of your 6 foot leader. The overall length of your leader now would be about 9 feet. You’d be back in business efficiently and with minimal costs (changing leaders every time would cost you quite a bit more). Let’s say you’re fishing with size 14 flies most of your day and are using a size 5X leader, you decide you’d like to go smaller, maybe down to a size 18 fly. Rather than change your leader you could cut a length of 6X tippet and tie it to the end of your 5X leader. The taper will continue downward and you won’t have to tie on a new leader, again, this is more cost effective and efficient (efficiency is everything in fly fishing).
Hope this helps. If it doesn’t, stop in the fly shop and we’ll help you out one on one.
White River Fly Shop/Bass Pro Nashville