Over the last few years I've been contributing articles to Fly Anglers Online on fishing information and techniques for spring creeks and Yellowstone National Park, unique fly patterns, and Atlantic salmon fly book reviews. This time I'd like to share my thoughts regarding one of our pieces of equipment; yet not regarding the major ones such as rods, reels, or lines, but perhaps one of the most unconsidered items, the leader.
When I started guiding and visiting fly shops more often than before I came to learn and was very surprised that so many people were buying packs of knotless leaders. I have even come to know there are some anglers out there who change their leaders every time they go fishing. This was a shocking cultural difference to me. Surely I do buy knotless leaders from vendors, however, I typically use one for one fly line/reel for over a year, and it's not because I'm cheap or frugal. When I started fly-fishing, somehow I've been good at constructing and adding tippet pieces to leaders. Once I determine the fly pattern I intend to use and type of water I'm fishing, automatically the image of leader develops in my head. "Hmm a size 16 dry-fly and I'm on ZZ section of Yellowstone River, moderate winds from south, I'm with my 5weight rod and line, current leader on my line is a knotless 3X 7½ -foot, so if I want to tie on this fly, I also need YY length of XX tippet". This is one of many examples. It's been that way since I first started fly-fishing
So I'd been assuming most anglers, especially those who are in the sport for a long time, would do the same. Then I have learned not every fly angler does or thinks like I do. I'm not saying I'm a genius of imaginary space construction with the leader. Yet, I'd like to make a statement: the leader is the first and the closest gear to our flies. Why wouldn't we give it more thought? Even for those who buy and change the leader for each day they go fishing, they'd better have certain knowledge and understanding about constructing a leader, because, during the course of the day, the original leader gets shorter as they change flies. (If you are rich enough, you can change leaders every time you change flies.).
It's not overstatement to me that my fishing style and rod/line are determined by the leader. I'd like to introduce my setups.
4 weight-9 foot rod (perhaps the only one premium one I own) plus a 5 weight double-taper floating line (yes, I tend to over-weight the line – that will be a discussion for another day): This is rigged with a 4X knotless leader, ending with a 5x or 6x tippet. This entire rig is ONLY for spring creeks and for match-the-hatch fishing. I won't let anyone touch this rig!
5 weight-9 foot rod plus a 6 weight weight-forward floating line: This is truly an all-purpose setup. I set up with 3x either 71/2 or 9 foot (whichever I have at hand) knotless leader. The 9 foot for a 5 weight line is definitely the most used trout rod in the west and can handle most conditions. With a 3x tippet I can tie on and cast a size 8 dry hopper or weighted streamer and nymph. Adding 4x to 5x, it will be sufficient to cast small nymphs and dry-flies. If the situation calls for it I can add a piece of 6x. It may not be a perfect yet sufficient enough to fish, say, match-the-hatch at spring creeks.
6 weight-9 foot rod plus a 7 weight weight-forward line: This is also an all-purpose rod but one size larger than my 5-9 setup. With this one I can cast a Salmonfly or large hopper dry-flies with ease. Certainly it's capable to cast heavily weighted nymphs and streamers with ease and efficiency. I rig up with 0x or 1x, 7½ or a 9 foot knotless leader. I can add a piece of 1-3x tippet depending on the flies and methods I employ. There have been several occasions that I trimmed down to 6x! It was because suddenly midges started to hatch and the trout (one day, grayling!) started to rise. It was somewhat time-consuming and challenging but I built it and successfully caught trout (and grayling) on midge dry-flies.
Now let me share my leader-building basics and concepts. Our example is with either 5 weight- or 6 weigt-9 foot rod plus a matching floating line. Our initial leader is a 3x-9 foot knotless leader.
Length: Keep it just the rod-length plus 1 to 3 feet. Let only experts handle the long leaders (such as my spring-creek-only rig). Shorter than 9 foot, dry-flies would immediately drag and nymphs and streamers wouldn't seem to get the desired depth. So keep this length in mind then you design and build leaders.
Adding Tippets: Let's go through case-by-case.
1) Float trip on Yellowstone River in late July; I would tie on size 6 or 8 Hopper or Chubby Chernobyl right on the 3x leader. Then I would add 16-18 inches of 4x tippet as a dropper to tie on either a bead-head nymph or size 14-16 attractor dry-fly.
2) You spot the pod of risers. It looks like caddis are hatching and then accumulate in one particular eddy. I pull over my boat and get out. I assemble 4x and 5x tippets, 16-18 inches each, with Three-Time Surgeon's Knots, making the leader about 11-12 feet. I tie on a size16 low-riding caddis dry-fly and keep fishing until actions end.
3) After fantastic dry-fly action, it becomes a "dog day" of summer. Somehow the dry-fly action slows down so I cut off the 4x and 5x tippets. The original leader is now 8½ feet. I add a foot of 3x tippet with a Three-Time Surgeon's Knot, on which I apply one BB split shot. Then I tie on a size 8 Pat's Rubber Leg. On its eye, I tie a 12 – 16 inches of 4x tippet and tie on a size 16 Prince Nymph. I attach a yarn indicator about 6 – 7 feet above Rubber Legs.
4) Toward the takeout ramp, suddenly the sky becomes overcast (with or without rain). Now is the time for a size 6 dumbbell-eye black Woolly Bugger. I touch and feel up through the 3x leader and determine where the diameter is definitely larger than 3X – usually 2 feet or so. I cut off and attach 2½ – 3 feet of 2x tippet with a Blood Knot.
Keep Mending and Using:
By mending, in this case, I mean "patching and fixing" your leader, not the mending technique associated with presenting flies. As long as you know and follow the formula, you can build or quickly fix your leader. If you feel the urge to tie on flies, get into the spot, and start casting first thing in the morning, check and fix your leader during the night before. If you keep doing this, and fly-fishing over all, you should be able to tell the sizes of leaders by touch and feel, eventually even by a glance. Then cut out a desired length of each tippet from the spool. My general rule is: if tippet pieces are less than 2 feet, use Three-Time Surgeon's Knot; longer, use Blood Knot. I keep 1x through 6x spools handy. I do carry a 0x spool but I seldom use it while building and mending the leader. Mostly 0x is used in a part of short leader for huge streamers and a sinking-line.
All of above being said, there will be a time to get a new knotless leader and throw away the old one (make sure you dump in trash bins!! Not on the stream banks!!). When I recognize the end of original leader is thicker than 1x, experience tells me now building and using it will be more time consuming. That is the reason I don't use 0x for leader construction. Also use of indicators that require some sort of a loop on leader will kink leaders as time goes by. When it gets too bad, that's also the time to change.
It might be a good opportunity to talk about how to attach leaders. Let me review a couple of most common methods and their pros and cons.
Good old Nail Knot on the fly line.
First and foremost, make sure you can do it properly!! Keep a proper tool handy if necessary. Unless it's done super neat, clean, and smooth, it can jam in your rod-guides while stringing or false-casting line.
Most of modern lines come with built-in loops. So do knotless leaders. Great!! This system works OK for those who change leaders so often. It works for my system too. Say, in my 5-weight rig, the 6-weight floating line (again, I like to overload the line) goes with this loop-to-loop connection yet I keep using one leader for a long time with my own leader building formula. It can also accommodate sinking leader (such as RIO's Versi Leader), also with the loop, and change the floating line quickly into a sinking line for streamers and wet-flies.
This is what I prefer the most, Splice Needle Nail Knot.
One needs to punch through the core of fly line for a half inch or so (1-1.5cm), thread through the leader, and then make a Nail Knot. This is by far the smoothest and slides through the guides easily when threading the line and retrieving. There are several ways and tools to achieve this. My favorite tool, that I can't live without is C&F Design 3-in-1 Nail Knot Pipe. If you want attach a thick leader butt (discussed next) only, you can gently and carefully whittle the material (Maxima, 20-lb tester, etc.) and pass through the needle hole located at the "tip of needle". Just be patient and concentrate as it's a very careful procedure.
Attaching a short leader butt, usually 6-10 inches, on the fly line and making a Perfection Loop with it can be equal to the Loop-to-Loop connection mentioned above. For this system also, attaching the butt with Splice Needle Nail Knot is recommended. Also keep the Perfection Loop as small as possible. Both are recommended so line and leader go through smoothly through rod-guides as you rig up and retrieve trout or flies. This system can be applied to the old fly lines without the built-in loop (you must be using really old ones if you don't mind me pointing that out) and when the built-in loops somehow wearing out (most likely the entire line is very much beaten up, consider getting a new one!).
It's good to be a good customer at fly-shops. Here, I'm just pointing out the possibility to spend your "leader money" on something else. I don't say it's to save money as I know we are spending similar amounts one way or the other. Nor I say it's to save time. Over all, understanding and then building your own leader will grow you as a fly-fisher. You will quickly figure out how long the remaining leader is and how long to attach in which sizes, and then precisely make knots. It's a small scale of "surviving skill" while you are fishing out somewhere (you are welcome to think this is simply being lazy to carry a lot on your vest or running back to your vehicle).
Satoshi Yamamoto, www.leftyanglerandflies.com, is a Livingston, MT based outfitter and a fly dresser.