In this part, we'll go into the discussion of what composes a tapered leader (versus a furled leader, which we'll address in the future), and the means in which we assemble one.
Terminal Tackle: Leaders, Theodore P. Burger, MD
Leaders are the business end of your equipment. Without a well constructed leader, being of the correct material, length and diameter, one’s fly or flies attached to the tippet will not perform as they were designed (act as a living insect or creature).
The following may seem a little basic but it is important to make some distinction between a leader and a tippet. You might be surprised to learn how many anglers assume them to be synonymous.
The leader, of a slightly smaller diameter and material, is an extension of your fly line to which is attached an even smaller diameter tippet. The leader’s purpose is to transmit the energy of a cast fly line to the smaller diameter tippet. Any variable (length, stiffness or diameter) that impedes the smooth transfer of casting energy will make for a lousy cast no matter how accomplished the caster or how hard he tries.
For a leader to perform its best, it should be of a material that has adequate stiffness to transmit energy and does not create a “hinge effect” at its attachment to the fly line but should not be too stiff. One only needs to hold one’s fly line in one hand and the attached leader in the other about 8 to 10 inches apart then bring your hands toward center. If a smooth curve is created without kinking, the connection and its materials are considered suitable to transmit energy. Any kinking (hinging) between the fly line-leader connections will result in poor transmission of energy.
There are several methods by which to attach the leader to the line. From a physics point of view, to transfer energy perfectly, the leader should exit the line core. There is only one method I know of that does just that, the Needle Knot. I have used this system since the 1940s and it has never let me down. The other types of connections, the Nail Knot, Loop-to-Loop Connection and Plastic Connectors, have major drawbacks. Extremely tight casting loops tend to get caught on the knot and the leader tends to set off on an angle once the line is on the water with the Nail Knot. The Loop Connection creates hinges and the Plastic Connectors break and create catches. The Needle Knot is the only knot that slips through the snake guides and tip top with ease. The other knots and or connections have resulted in quite a few broken rod tips.
Those utilizing a loop to loop connection argue that once the leader is attached with the use of a Needle Knot one is committed to a given leader set-up (one is not permitted to go from a dry fly set –up to a nymph or streamer set-up or vice versa) not true. The system I use makes use of leader rings which I will review latter.
There are several leader designs available including commercially tied and knotless leaders, self tied leaders of a particular formula, the self tweaked commercial leaders and furled twined or braided butt leaders. Many anglers tie and carry a whole array of different leaders including the different leader tippet materials for both surface and subsurface fishing. Most all of these types of leader designs unfortunately require the use of the Loop to Loop connection system. Any commercially or self tied leaders are composed of multiple knots which pick up junk. Braided leaders must be treated with a floatant to prevent water and or algae absorption. Untreated braided leaders tend to spray feeding fish with a false cast and tend to sink. False casting off to the side of a feeding fish to remove water may also spook the rest of the pool.
No matter which leader design one chooses one must consider the inherent properties of the material, its manufacturer and purpose when selecting or constructing a leader. For most general Trout fishing you want a butt material stiff enough to turn over a thinner lighter more flexible tippet when dry fly fishing but yet is able to handle a wet fly, nymph or streamer if the need should arise unless you are using all Fluorocarbon leaders.
There are numerous leader formulas available if one wishes to construct their own leaders for each type of Trout fishing. The George Harvey Leader Formula System is a good one with which one can begin to experiment. You will note that he uses a standardized butt section for most all his leaders.
I at one time tied all my own tapered leaders but went to knotless tapered leaders when they became available with the butt stiffness and taper I wanted but modified the leader to accommodate the ring system.
The leader ring system consists of a small (2 mm) stainless steel, silver or nickel-silver ring attached to the end of the knotless tapered leader (the length you will have to choose based on your casting style, mine is 6 feet ending in 3 X) To the ring I attach the supple tippet material in a length of 18-24 inches or longer to fish a single fly. To the same ring I can also attach a 4 inch dropper using a stiffer section of mono if I choose to fish two flies. If I choose to fish a three fly rig I just attach another ring to the first 18-24 inches of tippet and add an additional 18-24 inches of tippet plus a stiff 4 inch dropper to the second ring. All the knots to the rings are the 16/20 Knot or the Pitzen Knot which is much stronger than even the Orvis Tippet Knot or a Triple Surgeon’s Knot of a standard tippet to leader set-up. Changing flies or the set-up is much easier and I have fewer tangles (in spite of my casting) as the rings tend to hold the line straight. One can also ignore the “step down rule” when changing or adding tippet material e.g. going from streamer to wet or dry fly (no need to add several pieces of step down line diameter which just adds more knots). The rings are so small they float well with a dry fly. For those of you who enjoy fishing wets, soft hackles, spiders and flymphs as I do (almost exclusively) the leader ring system is a pleasure to fish.
The leader material I choose for the knotless tapered leader is Maxima (Chameleon or Brown), It is medium-stiff, dull (non reflective), resilient, abrasion resistant and has less memory than most. It is also outstanding in turning over the leader, even in the wind. It has stood the test of time. (It also works great when tying the needle knot. Once you insert the needle into the core, place the end of the line with the needle into the freeze compartment of your refrigerator for about 30 minutes. When the needle is removed the hole or tunnel remains open much longer. One now can thread the tip (not the butt) of the knotless tapered leader into the hole from the rear with ease).
You may want to experiment with other brands of commercial leaders or material to suit your casting style, line and or rod but remember no matter which you choose the desired functionality of your system depends largely upon the properties of the butt section of your leader.
Tippets and Knots are to follow.
(reprinted with permission of author)