Fly Fishing Lifestyle – Tackle, Destination and Comradarie Engaged in Fresh and Saltwater

Fly Fishing Leader Selection

I know something about leaders and I will strive to outline some points, limiting my remarks to floating line applications only.

In 1975 I joined the Theodore Gordon Flyfishers. They had lunch every Tuesday in a great room with an angling library and historic memorabilia. Many a famed angler, author, industry type and guide enjoyed having lunch with TGF. I was among the younger members and sitting at the “kids” table with my new acquaintances (I am still close friends with many of these now mature men) I listened with awe as two of the resident Experts nearly came to fisticuffs over fine points of leader design. I turned to one of my new friends and said, “Man, have I come to the right place!” Like the tires are where the car interfaces with the road; leaders…far less romantic than more tangible rods and reels…are what controls the fly’s attitude on the water. I can’t emphasize strongly enough the extremely important function leaders perform in presentation. Given equal angling skill and quality tackle, the sophistication of the leader alone can be the deciding factor in whether you come tight to that big bank feeder…or not.

There is one irrefutable given for all leaders of any material or design; they must seamlessly accept transfer of the energy of the cast from line to leader butt. The optimal mass match-up is confirmed by using the “Parabolic Test”, where one holds the line and leader several inches to either side of the juncture, bends the combination with the joint at the apex and a uniform curve should form…any hinging of either the line or leader indicates a poor combination that will not transfer energy uninterrupted.

The Parabolic Leader Test
T13 126 ParabolicTest s

For aggressive turnover of saltwater flies or freshwater steamer flies, hand built leaders perform best. In the salt I use 100% Fluorocarbon, blood knotted together with a long 4’ butt, steep mid-section and medium tippet unless fishing flats when I go with a long, 4 – 5′, tippet. For trout outfits of 6-weight and heavier I use modern, copolymer Nylon monofilament but with a less steep, more gradual mid-section and tippet length and diameter determined by fly type and size. The leader should be straight by having it rigged on the rod or by lightly stretching it; do not pull it through a leather or rubber old school straighten as frictional energy is bad for mono.

Nylon monofilament is porous and absorbs some water. Do you really want a straight mono leader? Soak your leader in warm water for a little while and, with a small weight knotted to the tippet, hang the leader from a suitable height. When dry and air temperature, even the memory coiling in the heaviest diameter sections should be eliminated. Absence of memory and optimal mass-matched energy transfer are the keys to accurate placement and control of your fly.

For dry fly fishing where precision of presentation is crucial a hand built leader, carefully adjusted, works fine but the best I have found after considerable experimentation is the Orvis Braided Butt which I have been employing since 1984. Machine braided of very fine denier and diminishing strands of monofilament, its hollow taper features a blind spliced loop at each end. It can alternatively be looped onto a fly line’s factory welded loop or, the loop on both line and leader butt can be severed and the tip of the line inserted into the hollow braid 1/2″ and affixed with Zap-A-Gap, high viscosity, minimal wicking super adhesive. This is the ultimate in smooth connections but looping has its interchangeability advantage. When using welded loops understand that they are formed via a thermo-chemical process and are approximately 75% the strength of the fly line itself. To guarantee no failure splitting, a 12 turn nail knot of #20 Fluorocarbon or Nylon can be formed over the doubled line portion of the weld providing mechanical reinforcement, it can even be coated with a droplet of Zap-A-Gap or better still, UV curing Clear Goo. It must be mass-matched to the fly line by performing the Parabolic Test and depending on line tip diameter and relative stiff or suppleness; the recommended line weight match on the Orvis packaging sometimes requires reinterpretation. Often, what Orvis calls “medium” or 6/7 size is a better match for a #4 and 5-weight line. I then determine a “monofilament butt”, again, employing the Parabolic Test, as the braided section functions as an extension of the taper and energy flow of the fly line. Usually 0 or 1X mono is the correct diameter and either by loop-to-loop or, for a cleaner connection, a multi turn nail knotted section  of about 16″ long to accommodate the nail knot and subsequent blood knot to a section of 2X. I want the 0X “butt” to be about 12 to 14″ to allow for some rebuilding space. The 2X piece too is about a foot so it can be cut back a few times before a total rebuild is required. Then a foot of 3X and another section of 4X then 4 to 5 feet of 5X. The energy transfer efficiency of the Braid and its total lack of memory make it surprisingly easy to smoothly turn over very long tippets and deliver a dry fly with consummate delicacy yet precision. This somewhat leader craft intensive system is optimized for dry fly technical presentation and is not particularly relevant for subsurface applications.

Some fly fishers employ a furled leader in a similar manor to the braid, and I have been testing furls too but there are issues. Furls, particularly those that are made of or contain any thread in their make-up are inclined to collapse limiting control. Their consistency changes when wet exacerbating the situation. I have hopes for all-fine nylon furls which I am continuing to test; without being open minded to experimentation it is impossible to formulate informed opinions. For dry fly use furls, like the Braid are best built down with mono from their terminus loop to the tippet and, of course, it is critical they be mass-matched for energy transfer where they loop to the line like all leaders.

A Heavy Nylon Furled Leader Mass-Matched to a 5-Weight Line

T13 136 Parabolic Test s

Mono Loop-to-Loop, Albright, Nail Knot and Spliced Braided Leader to Line Connections

Note the inconspicuous Coated Nail Knot Reinforcement on the Upper Loop

 T13 077 LeaderConnection s

Both Braids and Furls have more surface area than straight mono so can retain some extra water which can spray upon casting. It is good, even without this extra spray, to get in the habit of false casting away from your rising fish and only upon presentation cast toward him. Flashes of reflected light, particularly off the monofilament sections of the leader, as well as water droplets, are not a normal part of a trout’s surface feeding experience.

Another leader design is called the “Poly Leader”. These feature a monofilament core with a tapered coating of clear polyethylene with a protruding loop of mono at each end. As these are available in differing densities, my West Coast steelheading buddy has used them to adjust the swim of his flies below the surface with his two-handed rig. I have sampled floating versions for both trout and tropical flats fishing and have found the inherent weight of this design yields a pronounced and unpleasant “kick” at the casting stops, fore and aft and a “clunk” upon delivery. I do not recommend it for delicacy of presentation.

Probably the most popular leader design of all today is the knotless, pre-tapered leader. Made by extruding the Nylon polymer through a die and available in a wide assortment of lengths and diameters, one simply loops one on and ties on a fly. Some treat them as a daily disposable product but they are easily modified and re-furbishable by judiciously selecting the right point in the forward taper and blood knotting on a new section of tippet material. Their tapers are by necessity generalized and they seem fine for swinging a caddis pupae or high sticking with a nymph. I can’t tell you how many times I have observed a friend throwing a long, tight loop and there, at the line’s terminus, is this wild hair of monofilament twirling behind it. They simply do not offer the control of a well tapered, hand crafted leader and surly not the memory free precision of the Braided system.

Any leader that collapses of its own volition is a bad design, robbing the angler of control of his fly. This is typically caused by the butt of the leader being too small in diameter or too limp like furled thread to function as a smooth transferor of energy. Some anglers do this on purpose by intentionally using a mono butt section of .019 or even .017 on a 5-weight line as opposed to the energy transfer appropriate .021 to .023. This causes a hinge where the energy flow is abruptly diminished so the leader collapses in coils and curls of its own arbitrary nature. Sure, there are a preponderance of dry fly presentations benefitting from curves in the leader/tippet, however, it should be you generating those current defeating curves via articulate manipulation of your line-leader assembly during the unfurling of your cast by horizontally moving the tip of your rod in various amplitudes, directing the leader. This is why we want uninterrupted transfer of energy and a leader that controllably responds to your inputs.

During our month long annual fishing trip through Idaho and Montana, my partner, Jay, and I often take the heat of the afternoon off, followed by early cocktails and dinner before returning to the river for the evening spinner falls and caddis activity. The Braided Butt leader extension of the taper of our fly lines which often lasts the life of the line, periodically needs a little work. The one foot section of 0/1X which I have 12 turn nail knotted to the braid’s terminus rarely needs replacing but the 3X to tippet sections require replacement or modification as on the business end of any leader. So it is not an uncommon thing to find us at our camp table with an assortment of tippet spools and a nipper. When we fish out of the old Clacka, one at a time, we have the opportunity to observe how one another’s presentations are working out which may result in a minor tweak of the mono sections lengths.

W13 059 Craig Camp  s

 Through experimentation, our small cadre of dry fly fishing friends have all adopted this Braided Butt system and, when my wife was in Jackson Hole for a conference without me and took a hot-shot local guide on a day off, he wanted to cut off her awful braid and put on a knotless leader, “’cause it’ll be so much easier”. Though barely half the size of John Wayne, she turned to him and said, “That’ll be the day!”.

Obviously, I am directing my evaluations to the many of us who are willing to put time and craftsmanship effort into our leader rigging. Pre-tapered, extruded leader and tippet ring users are generally after simplicity and that is fine too, especially for sub-surface fishing where precision of leader performance is less relevant as weight and/or indicators may be in use. For the fly fisher aspiring to place his floating fly, drag free, with no curl of tippet before it in the feeding lane a sipping trout, try the Braid. And for those of us aiming to put a bay anchovy imitation in the boil of a busting bass or in front of a tailing bonefish, hand built carefully tapered leaders provide a great deal of command. Don’t forget to thoroughly check the seating and integrity of all your knots; better you break them by testing than some great fish doing it for you.


Trout Fly Rod Action – Hook Setting – Tippet Protection

A fly rod’s action, slow, medium, fast and everything in between fundamentally effects how we present flies, strike and fight a fish. Obviously the scale of habitat ranging from a small Brook Trout stream to a big, broad Brown Trout river is a consideration. Also the range of techniques to be employed play a vital role as responding to a taught line subsurface streamer eat is different from the blind take of a drifted nymph and more so still from the sip of a dry fly.

In the case of streamer fishing it is really more about payload weight and wind resistance as, once in the water and being striped, when a trout slams it one simply responds with a strong strip of the line with the rod tip pointed at the fish. Typically we knot a stout tippet to our leader to absorb the force of the take and attendant strip-strike. In this case the rod’s action is more about the cast and putting the screws to the fish than about responding to the take or tippet protection, power is the name of this game.

Dead drifting nymphs poses entirely different issues. Variables include the number of flies to be fished and the amount of weight to be added to get them to the desired depth. Some extra rod length is advantageous to hold line off the water and mending what line inevitably is on the surface. Also a deeper flexing, slower responding tip helps form more open shaped, lower line speed loops as tight loops might result in spending more time untangling rigs than drifting them. When line or indicator pause the deeper flexing tip protects the tippet like a shock absorber pulling the hook home with less chance of snapping it with a too abrupt reaction. Then it is game on and the mid-section of the rod’s taper that supports the flexible tip and, with a large trout, even the stouter butt-section apply the power to bring the fish to net with the softer tip going along for the ride while throbbing to the fish’s motions.

It is in fishing a dry fly that the subject of rod action relative to presentation and tippet protection becomes more controversial. Delicacy and how it is achieved is the principle issue but tippet protection too is a debatable subject.

In the summers of the 1970’s, I spent a lot of time on Idaho’s Henry’s Fork. The river was in its hay days and was a magnetic for dry fly aficionados reveling in the fecund overlapping “masking” hatches and the thick bodied, hard running rainbows that thrived there. I quickly learned from both experience, observing and being coached by more seasoned fly fishers there that dry fly presentation on this highly technical river embodied several components. This was the height of the match-the-hatch era and selecting a fly that imitated not only the species of mayfly the trout was targeting but the stage of emergence too and it best be as sparse and flush floating as a natural, was the first order of business. Long 15 – 18’ leaders including 5’+ tippets were the norm. One would stalk, parallel to the bank, quietly and slowly wading downstream until a head of significance was discovered sipping subtly against bankside vegetation. Not getting too close, you false cast downstream, not toward the fish so as to avoid either a flash of light or spray of droplets from line and leader, then execute your cast with a pronounced reach and upstream mend to alight the fly well above the trout, distance depending on circumstances. Some on-water line manipulation was all but always necessitated to assure the fly arrived at the fish’s lie first with not a wisp of tippet ahead of it and with enough leader slack to assure a dead drift. Over the seasons, I evolved a repertoire of in-air line-leader horizontal mends to supplement the reach cast to further enhance the line’s attitude upon landing on the weed bed twisted currents. When well executed and timed to the trout’s rhythm, he might sip in your offering…after all, there were natural duns in front of, next to and behind your artificial. One could spend a long time with one fish changing from floating nymph to emerger to dun to stillborn as the hatch progressed until the trout was hooked…or spooked.

I often fished the Fork with another fly fisher who tent camped in the lodge pole forest along the river as did I and by the late 70’s we both had gone to Scott Graphite rods, he a three and me a five-weight. We both sought the ultimate in delicacy of presentation but through differing methodologies. He would crouch like a heron, elbow high and wrist-cast low line speed, open loops, low mass line unfurling smoothly upon the water. Conversely, using a more compact stroke and a higher mass fly line size, I would generate greater line speed, tighter loops and utilize the expanded air time to articulate the aerialized line prior to it landing upon the water. We both caught fish and were not particularly competitive but would engage in periodic camp fire debates about the efface of our varied techniques. Years later, when his once considered quick Scott was rendered by long use into a limp stick, he took my advice and got a then new G.Loomis GLX. He was amazed both by the casting accuracy and presentation expansion the great new rod offered him and after a decade of debate, converted to high line speed dry fly delivery. I saw him as recently as last June on the Missouri and he was fishing a Sage ONE.

Having started fly fishing in the era of cane and glass rods, I have always thought of slow to medium action rods as “wet fly rods” adroit at swimming a classic wet or modern soft hackle caddis pupae through a run. Contemporary, low mass, sophisticatedly designed medium fast to fast tapered rods provide higher line speed, smoother, straighter, tighter loops and more gravity defying air time to facilitate in-air line manipulation. Also the quicker recovering, crisp tip section is an asset in un-delayed and precise on water mends. I am perplexed when I hear an angler say they “prefer” a deeper flexing rod for dry fly fishing. I can understand loving a deeper flexing rod for personal casting style and many anglers rely upon the feeling of the mass of the rod bending rather than the mass of the line loading the rod to establish their timing. A light, fast tapered rod like ONE for example, feels “stiff” if you are a rod mass movement caster and “lively” if you are a communicate with the line caster.

W13 226 Beaverhead Brown 7.10 s

A deep flexing, slow action, low line mass Circa 3-weight unfurls its light line upon the stream surface providing a feeling of extreme gentleness to the caster while sending mini shock waves to the feeding trout while the super-fast Method 6-weight unfurls it heavy line in the air with a feeling of powerful authority while allowing the angler to follow the leader and fly down with the line with no sensation being transmitted to the trout till he feels the metallic point inside the fly he just rose to.

W14 044 Missouri R. Brown Trout s

Regularly, authoritative fly fishers extol the tippet protecting virtues of a softer tipped fly rod. While drifting sub-surface nymphs or swinging a wet fly, the shock absorbing properties of a flexible tip make sense to me. Less so in dry fly hook setting where precision response to the visual take and the trout’s movement immediately thereafter determines if the fly is to lodge in the corner of the trout’s mouth, be pulled upstream out of its mouth or the strike missed due to imprecise angler/rod timing. Here, a quick responding and counter-flex free recovering tip is again an asset. One “slip-strikes” a dry fly, that is the line is held gently between the thumb and middle finger encircling the cork grip and when the rod is raised to come taught with the fish, line controllably slips through those fingers providing a finger touch sensitive response to the fish and the degree of force with which it responds when feeling the hook. In extreme cases not uncommon on rivers like the Delaware and Missouri when fishing from a drift boat, obstacles preclude getting as close to a rising fish as one might like. The down and across with a reach cast and mend followed by feeding slack into the drift accompanied by additional current reacting mends can see a lot of line go out the rods tip-top…occasionally the whole line leaving nothing but colored string in your hand when that big boy in the tail out eats. That is a lot of line/water friction to overcome with anything less than a rod of stout stuff and crisp tip response. Even then, extra-long drifts, though highly rewarding, are infrequently successful. The same principles apply though to a 35 to 50’ conventional drift as to a 100 footer just without the excessive current drag on your line.

So, commencing with that early, Harry Wilson, 5-weight Scott Graphite (“G” was the letter the serial # started with standing for, you guessed it, graphite) a fast and sophisticated rod in its original late 1970’s day compared to contemporaries like Orvis 1st generation graphite, Fenwick HMG, Tom Morgan’s Winstons and the Leonard Golden Shadow and progressing through Orvis Western 8’9”/#5, Sage RPL#5, seminal G.Loomis GLX#5, Redington Nti”Nano”#5, Albright EXS#5, Hardy Zenith#5, Sage Z-Axis#5 and now ONE#5, I sequentially selected the newly developed rod providing the optimal combination of attributes tailored to my dry fly technique. With each new generation of material science and ever more sophisticated design, rods in this category have become lighter, more capable and, importantly, increasingly communicative with the movement of the fly line. Not sitting still myself and often inspired by a new rod’s enhanced adroitness, I have experimented and added new line manipulation variations to the existing repertoire, expanding my responsiveness to diverse dry fly presentation opportunities.

I do not wade as well as I used to and am not quite as strong and nimble as in my younger years but my eyesight remains sharp. I believe I execute fewer, more deliberate casts and certainly leave unmolested some rising trout that do not quite pique my curiosity. However, as long as wild trout grow to good size in fine spring creeks and well managed spring creek like tailwaters and elite rod designers keep improving upon technical dry fly rods, I intend to continue to refine my presentation style in pursuit of inducing a wily old brown to rise to my artificial fly as if to a natural mayfly.

W14 160 PDX Cs

Orvis CFO III – 30 Years Apart

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Original Hardy-built, spring and pawl CFO and

machined from bar-stock in China, disc-drag CFO

In the winter of 1971 – 72, Orvis introduced the CFO reel, designed by New Hampshire reel builder-great, Stanley Bogdan, to be manufactured by Hardy Brothers of Alnwick, England. Named after Orvis founder, Charles F. Orvis, inventor of the vented or ported fly reel in 1874, it was priced at about $120. At that time, Hardy‘s most popular trout reel was the Lightweight Series including Featherweight, LRH Lightweight and Princess. These leaf spring engaged, twin reversible pawl reels were well cast of an aluminum alloy and featured Hardy’s spring loaded latch and cap spool release; the new CFO series was to incorporate these given characteristics. Stan Bogdan’s design elegantly improved upon Lightweight’s surfaces, replaced the typical Hardy, threaded, edge-mounted check adjustment bolt with a radius-internal cam actuated by a rear-housing mounted knob and, importantly, added a flat, flared, smooth palming rim on the spool; a great and influential innovation. The Hardy spring and pawl mechanism really is an over-run check, hardly a drag, and the palming rim provided the fly fisher with a clean, intuitive surface to apply additional pressure, rather than inserting one’s finger into the spool against the outgoing line to add resistance. So many post CFO reels incorporate a palming rim that it has become, essentially, ubiquitous.

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CFO, except in larger salmon sizes, are frameless, leaving the reel foot support and the “T” pillar to which the nickel silver line guard is screwed, to track in the inner recess of the spool’s palming rim. Later in the 1980’s Hardy CFOs eliminated the T pillar in favor of an “I” for ease of casting. The frameless design reduced weight substantially while quality and experienced manufacturing preserved adequate rigidity.

The first production CFOs had the center spindle affixed by a screw-head bolt visible on the back surface of the housing but these were inclined to loosen and were eventually replaced with a superior internal screw-in spindle connection.

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Earlier CFOs, like this circa 1980 sample, had their inscriptions engraved but as production ramped up in response to overwhelming popularity, Hardy switched to stamping. The difference is not particularly important or even noticeable unless you have engraved and stamped examples beside one another. The edges around the letters of the stamped version are ever so slightly rounded and anyone familiar with the two processes can easily detect which is which. If one is seeking a prime classic CFO one would look for an example like this one, an engraved, “T” pillared, non-externally screwed spindle model. This reel matches and balances best with shorter #3 to 5-weight rods up to Orvis’s Far and Fine. By the size of 8’/#4 Western, my favorite early Orvis graphite of 1984, CFO IV is a better gravity neutral balancing match. This size III accepts a WF5F with about 70 yds. of #20 Dacron backing.

In 1993, Orvis acquired British Fly Reels and, although manufacturing continued to be “Made in England”, Orvis switched CFO production from Hardy to BFR. These latter CFOs did not have the rivets on their back surface as the spring and pawl componentry was supported by an internal plate. A first for the CFO series, a green, off-set disc drag model was introduced shortly thereafter and, although fine fishing reels, these BFR produced models represented the end of the seminal classic CFOs. Over the course of time and many varied Orvis reels, CFOs eventually returned briefly to Hardy manufacturer, machined in England and currently, a beautiful and faithful CFO III, machined and anodized by Abel in California for Orvis, is available. This Abel and the last Hardy versions are, as was the original, spring and pawl designs and, at $345, the modern CFO is a very fine and beautifully crafted fly reel.

For maximum contrast, I am electing to compare the first generation classic with a few years old, machined and anodized, offset disc-drag model built to Orvis’s specifications in China.

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Retailing for $225 and available from 2004 to 2013 (source; Orvis FF Customer Service), this is a solid and well executed piece of work. Clearly intended to be reminiscent of the original in appearance though entirely different in color and internal mechanism, it is built to high quality standards.

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Peer into the spool’s spindle recess and observe a one-way, needle clutch bearing. The spool is, in the modern reel idiom, counterbalanced, unlike the Hardy-built models. The venting ports encircling the frame’s periphery are, as far as I can determine, purely cosmetic and though a departure from the original’s appearance, are good looking. The gear teeth that the pawl engages with are finer than in the original so a different, more closely pitched sound is generated, not at all unpleasant, just different.

As its name indicates, this CFO Disc actually has a drag. OK, it is an off-set disc, a dead-end design that I believe dies with this reel. Orvis was the first and last to employ this design which may have originated with BFR but has been used by others as far away as STH in Argentine Patagonia and the Lamson-built, Orvis DXR made for them by the first iteration of that reel maker prior to its acquisition by Waterworks. On Lamson’s own version, they employed a caliper, pad and large disc similar to an automotive design. Orvis, consistent with the vast majority of fly reel makers, has gone to a concentric, hub mounted disc or stacked, multi-element drag modules, more directly engaging and superior designs. CFO Disc, via its traditionally positioned rear mounted drag knob is, never-the-less, easily fine tunable up to settings stouter than most any trout fishing situation might call for.

As a performance oriented angler who appreciates a linear, incremental drag to assist in quickly bringing a trout to hand and releasing it, this machined, disc-drag model might logically be appealing. However, employing a diminutive, standard arbor reel like CFO III, I would in all probability, be fishing a little rod in a small stream environment. Such habitats rarely benefit from the ultimate in technical tackle, rather favoring the simplicity of manually dextrose rod and reel handling that is at the heart of fly fishing; eschewing mechanical advantage. The buttery smooth, well-worn and oiled, original Hardy-built CFO possesses a classical charm un-equaled not only by the several very fine modern spring and pawl reels but also in comparison to its contemporary peers of decades past. Sometimes, not often, a rod or reel is introduced that by virtue of inspired design, optimal materials application and excellent fabrication, is imbued with near magical properties. Forty five year old original CFO is just such a reel, CFO is iconic.

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