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
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
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
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.
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.