The leader is probably one of the most important considerations when putting together a fly fishing set up. My goal here is to help you understand the differences and how they affect your fly fishing experience.
The first thing to understand about leaders is that they are tapered. This means the end that connects to the fly line is thicker than the end the fly ties to. Nowadays, most leaders are manufactured in one seamless piece. But there are also hand tied leaders where a progressively smaller tippet size is used from the thick end to the thin. The reason leaders are tapered is to create a gentle presentation when the fly hits the water. The thicker end helps to turn over the thinner end with the fly attached to it. Then, the thinner end can then hit the water with very little disturbance so you don’t spook the fish.
There are two different materials used for leaders, nylon and fluorocarbon. Nylon is the most common type as it is fairly inexpensive, durable, and relatively difficult to see in water. Fluorocarbon leaders are more expensive, but they are virtually invisible in the water. This is a huge benefit when you are after wary fish. If they see a leader attached to a fly, they will most likely just ignore it. Fluorocarbon is not as durable as nylon, but it’s decreased visibility usually outweighs that. Another difference is that fluorocarbon leaders will sink a little faster that nylon. If you are trying to keep your fly on the top of the water, as in dry fly fishing, then nylon may be the way to go. You can grease a fluorocarbon leader with some silicone floatant to help keep it from pulling your dry fly under. If price isn’t an issue, then I always recommend fluorocarbon over nylon leaders.
Nylon leader material vs. Fluorocarbon
Fly line leaders typically range from 7 1/2 feet to 15 feet long. The most commonly used length (and best for a beginner) is a 9 foot leader. The longer the leader, the further away from the fish you are and the less likely you are to spook the fish. Keep in mind though, a long leader is more difficult to manage and can get tangled very easily – so stick with a 9 footer when starting out. Shorter leaders are good for situations where you might not have much room to cast, or you want to add on to the leader with different material. If you are fishing in a spot where the water is very still and very clear, then a long 15 foot leader may be the only way you can present a fly without causing a big disturbance on the surface and scare away the fish.
Different leader lengths
Leader sizes (or weights) range from 0x to 8x, and 8 lb to 45 lb. The “x” rating on a leader denotes its maximum breaking strength at the smallest diameter of the leader. The lb rating on heavier duty leaders is also the breaking strength. Each manufacturer differs slightly but they are all pretty close to the same standards. When choosing a leader, it’s important to first know what size of flies you will be using. Fly sizes range from really big, like size 2, to really small like size 28. A good rule of thumb for choosing a leader size is multiply the leader X rating times 3. That tells you that you can use a fly size up to that number. So for example, if you have a 6x leader, you can safely use up to a size 18 fly. When I say “up to”, that means 18-28 or so. Fly sizes are in reverse order, just like leader sizes. So a larger number on the leader means it is a smaller diameter and has a lower breaking strength. Same thing with flies – so a size 22 fly is smaller than a size 18.
It’s important to make sure you are using the correct weight leader based on the flies you are using. For example, if you use a size 10 fly (a relatively large fly) on the end of a 5x leader, the leader will not be able to turn over the fly properly when you are casting it and you’ll end up with a big tangle. Or you might get the fly out there, but you will not be able to put it right where you want and it might create a big splash and scare away anything nearby.
Going the other way, using a small fly on a big leader, you may be able to put the fly where you want it, but the leader will make a large disturbance on the surface of the water and that’s never good. So the goal in most fly fishing situations is to use as small of a leader weight as you can to create precise and delicate presentations of the fly.
Fly fishing leaders may seem like a relatively simple choice at first. But I believe the leader you choose can make or break a day of fishing. So keep these leader features in mind when making a choice. I usually keep 6-10 different leaders in my fishing bag at all times. That way I will almost always have the leader for the conditions.