The leader is the single-most neglected and misunderstood piece of fly fishing equipment to the vast majority of fly anglers. It is, however, the most important link between angler and fly. I love my dry fly rod, reel, and line. And I can have all the confidence in the world in the fly at the end as well as my casting ability. But with a junk leader, the system breaks down and it can be the difference in a drag-free float and catching the fish versus the fly being pulled across the current and a refusal.
Do you need more convincing? I did, too. But the conversation came from a friendly competition between two guides on Michigan’s Au Sable river. During a sunny summer day the two guides floated the same stretch of river at the same time with the same fly. The difference was the leader. One used a nine-foot floating leader tipped with nylon tippet and the other with fluorocarbon tippet. The angler with fluorocarbon tippet landed over 30 more fish than the guy with nylon tippet. Before we get into a nylon versus fluorocarbon debate, it just goes to show you that the leader deserves some thought.
Before we get too far into the subject, major manufacturers have a decision to make when creating their prepackaged leaders. They simply can’t make a leader that does everything well, all of the time. They settle on a knot less tapered leader design that works well for its intended purpose, more often than not. And they sell a lot of them. This is no slam against them in any way. In fact, they’ve sold more leader material and tippet to me than if I were to just buy the prepackaged leaders. They are in business for a reason. But to get your fly to do what you want it to, in that situation, you need to be aware of how to make that happen.
Your river doesn’t look like mine. What works for your water may not work for mine. It may be as simple as adding or deleting another foot of tippet or it could mean going to the extreme of using a different rod and/or line. On one technical stream, a leader shorter than 10 feet won’t catch fish. From many experiences, another foot or two of tippet can make or break the day. But once you start adding and deleting tippet, suddenly things can fall apart and accuracy is lost.
We’ve all been there….a time where we’re on the river where things just feel right. You can the backcast, your eyes are focused on where you want the fly to land, as you abruptly stop your forward cast, the perfect loop forms, your leader somewhat straightens out, and your fly lands right where your ant it. Then, GULP! Everything seemed to come together in that cast, in that moment, and the fish takes the fly. It’s a goal we strive for on every cast rather than simply, going through the motions and leaving it up to chance whether or not the fish takes. For any given situation, there’s a leader.
With an online search there are literally tens of thousands of leader formulas. In an effort to keep it simple, there will be two more parts to follow; one for the less advanced fly angler and one for the more technical fly angler. No matter how simple or complicated you want to get, this is something all fly anglers should be educated on regardless of whether or not you want to cross over into the realm of constructing your own leader.