Why Build A Leader
What is a leader? Itís that clear thread like thing that attaches to the fly line. Itís fat at one end and skinny at the other. It tapers to a skinny end where the artificial fly goes. Fly fishing leaders are made of monofilament or fluorocarbon. A section called Tippet, which is tied to the end of the taper section of the leader, is where the fly is tied on or into the leader. The fat rear end or ďbutt sectionĒ interfaces with the fly line by means of a perfection loop, needle knot or nail knot. At the end of the tippet section the fly pattern is attached using any of the following knots; Improved Clinch Knot, Duncan Loop, Surgeons Loop or Trilene Knot. But there is way more to what a leader does for your fly fishing game than merely allowing the fly to be presented.
The first step in making a good leader is finding a good monofilament. Be warned, not all monos are equal:
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- Obviously, you want a strong monofilament, but just as important is a consistent diameter. Monofilaments are made by machines that extrude the material through a die. A company that wants to keep its costs, and prices, down will run its machines at high speed in order to produce a large volume in a short time. But running the machines at high speed sacrifices quality by introducing variations in the lineís diameter, meaning weak spots. The faster the machines run, the greater the variations. Boosting the lineís quality is a simple matter of slowing down the machines. The tradeoff, of course, is increased cost, which is why premium monofilaments such asMaxima cost more.
- Monofilaments are a bit like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Some monos are too hard, some are too soft; the trick is finding a balance that is just right. Hard monoís big advantage is its ability to withstand abrasion, but it tends to be brittle, and knot strength suffers. Hard mono also has a lot of memory, making it difficult to straighten. Soft mono straightens better. It also has better tensile strength and knot strength. The drawback, of course, is that soft mono abrades easily. Maxima uses a formula thatís in between the extremes of hard and soft. The result is superb abrasion resistance, excellent tensile strength and great knot strength. The memory, meanwhile, is quite manageable. In other words, Maxima got it just right.
- Color is an important characteristic of any monofilament, because you want your leader to vanish visually into the habitat. Some companies blend their dyes into the line itself. Itís an approach that saves money but threatens the integrity of the mono. Maxima adds its dyes after the mono is extruded, making for a stronger line. Maxima lines also get a flat finish, not the fish-scaring gloss you see on some monos. Maxima leader wheels, by the way, are available in clear, Ultragreen and Chameleon, in addition to fluorocarbon.
Building A Leader
Many anglers shy away from making their own leaders, because they fear the complexity. Fortunately, we can simplify the process with a few guidelines:60-20-20. These numbers represent a formula espoused years ago by Charles Ritz. Yes, thatís Ritz, as in the famous hotel company. Ritz was also a fly-fisherman, one of the all-time greats. Among his teachings was a leader design that said the butt section should comprise the first 60 percent of your leader, and the midsection should also be 20 percent, leaving 20 percent for the tippet.
Making a 10-foot leader with a 12-pound tippet to use on an 8-weight rod.
Give it a try, this leader is much easier to make than it is to describe.
- The leader butt should have a diameter approximately 60 to 70 percent of the fly line tipís diameter. For my 8-weight Bruce Chard line from Jim Teeny, Iíve eyeballed 30-pound Maxima Ultragreen (diameter 0.022 inches) as a good match. All I have to do is pull a 6-foot length of mono from the spool, and the butt section is finished.
- For the midsection, Iím going to use a 2-foot section of 18-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.016 inches). My greatest concern here is to have a midsection that has a diameter at least 65 percent the size of the butt section; if I use anything smaller, I put the integrity of my knots at risk (multiply the diameter of the larger line by .65 to see how small you can safely go, or 0.022 X .65 = 0.0143).
- I finish with a 2-foot section of 12-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.013 inches). Again, the diameter of my smaller line needs to be within 65 percent of my larger line (0.016 X .65 = 0.0104).
- If I forget to carry a ruler, Iíll just pull off a leader butt, make the midsection one-third as long, then make the tippet the same length as the midsection. The main thing is that you can tie a leader of any length as long as you remember 60-20-20.
Line diameter - Remember the 65 percent rule that I used for limiting the diameters of my mono. The greater the diameter discrepancy, the greater the chance that your knots will slip.
Knots - I like blood knots for tying my leaders together, because blood knots are clean and compact, but surgeonís knots are also good. A note on blood knots: [The instructional link recommends seven wraps when tying a blood knot, but when using heavy monofilament fewer wraps are needed because the knot will never tighten properly. Use only three wraps with heavy mono and up to five wraps with light mono. The only time to consider seven wraps would be with the very lightest mono such as 1-pound and 2-pound test.
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For the first variation, letís say we want a 10-foot leader for an 8-weight rod, except we want a lighter tippet of 6-pound Ultragreen. In this instance, we can expect knot problems, because the 6-poundís diameter is only .009 inches, putting us in violation of the 65 percent rule.
The solution is to split the midsection into two pieces: a 1-foot section (or 10 percent) of 18-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.016 inches) and a 1-foot section (or 10 percent) of 12-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.013 inches). The result is a four-piece leader that protects knot integrity by using the midsection to ďstep downĒ in diameter.
You need to step down even further? Just break the leaderís midsection into three or four pieces as necessary to abide by the 65 percent rule. If need be, steal a foot from the tippet to make room for further extending the midsection.
For the next variation, letís revert back to the original three-piece leader and assume it isnít turning over properly, because the fly is too heavy or bulky. The solution is shifting the formula to emphasize the butt and midsection at the expense of the tippet. This is more art than science, so feel free to experiment, but hereís an example. Keep the butt at 60 percent, extend the midsection to 30 percent and drop the tippet to 10 percent (or just take the 60-20-20 leader, then cut back the tippet).
Or perhaps the leader is turning over too hard, so letís reduce the butt and emphasize the tippet and/or midsection. In this case, weíll reduce the butt to 50 percent, keep the midsection at 20 percent and increase the tippet to 30 percent.
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The possibilities are endless, and thatís bound to be a bit intimidating if you havenít done it before. But donít let that stop you. Comfort and the ability to adapt to changing needs will come with experience.