Don’t worry — picking the correct fly fishing leader is easy and free of partisan politics.
Fishing leaders provide a secure, nearly invisible connection between the thick, heavy fly line and the fly itself. The concept is simple, but the selection can become complicated by the plethora of options that exist.
To achieve the needed gradual reduction in line diameter from the thick line to the tiny fly at terminal end, traditional leaders were hand-tied. Short sections of increasingly smaller diameter line were tied together until you got to the desired terminal end (tippet) diameter for the fly being cast.
Today, some purists still use elaborate handtied leaders, but modern technology makes knotless leaders a much better option for most anglers. Knotless leaders are single strands of monofilament nylon or fluorocarbon that are extruded in a gradual, seamless taper from a thick butt-end of a tiny tippet end. Leaders are rated by the tippet size at the terminal end using an “X” scale. The higher the X number, the smaller the tippet diameter, that is to say a 4X tippet is thicker, and stronger, than a 6X tippet.
Selecting the best tippet size can be intimidating for a novice – and even experienced – angler. We turned to someone with nearly 50 years of fishing experience — and more than 40 of that working in the fly fishing industry — to help simplify the process of selecting leaders and tippets.
Tom Rosenbauer, marketing manager for Orvis Fly Fishing, has written numerous best-selling fly fishing books. He also hosts a regular podcast and how-to video-cast series.
Rosenbauer told us leader selection is one of the most common question topics he receives.
“The first thing I tell everyone who asks is get a good brand of knotless leader. Today’s knotless leaders are terrific, with great tapers for perfect fly presentation.”
Rosenbauer also suggests anglers embrace longer leaders. The most common knotless leaders today are 9-footers, but Rosenbauer says he recommends 12-foot leaders as the standard go-to length for most trout anglers. “Especially when you are blind casting to where you think trout might be. Fly lines are easy to see, so they spook fish easily. The further your fly is from your fly line, the less likely it is to spook fish.”
Casting a 12-foot leader requires a little more effort than a 9- or 7.5-foot leader, but getting a good presentation with that longer leader is just a matter of practice.
“I’ll go with a shorter leader if water is faster or cloudier, where fish can’t see the line as easily, or where short casts are required. But it’s better to have a leader that’s a little too long, rather than a little too short,” he said.
As for tippet size, Rosenbauer said the general rule is match the tippet to the fly being used. “Take your hook size and divide by 3, then round down. So, a #20 hook-size dry fly would take a 6X tippet.”
In turbid or fast-moving water where visibility is reduced, a bigger tippet is okay — and even recommended.
“I frequently use 4X even on smaller dry flies — in fast water especially, if I can get the tippet through the hook’s eye, I’ll use it. After all, we’re literally talking about a difference of a few thousandths of an inch in diameter.” A 3X tippet is 0.008 inches in diameter, while a 5X is supposed to be 0.006 inches in diameter. Rosenbauer suggests 5X is a good all-around option for anglers who don’t know what fly they might be using throughout the day.
And of course, anglers should have spools of tippet material in a variety of sizes — at least 4X to 6X for general trout fishing — on hand. Replacing tippet to the end of a knotless leader extends the life of that leader (the tippet section will get shorter and shorter as you change flies) and will also allow you to change the tippet size without replacing the entire leader.
Finally, Rosenbauer says trout anglers should stick with nylon tippet and leaders unless they are fishing deep, clear lakes. Then a fluorocarbon leader is a better option since fluorocarbon sinks quickly and is less visible underwater. But fluorocarbon is much more expensive, and does not break down in the environment as quickly as nylon. So fluoro should be used sparingly.
The Orvis Learning Center hosts several videos providing further insights on the selection and use of leaders. You can check them out here.
We’ve used several different brands of leaders and tippets. Generally, our test teams found the following brands and options all performed equally well with no discernible differences between them.
Rio Supplex Trout Leader
The Supplex Trout leader is a bit more flexible than most other leaders we tested. That makes it easier to get a long, delicate presentation. This leader was a favorite with guides, trout bums, and weekend anglers. Available in lengths of 7.5-foot, 9-foot, and 12-foot, in sizes 6X through 3X. the Supplex nylon is also available in spools of tippet material. Price: $5.95
The SuperStrong-Plus has good suppleness to help turn over the fly for natural presentation. But the leader is also strong and durable. Available in 7.5-, 9-, and 12-foot lengths, in sizes from 0X to 7X, as well as spooled tippet material. Price: $7.95 per 2-pack
Umpqua Trout Taper
The 10-foot Umpqua Trout Taper offers a nice compromise between 9- and 12-foot leaders, and the Trout Taper performs on par with the Orvis and Rio leaders. Available in 7.5-, 9- and 10-foot lengths, in sizes from 0X to 7X. Price: $12 per 3-pack