Warmwater Tips
Leaders for Warmwater Fly Fishing
By Mary Kuss


Leaders for Warmwater Fly Fishing

It's one of the great ironies of fly fishing that so many of us put so much time and effort into trying to reduce it to an exact science. In fact, that's the very last thing we would ever want to do. If we managed to make our sport entirely predictable and controllable, it would cease to be fun. If you were successful every single time you went out, how long would it take for fishing to become boring?
Fortunately this is something we will never have to worry about. Fly fishing is not, nor will it ever be, a science. There are far too many variables over which we have no control. It's different every time we go. Fly fishing is, in fact, an art. As such, every practitioner has his or her own preferences about just about any aspect of our sport you can think of. Opinions are often strongly held, but there is rarely complete agreement on anything once three or more anglers meet. Leaders are a good example.
How long should your leader be, and how important is tippet size? What about choice of material? Nylon, fluorocarbon, or one of the new hollow-butt leaders? Should your leader be tapered? Or is it good enough just to use a length of level monofilament? Solid, furled, braided? Knotted or knotless? The list of options goes on and on. And each option has its proponents. I, of course, can only speak for myself. But here are some things you might want to consider.

There is a distinct tendency within the fly fishing community to believe that warmwater fishing is invariably simpler and less fussy than trout fishing. While this can be true in a lot of cases, it sometimes pays off to be willing to employ the same finesse with bass and panfish as we do with trout. This is especially true in waters where there is a lot of fishing pressure.

I live in southeastern Pennsylvania, a stone's throw from Philadelphia. There is a small warmwater stream I often fish, that flows through a county park about a 15-minute drive from my home. I teach fly fishing for a local fly shop, and often take both private students and group classes to this park. It's about five minutes from the shop, has ample parking, grass fields for practice casting, picnic benches to sit down and do knot tying, and a very accessible stream that's easy and productive to fish from the bank. It's well populated with redbreast sunfish along with a few largemouth bass and a smattering of other warmwater species. As the years have gone by, I've noticed the fish in this stream become more and more sophisticated in the face of ever-increasing fishing pressure. If you're the first angler through in the morning, or after a lengthy period of rest, the sunnies are fairly easy picking. But the more they're worked the cagier they become. I have had them refuse flies in a way distinctly reminiscent of the finicky trout in a special-regulations area on another nearby stream. Who could imagine? But this is not a problem. In fact, it makes for an interesting challenge for the intermediate to advanced angler. And it makes the stream an excellent teaching laboratory.

Warmwater fish tend to be relatively undemanding during the early season, when they are in an aggressive mood as they establish territories and are kept busy driving intruders away from their nests. But as the season progresses the situation changes. The fish become less aggressive and more wary as the water drops and clears. Your catch, particularly of larger panfish, will fall off significantly if you do not adjust your approach.

So, what leaders are appropriate for warmwater fishing and in what situations? Generally, the same principles apply as for any other kind of fishing. And much of leader choice depends on the size of fly you intend to fish. Larger flies, and/or heavier and/or more wind-resistant ones are best cast on short leaders with stout tips that will turn them over with greater ease. When it's necessary to fish smaller flies, it's best to downsize your tippet accordingly. And if the water is clear and/or shallow, a longer leader will help avoid spooking your quarry, just as it does in trout fishing. In deeper or murkier water the long leader is not needed. The environments in which you fish are a major consideration as you choose leaders for warmwater fishing. If you fish around heavy weeds or woody debris, a stout leader is a definite asset. It enables you to muscle fish away from cover and is less subject to being dangerously weakened by abrasion.

If you fish in still waters like lakes and ponds, where your fly is necessarily actively retrieved, leaders are somewhat less critical than in moving waters. In warmwater streams and rivers where there is enough current to drift a dry fly or nymph, there are many parallels to trout fishing. A natural, drag-free presentation can be necessary at times, and a proper leader is a great asset in achieving this.

I don't believe in being dogmatic about very many issues in fly fishing, but I will make an exception in saying that I have no doubt that knotless leaders are preferable to knotted ones for most warmwater fishing. Unless you are fishing very clear, weed-free water, a knotted leader simply picks up too much algae and debris.
What about fluorocarbon leaders for fussy bass and panfish? If fishing fluorocarbon gives you greater confidence, I wouldn't want to discourage you from using it. But I personally do not believe it's necessary, even for trout. I am just not convinced that a visible leader puts fish off. I don't think that fish are capable of being frightened by a static image, like that of a visible leader. Herons and egrets must stalk to within a neck's length of their prey to take it. The fish surely sees the bird. If ever there was an image that a fish should find terrifying, it would be that of a predatory, wading bird. In that case, why were herons and egrets not extinct eons ago? Because fish are frightened by motion, not images. And anyone who's watched a heron at work knows that they move so incredibly slowly and stealthily that the fish doesn't even realize it's in danger until it's too late. Based on that line of reasoning, I believe it's drag or other unnatural motion of a fly that causes fish to refuse, not the visible leader. If your presentation is not proper, or your leader not configured appropriately for the fly you're fishing, this will be every bit as big a problem with fluorocarbon leaders as with nylon leaders. Factor in the increased cost of fluorocarbon, and that it does not degrade as readily in the environment, and it seems to me like a bad choice.

Another distinction worth making is between nylon leaders made for trout fishing and those made for warmwater or saltwater use. Trout leaders are generally made of a softer formulation of nylon, to be responsive to currents and help with making a drag-free presentation of dry flies and nymphs. Warmwater and saltwater leaders are usually a stiffer nylon, with greater abrasion resistance. Except when fishing in technically demanding conditions, where extreme finesse is required, the harder mono is a better choice for most warmwater fishing.

Some folks feel that a level leader is sufficient for warmwater fishing. Again, it's a matter of personal preference. I would not go that route except with a sinking or sink-tip line in water murky enough that I could get away with less than three feet of fairly stout material. For surface flies, or streamers, wets, or nymphs to be fished on a floating or intermediate line, I would much rather use a tapered leader to facilitate a good presentation. You can buy knotless tapered leaders as short as five feet, with tips stout enough to turn over any bass bug. One such leader is the "Saltwater Shorty," distributed by Umpqua. Although meant for use on sinking lines, this is a very nice bass bug leader when extra length is not needed or desired.
Most of my warmwater fishing is done with either a 5-wt. or 6-wt outfit. My 6-wt. is a 9-foot rod of medium action, matched with a multiplying reel and a bass taper line. I have made a conscious decision not to go heavier than that. All the work involved in throwing huge bugs all day on an 8-wt. just doesn't seem worth it to me. I'd rather sacrifice the "big fly, big fish" approach in favor of using lighter tackle that's much more pleasant to fish. The average bass caught in this part of the world is 10 to 12-inches, and fish that size show themselves to much better advantage on the lighter rod. When I do hook a "bubba," bass, I get a real thrill.

I've used braided-butt leaders for most of my trout and warmwater fishing for a number of years. I like both their convenience (no need for a leader straightener) and their casting performance very much. They do tend to get a little ragged under rough use, but this has not been enough of a problem to stop me from using them. I generally use a 5 ft. braided section and add two to four feet of a appropriately-sized tippet. This set-up enables me to easily throw streamers and bugs up to size 4 or so, which is as big as I feel I need to go. But truthfully, I am about at the upward limit of what you'd want to use a braided-butt rig for. If I felt a need to fish a heavier rod, I'd probably go back to the solid mono, knotless tapered leader.
I hope this discussion has given you some food for thought on the subject of warmwater leaders. Keep your line wet and your fly rod bent!

Mary S. Kuss


Mary Kuss
Mary and Bob, Mary's mother Jeanette, and their.two Brittanies (bird dogs) Samantha and Jennie live in a cozy home where one room is devoted to the tying of flies. It's an amazing array of cascading shoe boxes stuffed with feathers, fur, and assorted synthetic fluff, a fly tying table with all its attendant paraphernalia, a small pellet gun, several rods and their cases, sundry plaques, charts, awards, articles and photos lining the Walls along with a sample of Mary's wood carving.

Mary also enjoys doing counted cross stitch, hunting with her dogs for pheasant and quail, and rock gardening. She has worked for The Sporting Gentleman Fly shop in Media, PA for the past twenty years and currently gives professional instruction in fly fishing and fly tying, as well as stream orientation and guide service. Mary has been a member of three different Trout Unlimited chapters, including long stints as editor of the Delco-Manning Chapter newsletter.

Since most of her 30 plus years of fly fishing has been done in the company of male fly fishers, Mary has ample basis for comparison between that experience and what it's been like to fish in the company of women. "I've heard it said that men are generally more goal oriented, and women more process oriented." She says. "I think that's true in most cases. When men say they don't care if they catch fish, it just doesn't quite ring true. But when women say it, I get the sense that they really mean it."

Favorite place to fish overall: Potter County, PA Most frustrating place to fish: The Letort Spring Run in central PA. Biggest fish ever: a 30-inch plus carp on the fly rod from the Brandywine Creek, Chester County, PA