Leaders for Warmwater Fly Fishing
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
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
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
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