Warmwater Tips

Understanding Leaders for WarmWater Fly Fishing
By Joe Cornwall


If you want to be more successful with a fly rod, whether your target species is smallmouth bass or bluegill, brown trout or striped bass, you need to get the fly in front of the fish in such a way as to provoke a positive reaction. While this may seem self-evident, many long-rodders miss the mark - and not by a little bit. I've witnessed it on many occasions. I've guided fly fishers on a new stream and watched as they swung streamers or nymphs on floating lines, never getting the fly closer to the bottom than two or three feet! The problem wasn't their ability to cast. Nor was it the fly pattern. The problem might have been solved with a sinking or sinking-tip line but in every instance a key part of the problem was a store-bought tapered leader that was entirely inappropriate for the task at hand.

Almost all fish species feed predominantly on the bottom. Smallmouth bass are a fine example. 80% of their food comes in the form of crayfish. Crayfish live on the bottom. Imagine going to a restaurant and ordering a hamburger - only to find it hovering a foot above the plate. Would you feel comfortable taking a bite of your floating entrée? Chances are you would leave the restaurant immediately. A fish operating on instinct will have exactly the same reaction to an inappropriate presentation - it will spook!

I almost never fish knotless tapered leaders. Most of these leaders are designed with the trout fisherman in mind, which is fine if you're a trout fisherman. They typically are biased towards the dry fly where a drag-free drift is imperative. That means most knotless tapered leaders feature a longish, supple tippet coupled to a short butt and taper. This is a fine design to get your size 14 Adams to drift over a trout, but is a poor choice for turning over a size 6 Clouser and controlling it.

If you want to catch more fish, learn to tie your own custom leaders! After spending hundreds of dollars on a good fly rod, reel and line, acquiring the best tied flies, and making time to find productive water, do you really want to let the least expensive piece of tackle closest to the fly be a store-bought compromise? I have said it many times and I'll likely be saying many, many more - changing your leader will often result in more strikes and more fish landed than changing your fly. It's all about presentation!

Let me share the few leader formulae that I use most often. For the angler in search of a better education on this oft-forgotten link in the fly fishing set-up I would suggest perusing "Drag Free Drift" by Joseph Kissane and Steven Schweitzer (Stackpole Books, ISBN 0-8117-0527-7) or visiting The Global Flyfisher Internet web site. If you want to be a more successful fly fisher then take some time and invest in an education about the effects of the leader on the presentation. It will be time well spent!

In this article I will refer to leader material diameters rather than pound test or "X" designations. The pound test varies considerably as a function of diameter from one manufacturer to another and from one material formulation to another. An excellent investment for any serious fly fisher is an inexpensive micrometer. I use a General model No. 102, which set me back the princely sum of $19.95 at the local hardware emporium. This handy device measures from 0.00 to 1.00 inches in .001-inch increments. Don't trust the markings on the tippet spools- especially with the more complex taper leaders if you are using multiple brands of leader material - as there are often manufacturing variances that can allow a stated monofilament diameter to be off by more than .002-inch. Such a discrepancy can muss up a leader design enough to introduce unnecessary difficulties. Be thorough and measure the material. The extra effort will pay you back in enhanced performance on the water.

The first part of a leader to examine is its attachment to the fly line. This connection is important - botch this and your leader will "hinge" and rob the cast of power and accuracy. I typically nail knot a bit of hard mono to the end of my fly line that is 60% of the diameter of the end of the line. My 8-weight intermediate line, for example, mikes out to .043 inches at the business end. I use a foot or so of .025-inch leader material as a "permanent" connection. This is nail-knotted to the fly line and then reinforced with a bit of epoxy. I tie a perfection end loop in this butt section and then use a loop-to-loop handshake to attach the working leader.

Let's start with the shortest and easiest leaders we use, those coupled to sinking and sink-tip lines. For the most part the use of the sink-tip line implies we want to fish deep. There are a few exceptions, notably when one uses a floating fly on a sinking line to allow the fly to "hover" over the bottom. This is an excellent presentation that we may explore in a future article, but for now let's assume we need to be within a foot of the bottom in a river-run that is from four to ten feet deep. Keeping the leader short means the fly will be at the same level as the line. A leader for a sinking line should not be more than four-feet long, nor should it be less than eighteen-inches. Something in the middle is the best bet. My most often used leader for a sinking line is 18" of .020 and 18" of .010 monofilament joined with a triple twist surgeons loop knot. Because I will be fishing deep with such a rig I also use fluorocarbon leader material almost exclusively. Fluorocarbon is nearly twice as dense as nylon (it has a higher specific gravity), is virtually invisible in the water (it has a refractive index close to that of water), and it offers the best abrasion resistance available. Clearly fluorocarbon is the right choice for a sunk presentation.

The triple twist surgeons knot is easy to tie and is the most reliable knot to join two pieces of monofilament .004 or more inches different in size. A blood knot, while extensively used on longer leaders for floating line applications, is not reliable when joining widely dissimilar diameters of monofilament.

To attach the fly to the end of the leader when using a sinking line set-up I almost always use a non-slip mono loop knot. This open loop connection really allows the fly to move around unimpeded, making for a more life-like presentation. A clinch knot or Trilene knot will clamp the fly to the tippet, compromising the micro-movement that spells L-U-N-C-H to a fish.

I rarely need to go lighter than .010 when using a sinking or sink-tip line. This translates to 8 to 12 lb test line, depending on the manufacturer. Lines that are rated as more abrasion resistant typically have a lower pound-test-per-diameter than do leader materials rated as "supple" or "soft". Because the butt section of the leader must turn over the fly and the tippet, I use a harder material for the butt and a softer material for the tippet. I prefer Maxima clear or Mason for the butt section and Orvis Super Strong, Seaguar, Frog's Hair or Rio Velvet for the business end. With shorter leaders used on sinking lines you can use hard mono for the entire leader.

When I grab for a floating line, particularly in the heavier 6 and 8 weight applications, there are two tapers I use most often for streamers and active presentations, and a specialty design I use for dead-drifting nymphs and crawdad imitations. The choice depends on the fly to be used - a streamer or nymph demands a different design than a dry fly or emerger pattern.

Since, day in and day out, a streamer or other subsurface presentation is the most productive for me on warm water, let's start with a design for that kind of fishing. The leader taper I prefer is the Schweitzer's Smallmouth Deep-Down Streamer design. This leader is designed to cast larger flies and allow the fly to sink rapidly in current (critical for consistent success). I prefer a leader about the length of the rod and usually fish an eight to ten foot design. The taper for the Schweitzer's Smallmouth Deep-Down in an eight foot leader is as follows: 30" of .020 hard mono, 19" of .015 hard mono, 10" of .012 hard mono, 10" of .009 fluorocarbon mono and 30" of .008 fluorocarbon tippet (3X). All knots joining the sections of this leader design are blood knots and, as with the sinking line leader, a perfection end loop joins the butt section of the leader with the semi-permanent tag of monofilament nail knotted to the fly line.

When the fish are looking up and I want to fish a small deer hair bug, small popper, or dry fly I use a slightly different leader design. This design retains the ability to turn over a wind resistant fly for pinpoint accuracy in casting, but also allows for a less hindered drift. It is based on the classic Charles Ritz leader design and consists of the following: 40" of .020 hard mono, 24" of .016 hard mono, 6" of .014 soft mono, 6" of .012 soft mono, 6" of .009 soft mono, and 18" of .008 soft mono (3X). My preferred soft mono for this leader is the Orvis Superstrong, but your mileage may vary. As above, all joining knots are blood knots. Unlike the streamer and sinking line leaders, however, I almost always use an improved clinch knot to tie the fly to the tippet on this leader design. With surface flies I find this gives better floatation and control.

For large hair bugs and poppers I use a similar taper to the above, but in a much shorter version. When I have the opportunity to work a size 4 Tap's Bug on top to active fish I like a six foot leader using the following: 20" of .020 hard mono, 20" of .016 hard mono, 6" of .014 hard mono, 6" of .012 hard mono, 6" of .010 hard mono and 15" of .008 hard mono. Note that this leader is constructed entirely of the hard mono. This helps to turn over air resistant flies and land them with pinpoint precision. The hard, abrasion resistant monofilament also stands up a little better to the dead wood, sharp rocks and thick weeds normally associated with traditional "bass bugging". Use a non-slip mono loop knot to connect the bug to this leader for best action.

Of course the above tapers are starting points. One can change the measurements to accommodate a different size tippet (3X or 4X, for instance) or better match the butt of the leader to the fly line. Just remember that a blood knot should not be used to join two sections of monofilament greater than .003-inch difference in diameter. Also, while it is not necessary to sweat over small differences in section length, keeping each segment within about ten percent of the values shown will maximize performance. Finally, I like to tie my leaders "in bulk" for use during the season. This gives me a chance to coat the knots on the leader's butt section with epoxy, CA glue or UV Knot Sense for added reassurance.

The final leader I use on a regular basis is a special and oft overlooked design. Known as a "right angle leader", this design was created for fishing nymphs and other sunken patterns with a dead drift. This leader design comes from John Judy's work and readers are encouraged to explore Judy's book "Slack Line Strategies for Fly Fishing" (Stackpole Books, ISBN 0-8117-1549-3) for a more detailed explanation. Here is the leader design: 36" of .020 hard mono tied directly to a medium to large polypropylene yarn drift indicator, 48" to 60" or more of .008 soft mono or fluorocarbon clinch knotted to the .020 so as to form an 90 degree angle (a "right" angle) with the butt section. This design allows a nymph or crayfish imitation to sink quickly and drift naturally in the river's current. The fly fisher mends the fly line upstream so as to keep the indicator floating just upstream and directly above the fly - and in the same current "lane". The fly should be just ticking the bottom - adjust the length of the light material to get the depth correct. A good starting point is to use about one foot more than the depth of the water being fished.

When I find a 4-weight or lighter rod in my hand nothing works as well for me as a furled leader. These leaders are best purchased, though an enterprising fisher can certainly make his or her own. Furled leaders are formed from yards and yards of very light thread using complex twisting and looping to form a knotless taper of amazing suppleness. When it comes to subtlety, a furled leader has no equal. Whether I am drifting a soft hackle down and across a clear summer flow or casting a floating beetle imitation upstream under an overhanging tree limb, the furled leader will present the fly with barely a whisper. A furled leader will allow the feathered fraud to react to every little eddy and twist in the current. While they are a bit on the spendy side at $8 to $12 each, I have found that a furled leader will easily last a full season for me. All one needs to do is to change the tippet (furled leaders always require the use of a monofilament tippet - the furled part is the butt and taper portion only).

Spend some time learning how leaders affect your presentation and then tie up a supply of the leaders described in this article. With a little work and a little experimentation you will quickly improve your success on the water by learning to fit the right leader to the required presentation.

Joe Cornwall was born and raised on the South Shore of Massachusetts where he started fishing in both fresh and salt water at the age of four with his grandfather. Joe took up fly fishing by age 12 and never looked back.

A Charter Member of the Cape Cod chapter of Trout Unlimited, Joe is an active member today with the Mad River chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Federation of Fly Fishers, The Buckeye Fly Fishers and the International Game Fish Association. Joe is an active conservationist and amateur naturalist. He serves as the Vice President of The Ohio Smallmouth Alliance, where he also edits the Ohio Smallmouth News newsletter and serves as webmaster for TOSA's Internet efforts.

A sales and marketing professional by trade, Joe makes his home in Deer Park, Ohio. His first book "Fly Fishing the Flatlands, A Midwest Moving Water Adventure" is near completion and Joe is working to make the leap from corporate drone to successful entrepreneur this year. You can read some of Joe's articles on fly fishing and fly tying in the Country Anglin' Outdoor Guide (http://www.countryanglin.com/), on the Buckeye United Fly Fisher's web site (http://www.buckeyeflyfishers.com) and on the TOSA web site (http://www.theohiosmallmouthalliance.org). While Joe's heart belongs to smallmouth bass, he can be found fishing for everything from bowfin to bluegill and trout to carp wherever there is water and opportunity.

Joe has a very nice book that has recently been publised titled: Fly Fishing Warm Water Rivers. He has a warmwater site also: