Chapter 4: Leaders and Knots
The leader is not only as important as the rod, reel, and line, but at times more important than the correct fly pattern. The leader is a device for deception as well as presentation. It deceives by being transparent, and even more by its flexibility. With the proper leader, your fly should appear unattached. It should move freely with every shift of the current or sink unhindered.
All modern leaders are made from nylon. Nylon, or monofilament, is strong for its diameter, flexible, and stretches somewhat without breaking. The fact that nylon is transparent may also be helpful in fooling fish, although I'm convinced that fish can always see the leader. Its transparency may make the connection to the fly just a little less blatant.
Before nylon was first used for leaders, in the late 1940s, leaders were made from drawn silkworm gut. Level pieces of gut were joined with knots to form tapered leaders, which cast and straightened very well. However, gut is brittle unless soaked in water for a few hours, and it mildews and rots if not carefully dried and put away. Gut cannot be drawn with any kind of quality control in diameters less than .009-inch. Today we use nylon in diameters as fine as .003-inch and a nylon leader is two or three times as strong as a gut leader of the same diameter.
Gut did have one advantage over nylon: it was straight. Because leaders are so long, they must be stored coiled, and nylon retains a "memory" that must be removed. You can remove almost all the kinks and curls from nylon leaders by carefully stretching sections between your hands or drawing them through a piece of gum rubber or leather. The heat generated by this process, along with the slow, steady pull, realigns the molecules in the nylon and eliminates most of the memory.
Leaders designed to present flies properly follow tapers developed by theory and by trial and error, just as fly rods and fly lines are tapered. In fact, the whole system is one continuous taper, from the butt section of the rod to the hair-thin end of the leader. All three work together to transmit and dampen the tremendous speed and energy developed in your casting arm, to place the line, leader, and fly on the water so gently they barely ripple the surface.
Leaders can be tapered by two methods, knotted and knotless. I prefer compound-tapered knotted leaders, which consist of as many as ten pieces of monofilament of different diameters in specific lengths, joined by knots.
A knotless leader is a single, continuous piece of nylon that gradually decreases in diameter. The diameter of a knotless leader must decrease at a constant rate, due to the manufacturing process that extrudes the leader.
Knotted leaders do not decrease in diameter at a constant rate. They straighten better when built according to a compound taper, which consists of about 60 percent heavy butt section, a 20 percent section of a number of pieces that step down the taper quickly, and 20 percent level tippet. The heavy butt section connects to the fly line and assures a smooth transmission of casting energy; the step-down sections continue this process into the tippet.
Knotless leaders do offer advantages in weedy waters. If you're trying to slip a weedless bass bug across the lily pads, a knotted leader can catch on vegetation. The knots may also pick up small clumps of algae, which can make casting difficult. Still, whenever possible you should stick to knotted leaders with their superior casting properties. Knotless leaders appear to be simpler, but I'd be willing to bet that poor-quality leaders have discouraged as many would-be fly-fishermen as have poorly matched fly-rod/fly-line outfits.
The easiest way to understand a leader is to construct one. Anyone who can tie a shoelace and use a tape measure can make his own leaders. Here are the specifications for a standard 9-foot, 4X trout leader, one that is used under average midseason water conditions with fly sizes 12 through 16.
Start by taking a level piece of monofilament leader material that measures .021 inch in diameter and is a little bit longer than thirty-six inches. Tie a loop in one end with a surgeon's loop or perfection knot. This loop will be attached to the fly line. Next take a piece of .019-inch nylon that is just a little longer than sixteen inches and tie it to the .021-inch section with a surgeon's knot or barrel knot. Tie the twelve-inch section of .017-inch nylon to the .019-inch in the same manner, and continue the process to the tippet.
Notice that ordinary square knots were not used. Nylon is slippery stuff, and knots that hold in rope will slip right out when tied with nylon. You also may have observed that there is never more than .002-inch difference in diameter between connecting leader sections. The greater the difference in adjacent strands, the weaker the connecting knots, especially if you use the barrel knot.
The barrel, or blood, knot is the traditional knot you'll see used most often in leaders that are available commercially. It's a smooth, neat knot, but it requires some practice to tie properly. It's a good idea to practice this knot and all other fly-fishing knots with heavy string or rope before you try your hand with thin, slippery leader material.
The barrel knot will not slip if properly tied. If, when you inspect your finished knot, both tag ends stick out the same side, the knot is not properly tied and may break. When tied correctly, the tag ends should emerge from the knot at a 180-degree angle to each other.
The surgeon's knot is slightly stronger than the barrel knot and is easier to tie. It is not quite as neat in the larger diameters; most fishermen use it for tippets and for the finer sections of tapered leaders. If you have to join pieces of leader material that differ more than .003 inch in diameter, the surgeon's knot is stronger than the barrel knot.
Loops can be tied in the butt section of your leader with one of two knots, either the perfection knot or the surgeon's loop. They have equal strength; the perfection knot is a little neater and the surgeon's loop is easier to tie.
The two most popular knots for tying flies to the tippet are the clinch and the double turle knot. The clinch is easier to tie, it is stronger, and you generally don't use up as much leader material when you tie on a new fly. Although the double turle knot is harder to tie, some fishermen prefer it because the leader comes straight out of the hook eye. The clinch knot can sometimes cock the fly off to one side.
Another reason for preferring the clinch knot is that you can remove the knot simply by grasping the knot just ahead of the hook eye and pulling away from the fly. The double turle knot must be clipped off when you replace flies.
The improved clinch knot, in which the tag end is passed back through the large loop, is needed only when the diameter of the hook eye is much greater than the diameter of your tippet.
The tippet is the most important tool for deception in a fly-fisherman's bag of tricks. At least when trout fishing, a .001-inch difference in the diameter of your tippet can make a marked difference in your success. Diameter increases the relative flexibility or stiffness of your final connection to the fly, and thus the fly's credibility as an unattached morsel of food.
Leaders are described by their length and tippet size. Though tippets may be identified by their diameter in inches, in the finer sizes a more common system is to assign "X" numbers to specific diameters.
The system, which is universal regardless of the manufacturer of the leader material, is as seen to the right.
When fishing for bass, salmon, steelhead, and the saltwater species, you'll want a heavier tippet, since the flies will be larger, casts will be longer, and you are not concerned with a delicate presentation. The tippet sizes used are larger, too large for the X system. The following designations are used:
Thus, a nine-foot leader with a tippet of .007-inch will be called a "nine-foot 4X leader." In the heavy saltwater, bass-bug, or salmon leaders the tippets are often larger than 0X. We would call a nine-foot leader with a .015-inch tippet a "nine-foot .015 leader" or a "nine-foot medium salmon leader" or even a "nine-foot 11-pound leader." The 11 pounds refers to the minimum breaking strength or pound-test of that .015-inch section.
The diameter of your leader tippet must exhibit a happy medium between stiffness for proper presentation and flexibility for deception. Flies vary greatly in terms of size and air resistance, so you must be adaptable in your choice of leaders.
For example, if I'm going to fish for trout with a #14 dry fly I'll usually choose a leader with a 4X tippet. From experience I know that a 2X tippet is too stiff and will make the fly behave unnaturally as it drifts in the currents. If I use a 6X tippet, I find that the last half of the leader won't straighten, because the 6X material is too fine to overcome the air resistance of a size 14 fly. If I can't straighten my leader, the fly won't go where it's supposed to—and if the tippet falls in a big heap around the fly, it's tough to fool the fish.
If you look at the tippet size/fly size chart, you'll see that I could use a 3X or 5X tippet. If the water is very clear or if conflicting currents are pulling on the leader and making the fly drift unnaturally, I'll use 5X. If the water is dirty or fast and the fish are easier to fool, I might use 3X instead, with its greater breaking strength.
Leaders also come in varying lengths, which may vary from as short as three feet to as long as fifteen feet. Very short (three- to six-foot) leaders are used with sinking or sink-tip lines. The specific gravity of nylon is so close to that of water that leaders tend to float, especially if contaminated with line dressing or grease from your hands. A long leader with a sinking line tends to buoy the fly toward the surface, defeating the purpose of using a sinking line. Sinking lines are seldom used under clear, shallow water conditions where the fish are spooky, so having the heavy line in close proximity to the fly is not a problem.
The slap of a fly line seldom scares voracious fish like largemouth bass, northern pike, or bluefish, and short leaders, from three to seven and a half feet, are used for these species. When fishing for bluefish with big poppers, in fact, I've used a level piece of 60-pound monofilament. Bluefish aren't afraid of much, and I could conceivably tie the popper right to the fly line. The only problem is that the teeth of a bluefish can cut through fly line in a single chop, whereas nylon is more resistant to abrasion by sharp teeth.
Certain fish are what is called "leader-shy," but "line-shy" is actually more appropriate. Trout in fresh water as well as salt, bonefish, permit, and sometimes striped bass fall into this category. If a heavy fly line lands too near them, they may cease feeding or actually bolt for cover. Whenever this kind of nervous fish is found in calm, clear water, it's best to use a leader longer than seven and a half feet.
Because a leader is thinner and more air-resistant than fly line, a longer leader gives you added delicacy. Nine- or ten-foot leaders are considered standard for trout and bonefish under most conditions. At times, when the water is very shallow and clear, or on a calm lake surface, you may find even a ten-foot leader frightening the fish. Longer leaders, twelve- to fifteen-footers, may be used under these demanding conditions.
Unless it is windy, a properly made twelve-foot leader will straighten as well as a seven-and-a-half-footer, as long as the casts you make are over twenty feet. In small, narrow trout streams, though, the short casts you make seldom develop enough line speed to straighten a nine-foot leader. Luckily, trout in small streams usually aren't as leader-shy, and you can get away with a seven-and-a-half-foot leader.
Your leader can be modified during a day's fishing; in fact, you should be prepared to change your tippet quite frequently. Suppose you start fishing with a nine-foot 4X leader. The tippet on this leader, as it comes to you in the package, will be about twenty inches long. Every time you change flies, you'll have to tie a new one on with a clinch or double turle knot, losing a small piece of tippet in the process.
As the tippet shortens with each fly change, the delicacy of your presentation decreases, especially when it gets down to fifteen or sixteen inches. You need that twenty inches of air-resistant tippet to slow down your fly at the end of the cast. If you're properly prepared, you'll have spools of tippet material in your fishing vest; merely pull off a piece that's just over twenty inches long (you'll lose some tying it to your leader). Clip off the remaining 4X tippet and tie on a new one.
Windy conditions and certain casting problems can put what are called wind knots in your tippet. Wind knots are simple overhand knots. They should be removed immediately, as they can weaken the breaking strength of your tippet as much as 50 percent. Check your leader frequently while fishing; if you see a knot where it isn't supposed to be, remove the tippet and tie on a fresh one. It's almost impossible to untie these tiny overhand knots, and even if you can pick them apart I wouldn't trust that tippet. Once the damage to the tippet is done, it is irreparable.
Sometimes if it's very windy you'll find wind knots in the heavier sections of your leader. Since the tippet is the weakest link in the system, I wouldn't bother trying to remove them anywhere else.
You can also see another advantage of knotted leaders over knotless ones. After each fly change with a knotless leader, or each time you break off your fly in a fish, your tippet becomes heavier. Knotless leaders have a gradual taper, so after a half dozen fly changes it may be 3X or even 2X. Of course, you can tie new tippets on knotless leaders, but you never know exactly when you should unless you carry a micrometer.
It's easy to change tippet sizes with a knotted leader. Suppose you need to fish a smaller fly, say a size 20 with that nine-foot 4X leader. The 4X tippet is too heavy for a size 20 fly. Take your nine-foot 4X leader, which looks like this:
Do six inches and make it an extra intermediate section. Add a twenty-inch tippet of 6X. Your leader now looks like this:
Yes, you now have a nine-and-a-half-foot 6X leader and the taper varies slightly from a store-bought one. However, as long as that 60-20-20 butt-mid-tippet formula remains relatively intact, you can add or subtract a few midsections without affecting the leader's casting dynamics.
Don't forget not to jump more than .002 inch between diameters. In the same light, you can change that nine-foot 4X leader to an eight-and -a-half-foot 2X by cutting back to the .011-inch section and adding twenty inches of .009 inch.
I often fish for weeks with the same basic leader, adding or subtracting sections as needed. It's much easier than changing the entire leader every time I need to change tippet sizes.
There are two little metal devices sold that can be attached to your leader. They were designed to cater to our reluctance to tie knots. One is a little metal clip that goes onto the tippet end of your leader, enabling you to change flies quickly. Avoid it. It ruins your fly's action and can even sink a dry fly.
The other contraption is a metal ring with a barbed pin on one end. The barbed end goes into the core of your fly line; you tie the butt of your leader to the loop. These things tend to rust, and may also ruin your fly line.
A convenient way to attach a leader to your fly line is to nail knot a six-inch section of heavy leader material to your fly line. Tie a perfec- tion knot or surgeon's loop on the other end of the section. When you want to change leaders, just make a loop-loop connection with the loop on the butt section of your leader. That six-inch looped section is a permanent part of your fly line, and saves you the trouble of tying knots or having to clip a piece of your leader or fly line every time you change leaders. After a season or two, the fly line coating may crack next to the nail knot, which causes a hinging effect when you cast. If this happens, cut off the end of your fly line and nail knot a new loop to the line.
Nail or Tube Knot
The nail knot can be used to permanently attach a six-inch section of heavy monofilament to your fly line, with a perfection loop on the other end. This makes it easy to change leaders, with a loop-to-loop connection. You can also attach the butt section of your leader directly to the fly line with this knot.
Tests have shown that the butt section of leaders used with 3- and 4-weight lines should be about .019 inch, with 5- through 9-weights .021 inch, and for the real heavyweight 10-, 11-, and 12-lines .023 inch. The permanent loop that you attach to your fly line should be of the same diameter material as the butt section of your leaders.
The Albright knot is a good knot for attaching backing to fly line. It can also be used anyplace you need to join sections of monofilament that vary greatly in diameter.
Backing should be attached to the other end of your fly line. You should have a spool of backing of the length specified for your reel model with the particular line size you're using. Tie one end of the backing to the reel spool and wind it on with fairly tight turns, level winding it from side to side so it goes on evenly. When all but a few feet are on the reel, tie the backing to the fly line with a smooth, secure knot. I like the albright knot, but a nail knot with seven or eight turns instead of the usual five is also fine. Now wind on your fly line, using the same technique to distribute the line across the spool. The fly line should be wound loosely, because when you're fishing you seldom take the time to wind it tight. The line should come no closer to the rim of the spool than about a quarter inch, or you'll have trouble changing spools and the line will bind up against the frame of the reel.
A supposedly clever trick is to wind the fly line onto the reel first, attach the backing and wind it on, then take the whole thing off and wind it back on in reverse order. 'The idea is to see exactly how much backing you need, cutting it at the proper point. The problem is you then end up with about a hundred yards of backing and thirty yards of fly line in a big heap that you have to untangle and wind back on the reel. I prefer to trust the reel manufacturer's specifications, throw caution to the wind, and wind everything on in the proper order. If I find the spool is filled too much, I'll just strip off the fly line, cut off some of the backing, and tie a new albright.
Take care that the knot you use to attach the backing is as smooth as possible and all tag ends are trimmed closely. You may not need your backing very often, but if that trophy of a lifetime runs away with your fly line you don't want your backing connection to catch on one of the guides on your fly rod.
An epoxy-splice process is offered for front loops and the backing-to-fly-line connection. These splices have to be done with brand-new fly lines, so they should be ordered when you purchase your fly line and backing. These splices are the smoothest possible connections to your fly line and eliminate the need to tie both nail knots and albright knots.
For saltwater species that are suspicious and look their food over critically, such as bonefish, permit, and striped bass, you'll want to use a standard saltwater leader with the 60 percent butt section/20 percent midsections/20 percent tippet formula. Fish like bluefish, barracuda, or mackerel are voracious feeders with sharp teeth and are oblivious of what is attached to your fly. A simplified leader formula with a shock tippet is advised. Shock tippets, as I see them, are more to protect your leader from abrasion against sharp teeth, scales, or gill covers than they are to soften the shock of a sudden strike.
Saltwater shock leaders are usually constructed like this: two feet of 25- to 40-pound monofilament, eighteen inches of tippet, and about twelve inches of heavy 40- to 100-pound monofilament. The tippet is there to make things more sporting. To qualify for International Game Fish Association records it must be at least fifteen inches long; the shock tippet must be no more than twelve inches long.
The butt section of a saltwater leader can be connected to the tippet by tying surgeon's loops in both pieces. Connect them with the same loop-loop connection you use to attach your leader to a permanent fly-line loop. The shock tippet can be easily attached to the tippet with an albright knot. By permanently attaching a butt section to your fly line and tying a surgeon's loop on the other end, you can tie up extra tippet-shock tippet sections in advance. If you wish to change tippets, it's an easy matter to make a simple loop-to-loop connection.
If you're not fishing for the record books, simply attach the shock tippet directly to the butt section with an albright knot.
Wire shock tippets are sometimes used for species with very sharp teeth, like bluefish or barracuda. The wire should be multistrand plastic coated wire, and should be black or brown rather than silver, because fish will strike a shiny silver leader. The wire should be attached to the rest of your leader with an albright knot. Because wire is stiff and will affect the action of your fly, use no more than six inches.
Attach the fly to the wire by threading the fly on the leader and then tying a surgeon's or perfection loop in the end, so that the fly is inside the loop and able to swing free. A three-turn clinch knot can also be used, but will not allow the fly to move in the water as well.
Most fly-fishermen pay less attention to their leaders than they should. A change in leader length or tippet size will sometimes be more important than a change in fly patterns