Pro Tip: How to Unravel a Knotless, Tapered Leader


Written by: Phil Monahan

[Editor’s note: A reader sent me an email this morning with a question about knotless, tapered leaders, which reminded me of this video I shot a couple of years ago at my desk. The image quality is lacking, but I think it explains the process well enough.]

Do you ever have trouble getting a new knotless, tapered leader from the package to the end of your line? When I was a guide, I used to watch anglers struggle with this all the time. Sometimes they’d end up with a tangle bad enough that they’d just grab a new leader and start over. At about $4 a pop, that’s an expensive mistake if it happens often enough.

The truth is, unraveling a prepackaged leader is quite simple if you know a couple of tricks. Here’s a technique shown to me by my friend Macauley Lord one day on the banks of the Rapid River in Maine. You should never ruin a new leader again!

The keys to success are (1) an understanding of how leaders are packaged and (2) taking your time. If you rush the process, your chances of screwing up increase significantly. Even if there are fish rising right in front of you, you must proceed slowly and methodically. It may take you a full minute, but that’s not nearly as long as it would take to undo a bird’s nest.

On any tapered leader, there is a fat end (the butt) and a fine end (the tippet). Before it is placed in the packet, a leader is coiled like a garden hose, and then the butt end is wrapped around the coils several times. (Anglers of a certain age may be able to picture this by remembering the old Firestone 721 commercial: “Seven around two wrapped by one.”)


Form the fingers of your left hand into a cone, slide the coils over the cone, and then spread your fingers.
Photo by Phil Monahan

Because of this final step, you must unwrap the leader by the butt end. If you pull on any part of the leader before you unwrap the butt, you may end up just throwing the whole thing away in frustration.

When you take a prepackaged leader out of its sleeve, you want to proceed systematically. Here’s how it works:

  1. Pinching all the coils together with your left hand (if you are right-handed), find the butt end and begin undoing the wraps around the coils. Most prepackaged leaders are wrapped three or four times, so be sure to undo all the wraps.
  2. As you unwrap, control the coils by keeping them pinched; you may have to briefly let go and then pinch again as you unwrap the butt.
  3. Once you’ve undone all of the butt wraps, you’re left with just the coils. However, your work is not done because the very fine tippet has a tendency to wrap around itself and anything else it comes in contact with. So don’t think you can just “shake out” the coils or simply pull on both ends. Either of these strategies can create a tangled mess.
  4. Transfer the coils from your left hand to your right hand, continuing to pinch them.
  5. Form the fingers of your left hand into a cone by touching all five fingertips together.
  6. Slide the coils over the cone, and then spread your fingers, creating just enough tension to hold the coils in place.
  7. Again starting from the butt end, begin pulling the coils off your fingers one by one, maintaining slight tension on those coils still on your fingers.
  8. Don’t give up too early, thinking you’re done. The last few coils of fine tippet are the most troublesome. Stay the course, moving slowly, until there are just a couple coils left. Then you can spread your fingers, undoing the last coils, and you’re almost in business.
  9. To straighten out the coils further, wet the fingers of your left hand, and starting from the butt end, pull the leader through your moistened fingers while applying pressure.

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