When starting out as a kid fly fishing, I didn’t use tapered leaders. 4lb test tied to my fly line was good enough and caught trout. But after decades of fly fishing, you learn a few things. One of those lessons learned is using the right tapered leader and how to construct it.
Why Use A Tapered Leader? As energy or “load” from the casting stroke, travels down the fly line into the tapered leader, the taper of the leader dissipates the energy as it reaches the end of the leader or flies. This process, known as turnover, “unrolls” the line and lets the fly land gently onto the water.
Experience has also taught me to consider several things when choosing the right leader besides just matching your rod weight and length. You won’t find it printed on the package either.
Why Are Fly Leaders Tapered?
A tapered leader transfers energy from the cast smoothly to the fly. The energy created during the casting strokes of the fly rod moves into the fly line and down or through the leader to “turn over” the fly for a graceful landing. A leader without a taper doesn’t turnover and the fly tends to lag behind in the air often landing with a flop on the water. Tapered leaders have been specifically designed to help anglers turn their flies over to land more gently on the water. This is especially desired by dry fly fisherman.
Another way to help you understand this concept is to imagine a piece of rope stretched out in front of you. You pick up one end and give it a flick. When you do the energy from your flick travels down the rope whipping the end. You’re probably familiar with seeing a person “cracking” a whip for example. The “crack or snap” happens at the end of the stroke.
When casting your fly rod, each stroke of your cast creates energy and travels down the fly line just like the rope or whip. But, we don’t want a “cracking” effect at the end of our stroke. A tapered leader helps to prevent this whipping effect by allowing for turnover. How? As the line gets thinner the energy traveling along it is being reduced. When it reaches the fly, the energy has basically run out, letting the fly settle gently onto the water. This process during the cast “unrolls” the line through the air for what is called “the turn over”. If the cast turns the line over, just right, a fly’s subtle touch to the water is the “perfect” presentation. Trout fishing is all about presentation and “perfect” presentation helps catch trout.
So what is tippet? Tippet material is a line that is attached to the leader of your fly line. It is a specific gauge monofilament and is virtually in most cases, invisible to trout. It is also flexible which allows your fly to swim or float with a more natural appearance. Typically around 2 feet of tippet material is added to your leader, sometimes longer, and matches or is less in thickness than the tip of your leader.
Tippet material ranges in sizes measured in a number and X. The number and X represent the diameter of the material. The larger the number the smaller the tippet material. For example, 7x is smaller than 6x.
Tippet not only helps to extend the life of your leader but adds versatility to your leader. When fishing streamers, for example, I like a thicker tippet ranging from 4X to 6X. But when fishing nymphs 6X or 7X works well for the conditions I fish. So, I might use a 5X leader and tie on a 5X tippet to fish a streamer. Then add to or replace the 5X section with 6X to work a nymph. It’s a lot less expensive changing out tippet than it is to change up the leader.
Many a fly fisherman uses tippet material to construct their leader. they use specifically measured sections of tippet tied together in descending order. They build what are known as “knotted” leaders. Named because each section is connected by knots of choice. In the earlier days of fly fishing, this was the norm until leaders came along.
The leader is an extremely important part of your set up. Maintaining a straight kinked free leader is crucial for casting and for the reliability of strength. The simple answer to the question above, “Does a tapered leader need a tippet?” is no. But, with each fly change, as you cut away portions of your leader it becomes short and thicker. The tip of your original leader no longer exist, of course, and the life of your leader will be greatly reduced.
Are Tippet And Leader The Same Thing?
The answer to this question is both yes and no. Let me explain. The leader is the length of line coming from your fly line. Tippet is the section attached to the end leader that you then tie on your fly to. Tippet and leader are often made of the same material, usually monofilament.
“Custom” made leader is constructed of tippet material or monofilament of varying diameter sizes. These “custom” made leaders are referred to as “knotted leader” because each section is connected by a knot of choice. To build a custom leader, tippet material or monofilament test line of different thicknesses is tied together. Each section stepping down in diameter from the thick fly line to your fly.
Each section is matched in length using a simple formula referred to as the “60-20-20 theory”. The leader comprises three sections, the butt end, tied to the fly line, the taper section and the tippet. The 60-20-20 theory basically means that the largest section, the 60%, is the butt section. Next, the taper and tippet sections are each 20% of your leader. Each section is connected with knots, either a barrel knot or surgeons knot. Some fly guys swear by customer knotted leaders and build their own regularly.
Keep It Simple For Now
But typically I’d say most buy leader that is sold in packets. The leader is manufactured to taper from a butt end which you tie to the fly line of course, down to the tip where you would tie on tippet material. These leaders are available in lengths from 6 to 12 feet. They also range in thickness as I mentioned above from 2X to 8X typically.
As you can see, the material used to create a leader can be the same but the function of “leader” and “tippet” are very different. Tippet material extends the life of your leader because it is used up due to fly changes rather than your leader.
How to Choose the Right Leader.
First, let’s look at length. As is with fly fishing in general, conditions dictate a lot of what we need and will be doing once in the stream. So that being said three things as a rule of thumb to consider:
- Water conditions:
When water conditions make visibility poor, like murky or off-colored water, or trout are opportunistic feeders due to turbulent water, shorter leaders are generally used. When water is shallow, very clear, or moving slowly to almost even still, longer leaders are generally used.
- Fly line:
For simplicity, there are two types of fly line, in this case, floating line and sinking line. The floating line will typically use leaders from 7 to 12 foot in length while sinking lines use leader in lengths of 3-5 foot.
- Targeted species
When considering species, it is more realistic to be thinking in terms of “spooky” fish. Trout is a fish that is normally wary and easily spooked versus bass or panfish. So for trout, a longer leader is preferred whereas a shorter leader can be used for bass and panfish
The butt section needs to be the right size to allow for a smooth transition from fly line to leader and for the energy transfer. Recommended thickness of the butt section should be 2/3 of the tip of the fly line itself. As an example, if I have a 5x fly line. I’m comfortable tying on a 5x, 6x or 7x leader. But after experimentation with my fly rod, what seems to work best for me, is a 5x leader. I can easily tie on tippet material to make any adjustment to match my fly as I need.
The last component is the tippet. We talked about tippet before but for this instance, we want to consider the fly itself. Normally, if we have a leader of a given size say 4x, we might tie on a tippet to match or a step down in size to 5x.
But you also need to consider the fly being tied to the tippet. What size fly is it 10, 14, 18? Again as a rule of thumb, if you divide the fly size by 3 you will know approximately what tippet size you should use. You can be flexible with this though. For example, because you know you are fishing for larger fish and your formula calls for a 6x tippet going 5x won’t hurt. But to put a size 10 fly on an 8x tippet, well, that wouldn’t be too good.
So, let me summarize what we just talked about. A proper leader is the “invisible” connection between the fly line and the fly. It is tapered so energy can progressively dissipate on its way down to the fly letting the fly land gently on the water. It also helps have the fly land where you have aimed it to land. Casting accuracy and casting control is improved with proper leader maintenance and balance. When casting to rising, finicky trout, presenting the fly naturally increases the catch rate. If the casted fly lands and looks like a naturally floating insect the greater the chances are he’ll take your offering.
Casting accuracy will reduce the number of casts you make too. Fewer casts and better casting accuracy means less trout are spooked, which translates into more trout caught and released. So you tell me if using tapered leaders means better casting accuracy, more control, and confidence in your ability to place a fly where you want it, do you think you will catch more trout?
Do I Need To Use A Tapered Leader When Nymphing?
There are many styles for nymph fishing today when you consider Euro, Czech, Tenkara, to name a few. Some of these styles use a straight leader and some will use a tapered leader.
Is Using Knotted Leaders Difficult?
Using knotted leaders is just like using tapered leaders and not difficult at all. But constructing knotted leaders require learning the formulas and the knots needed for tying knotted leaders.