After breathing a sigh of relief celebrating success in hiding the small fortune spent getting outfitted for fly fishing from your spouse, you put the gear to good use on a pristine trout stream. A few fly changes into your day, you realize the tip of your leader is starting to become stubby and must be replaced to maintain the taper from thick leader to skinny tippet. Congratulations! You just discovered the highest hidden cost of fly fishing – leaders!
The purpose of the leader is to “turn over the fly” and bring it in for a smooth, gentle landing on the surface of the water. A good leader must have enough initial heft to transition the energy from the fly line while gradually decreasing in thickness down to the advertised terminal width (4X, 5X, etc.). At around four dollars a pop, continually replacing leaders is expensive! One way to cut costs is to only use monofilament leaders. It is better to focus on improving casting skills to present the fly with a soft landing than worry about the slight variances in density and visibility between mono and fluorocarbon. Those truly obsessed with fly fishing avoid most of the cost by building their own tapered leaders. Requiring plenty of work with knots, they use various thicknesses of line typically blended at 60% butt, 20% midsection and 20% terminal to create a personalized taper. For the rest of us, this is too much work when knowing a simple trick can make a leader last an entire season.
As with most things in fly fishing, it all starts with a knot, and this knot can save another buck in the process. Since most fly line comes with a loop at the end (either built-in or added), we attach the leader to the line using a loop to loop connection. Knowing this, many anglers automatically purchase a leader with the loop already tied at the thick end. However, leaders without the pre-tied loop cost less, and you can tie your own loop in less than 15 seconds by learning how to tie a “Surgeon’s Loop.” Create this simple knot by tying two overhand knots. Check out animatedknots.com for easy, visual instructions.
Here’s the single-season trick. Never cut the leader to add tippet. As soon as you install a fresh leader, tie a surgeon’s loop at the terminal end and use the loop as the attachment point for tippet. Either make a positive connection tying the tippet directly to the loop using a clinch knot or tie a surgeon’s loop on the tippet and attach it to the leader using a loop to loop connection. The advantage of using the surgeon’s knot is it is simple and can be tied quickly before cutting the tippet from the spool; allowing you to measure the exact length needed after tying the knot. Purists will argue for the clinch knot since it is tighter than the slightly looser loop connection and loses none of the casting energy; an insignificant difference given the problems most of us have with casting. When a few fly changes consume the tippet, clip it off near the loop (or “unloop” it) and attach a new length. This protects the manufactured taper of the leader all the way to the end since you never cut it. Using this approach and ignoring abrasion, a single leader could last the entire season (but do not ignore abrasion; check the leader often).
Want a leader to last multiple seasons? Get a furled leader. Manufacturers create them by weaving thin diameter mono, fluorocarbon or thread material together to produce something that looks like a long, skinny ponytail with a loop connection at both ends. Do not confuse a “furled” with a “braided” leader. The weave on a braided leader creates a hollow core that holds water; creating more splash upon landing. Furled leaders have a solid center. Advocates of furled leaders argue the woven pattern makes them more efficient in transferring energy from the fly line. Besides, furled leaders have no memory, will not kink and never require stretching to straighten. One disadvantage is they are more likely to sink as silt settles into the weave. When this occurs, wipe it down and apply paste floatant. Another option to maintain buoyancy is to attach a small indicator, keeping the distance from the fly, at the end of the leader– something that is a good idea anyway if you have a hard time seeing the fly. Unfortunately, most stores do not stock furled leaders and you must purchase them online. I use furled leaders from Blue Sky (blueskyfly.com) and Quigley (twistedleaders.com). With care (wash using mild soap occasionally), a furled leader will last many seasons.
Two final points on leaders. First, one size does not fit all, and you should change leaders to match conditions. Choose a longer leader/tippet combination for spooky fish. Second, match the terminal tippet to the size of the fly. Orvis recommends 6X tippet for flies ranging from size 16 to 22, 5X for sizes 14 through 18 and 4X for sizes 12 to 16.
The ultimate key to one leader, one season? The surgeon’s loop knot!