When I started fly fishing, a few years ago there were not many choices for leaders. Most people used Maxima and Mason products or something similar from Orvis, LL Bean, Herter's or some other mail order house and fashioned their own hand tied tapered leaders to fit their needs. Articles filled magazines and fishing books all belaying to have the best formulas or combinations of formulas for constructing leaders. There were at the time a few new commercial "tapered" leaders for sale that at best worked fair. Many anglers skoffed at these new inventions and continued to make their own concoctions for thier own casting and fishing needs. A few of us took the new leaders and started to modify the knotless tapered leads to fit our own needs. In the past 20 years, the technology of tapered leaders have all but pushed the knotted "hand tied" leaders to a few hold outs and "patient" anglers. The leaders are so scientifically designed for strenth, turnover and power transfer as well as specific fishing conditions and fishing techniques that they are starting to become a difficult decision for most average anglers. We now have leaders that are for dry fly fishing, nymph fishing, sinking, floating, weight forward, spring creek, warm water, salt water (many varieties here too!), and just about any other variations some marketing team can dream up. If this does not confuse you, add in the idea of light refraction and the new "invisible" flourocarbon trends will make your head swim and you wallet thinner. How does one figure out what to use and how to use it? Ask the clerk at a local drug store and you might get a blank stare. Ask someone working at your local fly shop and you will definitely get a better answer but may get one tempered by the infatuation with the most new and advanced trends no matter what the cost. I would like to give you some simple options but will remind you that I believe in using what works for the greatest number of anglers at the most reasonable prices. "Most reasonable" does NOT mean the cheapest, I have found out many times in buying fly fishing equipment, you get what you pay for and usually the more expensive things work better and last longer than the cheap ones. So with these parameters in mind, lets look at some options that will work and leave enough money in your pocket for that new wonder gadget or a nice dinner after your long day of fishing. By the way, I "have" bought and tried most of the new "hot" equipment that the industry promoted. I even still have one of Hal Jansen's dyed fly lines to sneek up on wary trout easier and even found one of those metal eyelets that plugged into the end of your flyline for attaching leaders to in my junk drawer. By the way, does anyone need one of those nets that works like a spring and unfolds after taking it out of your holster? I still can't get it back in the holster, but the net is still good!
Trout Fishing Leaders
I keep my leader selection very simple for trout fishing for small freestone streams and rivers to the most sophisticated spring creek fishing. I carry two sizes of tapered leaders a few 7 1/2 ft. leaders tapered to 3x and a lot of 9 or 10 ft. tapered leaders tapered to 3x, 4x, 5x, and 6x. I really could get by with just the 3x and 5x but hate to deprive the leader companies totaly. That is it, nothing else. Now lets discuss how I make this system work.
Tapered leaders are a modern miracle, if you don't believe me try making you own tapered leader that turns over with perfect power transfer and holds even the hottest trophy fish who are diving into the weed beds or down the upper Sac below Redding CA. Hey!, that weed thing catching on the knots was fun wasn't it! Anyway, they are great, accept my unbiased opinion. Most of the butt sections mate up well to size 3 to 6 lines and offer a good energy transefer without being too stiff or limp. The belly or middle sections do a great job of tapering for good energy transfer and the tippets are getting stronger every year. So why mess with a good thing? The answer is "I don't" not much anyway, just need a little tuning and durability enhancement.
Here is the process. Most tapered leaders have about 18 inches of same size tippet at the end. You can figure out how much exactly by using a micrometer. (What, you don't have a micrometer, well you must have missed that article in Fly Fisherman Magazine, every good angler needs one right?) Really, just look for the spot where the tippet starts to get bigger and then move back down into the tippet about 8 inches and cut off the tippet. Yes I said cut it off, I know you just paid $4 for that new leader and were lucky enough to get in unrolled out of the package without making something that resembles a backlash from your old Mitchel 300, but cut it off. Now if you intend on using the same size tippet as the leader came with, tie on about 24 to 30 inches. Don't worry, it will get shorter as you use it and tie it on. As you use the leader and it does get shorter from changing flies or those famous wind knots, just put on a new tippet section when yours is about a foot or a little longer. If you want to change to a smaller tippet size, you can decrease the size by no more than 2x as a practical rule. That is, I can tie a piece of 4x or 5x tippet to a 3x leader and so on. With this process I can make a 3x leader into a 4x or 5x and a 4x into a 5x and 6x etc. Wow, that means I can make an 8x leader out of my 6x (if I could see to tie the damn thing!). Well this works well for you when all you want is a 9 to 12 ft leader, but what about longer ones? That is the beauty, say you want a 15 ft or 16 ft leader tapered to 6x. Just start off with a 9 ft 4x and cut back only about 8 to 10 inches of the 4x and add a long piece of 6x. Even better yet, add about 16 to 18 inches of 5x and then a 6x tippet to achieve the desired length. What I am saying is you can make your leader "custom" for your fishing situation and casting ability, but do it with the tippet end and tie only a few leader weekening-weed catching knots. By the way, unless I am fishing deep midge larvae or something else I want to get down deep, I seldom use a leader longer than 12 ft. If fact, after fishing to some of the toughest spring creek and stillwater fish around, I think 90 percent of the time I could use a 9 ft leader. My control and visibility is improved and I can control the presentation better too. Most people who have difficulty with presentation cannot get the leader and bug to do what they need.
How about sinking flies and situations when you must get the bug down. Use weight either in the fly or small split shot, longer tippets, sinking or intermediate lines, count more, wait longer, or just find fish who are shallower. I still have one of the 2 sinking and lead weighted leaders I bought 5 years ago in my leader wallet. Hey, I am not going to throw something away that cost that much! While I am thinking about it, I also have some "hot butt" or flourescent butted leaders in there too. I was really sold on them, especially the hand tied ones for spring creek use and bought dozens. Later I found no performance difference from the standard tapered leaders except I spent less time taking weeds of my knotless tapered leader.
If you asked me which brand to buy, I would hesitate and make up some stall like I am still testing. The truth is, that I usually start with Orvis or Rio and will generally try other brands when those are not available. Leaders differ in many ways that we won't go into in this discussion, but one of importance to many fishermen is how stiff or supple the leader is (usually talking about the tippet). This can change how the leader turns over or transfers energy and depends a lot on how you cast. Another consideration is stretch and strength of the tippet. There are almost as many opinions about this as there are tippet strength tests in magazines these days, but they are all very close. If you asked 100 anglers which leaders or in particular, which tippet material they preferred you would probably get such a variety of answers that no one would stand out. Try them out, after all you need to have the same collection of old unused tippet spools in you tackle cupboard like the rest of us. Once you decide on a particular brand, try to match the tippet to the leader manufacturer this will prevent any problems from different material formulations. I teach Physics and have done a lot of research into how modern leaders and tippet materials are made and can't find major differences in most. I do like to have as much stretch as possible in my tippet so this is what I usually look for. Experiment and make a your own choice. While we are here, most manufacturers will tell you that the materials used are susceptible to breaking down and getting weaker with time. This is usually to do with UV light effecting the material so keep them in the dark (except when fishing) and try not to buy a ten year supply. I replace my tippet spools every year (the manufacuturers love me) and give the old stuff to my fishing buddies (hey I don't know why they keep breaking off fish!).
I have at last count 6 books on knots and fishing knots in my bookcase. I keep looking for the perfect knot for every situation and get really excited when a new magazine claims to have "the best fishing knot ever" only to find that it is harder for me to tie or just not that much better. I used to argue knots feverishly with anyone who would spar, but have come to a few realizations when talking about knots for leader attachment or tippet attachment. (I will go crazy about knots for other things like flies etc. in another discussion). I always use a needle nail knot to attach a permanent butt section to my fly line. Well it is not permanent, but it takes a long time to use up. I learned this knot from Andre Puyans in the early seventies and have never changed. It works, and I really don't need those braided thingys that are in my tackle closet. As for attaching tippets I really like blood knots and can tie them pretty fast (Doug Swisher once told me a good fly fisherman could change a tippet and a fly in less than 60 seconds-what does he know anyway!). I used to argue for blood knots with anyone who would listen. I once argued the point with a good friend Dave Stanley, the owner of the Reno Fly Shop, and someone who has done more for fly fishing in Nevada that Sage or Orvis until he said "hey Don, I know the blood knot is stronger and straighter, but the surgeon's knot is almost as strong and a lot easier to tie when your hands are cold or the wind is howling". I think I finally heard what someone was saying and after minimal testing now use a TRIPLE surgeon's knot for attaching tippets and don't have any problems. I had the same argument with a Bimini Twist, but lost that argument early.
Well that is all the time I want to spend on this subject and hope it has not confused you even more. Remember that most of this useless dribble is just my opinion and we know people say about opinions....... Ok, I have to go pack up last years tippet material and give it to my sons who are starting to land too many fish in my boat. Have fun and remember that the tackle companies are depending on us to buy lots of stuff we don't really need but looks cool. Oh, by the way, did I tell you about my new "boat bag" that someone attached 2 coat hanger hooks to and added $20 to the price of a simple canvas bag. Its cool!
Hey thought it was about time to add something else to the leader page. So here goes.
Regular vs Flourocarbon Tippet Materials
Regular tippet material is more supple, tends to float better, stretches better, and is a LOT CHEAPER!
Flourocarbon tippet material is stiffer, denser (sinks more ), does not strect much, is more invisable ( thats physics talk for saying it has a refractive index close to water ), and WAY MORE EXPENSIVE.
SO.............. I suggest maybe possibly using regular tippet with dry flies and floating thingys, and only using flurocarbon for sinking flies and on fish that are a little more spooky. It should save you lots of money MAYBE! without effecting much else
That said I still am a sucker for new tippet holders and specialty tippet material. Yes I have all the latest devices and materials. It really does hurt though when you lose a tippet hold with 6 spools of flurocarbon that cost $10 to $15 a spool. :(