Winter is a great time to conduct a thorough inventory of your fishing vest or pack and throw away a few items you said you’d do while on the river and forgot…like me. I’ve got a some leaders I tried to save from last year, but it’s time to throw out and replace bad leader.

In addition, I need to check out those tippet spools and see how full they are and the date I purchased them. If they’re over a year old, I’ll throw them out. I don’t want to take a chance hooking a big fish in fast water only to lose it from old, brittle, or UV damaged (from the sun) tippet! You’ll notice on the picture there is a place on the tippet spool for you to add a date. I recommend using it.

Rio Leader & Tippet |

Just to be clear, a tapered leader is in the Ziploc bag and tippet in on the spool. Tippet spools hold anywhere from 30 to 100 yards of material stated on the spool. In the picture above, the spool hold 110 yards of 6X leader measured at 3.4 pound breaking strength. I use this “guide” spool which holds 110 yards because I go through a lot of 6X. Most of the other tippet spools I carry are around 30 yards.

How many of you read last week’s post about restocking and organizing your fly boxes, pulled them out, and began to take inventory? I know one person did as I received a fly order yesterday. Other RiverKeeper Flies readers have begun tying at the vise.

Checking your fly inventory was the first step. Leaders are the next item on my list.

What is the best fly fishing leader? It depends on who you talk to. Many fly fishers have their favorite brand. Me? I’ve used Rio products for years, from the Rio Gold, Intouch Rio Gold, Intouch Hover trout fly lines to their Powerflex Trout tapered leaders and tippets.

Why use a leader in the first place?

Your goal when casting dry flies is to cast a tight loop with the fly going along for the ride and landing on the water with a little slack for a drag-free drift. The leader you’ve selected is an extension of the fly line and must be tapered for the line to “turn over” properly.

Does tippet size really matter? I think it depends where you fish and the size of insects you’re trying to imitate.

Are you fishing faster water that’s somewhat murky with salmonflies or hoppers? You can easily get away with 3X tippet and a splashy cast to imitate the natural. How about a spring creek like my home water? I fish 6X and I really believe it makes a difference! Fish will see disturbances in the water if your line and leader land hard on the water and cause riffles. But I would tell you to fish the largest tippet size you can get away with.

And before I forget, the bigger number the “X”, the lighter or smaller the tippet size. 

You’ll find me carrying 9′ 3X, 4X, and 5X Rio leaders as well as 4X, 5X, and 6X tippet spools. Why those sizes? I fish a lot and carrying these options allows me to change quickly for the river or lake I’m fishing.

I’ve written about a simple system I use in the post Make Your Fly Fishing Leader Last Longer. For example, if I want to fish 4X tippet, I’ll start with a 9′ 3X Rio leader and cut off the last 12 to 15 inches. Then I pull out an arm length of 4X tippet material, which ends up being 3 to 4 feet long and tie it to the leader with a double or triple surgeon knot. The result is a leader around 12′ long. Why do this? I always know the size of my tippet. I find it necessary to trim the last 12 to 15 inches off of the leader to help with the taper. I think it turns over the leader much better. Some people will leave it alone and just tie on a longer tippet. You decide which method works better.

Here’s the reason I came up with that method. I used to fish with a 9′ leader and change flies periodically. Every time I cut a fly off and tied on another, it reduced the length of my tippet. At some point, I wasn’t fishing 4X anymore. I’d changed flies enough that I was into the 3X or 2X section of leader. And I wasn’t catching fish because the fish could see it, even with a drag-free drift. And my terminal knots were HUGE. Once I get to within 12 inches of my knot, I cut it off and tie on another 3 to 4 feet of tippet and I’m back to the original setup.

Improved Clinch Knot|

Let’s talk about leader basics for those new fly fishers.

Leaders are comprised of a stiff butt section, a tapered section, and a long tippet. There are many formulas for leaders, but most are somewhere in the 60% (butt)/20% (taper) /20% (tippet).

Some leaders are stiffer than others and the stiffness helps turn your fly over during the cast. You’ll have to try a couple and decide which you like best. There are many high-quality brands of leader/tippet out on the market and your fly shop will carry several brands. Look for Rio, Trouthunter, Orvis, Umpqua, and Scientific Anglers, all popular brands.

How about length? The most common leader length is 9′, but 7 1/2′ and 12′ leaders are common as well. At times, long leaders are necessary to not spook fish. My wife calls it “drive by’s”, where a fish moves to your fly, takes a good look at it, then swims back to it’s holding lie. On faster water that is somewhat off color, a 7 1/2′ leader will work just fine. On my spring creek, a 12′ leader really makes a difference because I use a longer final tippet of around 3 to 4 feet. My recommendation is to start with a 9′ 4X leader.

Almost all the fly fishers I know use a knotless tapered leader. Some fly fishers create their own tapered leader with blood knots for the 5 – 7 different sizes of leader material. I’ve tied my own leaders over the years and created them over 20′ in length. I don’t think it made any difference.

Most leaders purchased at your local fly shop come with a perfection loop already tied which is easily attached to the fly line with a loop-to-loop connection that many fly lines come with these days. You can always tie a perfection loop in the leader you purchase or attach it to your fly line with a nail knot to eliminate the loop-to-loop connection. Some fly fishers do that…it’s up to you. 

Leaders are made from monofilament nylon (nylon) or fluorocarbon. Nylon has a lower specific gravity than fluorocarbon, which some people say they like because it floats better. But on the other hand, nylon soaks up water after awhile and will sink too. Many fly fishers say fluorocarbon is invisible to the fish, making it a good choice when fishing nymphs. I’ll save the longer discussion of nylon vs. fluorocarbon for a different time. Take my word for it to use nylon leaders for your dry fly fishing. In my experience, fluorocarbon is used mostly my nymph and streamer fly fishers.

Tippet size and breaking strength will vary with manufacturer. For example, a Rio 5X leader has a break point of 5 pounds. Other manufactures break point might be 4.75 pounds. So be sure to check out the pound test. It might help you decide which manufacturer to buy.

What size tippet size should you use? There are guidelines / charts to balance tippet size with an appropriate fly size. For example:

4X – 12, 14, 16

5X – 14, 16, 18

6X – 16, 18, 20, 22

When I began fly fishing, I used this type of chart to determine the leader I should use. I’ve learned on my home water, the Metolius, that tippet size makes a HUGE difference in coaxing fish to the fly, so I almost always use 6X, even for flies in the 8 – 10 sizes. Yes, it’s difficult to turn these flies over effectively, so I cut back on the length of final tippet by a foot or two and it does help. I notice big flies are more likely to spin when casting, resulting in twisted tippet that can create havoc for the fly fisher and scare away the fish. It’s a balancing act. If cutting back my tippet length doesn’t work, I’ll try 5X leader and see if the fish won’t be scared and take the fly.

If I fish other water, I can use heavier leaders and tippet. Fishing the Deschutes, you’ll see fly fishers using 3X and doing fine. Same for many rivers in Idaho and Montana. My theory is spring creeks are different. They are slower and have much clearer water so the trout have much more time to scrutinize your offering.

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! For further information on leader and tippet material, check out the 2012 Tippet Shoot-out conducted by Yellowstone Angler for Fly Fisherman Magazine. You’ll find the results HERE.

Think of all the money spent on a rod, reel, and line to catch that elusive trout. Don’t skimp on leader.

I’ll write about leaders I use when nymphing and streamer fishing in another blog post. Until then, read the post – Manage Two Nymph Rigs.

Here is a picture of what we hope to catch soon. It’s as much for me as for you, because I haven’t been fishing in a while.

Rainbow With Sparkle Dun |

Remember that winter is a great time to prepare for spring fly fishing. Be sure to check out your leader and tippet and decide it you need to throw out and replace bad leader.

Enjoy…go fish!

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