The Final 15 Feet
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
The final 15 feet, what does that mean? A slightly odd title admittedly, however, it refers to what is, in my opinion, the most crucial part of this whole intricate game that we call fly fishing. Now, before I go into more depth on this topic, It is worth noting that there are of course several important factors, not least fly colour, weight, tippet diameter etc. that all go into successfully hooking up to your target species. Whilst these are important, it becomes wholly irrelevant if that often overlooked piece of extruded translucent plastic is considered an afterthought and as such, not given the care and attention that it requires. As such, I thought that I would share with you my opinions and experience on all things "Leader & Tippet".
So, leaders. Leaders are, in my opinion, the most crucial part of the anglers arsenal. We all too often rave over the newest fly line, brimming with a range of hi-tech properties that are guaranteed to make you throw 100ft casts without blinking, or at least, that's what you would be lead to believe. We are perfectly happy to walk out of our local fly store excited to spool up the newest line ready for our annual pilgrimage to this years chosen flats venue. We very rarely leave a fly store with that same excited smile when it comes to selecting the stuff we are going to tie on to that fly line, otherwise known as our "leader". Here is where I believe we are approaching this slightly wrong. I have fished a lot of fly lines in my time, and with the upcoming launch of our very own fly shop, we have enjoyed playing with a variety of lines on the market. I am perfectly happy to talk head length, tapers and coatings with anyone, in fact, the fly fishing geek in me actually quite enjoys it.
That said, for a lot of the saltwater fishing that we do, it becomes mostly irrelevant. So to demonstrate this, I will break it down for you. Most fly lines have a head length of around 40-50ft. When we add a leader to this at say 9ft, then we arrive at 50-60ft. Let's work at the upper end of this scale and say 60ft from the fly, down to the junction between running line and rear taper. Working within these set parameters, most saltwater wade fishing shots are going to fall well within this 60ft range. In reality, If you are throwing 60ft+, then it is generally a hail Mary style 'shot to nothing' at a spooked fish, sliding off the flat at great speed. The result is that whilst your new line is packed full of the latest tech, you seldom use any of it, with most shots requiring less than the head length. We further emphasise this when leaders of 12ft or more.
It is true, however, that 60ft is around our bread and butter zone for skiff fishing. That said, when we start throwing out to 80ft, unless you can throw laser beams 24/7, accuracy decreases and casts can deteriorate, especially with heavy or bulky flies. Therefore the above statement also applies in the skiff fishing world.
Anyway, let's get to my point. We should focus way more attention on our leader and less on the fly line we choose to connect to it (provided it is a tropical saltwater line…). The main aim of a leader for me is to turn over a fly, present the fly dead straight and in line with the fly line (helping to avoid slack), and finally to last the test of a long battle with any leviathan of the deep you happen to come across. That doesn't sound like too much to ask for, does it? Of course not. So, how do we create this mythical leader that can achieve the above trifecta of desires?
Well, it comes down to a few things really. Firstly, knowing your ability and what you are comfortable casting, along with your fishery and the distance and/or shots that you get. Fish species aren't so important as you can scale up or down depending, and change your tippet from say straight 12lbs for bones, to 16lbs class and 50lbs bite tippet for Tarpon. Let's take our fishery, for example. We have great flats and beach fishing here in southern Quintana Roo, Mexico.
Most of our shots are in the 40-60ft range, and we are fishing to fish that see little pressure. This means that we can scale up our leaders a little bit and fish stronger tippet as the fish are not so line shy or skittish. It also allows up to build a longer leader (12-15ft) deepening on the species and situation. I would always advise you to fish as long a leader as you are comfortable, to help separate fly line from the fly.
When targeting Permit, for example, I tend to fish a constructed leader of around 15ft in length. Personally I rig all my leaders both for my own fishing, along with clients, using stepped down diameters of hard mono, before ending in two sections of fluorocarbon to form the tippet. I do this as we are generally fishing shallow flats around knee-deep and to tailing fish. For this reason, the mono floats higher, whilst the fluorocarbon sinks quickly. All this helps get lighter flies down to the fish, whilst also avoiding catching structure or snags on the bottom. Conversely, for deep water, you could fish all fluorocarbon.
I will step the leaders down based on diameter, instead of breaking strain. Try to attach the butt section diameter as close to the tip of the fly line as possible, before stepping down in increments. It is important to note that the butt section forms the base of any good leader. For this reason, it is worth checking out Lefty Kreh's leader break down (https://www.saltwatersportsman.com/blogs/editor039s-blog/leader-construction-tips-lefty/) or Chico Fernandez's preferred construction (https://midcurrent.com/techniques/making-a-redfish-leader/). Both articles help to give you an idea on lengths of the individual strands of leader and more info on the breakdowns etc. When constructing your leader, avoid attaching materials with a widely different diameter, or with too close of a diameter difference as both will cause problems. The leader should be treated as an extension of your fly line.
Generally, try not to use more than five pieces of material to construct your leader, to keep things neat and smoother if they need to pass through the guides. Keep the taper gradual but leaning on the aggressive side if that makes sense. If you are fishing bulky or heavy flies, then you will need to use a longer butt section to help turn over your fly.
With all this talk of constructed leaders, what about the humble three-pack of tapered leaders? Whilst they are economical and easy to use, they area real pet peeve of mine. They work when using lighter flies, and in calm conditions, however, that is the exception and not the rule when referring to saltwater flats fishing. I would rather spend the extra time in practising tying my own leaders that will work 365 days a year, as appose to something that is cheaper but can hinder your presentation and result in less fish caught. A few spools of good quality hard mono and fluoro tippet will last a lot longer, and overtime works out cheaper than the shop three-pack of tapered leaders. You will also notice a significant difference between the two in turnover, with all manner of weights and fly sizes. Lastly, there is a considerable degree more of control when it comes to customising your leaders, whether fishing dry flies/poppers, heavy Permit/Redfish flies, Streamers and baitfish patterns etc. Not to mention the pleasure of catching fish with something you constructed yourself.
So, now we have the leader construction covered, there are two more pieces to the puzzle, of which I will address briefly below. We have our connection from leader to fly line and connection between tippet and fly. I think that in terms of tippet to fly, It has been well established and documented that some form of loop knot is the best option as it allows the fly a wider range of motion on the strip.
Lastly, the connection from fly line to leader. Somewhat of a contentious topic among some anglers. There is a big discussion around hinging from loop to loop connections, along with the weakness of a pre-welded loop. I was always firmly in the loop to loop category of thinking. It is convenient to change leaders out and makes for quicker rigging. I haven't had any issues with the strength of the weld either, as I will mostly fish 12 or 16 lbs tippet. That vs a fly line core of 30 lbs+ has never given me cause for concern.
That said, recently, I have been experimenting more with nail knotting my butt section directly to the fly line, just behind the welded loop, (which I then remove) and constructing my leader that way. The more I use this system, the more I like it. I am finding a noticeable difference in turnover and having to work less to achieve more. All this is down to removing any hinging between the fly line loop and perfection loop, creating a direct transfer of energy between fly line and leader—also, an accompanying benefit of making it easier for the leader to slide through the guides. I must say, I am starting to prefer this setup over others. Sure it takes a bit more effort, and over time you will need to cut back your fly line, resulting in potentially requiring a new fly line more regularly. However, you will notice a great deal more control and turnover switching to this method of rigging. Also, come to think about it, I rarely need to change a full leader, or certainly not down to the butt section. There is a great video below by Nathaniel Linville of The Angling Company on how he rigs his nail knot for the salt, and it is one I have adopted over the last year. It is well worth checking out and practising as winter starts to work its way into back into the fore.
I hope that this, admittedly longer read than intended, has provided an insight into why it is essential to really consider leaders and how you rig the final 15ft of your set up on your next saltwater trip. Trust in a good hard mono or quality fluorocarbon and get practising. I guarantee you will notice a big difference and be more than happy with the results.
All the best,