The topic of leaders is one of those discussions that will quickly be dismissed, or you could end up talking for hours, tying and retying sample ones. It all depends who you chat to.
The anglers that dismiss the conversation are generally the company that doesn’t fish as regularly, and when they do, they want a simple and effective leader that works for their purpose. They generally aren’t interested in the fundamentals and operations of the leader itself.
This is quite ok, and there are a large array of leaders to choose from for specific uses.
Then there are a group of fly fishing anglers that believe that the leader is everything, and it can influence the way you fish and the amount of fish you catch on the day. These people question everything and push the envelope when it comes to the function and purpose of a fly fishing leader.
The fly fishing leaders for inshore fishing ‘freshwater’ are a lot more complex with many different technical aspects to consider.
When saltwater fishing, your saltwater leader has the same mechanics and fundamentals as a freshwater leader, only a much larger breaking strength.
You will generally be casting in shallow flats at toothy fish, so your leader will need to withstand the abuse.
Below, we will run through what leaders are best for saltwater fly fishing and how to tie your own.
What is the Purpose of a Leader in Fly Fishing
Understanding the function of the leader in fly fishing will help tremendously. The fly fishing leader has a much more rooted function than a medium-stiff material used to connect the fly line to the fly.
Tapered leaders transfer energy. It’s that simple. The power generated by the fly rod is transferred through the fly line and finally through the leader to the fly. The transfer of power gives us distance on the cast and allows the angler to get the fly out onto the water.
Numerous aspects can and will affect the result, so understanding the whole operation is very beneficial to an angler.
Understanding leaders and their construction and purpose will elevate your casting skills and allow you to make more accurate presentations.
While delicate presentations aren’t always the name of the game in saltwater fishing, certain saltwater species and scenarios would demand a particular style of leader to get the job done.
Saltwater leaders are generally in the 9ft leader length range and don’t tend to be much longer due to the windy conditions often faced when out on the flats. You might find the general fly fishing tapered leader you use for tarpon will be too heavy and stiff for bonefish and thus would have to scale down and change.
When you fly fishing in the saltwater and have an array of species to target, you will generally carry a few fly lines extra to get spooled or need to change up your approach.
Mono or fluoro leader material?
Monofilament leaders are the most commonly used leaders for saltwater fly fishing, and they and they are cost-effective to buy or to tie your own. Tapered leaders need to have the abrasion resistance and withstand numerous other factors while being used.
A fluorocarbon leader is generally more up for discussion when chatting about freshwater fly fishing, but fluorocarbon has its uses for saltwater. While the butt section and mainline would still be monofilament, the tippet end can most definitely be made up of fluoro.
The fluorocarbon has a faster sink rate with little to no stretch. This is ideal for bonefishing fly fishing and permit.
Butt Diameter is crucial in saltwater fly fishing. This is the section of the leader that receives the energy first, and if it is too small in diameter some of the generated energy will be lost. This will result in a lagging loop or slacked leader presentation.
Butt sections should be slightly smaller in diameter than the fly line tip, and this is the longest in the length of the leader sections when tying your leaders.
With your average 9 wt fly line having a 1.52mm diameter at the tip, a 1.0-1.2mm butt section would be the preferred choice to start the butt section of the leader with.
The knot connection from the fly line, main line to the butt section is vital. If the fly line has a welded loop (most modern fly lines do), this is great, and the perfection loop knot can be used in a loop-to-loop style connection.
If the fly line doesn’t have a welded loop and some guides prefer to make their own, then a perfection loop knot can be tied using the core braid from the fly line. Simple tie a double surgeon’s knot in the braided core of the fly line then a perfection loop knot at the butt section of the leader.
You can see our post here on how to tie a surgeons knot for a step by step guide.
The midsection of the leader is generally the second longest length of the leader when building your own. The knot used to connect the butt section to the midsection can be used throughout the leader’s other connections.
The blood knot is the most popular, with a double uni knot also having some popularity but they both have their functions.
The one downside to blood knots is that the blood knot doesn’t seat very well when two very different diameter lines are
used. The double uni knot is better for this application. It may take an extra few minutes, but you will know the connection is solid. Tying uni knot will surely help you in your future fly fishing trips.
Tip Section (Tippet)
The tippet section is where most of the differences of opinion occur and where close attention should be given. This is the part of the leader that will break first and get the most affected by the wind and other things.
The tippet section needs to be strong enough to hold big fish like tarpon and have the ability to allow the fly to swim uninterrupted and as natural as possible.
Again this is personal preference, and the angler should be comfortable with the strength of the tippet they use and also know how much pressure they can apply to the tippet.
Should the tippet need to be longer for subtleness then, a longer tippet piece is added. This will be required when targeting tailing permits or triggerfish. The longer the tippet the better your chances of not spooking the fish with the leader.
As mentioned before, saltwater leaders are a little simpler than freshwater fly fishing leaders in that they don’t need to be too specific, and a basic 40-20-20 leader construction would work just fine. There is also the 50% leader formula made famous by Left Kreh that is a little more complex but does make great tapered leaders.
How to Choose the Correct Leader
It’s important to know your limitations as a fly fisher and fish accordingly. This will allow you to fish confidently and when you fish with confidence, great things happen.
If you know you battle with the timing on the longer, heavier weight rods, then a shorter leader will help you keep those tight loops at crucial times. A shorter leader is a great help in the wind as well.
Bonefish and Permit
If bonefish, permit, or redfish are your target then a lighter, longer leader will be needed for the stealth and subtleties. It’s also a good idea to have a quick change shorter leader in case you need to change up tactics or approach.
The fluorocarbon tippet is a great little tip to fish, especially when you are targeting bonefish or redfish in 4 feet plus the depth of water. The fluorocarbon material sinks much faster and is generally a lot thinner in diameter when compared to the same pound test monofilament.
This difference gets the fly down into the zone and more often than not will get the eat or bite.
You can check out here the difference between leader vs tippet.
Tarpon and Giant Trevalley
When targeting larger species like Tarpon, Giant Trevally, or large Redfish, be sure to practice a little before you go. A few casts on the lawn, with a shorter thicker leader, will give you a good feeling of how to cast on your next saltwater trip.
The shorter thicker leaders will have a heavier pound test and be attached to heavier larger flies. This type of setup takes a little getting used to. Timing the cast and understanding your leader will help tremendously.
Practice makes perfect!
How to Tie Your Own Leader
50% rule leader by Left Kreh
This is a very basic leader construction and one that can be used in both freshwater and saltwater.
Depending on the length you want, 9ft or 13ft the formula stays the same. The only thing you have to decide on is what pound test to start with on the butt section and end with at the tippet.
Standard 9ft leader
4ft+2ft+1ft+2ft=9ft- starting with 4ft of 50lbs, halve the length, 2ft of 30lbs, half the length again, 1ft 25lbs, then for the tippet section double the length of the last section so, 2ft of 15lbs tippet.
The above leader is a great general saltwater leader that will work in most situations. We recommend you use Rio Saltwater Mono Tippet.
Extra length 13ft Leader
The point of the above leaders is that the aggressive taper will transfer the energy to the fly quickly and efficiently. It’s handy to use a measuring tape and pre-cut all the sections of the leader. The blood knot will be fine for this leader construction.
The 60/20/20, leader formula is a super simple recipe. The general rule of thumb for this leader is whatever length leader you are wanting, you break it up into 60% butt end, 20% midsection, and 20% tippet section.
This leader has a slightly less aggressive taper but works just as well. Again the blood knot is fine to use for this leader as well. The pound test of this leader is completely dependent on what you want to tie for the intended purpose.
Many anglers choose to tie their leaders. The difference in opinions and thoughts thereof is great. It always makes for heated banter over a beer or two. The most important thing to remember is to always trust your tackle and gear.
There is nothing wrong with the commercially made ones you can pick up from your local fly shop. The natural taper in these lines from the butt section though to the tippet is great. It is always advisable to keep a few of those commercial leaders in your backpack just in case.
Whichever path you choose or opt for a mixture of both leaders, it’s all up to you and what you feel comfortable with.
Remember to double-check your knots and store your leaders wound up and ready for use.