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Leader Design

Leaders seems to be on the menu lately. I learned from my old friend Bernie – who sadly passed away this year. That he was pretty old (over 85 or so – nobody really knows) does not ease the loss.  I really miss him. He was quite a character.

Back in the days we worked on a leader which allows very precise control. The rivers Kyll and Ahr  we fished together in Germany, were small and we did not want the loop to open until the very end of the leader. Otherwise the fly ended up in the bush above – we are talking tunnel fishing here.

the video is a documentary about Bernie
… my first proper flyfishing teacher
(nevermind the clown with the microphone)

Generally speaking (in fishing-lingo that is) a leader is the piece of line between the hook and the main line. This piece of line is normally somewhat smaller in diameter than the main line. Various sorts come into play, level line monofilament for bait fishing, wire (for pike and the like), a shock leader for fishing in the sea – and the so-called tapered leader for angling with the fly.

That’s it. There’s not much more to say, is there? Well if it were all so simple you’d not be on this web site, would you?

Presenting the fly to a fish (tossing a hook with fluff around onto or in the water – in simpler language) is a rather complex affair, which should not be underestimated. So let’s look at the problem from the start, the feeding fish in a stream, Mr. fish is looking upstream, feeding. He grabs a bite whenever the big conveyer belt-like flow brings food downstream- either on the water surface or in the water body. Therefore the fish is looking upstream virtually all day.

A rather boring life. Well fish don’t know that, so… However, being in such a position for extended periods of its life imprints some very well-defined patterns in that little fish brain. For instance, the fish has never seen a mayfly with a v-wave in front like a boat, so you (the clever angler) needs to avoid this happening. Sounds simple.

Presenting a fly like that is called dead drift. OK, there are other forms, the famous running sedge or the little bait fish escaping for example, but in imitating all such behaviour one must have good control over the lure.

I guess you start to get my point. Let’s continue looking at dead drift. Drag (that tiny, tiny v-wave), is caused by a taut line. Therefore you need slack line between you and the fly. The trick is to have just enough slack in the line to avoid drift, but enough contact to hook up with fish. The flowing current does not make this any easier.
So that’s the problem in a nutshell. The more natural your presentation looks to the fish, the more you’ll catch, particularly the wild ones.

The system consisting of fly line and precisely matched rod tapers all the way to the end point. At the end of the line a leader is attached.
Casting this system is done with subtlety rather than power, as it is manoeuvered to develop a loop. This loop gains great speed, even when cast with the most minimal power. This power needs to be spent so the fly lands on the water with natural elegance. The more precisely such behaviour is mimicked, the more fish you catch.

Landing a dry fly softly also increases its tendency to float. This allows you to use sllimmer and more natural fly designs. Likewise for Nymphs, which you can drop into the water precisely where you want them. When you can control the amount of slack in the leader and tippet, a nymph can sink without being hindered by the line. The flies don’t need much or even any weight added to them.

There are tapered, furled or braided, and knotted leaders. All have pro and cons. In my opinion the knotted type is preferable for the type of fishing described above. So I looked deeply into this kind of leader.

My very first book on Fly-fishing was “A fly fisher’s life” by Charles C. Ritz – ASIN: B0007EI4CU which had some information about knotted leaders. As this was „an old“ book I smiled arrogantly and went ahead tossing hard-earned money out of the window by shopping for all these fantastic things one gets offered by the „industry“. You guess the outcome. The fishing never really worked. Through contact with some other anglers and reading more in books and the „net“ I frequently ran into advocates of the hand-tied leader.

So I searched for my first book again to look for the detailed recipes for knotted leaders. Charles C. Ritz describes three main parts of a leader.

  1. power transmission – 60% of the total leader length
  2. taper – 20% of the total leader length
  3. Tippet – 20% of the total leader length

The total length is in Ritz’ book is never really more than 2,9m. I suspect this is because of shorter and different action of the cane rods of the time.

From other sources I heard that a leader should be 1.5 times the rod length. I found others advocating a similar ratio so I applied this to the Ritz 60/20/20 system and experimented. With modern rods and lines I concluded that a leader of 1.35 times the rod length worked best for me. I tied a few for some friends as well and the reactions were all more than positive. As this system seems to work for my friends from Lapland to Nevada, that is why I am sharing it with you here.

On to the technical bit. The single pieces of monofilament line are tied together with blood knots, named after their inventor Mr. Blood. These knots are ideal as they provide a perfectly straight connection without any bends and turns. I mostly use Maxima camo for the leader and Stroft GTM for the tippet, but choice of monofilament is very much up to you. If you believe all the hype, you can even use fluorocarbon.

For the connection of taper and tippet I insert a little ring, known as leader ring. The Leader itself is connected to the fly line with a nail knot or similar. Don’t worry about having to change the whole leader often. You won’t have to.

Have fun tying the leader. It’s a little easier with using a Blood-Knot tool though.