Once, a long time ago in a land far away, I used to tie up my own fly leaders.
A nine-foot leader tapered down to a light tippet for small dry flies required seven or eight blood knots. I didn’t do this a lot, so I wasn’t the world’s most efficient blood knot tyer. If I recall correctly, the better part of an evening was consumed by just a couple of leaders. Fortunately, they would last the season.
I remember that those hand-tied leaders cast like a dream. They’d straighten out nicely and, if I didn’t muck up the cast, present my fly gently on the surface film like a down feather tickling my cheek.
But those leaders were a lot of work and I didn’t stick with them. That may have been the result of improving monofilament technology. Those old knotless leaders in the 1980s were usually too limp in the butt section where you needed stiffness to transmit the energy of the loop to the fly. You still sometimes find that old mono technology with the leaders packaged with cheap, department store fly rod and reel kits.
Knotless leader technology improved over the years, and we’ve got the good stuff now. These modern leaders blend stiff butt sections with supple tippets. I haven’t tied my own knots in years. There’s no longer much gain from an evening’s work tying blood knots.
That’s not to say that hand-tied leaders still don’t have an edge. I’ve been fishing dries during the blue-winged olive hatches this winter and spring using nine-foot hand-tied leaders I picked up at one of the fly shops in Livingston. Those leaders are sweet, especially casting into the wind.
One drawback is if you’re fishing in a river with floating debris those knots pick up plenty of salad. You end up spending extra time cleaning your leader, but if you’re fishing on the surface that isn’t too much of a problem. And if you’re fishing “under” the surface there really isn’t much reason to be fishing a hand-tied leader anyway.
I’m still trying to prefect what I think will be the ultimate nymph leader. The design involves connecting a heavy two-foot butt section to the fly line, then tying on a tippet ring. The strike indicator goes on the butt section just behind the ring. Then I add a piece of tippet the appropriate length for the depth I’m fishing.
The goal is to keep all the heavy line out of the water. The only leader that will be in the water, imparting any drag on the fly, will be the light tippet. The guys at the shop joked I was trying to create the fly fishing equivalent of a ganion, the long vertical rigs used to catch bottom fish in the ocean. In a way that’s exactly what I was doing.
Some dudes accomplish the same thing using a light swivel instead of a tippet ring, but I can’t bring myself to use a swivel on a fly rod. It just seems so wrong.
Streamer leaders are a simpler matter. If you’re using a sinking line, or sink tip, which is all the rage as it allows you to fish unweighted streamers down in the water column, then your leader should be quite short. I loop about 18 inches of 20-pound Maxima to my fly line, then use a surgeon’s knot to attach another 18 inches of 10-pound Maxima.
Usually I still use a clinch knot to tie on my fly. Some streamer addicts use loop knots as they feel it allows the fly to dance a little more naturally in the current. I’m not convinced the loop knot is critical.
But the real key for effective streamer leaders seems to be making sure you’re stripping your fly in front of hungry brown trout.
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