Learn about Leader Construction for Fly Fishing

Learn about Leader Construction for Fly Fishing


Learn about leader construction for fly fishing! This page is a response to several people asking me to explain some of the mysteries of proper leader construction. Great question! There is no one leader that will match all things you encounter. Far too many variables involved as situations change on the water. Many authors have offered their two cents worth over the years for their leader formulas.

It may work great, but it will most likely need to be altered depending on many things. The concept of energy transfer is really the top priority for you to grasp because we build leaders for all kinds of fish and environments. A better understanding of your leader construction is key for modifications to take place on the stream.  Is there a proper leader construction for all things? No!

Is the role of the leader to turn the fly over straight? Will the leader sink quickly? Is the purpose to float high and generate many curves in the leader? These are just a few of the things that you may or may not desire for the leader. You have to know what you desire from the leader before you alter yours on the stream. You need to ask yourself the question, do you want the leader to dissipate energy flow or transfer energy smoothly?


Understanding Energy Transfer

This will change your construction technique depending on the leader’s length as well. Leaders range from straight tippet of 6″ to leaders which taper to over 30 feet for far and fine presentations. This is not a basic cookie cutter approaches of the dream butt, graduation or mid, and tippet sections which equal the overall leader composition.

Without a doubt, the typical store bought 9′ supple leaders are obsolete overall in my opinion for dry fly fishing! Having the short leader makes it much more difficult to get great presentations on stream. The suppleness greatly reduces accuracy overall. Part of this is the fact that the correctional mends require such a high level of control without disrupting the drift that only a handful of folks will actually get to that level with such a short leader.

It is for this reason that I would suggest a minimum of 12′-16′ Maxima Chameleon for added stiffness, accuracy, stealth, greater presentations, and much easier for line mends for dry fly or dry dropper fishing. This would be a good place to start for most folks once they are confident in their casting. The setup I prefer ranges between 16′-24′ leaders on smaller streams to over 32′ leaders on tail waters with spooky trout. Check out the tippet page because it is the weakest link between you and the fish.


George Forster from Wodonga, Australia high sticking pockets on the Nantahala River 

Maxima Chameleon Stiff Leaders

I prefer Maxima Chameleon fly fishing for trout in Western NC Smoky Mountains. The stiff material is very precise for accuracy. This is essential for pocket water fly fishing. I prefer a .017 butt section usually around 12′ of Maxima Chameleon, a few feet of sighter graduated down from .015-.011, straight to the fluorocarbon tippet section where the fly is attached. This is a very accurate casting leader due to the stiffness of Maxima Chameleon. If you use a Dave Whitlock connection for joining this setup to your line than I seriously doubt you will ever go back to a nail knot! The leader is smooth coming straight out of the fly line preventing any bumps.

Usually, the butt section of leader should match the stiffness of the fly line you are to join. I prefer using a three weight fly line because it does the majority of things I need it to do. It is for this reason that usually .017 tends to match up nicely for that stiffness of fly line. If I was using an eight weight line than the stiffness of the butt might jump to .022. I prefer to match them by holding the butt material and the fly line roughly 5 inches together and then look at the profile. Once they sag in a similar manner than I consider the stiffness to be a match.

Leader Attributes

One of the most important attributes to understand when constructing leaders is the materials stiffness, weight, and its diameter. If you wish for it to transfer energy than stay with material that is stiff and uses longer butt sections. I should also point out that through the years most people talk of leaders like we use the same one for nymphs, streamers, wets and dry flies. Not true! First off, the idea of a taper may be to turn a dry fly partially over when fishing (slack leader). Dry flies offer many variations in regards to their air drag profile.  When we are talking about nymph fishing with added weight we have less air drag profile and a direct increase of momentum.

Nymphs and streamers may turn over fine because they have a very different mass and profile than a dry fly. It has always struck me kind of funny that many perceive a heavy nymph tied on straight 4x will be difficult to turnover? Many great comp techniques out there that do just that for sinking nymphs quickly-long sections of straight mono. One day all of the misnomers of the great sport of fly fishing shall be re-written and anglers will look back at much of what has been written as gospel and they will say “what were they thinking”?

Match Fly Line to Leader Material Stiffness

Match the fly line to leader stiffness for best results fly casting. You can do a “feel test of stiffness” to match the fly line to the butt section of leader. The same 12′ leader will be different for a 2-weight versus a 7-weight rod. The fly line breaking strength is also very different for a 2 and 7 weight line. For really long leaders, do not overlook a furled leader (Spectra, Dyneema, Kevlar -similar materials). The attachment point of mono is varied to match the air drag profile I am throwing. You can also attach heavy sections of Dyneema and taper it to the tippet. This works great and I am really surprised that the fly fishing world has not jumped at the use of braids to replace mono altogether.

If the tippet end is too long, too supple, or both, the result is usually a bunch of (twist) kinks when using a dry fly. The solution is either use a hard mono, larger diameter mono or shorten the tippet and lengthen the graduation sections. Any of these in combination will help to solve the twists.

Slack and Non-Slack Leaders

Why would you want to have a dry fly leader transfer energy really efficiently (a non-slack leader)? The answer is when we need to use positive curve casts to turn the corner with fly, leader, and line for greater control fishing into a prime lie. Unfortunately, for every great thing, there is also a drawback to it.

One of the disadvantages of an efficient transfer of energy throughout the leader is that it becomes much harder to control for the negative casts, pile cast, etc…(it also requires a much higher level of finesse on the stream). There are many pros and cons as you can see with these few examples. There are also many other conditions that may affect your decision.

Furling Leaders

An understanding of energy transfer is a much better preparation for on-the-stream alterations than simply memorizing a Harvey style leader formula for instance. I used many of the Harvey style leader formulas growing up and I think they are great.  The fact is there are hundreds out there that are great! No individual person has the save all, be all leader for all things. You can also play around with furling your own leaders! Below is a great page on furling leaders if you have never tried them. They are superior for smooth transfer of energy for most trout fishing.

A good article on furling your leader to get you started by Henk Verhaar:

globalflyfisher.com/fishbetter/henk/henk1.htm (Henk Verhaar) Really a great source!

Read this section after you have studied the article’s above. One trick I would suggest for these peg boards is to label them from 9′ to 16′ (using an A, B, C, etc.. system). You use the same board for all of your lengths. You can vary the number of loops to play with various tapers. Use an excel sheet to manipulate the numbers of peg placement once you get into it (bottom of page).

Dyneema and Kevlar for Furled Leaders

Power Pro and Spiderwire Fusion work excellent for these furled leaders. I have one on my 2 weight rod that has been on for over 3 seasons now. The Superlines are expensive materials to purchase but will last a very long time (it takes about 125 yds. spool to make just two 12′ leaders).

Another benefit of learning to furl materials is that here in America there is no source for buying long running lines which have a taper. These furled running lines work great for building custom shooting heads for very long casts. If it is not tapered then the problem lies at the connection at the head is too weak which risks breaking during the initial launch of the shooting head.  Just a short taper aids in preventing this weak connection. You can place pegs in the yard and build custom taper running lines to whatever spec you desire once you get the hang of it.

Passive Leaders

Here are some leader formulas that I have used for a long time now (passive leaders). Play around with the leader construction depending on what you are trying to accomplish. As an example of a long line nymph rig, we might want the flies to sink rapidly so we can get to the bottom quick. Use a material that sinks, remains long in length (depending on the depth you are fishing), and remains small in diameter for faster sink rates. With that in mind, you could easily end up using 5-12 feet of tippet to accomplish this for that specific task.

Leader Formulas PDF and Excel Docs

leader formulas

furled leaders