Most of the questions we receive through the website and email have to do with leaders. This makes sense, since it's something we obviously cater to and specialize in. It's worth noting that if you are someone who doesn't totally understand the function of the leader, or don't really understand which leader you should be tying on.... then you're not alone. Not by a long shot.
I remember the vivid feeling of panic that I experienced many moons ago when I first walked into a local fly shop and saw the overwhelming wall of manufactured leaders. I was new to fly fishing, and I felt too inexperienced to ask the guys at the shop any questions. I knew I had a 5-weight rod, and I recalled that I had a 5-weight fly line. I knew that I wanted to fish for largemouth bass in a local pond with big heavy poppers. To follow the logic of matching line weight with the rod, both of which were of the 5-weight variety... that pretty packaged 9-ft, 5x leader, right had to be the right tool for the trade, right? Nope.
Thankfully over the many years since that day, I have learned, grown, and developed an understanding of how this essential piece of tackle functions in the entire fly fishing system. This knowledge has made me a lot more effective on the water than I probably ever deserved to be.
That said we thought it might be both fun and informative to do a multi-part blog piece on the leader's role in fly fishing. Hopefully there are some take-aways that are helpful to some, and a few tidbits that improve the presentation piece of your casting stroke.
We will start off by just covering some of the top-level basics in this piece today, and the follow up posts will get a little more in-depth on different nuances and topics. So without further ado...
What is a leader?
Well, at its most basic level, the fly fishing leader is what provides a nearly "invisible" transition from the fly line to the fly. Fly fishing leader, and the subsequent tippet comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and even colors. For those that have bought our leaders, you will notice that they often will come in different colors within the same leader. This is intentional, and not for aesthetic, eye-catchiness. The different pieces of material we connect each has distinct properties that are purposely sought out to provide a very specific function at a very specific point in the cast. Each section of our leaders is exactly what it is supposed to be, exactly where it is supposed to be.
As mentioned, the first main purpose of the leader and tippet is to connect your thick, colored fly line used for casting to the flies that you are trying to present to the fish, with a material that won’t scare them away.
The second main purpose of the leader and tippet is to complete the transfer of energy built up in the fly line through the casting stroke completing the circuit from the line and down to the fly.... and in doing so in a manner that your line rolls over and straightens itself out if a fairly straight line (except with the Harvey Leader). If you cast and your fly and leader lands in a giant pile on the water, you won’t have much luck enticing those fish to take your fly.
How does a leader work?
Beyond the obvious answer that it is attached to the fly line and the fly, therefore acting as a connector... let's look a little more at the purposes and how it functions. Essentially, in executing it's two purposes above the leader absorbs and disburses the energy created by the cast. The leader's goal is to control energy absorption and disbursement as best as possible.
In essence, leaders transfer energy, which is gradually used up or dissipated to move and extend the leader itself, and to overcome things like wind resistance. One thing to keep in mind is that leaders never increase energy, but they can bleed off that energy slower or faster depending on how the leader is constructed.
If energy is not transferred to the leader properly for reasons such a mismatched diameter or a multitude of other factors.... the biggest issue is often times the leader lands in a big puddle of line, forcing you to retrieve line to straighten it out. The thought behind the tapered leader is that it provides the smoothest, most efficient energy transfer interface between line and leader if things are set up properly.
Keep in mind that energy transfer needs a load or impedance to work efficiently in the same way an electric current needs an impedance or a loudspeaker drives the air. If there's no load, the efficiency of the energy transfer (conversion of energy into work) will be very low.
As energy is used up, the amount of work it can do is diminished....ideally then the load decreases at the same rate as the energy, hence the tapered leader.....a constant reduction in the weight of the line and its wind resistance
Given that, we can decipher that the taper is the most single important aspect of a leader. A taper that is too short or stiff will snap your fly over during the presentation and a taper that is too long or supple will "hinge" and not turn over at all. Additionally, a leader that turns over nicely on a short cast, may be too supple to turn over on a long cast.
So when it comes to designing a leader like we do, or buying a prepackaged one... there is actually quite a bit of thought behind what you should be going with. We'll work on breaking down some more detailed aspects of leader construction, design, and ultimately selection in the coming weeks.
This is certainly not rocket science, but we would be lying if we didn't feel strongly that the leader is likely the most crucial piece in the fly fishing system outside of the choice of fly.
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