Beginner's Corner Pt. IV: Following the Leader

by Kim Heaston

This installment will define what a leader is, what a tippet is, how to choose one for your fishing conditions, and how to attach the leader to your line.

So far you have a rod, some line, and a reel to put it onto. What you don't have is the way to present the fly to the fish. The diameter of your fly line is obviously too large to tie a fly to and would spook the fish when it came splashing down in its vicinity. What is needed is a leader.

The leader performs three functions. It is the transition between the fly line and the fly, transmits the energy of the cast to the fly, and, hopefully, fools the fish into thinking that it's not there. The first function is quite plain. There needs to be a transition from fly line to fly and the leader performs that by starting out with a thick diameter at the fly line end and tapers down to the diameter that is needed to tie on a fly. That taper also helps transmit the energy of the cast to the fly. As the diameter gets smaller the leader needs less energy to move forward, thus keeping your fly in the air. The third function has to do with the final diameter of the leader. It is usually much smaller than the butt end and is tied to a tippet of the same or smaller diameter. It is this tippet that the fish will hopefully not see.

Tippets are made of the same material as the leader. It should be the same diameter as the end of the leader and it extends the life of the leader. When you lose a fly or get a nasty tangle you can cut the tippet. If the tippet gets short you can replace it and only lose a couple of inches of leader. There are many other functions that the tippet serves that you will learn as you delve deeper into the art of fly fishing.

Leaders and tippets come in different sizes. These are 1X, the largest size, thru 7X. I have heard tell of 8 and 9X but these are not common. You may read an interesting article about why this sizing convention was chosen by going to the Federation of Fly Fisher's web page. The size of your fly should determine the size of your leader and tippet. The following table shows the tippet size and fly size associated with that:

Tippet size Fly size
0x 2, 1/0
1x 4, 6, 8
2x 6, 8, 10
3x 10, 12, 14
4x 12, 14, 16
5x 14, 16, 18
6x 16, 18, 20, 22
7x 18, 20, 22, 24
8x 22, 24, 26, 28

Although you can tie small flies on larger tippets and leaders you will lose some of the more natural appearance of the fly on or in the water. Sometimes a one size difference can make the difference in a day's fishing.

Leaders come in different lengths. Usually starting at about six feet and going up to twelve. A long leader is preferred for fishing with little splash so as not to spook nervous fish. I have read of fishermen using twelve foot leaders with three feet of tippet. For fishing Texas that kind of delicacy is usually not needed but keep the concept of delicacy in mind when fishing the Guadalupe River. Usually a 7-1/2 to 9 foot leader will do fine. As you gain more experience you can experiment.

Let's wrap it up. The leader connects the fly line to the fly, and hence, the fish. Tippet is tied onto the end of the leader to extend the reach of the leader and to preserve the leader. For a beginner I recommend a 7-1/2 foot leader with about 18 inches of tippet for fishing Central Texas waters. The size of the leader and tippet should match the type of fishing you are going to do.

Note: This article originally appeared in our June 2001 newsletter.

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