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Fly Fishing Leaders
When all the power of the caster’s arm, the rod it holds, and resultant energy is transferred down the length of the fly line being cast, a great deal of line speed can be developed. In order to impart efficiently this energy to the fly, a leader is placed between the end of the fly line and the fly. Leaders transfer the energy of the fly line into the movement of the fly being cast. They prevent the relatively thick fly line from slamming the fly onto the water and spooking the fish. Leaders also place a more invisible connection between the fly and the heavy fly line.
Most contemporary leaders are made of a single strand of nylon or monofilament. In the past, leaders were made of cat gut, silk, and braided nylon. The great Lee Wulff called the use of nylon leaders one of the greatest steps forward in modern fly fishing. A tapered nylon leader has three recognizable sections: the butt, the mid-section, and the tippet.
The butt of the leader is much thicker than any other part of the leader. Its role is to be sized much more closely to the fly line to which it’s connected. This thickness and the stiffness of this section of leader transfers the casting energy from the fly line to the middle section of the leader. Fly anglers call this transfer, which causes the remainder of the leader to unroll and the fly to land correctly on the water, the ‘turnover.’ On the occasion when a fly is too big for a leader to turn it over properly, it’s most often because the butt of the leader is too small in diameter or too limp, which results in poor energy transfer from the fly line to the fly. The butt section is about 60 percent of a leader’s length.
The middle section of the leader is called the mid-section. This section is the most tapered of the tapered leader. Its role is to simply serve as the go-between for the heavy, stiff butt section and the fine, flexible tip of the leader. Generally this section is about 20 percent of the leader’s full length.
The very tip of the leader, the tippet, is the smallest diameter end to which the fly is tied. While its role is to transfer the energy of the cast into the fly, it has a larger role. That is to disguise to the fish that any line at all is tied to the fly. It is generally a more flexible and invisible section of the leader than any other part. Because it can be either tied in or part of a manufactured leader, tippet can be designated by its breaking strength in pounds or by the old designation of its tippet diameter, which is represented by an x.
The tippet is the most important part of the leader, at least in terminology, if not in function; though a case can be made for its pre-imminence in functional importance, too. For manufactured tapered leaders, the size designation reflects only the size of the tippet itself. Every other part of the leader, depending on the manufacturer, is sized to most efficiently serve the tippet. In general, the x designation of sizes does not vary from manufacturer to manufacturer. A 6x tippet is the same diameter (.005 inches) regardless of who makes it. However, because of slight differences in the composition and manufacturing processes of the nylon, not all 6x tippets have the same breaking strength. Neither are they all the same in areas of limpness, stretchability, and visibility. Thus, the eternal debate among anglers as to which brand name is the best to use for a particular situation goes on.
To handle different fishing situations, fly anglers typically carry a selection of tippets in various sizes. Changing sizes of flies, switching from heavy streamers to light dry flies, or just changing a worn tippet are all reasons for being prepared with spools of tippet in different sizes.
Making a Leader
While many fly fishers can purchase manufactured tapered leaders, many anglers choose to tie leaders of their own. In comparison to purchasing, building a leader is more economical, and lets an angler ‘customize’ leaders for particular situations.
Basic Leader Formula
A basic leader can be built with a very simple formula: butt section (60 percent), mid-section (20 percent), and tippet (20 percent.) These percentages reflect their part of the overall leader’s length. For ease of discussion, let’s examine a leader of 10 feet in length. With the above formula, a 10-foot leader would have 6 feet of butt, 2 feet of mid-section, and a tippet section of 2 feet long. A shorter or longer leader should have its sections adjusted according to their percentages of the overall leader length.
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