ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Some thoughts about tapered leaders

Posted 2/24/21

As a long-time angler, I hear little discussion about tapered leaders, even though they are an integral part of a fly fisher’s gear. Perhaps leaders are viewed as innocuous, just a necessary …

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ramblings of a catskill fly fisher

Some thoughts about tapered leaders


As a long-time angler, I hear little discussion about tapered leaders, even though they are an integral part of a fly fisher’s gear. Perhaps leaders are viewed as innocuous, just a necessary part of the terminal tackle at the end of a fly line. But leaders are far more than that.

Literature states that the first fishing lines were made in England from braided horsehair in the 1600s. Based on that information, I’m speculating that the first leaders were made from horse-tail hair during the same time period, also in that country. The evolution of leaders has been a slow process until the use of silkworm gut became popular in the 1700s. Silkworm gut was used well into the 20th century before nylon arrived on the scene. While silkworm gut was a big improvement over horse tail hair, it left a lot to be desired as leader material. It was stiff and brittle, it tended to rot if not properly cared for, and it had to be kept wet in order to use. Additionally, it was not very strong and extra care had to be taken with light tippets and large trout.

The introduction of nylon in 1938 provided many advantages over silkworm gut. It was much stronger, did not have to be kept wet and diameters could be accurately controlled during the manufacturing process. More importantly, nylon could be made into single-strand tapered leaders, eliminating the need for knots. Nylon does have a downside in that it has memory: When stored on a fly reel, it had a tendency to mimic the round shape of the reel spool; it has to be straightened before fishing. Historically, a small piece of rubber was used to pull the leader through in order to straighten the leader.

Today, there are many options available for fly fishers to choose from when selecting tapered leaders. Some folks still prefer to tie their own, using different diameters of nylon to fashion the leader. This method is probably the most cost-effective and allows anglers to design a leader that will accommodate specific fishing situations. There are downsides, however. Making a tapered leader using different-sized nylon results in a lot of knots. Each knot can be a weak point and subject to failure. In addition, each knot is a potential collection point for debris in the water, like algae. Knotless leaders are more expensive, available in many lengths and tippet diameters. As a result, knotless tapered leaders are the most available and commonly used today.

The most recent addition to the types of tapered leaders available to fly fishers is braided leaders. I believe Orvis was the first company to offer braided leaders, starting several years ago. I’ve used them ever since. Braided leaders have several advantages over the other types of tapered leaders. First, they have no memory and come off the reel, ready for fishing without the need for straightening. They may be purchased in a variety of lengths and tippet diameters. There are floating and sinking versions. Braided leaders come in two sections: a braided butt and a slightly tapered, single-strand, front-tippet section that comes on a spool and can be replaced as needed. Orvis braided leaders cost about $20—they’re not cheap but last a very long time. I have several in use that are at least five years old!

But sadly, Orvis no longer offers braided leaders. The company has replaced them with a single-strand, tapered, polypropylene substitute. Those leaders are less expensive than the traditional Orivs braided leader but, from what I’ve observed, are nowhere near as good. I think this was a cost-saving decision. Fortunately, other companies now offer the same type of braided leaders that Orvis had available.

After rigorous research, I found Anglers Image as the only manufacturer of braided leaders that appear similar to Orvis. Unlike Orvis leaders, the Anglers Image leaders are available with braided butt sections only. Orvis had spools of Bimini Tippets available to add to the braided-butt section. That means anglers will have to make their own tippet sections. In order to continue the transfer of energy from the fly line through the butt section, I make a knotted, tapered tippet section the same length as the butt, ending in 3x. That way, I can add sections as required, depending on the size of the fly. Keep in mind, when adding tippet sections, the diameters can never exceed 2x.

While I hear anglers speak of using tapered leaders up to 20 feet in length, it is seldom necessary to exceed 12 feet for fishing dry flies. The longer the leader, the finer the tippet, the more difficult it is the cast and control. That is especially true on windy days when using fine tippets. I’ve also found that the finer the tippet the better the fly floats.

So, the next time you plan to purchase a tapered leader, keep in mind what I wrote in this column. And don’t discount braided leaders as an alternative to single-strand nylon. You might be pleasantly surprised.

fly fishing, tackle, leader, line


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