Leader setups for fly-fishing streams can be confusing to new fly anglers. Avoid any confusion and take a simplified approach to leader setups, because at the end of the day you want to have fun, be less confused and frustrated, and not spend a small fortune on leaders and tippet.
History & Anatomy Of A Fly-Fishing Leader
Silkworm gut was the main material for leaders and tippet for nearly 200 years before it was replaced by nylon, also known as monofilament, in the 1940s. Today, tippet and leaders are constructed either using nylon or fluorocarbon.
During the time of silkworm gut, the X rating system was developed to communicate the size of leaders. Originally, the X system indicated the number of times a strand of silkworm gut was pulled through a plate with progressively smaller holes. For example, a 1X leader went through the one hole only, and a 4X leader went through four holes, and each time it went through a hole, the diametre of the gut decreased. Hence, the higher the X rating, the thinner the line. This system left an indelible mark, as we still use it today to indicate the diametre of nylon and fluorocarbon line.
Leaders are constructed with tapered and a level, constant diametre line. Tapered leaders are used if you need the leader to lay straight out on the water; and for nearly weightless flies like dry flies, a tapered leader is essential. But when fishing weighted nymphs and streamers, a simplistic leader built from sections of level line that decrease in diametre is all you need. With this in mind, keep your leader setups limited to a tapered leader for dry flies and soft hackles, a dedicated nymphing leader, and a leader for streamer fishing. These three leader systems will cover the vast majority of situations for fly anglers.
Dry Flies & Soft Hackles
When dry-fly fishing, tapered leaders are essential, as the decreasing diametre allows the line to lay straight out on the water. In most situations, use a nine-foot leader tapering down to 4X (about six pounds) with three feet of 4X of tippet attached to it. The main purpose of the tippet is to prolong the life of a tapered leader. Every time you change a fly, you lose a piece of line, and gradually your tapered leader becomes shorter if you do not use tippet. If you encounter picky fish, you can extend the leader by adding three feet of 5X or even 6X to the 4X tippet. The size of fly also determines, to some degree, the tippet size you are going to use.
Leader/tippet size (break strength)
Fly size (hook size)
0X (16 pounds)
1X (14 pounds)
2X (11 pounds)
3X (8 pounds)
4X (6 pounds)
5X (4 pounds)
6X (3 pounds)
7X (2 pounds)
There are always campfire debates about using manufactured tapered leaders or building your own tapered leaders from sections of level line. Manufactured leaders are more expensive, but they are convenient and cause few issues. For example, manufactured tapered leaders have fewer knots, resulting in fewer tangles, less drag and less snagging of floating debris rivers – all counterproductive when dry-fly fishing.
When fishing nymphs, you do not need a tapered leader. Construct a simple leader system using six feet of 4X fluorocarbon or nylon from the fly to a tippet ring. Add two feet of coloured 1X indicator tippet to the tippet ring and attach three feet of 10-pound Maxima Chameleon to the indicator tippet for the butt section of the leader. When you are indicator nymphing, attach a floating indicator, such as a Thingamabobber or Airlock indicator, to this leader. If you plan to fish the longer European nymphing leader setups, remove the floating indicator and extend the butt section with six to nine feet of 20-pound Maxima Chameleon. Maxima Chameleon is great for nymphing leaders as it is stiff, allowing easier turnover of the leader. It also has little stretch, making it more sensitive for detecting strikes.
Most anglers fishing streamers use sink tip fly lines with level line leaders. These leaders do not need to be long, no longer than four feet. Many anglers actually fish leaders as short as three feet. Trout willing to grab streamers are aggressive and not leader shy. These fish hit streamers hard, which means your biggest challenge is to survive the initial take. Use nylon – no need for fluorocarbon – of at least 3X (10 pounds break strength), and you can use nylon intended for spinning or bait casting reels. This nylon is a little thicker than tippet nylon, but it is a lot cheaper, and streamer-eating trout are not that easily put off by the slightly thicker leader.
Sticking with just these three leader setups will cover the majority of your stream fishing, so keep it simple; no need to make this complicated.