Building A Better Leader

From my Friend Tom Jindra.
Count me as a member of the old school when it comes to my fly-fishing leaders.
Leader kit from Maxima $44.50 call 870-445-3848

OK, I’m not exactly a purist, because I’ve used my share of knotless tapered leaders over the years. And why not? They’re easy to find and convenient to use when I’m fishing the trout streams of Arkansas or Montana. I also like buying leaders and flies whenever I drop in at a tackle shop to get a fishing report. Not only will I eventually use the stuff, but dropping a few bucks is common courtesy to the fellow behind the desk (I’d hate to be known as a freeloader).

But these factory-made leaders have their limits. Among other things, their one-size-fits-all approach is a problem, because my circumstances don’t always match their design. Nor do I get much information from the labeling … just the length, tippet size and butt diameter. Most of the time, I would rather have the control and performance I gain by tying my own.

The first step in making a good leader is finding a good monofilament. Be warned, not all monos are equal:

  • Obviously, you want a strong monofilament, but just as important is a consistent diameter. Monofilaments are made by machines that extrude the material through a die. A company that wants to keep its costs, and prices, down will run its machines at high speed in order to produce a large volume in a short time. But running the machines at high speed sacrifices quality by introducing variations in the line’s diameter, meaning weak spots. The faster the machines run, the greater the variations. Boosting the line’s quality is a simple matter of slowing down the machines. The tradeoff, of course, is increased cost, which is why premium monofilaments such asMaxima cost more.
  • Monofilaments are a bit like the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Some monos are too hard, some are too soft; the trick is finding a balance that is just right. Hard mono’s big advantage is its ability to withstand abrasion, but it tends to be brittle, and knot strength suffers. Hard mono also has a lot of memory, making it difficult to straighten. Soft mono straightens better. It also has better tensile strength and knot strength. The drawback, of course, is that soft mono abrades easily. Maxima uses a formula that’s in between the extremes of hard and soft. The result is superb abrasion resistance, excellent tensile strength and great knot strength. The memory, meanwhile, is quite manageable. In other words, Maxima got it just right.
  • Color is an important characteristic of any monofilament, because you want your leader to vanish visually into the habitat. Some companies blend their dyes into the line itself. It’s an approach that saves money but threatens the integrity of the mono. Maxima adds its dyes after the mono is extruded, making for a stronger line. Maxima lines also get a flat finish, not the fish-scaring gloss you see on some monos. Maxima leader wheels, by the way, are available in clear, Ultragreen and Chameleon, in addition to fluorocarbon.

Many anglers shy away from making their own leaders, because they fear the complexity. Fortunately, we can simplify the process with a few guidelines:60-20-20. These numbers represent a formula espoused years ago by Charles Ritz. Yes, that’s Ritz, as in the famous hotel company. Ritz was also a fly-fisherman, one of the all-time greats. Among his teachings was a leader design that said the butt section should comprise the first 60 percent of your leader, and the midsection should also be 20 percent, leaving 20 percent for the tippet. I’ve used the Ritz formula for at least 30 years to create three-piece leaders for everything from redfish to jack Crevalle to largemouth bass to steelhead.

Here’s how it works:

Let’s make a 10-foot leader with a 12-pound tippet to use on an 8-weight rod.

  • The leader butt should have a diameter approximately 60 to 70 percent of the fly line tip’s diameter. For my 8-weight Bruce Chard line from Jim Teeny, I’ve eyeballed 30-pound Maxima Ultragreen (diameter 0.022 inches) as a good match. All I have to do is pull a 6-foot length of mono from the spool, and the butt section is finished.
  • For the midsection, I’m going to use a 2-foot section of 18-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.016 inches). My greatest concern here is to have a midsection that has a diameter at least 65 percent the size of the butt section; if I use anything smaller, I put the integrity of my knots at risk (multiply the diameter of the larger line by .65 to see how small you can safely go, or 0.022 X .65 = 0.0143).
  • I finish with a 2-foot section of 12-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.013 inches). Again, the diameter of my smaller line needs to be within 65 percent of my larger line (0.016 X .65 = 0.0104).
  • If I forget to carry a ruler, I’ll just pull off a leader butt, make the midsection one-third as long, then make the tippet the same length as the midsection. The main thing is that you can tie a leader of any length as long as you remember 60-20-20.
Now, that’s a lot of words, but give it a try. This leader is much easier to make than it is to describe.
Line diameter. Remember the 65 percent rule that I used for limiting the diameters of my mono. The greater the diameter discrepancy, the greater the chance that your knots will slip.
Knots. I like blood knots for tying my leaders together, because blood knots are clean and compact, but surgeon’s knots are also good.A note on blood knots: The instructional link recommends seven wraps when tying a blood knot. I disagree, especially when using heavy monofilament, because you’re never going to get the knot to tighten properly. I use only three wraps with heavy mono and up to five wraps with light mono. The only time I might consider seven wraps would be with the very lightest mono such as 1-pound and 2-pound test.
Now, let’s try a few variations.
For the first variation, let’s say we want a 10-foot leader for an 8-weight rod, except we want a lighter tippet of 6-pound Ultragreen. In this instance, we can expect knot problems, because the 6-pound’s diameter is only .009 inches, putting us in violation of the 65 percent rule.
The solution is to split the midsection into two pieces: a 1-foot section (or 10 percent) of 18-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.016 inches) and a 1-foot section (or 10 percent) of 12-pound Ultragreen (diameter 0.013 inches). The result is a four-piece leader that protects knot integrity by using the midsection to “step down” in diameter.
You need to step down even further? Just break the leader’s midsection into three or four pieces as necessary to abide by the 65 percent rule. If need be, steal a foot from the tippet to make room for further extending the midsection.

For the next variation, let’s revert back to the original three-piece leader and assume it isn’t turning over properly, because the fly is too heavy or bulky. The solution is shifting the formula to emphasize the butt and midsection at the expense of the tippet. This is more art than science, so feel free to experiment, but here’s an example. Keep the butt at 60 percent, extend the midsection to 30 percent and drop the tippet to 10 percent (or just take the 60-20-20 leader, then cut back the tippet).

Or perhaps the leader is turning over too hard, so let’s reduce the butt and emphasize the tippet and/or midsection. In this case, we’ll reduce the butt to 50 percent, keep the midsection at 20 percent and increase the tippet to 30 percent.

The possibilities are endless, and that’s bound to be a bit intimidating if you haven’t done it before. But don’t let that stop you. Comfort and the ability to adapt to changing needs will come with experience.
The leader kit is available from Wishes & Fishes.  Ultra Green 1 LB thru 25 lb                  
In stock:  GTKF-123 leader kit.  Consist of 12 spools one of each of the following
1lb -2lb-3lb-4lb-5lb-6lb-8lb-10lb-12lb-15lb-25lb  complete kit as pictured above $44.50

3 Responses to Building A Better Leader

  1. Shirley Deviney says:

    interesting article; will file for trip to Alaska; don’t need in Arkansas until Jimmy T retires! We are enjoying Puerto Escondido until we go to Colorado for Christmas. Hope y’all had a great Thanksgiving and have a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! regards, Hank and Shirley

  2. Pat Shannon says:

    Jim, Nice article on leaders, I can remember 60-20-20. Hope you are doing well. Merry Christmas. I am busy making rods for presents for my kids. Pat

  3. billy green says:

    really good info on leader building…have used Maxima since the early 70’s on steelhead, trout, bass, pike (with wire)

    separately, when’s the absolute best time of year to flyfish with you in Arkansas for the biggest browns?

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