61 - Top Tips - Fly Fishing leaders properly explained!

Fly Fishing leaders properly explained!


How long should a fly leader be? Which materials are best?  How strong should my leader be for fly fishing? While we anglers talk a lot about flies, we tend to talk a lot less about something equally important: our leaders, lines and tippets!

This is not surprising. Copolymers and fluorocarbons are not as sexy as beautifully dressed flies or the latest rods. And many of us are afraid to ask if we’re picking the right leader! Which is why we thought it was high time we shared a useful guide to the basics of fly fishing leaders. 

Effective, reliable leaders are critical to successful fly fishing!

Basic fly fishing terms- what is a leader? What is a tippet?

Ok, so let’s start by cutting through some of jargon. This is vital for beginners, but if you know this stuff, you can always fast forward a heading or two! In fly fishing, the leader is the section of fishing line that goes between your fly line (the special, thick stuff you cast with) and your actual fly. For a beginner, an easy way to remember this is that the “leader” goes first.

The tippet is a shorter piece of line that goes at the very end of your leader. This part is usually finer and of lower breaking strain. This is for two reasons. Firstly, for most fishing we don’t want thick or clumsy fishing line direct to our fly, because it might scare the fish. Using a tippet also means that if we get snagged or broken, we lose only a few inches of line rather than the whole lot.

How long should my leader be?

Fly fishing leaders come in various lengths. This could be a rod’s length or less, but equally it might be anything up to 18ft (6m) or more!  The best place to start is with some questions on the fishing you are doing. 

How much space do I have? If you are on a small river, or any cramped space, you won’t get away with a very long leader. Hence, for small stream fishing or tight spots, your leader could be as little as 7ft. On a larger river, reservoir or boat with bags of space, however, you might prefer double that or more! More on the benefits of longer leaders shortly….

A craggy stream is no place for long leaders! As little as 7-8ft might be called for here.

How big are the fish?

This is always an important question! For a cute stream that holds smaller trout, for example, you could drop right down to very light leaders and tippets of say 3lbs. If you are on a “specimen” trout lake or a venue known for big fish, you might step up to double that as a minimum! It’s always a balancing act- if you fish too heavy you might not get many bites, but you must always tackle up to have a reliable chance of landing the fish that are present

There’s no point getting takes if you can’t land the fish! Larger specimens demand stronger leaders and tippets.

How spooky are the fish?

Fish are not all alike in terms of how they respond to our tackle. Obviously, we don’t want an extremely short leader because there is the risk our quarry will be spooked by the fly line landing on the water or things looking too crude. Hence for most fishing, a good starting point is a rod’s length.

Fish in open water, or sunny and clear conditions tend to be more “line shy” than those in snaggy, close quarters, however.  Equally, fish that are wild or see regular angling pressure are likely to be a bit wilier- hence a long leader can be an advantage, because it will land more gently and give more separation from that thicker, heavier fly line. Which brings us to our next question.

Why use a long leader for fly fishing? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

A longer leader has some huge benefits to the fly fisher. Firstly, it will spook fewer fish, because it projects the fly further from the thicker fly line. A longer leader also tends to let flies behave more naturally. This is because it gives your fly or flies more room to settle and move with the elements.

Imagine a fly line with a very short leader cast into a fast current, for example- in no time at all, it will be dragged about with the fly line. Now picture a longer leader- it’ll take longer to get swept up in the current, giving your fly those precious few extra seconds of natural presentation (especially where you have uneven currents in front of you).

Another big benefit of longer leaders is depth. A long leader allows flies to sink deeper, even with a floating fly line. This is an especially big advantage when fishing on stillwaters, where fish might be patrolling deeper than you can achieve with a short leader.

The main disadvantage with long leaders is how manageable they are! A very long leader will tend to tangle more easily than a shorter one, while you must also be wary of everything disappearing down the rod rings at the end of the cast. However, it’s still worth getting to grips with longer leaders, because ultimately if you can manage them you’ll fool and catch more fish!

What leader materials should I use? Mono or fluorocarbon? Tapered or straight?

This is quite a big question, but the sensible answer will depend on your chosen style of fishing.

For river fishing or dry fly fishing, a tapered leader is usually the answer. These are available ready to use in different breaking strains. 


Simple tapered leaders are ideal for most river and dry fly fishing. Above: Turrall tapered leaders come in various strengths for under £3.

A tapered leader, in simple terms, means one that is thick at one end (next to your fly line) and thin at the other end (to where you tie on your actual fly). This helps achieve a smooth “turn over” when you cast, as the thinner line naturally flies through the air ahead of the thicker end of the leader. In other words, a tapered leader helps everything to land tidily rather than in a big heap.

Tapered leaders are inexpensive and easy to use- and you can even leave them on the reel when not fishing, for several sessions. To make them last longer, however, another good tip is to tie a tiny tippet ring on the end – to which you can attach a final length of finer line. So, for example, you could attach two feet of fine 4lb line at the end of a 5lb tapered leader.

Leader materials

There are three basic kinds of fishing line used to make leaders.

Monofilament, often just called mono or nylon, is your basic, dependable choice. Many brands are available. It’s dependable, fairly abrasion resistant and easy to knot. It can be easily treated to float or sink.

Copolymers are more advanced than basic mono, with a thinner diameter and greater suppleness. This is the material of choice for your tippet in most dry fly fishing, as it is nice and subtle and lets flies behave very naturally. It can also be used for wet flies, especially when you’re using just the one rather than a team.


Simple, strong and subtle, copolymers are great for dry and single fly work. Find them here in all strengths

Flurocarbon is a tough, dependable material to make leaders. Many believe it is less visible than other lines under the water. It is also very low stretch, which helps detect and hit bites, making it a good choice for wet flies and streamers. Its stiffness makes it ideal for making leaders with more than one fly, too, as it is more tangle resistant than regular mono. The disadvantage is that it is faster sinking than other materials- which could make dry flies sink, for example.


There are many different Flurocarbon lines available these days- and the best are superbly strong and reliable, but do cost a little more. 

Knotted leaders

You can also make a tapered effect by creating a knotted leader which is something fly fishers used to do all the time before quality tapered leaders were available. This meant tying together different line strengths in “steps” – so you might have say 12lb going to 8lb, then 6lb. However, the tapered leader is so much easier- unless you are using multiple flies and need to create “droppers” (small lengths of line coming off to connect multiple flies)

Fluorocarbons for lures and basic single fly fishing

If you are fishing simple “streamer” or lure type flies for rainbow trout, there is no need to look beyond a simple length of fairly strong fluorocarbon. Around a rod’s length should be perfectly adequate for tackling most small stillwaters.

With many heavier flies- especially those that use bead heads – the fly will do a grand job of straightening out the leader so you don’t need anything fancy. The fish won’t be studying the line when chasing and the hits can be hard, so you’d be silly to go beneath 8lb fluorocarbon. The minimal stretch of this material also ensure you get good solid connection on the strike.

For fishing a team of flies on stillwaters

For a team of flies, of say three or even four wets, a longer leader will be required. This could be anything up to 18ft or more! In part, this is because you shouldn’t put multiple flies too close together- not only does this look clumsy, but would result in more tangles. Hence a golden rule is to have at least three feet between flies when you fish several of them.

Of course, if you’re not the most experienced at this type of fishing, four flies could be a quick route to tanglesville! You’ll still benefit from the presentation of a long leader, however, so perhaps start with two flies and at least 15 feet of leader in total.

Fishing more than one fly means longer leaders and fluorocarbon. If you don’t fancy a whole team, try stepping up to a duo, with at least 15ft of leader for larger waters.

As for materials to present more than one fly, fluorocarbon is king. This is because it is stiffer than conventional mono, resulting in fewer tangles. You’d be sensible to use a minimum of 6lb fluorocarbon, too, because this is more tangle proof than finer material- and with most stocked fisheries containing lots of 3lb+ fish these days, you’ll get smashed up less often.

Leaders for several flies

Creating a leader for this style of fishing is best done with simple bloodknots or three turn water knots as the connection between different sections of line, leaving one end of the knot long to attach each additional fly. A typical rule of thumb is make each “dropper” around least six inches (15cm) to give the fly natural movement and little separation from the main leader, although they can be tied shorter or longer.

To give a rough breakdown, then, a leader for three flies might consist of an initial 10ft of fluorocarbon, connected to another 4ft via a bloodknot, then another 4ft of leader via another bloodknot. This would give you two “droppers” for different flies, followed by another on the “point” (the “point fly” is the one right at the end of the leader

Why use several flies? Well, the simple answer is that you cover more bases. You can see which colour or design the fish prefer on the day- as well as covering more depths. On this note, it’s sensible to have the heaviest fly as the “point” which will help straighten out the leader on the cast.

Specialist leaders: Fly fishing for pike, saltwater species and salmon

We have mainly focussed on trout so far- but of course, there are increasing numbers of anglers also targeting pike, bass and other species. These are separate topics, but suffice to say that they need their own specific leaders, which would be a fair bit stronger than you’d use for trout!  

There are plenty of resources online for these other styles of fishing. Salmon require strong leaders of a minimum 12lb strength, for example. Saltwater fish run hard and live in snaggy spots, hence tough fluorocarbon makes a lot of sense. Pike, meanwhile, have teeth that will slice through even strong line, making a wire trace essential!

Further tips – and a rough guide to leaders for different fishing styles  

The subject of leaders is a big and broad one, but hopefully we’ve given you some useful advice. However, to finish off, let’s take a look at some common fly fishing tips, different scenarios and the type of leaders that would be used.

Small, wild river: Expecting sport on dry flies for small fish. 7ft trimmed down 3.5lb tapered leader, plus short length of 3lb copolymer.

A typical river set up, consisting of a simple tapered leader. Additional copolymer tippet can be used to extend this further (for say shy fish on a very clear river) or to fasten a nymph directly to your dry fly to fish “New Zealand style”.

Larger river,  to fish the dry fly or perhaps also nymphs on a New Zealand dropper setup: 9ft of 5lb tapered leader, followed by 2-3ft of finer tippet in 4lb breaking strain.

Small stillwater, fishing with common lures for rainbow trout with a floating or intermediate line: Keep things strong and simple with 9ft of 8lb fluorocarbon!

Large stillwater or smaller water with nymphs, to fish with a team of three buzzers or perhaps loch style wet flies: 18ft of leader in total, with two 6” droppers, constructed of 6lb fluorocarbon. Flies should be spaced at least 4 feet (1.2m) apart, with the heaviest fly on the “point” (at the very end of the leader)

Longer leaders take some getting used to, but are very effective and ideal for fishing a team of flies on large reservoirs (above).

Wild lakes and “loch style” fly fishing

For wild stillwaters and brown trout, the classic way to fish is with a team of three traditional flies. The leader is a bit shorter than our previous set up,  because we are fishing the flies near the surface rather than deep. Flies are typically pulled just under the surface ripple to excite nearby trout! Classic bushy flies such as the Bibio, Kate Maclaren and Black Pennell are ideal, with a slightly heavier or more aerodynamic fly last, on the “point”.

Further fly fishing leader tips:

Straighten things out!

When you get a new tapered leader out of the packet, the best way to unravel it tidily is to put your fingers into the middle and open everything up under gentle tension. Some require a little unravelling or untwisting- so carefully does it! 

If there are any kinks now- or after you’ve been fishing and had a tangle- try applying a little tension to straighten out. This can be done with a cloth or leader straightener.


A leader straightener(£3.50) is a great investment to help your line behave!

Bigger flies, thicker tippets

For any larger patterns like mayflies, terrestrials and sedges, a light tippet will tangle easily! For anything of size 12 and larger, keep to a minimum of 4-5lb tippet. The opposite is true of tiny flies- with 2-3lb line ideal for micro dries such as Griffiths Gnat or F-Fly in sizes 18-22.

Do I always need a lighter “tippet” at the end of my leader?

The short answer to this is no! For any lure style fishing, for example, it’s inadvisable. For much stillwater fishing, going relatively heavy (say 6lb fluorocarbon) is fine with wet flies. Even with a tapered leader, you can tie the fly direct to the end- it’s just that the tippet will give you a finer presentation and stop you from shortening the main leader every time you change flies.

Don’t risk it!

Have you got a thumb knot or some damage on your leader? If it’s the thickest part or tough fluorocarbon, you might get away with a tiny knot. If in any doubt though, retie or replace! With finer tippets, especially, any slight knot or damage could mean a lost fish.

Better fish will quickly find any weaknesses in your leaders and knots. If in doubt, refresh!!

Tie your knots with care

Knots are a common cause of errors and losses, so tie with care and if you’re not happy, try again. Most important of all, every time you tie a knot, wet it with saliva to prevent friction- and briefly give it a tug to test. Finally, treat yourself to some nippers- because fluorocarbon is harsh on teeth!

When only the best will do… 

The trickiest situation is fish that are both big and wily! In this scenario, you would be wise to pick leader and tippet materials that are the very best, giving you low diameter for high strength! Cortland make some of the very best right now, such as the Top Secret Fluorocarbon. Not cheap, but when you hook that dream fish, you want the best line available!


Not cheap, but materials such as Cortland Ultra Premium offer top performance for the most demanding fishing situations.