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Leader of the pack: Understanding leaders and tippets

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By Patrick Straub Explore Big Sky Fishing Columnist

Most folks who fish with me will attest that I do not have an overly technical approach to fly fishing. I’m not concerned whether the fish are eating size 26 half-emerging-yet-still-larval-crippled-not-so-yet-spent mayflies, but more with whether you have a good drift on your size 18 Parachute Adams.

But many co-anglers will swear to my dedication to using the right leader and tippet at the right time. Here’s a crash course in helping you wade through this minefield:

In some instances tippet and leader are one in the same. With the invention of knotless, tapered leaders a few decades ago, anglers were able to fish a leader that already included a tippet section. Most fly fishers use this type of leader and tie a section of tippet material onto that. Knowing when and where to use a specific leader and tippet material is critical. Nothing is more frustrating than fooling a fish only to have it break-off because of poor-quality tippet or leader material.

There are several good leader and tippet manufacturers out there including Rio, TroutHunter, Scientific Anglers, Dan Bailey’s, and Orvis. But after deciding on a brand, you’ll need to make a decision with regard to fluorocarbon or monofilament.

When I first started guiding in the mid-1990s the use of fluorocarbon in fly fishing was in its infancy. Many old-time guides didn’t trust the stuff and most consumers scoffed at the high price. Fluorocarbon has now stood the test of time and is widely available. It’ll cost more, but you might find more success with it versus monofilament.

If you’re doing a lot of subsurface fishing, use fluorocarbon instead of monofilament. Professional guides and anglers swear by fluorocarbon for underwater applications. You should too. Monofilament, on the other hand, is the long-time standard in tippet and leader material and an abundance of manufacturers are making quality monofilament leaders, so the prices are substantially lower than fluorocarbon. Monofilament is also more appropriate in certain situations.

Because fluorocarbon is designed to sink, it’s poor with floating flies, especially small ones. If the bulk of your fishing will be on the surface, you can save some cash by buying monofilament instead of fluorocarbon.

Additionally, don’t buy fluorocarbon leaders for most fishing situations; simply buy fluorocarbon tippet material. Fluorocarbon leaders should be used when you want your leader to sink, such as when you plan to fish nymphs below an indicator. If you started the day with a monofilament leader, when you want your leader to sink, you can add fluorocarbon tippet to the end of your leader. There’s a myth floating around that says you can’t tie fluorocarbon to monofilament, but as long as your knots are tied well, you have nothing to worry about.

As for leaders, at least for a season or two, you’re money ahead if you buy multi-packs of leaders in a few lengths and sizes and then have a selection of tippet spools in various widths. Buy several packs of 9-foot, 5X leaders and be sure to have spools of tippet in sizes 3X, 4X, 5X and 6X. This allows you to add – or cut – your 9-foot, 5X leader to match the fishing situation. By having a selection of tippet material, you can add to the end of your leader to maintain its length without having to use a whole new leader.

Choosing leaders and tippets can feel like splitting hairs. But there are times when it can make the difference between a fish in hand and hours of head-scratching, and if you’re still scratching your head after you’ve tried all the flies in your box and fished the smallest and supplest tippet available, it’s OK, on occasion, to tip your hat to the fish.

Pat Straub is the author of six books, including The Frugal Fly Fisher, Montana On The Fly, and the forthcoming Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Fly Fishing. He and his wife own Gallatin River Guides in Big Sky.

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