Let’s talk about leaders. When I started fishing the fly for trout this was pretty damn straight forward – you tied an overhand knot on the end of the fly line and looped a 9 foot length of 4 pound breaking strain nylon on to it. Life in general has evolved in a variety of complex ways since those days but leaders have exploded into a mind-bending number of different forms. In contrast, my fishing tends to be very simple so my leaders are similarly easy to construct. I thought you might like to see how I tie up leaders for the various different conditions over here in the far west of Ireland. Bear in mind we only have wild brown trout, a very small population of sea trout and a few Atlantic salmon to target. I will split this information into 4 sections to cover the vast majority of my fly fishing needs.
I will start with my my basic leader for wet fly on the lough. Lots of lough anglers, and certainly most of the completion lads, have long ago switched from nylon to fluorocarbon for leader material. The main benefit is the increase in breaking strain for the same diameter and for this reason alone I like to use fluorocarbon for my trout leaders when chasing brownies.
My typical lough style leader will consist of a heavy nylon butt, some 12 inches long, made from 15 pound nylon and attached to a small loop in the end of the fly line with a loop. Blood knotted on to the butt will be another foot of ten pound breaking strain nylon. That couple of feet of heavy nylon stays there and I change the leader itself by blood knotting on new lengths of fluorocarbon, usually 9.5 pound breaking strain Riverge. I make my droppers by cutting the fluorocarbon and then re-joining it using a double blood knot, leaving a long tag end which forms the dropper. I like to have my droppers around 6 inches long. When a leader gets damaged or the droppers become too short I snip off the whole fluorocarbon part and replace it with a new leader.
I am too lazy to make up specific leaders for the dry fly when I am on the boat, I just use a wet fly leader and tie on a pair of dries.
On the river I use a wide range of different set ups. As for the lough set up, my basic principle is to have a heavy butt attached to the end of the fly line with a ‘sacrificial’ length of lower diameter which I cut into each time I change the leader. This saves me messing around with the heavy butt section too often. I have been experimenting with tapered butts for a long time now and while I find them useful for sinking lines for salmon I am less impressed with them on floaters for trout fishing. I have also tried some of the specialist nymphing tapered leaders but I find them too soft for my own preference.
The same butt set up as I use for the loughs (see above) works fine for me, maybe just a few inches shorter is better when I am fishing on small streams or at close quarters. That butt section stays attached to the fly line all the time.
- Wet fly leader: six feet of 4 pound nylon with three feet of three pound nylon as a tippet. Droppers made by using the tag ends of double blood knots.
- Dry fly: Due to the generally higher air resistance I use six pound nylon for the main body of the leader and blood knot on a tippet of fluorocarbon. Breaking strain will depend on where I am fishing and the likely size of any trout there.
- Night time leader: The only leaders I carry which are made up before I go fishing are a couple of heavy (6 pound breaking strain) leaders armed with one dropper. I even have the flies tied on so I don’t have to do this in the dark. These leaders are for summer nights when the fish are chasing sedges. It is just too hard to make up a leader from scratch in the dark so I do this beforehand then simply snip off the old leader and knot the heavy one on.
- Nymphing set up: Once again, I like to keep this as simple as possible. I don’t need to use excessively heavy nymphs as I don’t fish very deep and fast water. My main aim is to provide enough thickness and therefore stiffness in the leader to turn over the nymphs on short lines. I resort to straight lengths of fifteen pound fluorocarbon as this gives me the power I require. To step down to the tippet I use about 18 inches of that Riverge 9.5 pound which is always lurking in the dark recesses of my waistcoat pocket. Sounds way too heavy for hooking up with half pound trout? Yes and no would be my answer. You see the bottom of my local rivers are stony and snaggy and hooking the bottom happens far more often than hooking fish, so I have a bit of leeway when I need to pull and tug at the line to retrieve snagged flies.
Things change for me when I make up leaders deliberately for salmon on Beltra. We generally use largish flies on this lough and getting 3 meat hooks to cast properly in a high wind from a drifting boat means a switch back to nylon. I like something in or around 20 pound breaking strain and keep the leader to a maximum total length of 9 feet. I don’t think that salmon are line shy in four foot high waves.
On waters like Carrowmore lake where we fish much smaller flies and only in light winds I simply use the same leaders that I tie up for trout fishing from 9.5 pound breaking strain Grand Max Revenge.
On big rivers I stick to only one fly and the big question is do I use a straight through length of nylon about 9 feet long or do I add a sinking butt section. The decision will be based on water speed and depth and I usually carry a couple of sinking butts in a pocket with me when I am on a big river.
On smaller rivers and during grilse time I am perfectly happy with a 9 foot length of 10 pound breaking strain nylon loop-to-looped to the end of the fly line. It doesn’t get more simple than that yet it has worked for me my whole angling life so I ain’t about to change any time soon. I add a dropper when the grilse are around so I can fish a tiny wee fly as well as a ‘normal’ size 8 – 12 on the tail. I space the dropper about three feet up from the tail fly.
Now let’s turn to the vexed question of which brands to use. Over the years I have had pretty much every line let me down at some point. The early fluorocarbons were prone to snapping under even quite low strains if the load was applied suddenly. Thankfully this seems to have been ironed out but I still find that a good nylon is more forgiving and able to soak up more abrasion than more modern materials. So I carry both types of line with me in various breaking strains and diameters.
The market is flooded with different lines, each claiming to be better than the rival products as they are thinner/stronger/invisible to the fish. I guess you will have to make up your own minds about which to use. At the cheaper end of the market there may be some dodgy materials so I don’t mind spending money on the lines which I have experience of. Riverge is good in my opinion and I’ve used it for a good many season now. I have also used Frog Hair for years without complaint. Drennan sub-surface green has been a stalwart nylon for me too.
A quick word on attaching the leader to the fly line. I don’t know about you but this task used to create all manner of problems for me. I never took to braided butts which you slid over the line and were supposed to cling in place on their own. Dabbing superglue on these joints just made them stiff as pokers and I have seen them fail on a couple of occasions. I still have some older fly lines which I turned the end back on itself and whipped it into a small loop. That has worked fine for me over the years. Many modern fly lines are supplied with neat welded loops on the end, making the whole process of attaching the leader so much simpler.