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Hand Tying Fly Leaders

March 24th, 2008  •  By Troy Pearse  •  Fishing Tackle

The fly leader is the connection between your fly rod-and-line, and the fly. On a typical 40 foot cast the leader represents 25% of the distance between you and the fish. Having the right leader can help increase your fishing success. Tying your own leaders will help you cast your fly farther and with more accuracy, resulting in catching more fish!

Many people like to use "store-bought" leaders with a smooth continuous taper. Unfortunately these leaders aren't as effective at transmitting the energy from the fly line to the fly and the result is often casts that don’t turn over the fly very well. A properly constructed leader can be matched to the weight of your fly rod and will help turn over big flies such as grasshoppers as well as little tiny flies such as PMDs and midges. Hand tied leaders are also easier to repair and add new tippet. I find that I can use the same leader all year with a few repairs during the season. I also like nymphing with the hand-tied leader; snugging the strike indicator up to a knot, and putting split shot above a knot so it doesn’t slip.

Leaders are constructed of 3 sections: the butt, taper and tippet. The butt section should be made from stiff monofilament in order to transfer energy well. The butt section is 60% of the total length. The tippet is the section that presents the fly to the fish. It should be supple for good presentation. The taper is the section between the butt and the tippet, and it should be short. Whenever possible, do not connect monofilament pieces differing in diameter of more than 2/100ths of an inch (.02") as they will not transfer energy well and the knots are not as strong. Also, larger differences can cause a hinging effect when you cast. The diameter of the butt section of the leader should match the fly line weight (the butt section should be about 2/3rds the diameter of the fly line). Most leaders you buy in the store only match a 5 or 6 weight line. They don’t work well on a lighter line or a heavier line. A 3wt line should have a butt section of .018-.020; a 4wt .019-.021; a 5wt .020-.022; a 6wt .021-.023; a 7wt .022-.024; a 8wt. .023-.026 and a 9 wt .024-.027. For example the butt section of both the Orvis "SuperStrong" and Rio "Classic Hand Tied" 9’ 5x leader is .021. This works well for a 5wt, but not well for a 3wt.

The blood or barrel knot is typically used for the butt and taper sections. It takes some practice to tie well, but it is good because the line comes out evenly on each side of the knot. One tip for tying the blood knot is to use 3 wraps with heavier mono in the butt section and 4-5 wraps in the taper. The double surgeons knot is used for the tippet sections as it has greater strength. If you are tying 2 different brands of materials together (including fluorocarbon) use a triple surgeons knot for extra slip protection. And always wet the knots before drawing them tight to ensure the knots are tight and don’t heat up and weaken as they are tightened. This is especially important for fluorocarbon!! Pull the knots very-tight (you may want to wear work-gloves) and then trim the knots close. If you are concerned about the knots catching moss, you can put a thin coat of Loon KnotSense over them to help smooth them out.

There are 2 popular options for attaching the leader to the fly line. The first is to attach a section of butt material to the fly line using a nail knot. Then whenever a new leader is needed you attach it to the butt material using a blood knot. This way you don’t have to keep cutting pieces of fly line, and you don’t have to tie a nail knot out on the river! The second option is to use a loop-to-loop connection. Some fly lines have a loop on them. You can also tie a loop in the end of the piece of butt section that is attached to the fly line. Keep the loops small and use a perfection loop as it ties in a straight line (keep the loops small so they go through the guides easily). There are some braided loops you can buy and slip over the end of the fly line (but I don’t like them). Some people think the loops cause a hinging effect. I’m sure they aren’t as efficient as a straight knot, but they are convenient when you want to change to a new leader. One thing to keep in mind with the butt section attached to your fly line is to make sure that it is the right diameter and a stiff material. I’ve had fly shops put on a butt section that is too wimpy for my 8wt line and put on a butt section that is way too big on my 3wt line.

Tips to get the most out of your fly leader:

  1. Make sure to match the butt size of the leader to you fly line. A 3wt line should have a butt section of .018-.020; a 4wt .019-.021; a 5wt .020-.022; a 6wt .021-.023; a 7wt .022-.024; a 8wt. .023-.026 and a 9 wt .024-.027.
  2. Make sure to match your tippet size to the fly size. Don’t try to turn over a #4 steelhead fly with 4x tippet! Here’s a general rule of thumb for fly sizes. Keep in mind that if you weight your flies you may need to use a heavier tippet.
    1x -- #2 - #82x -- #4 - # 10
    3x -- #8 - #144x -- #12 - #16
    5x -- #14 - #186x -- #16 - #22
  3. Watch for wind knots in your leader. A wind knot reduces the breaking strength of your leader by 50%!
  4. Replace the tippet section after landing a large fish. Fine tippets get stretched out and abraded during the fight and will break much easier.
  5. If fish are refusing your fly, try reducing the tippet size.
  6. If the fly isn’t turning over then try reducing the tippet length and/or tippet size.
  7. If the tippet is breaking too easily then try moistening the knots more as you pull them tight. You also might consider replacing your spool of tippet material. I recommend replacing your 4x-8x tippet material every year or two as it looses strength. I like to write the purchase date on the spool to make sure it doesn’t get too old on me. Heavier leader spools don’t need to be replaced as often.
  8. Practice tying knots at home so you can tie a good, quick knot on the river.

Below are 4 formulas for leaders. The first is a general one for trout. It is about 10 feet and tapers to 4X, which is good for fly sizes 12 to 16. If you want to tie on a 18 or 20 you should add some 5X tippet. When doing this I like to cut back the 4x section to be 8 to 12 inches or so, and then add 18-24 inches of the 5X. The second leader is a 6X leader for a 3 or 4 weight line and is good for fishing smaller flies. The third leader is a stouter leader that is good for throwing hoppers and stoneflies. (If you want you can also cut back the general trout leader and add some 2X tippet since you know the taper!). The fourth leader is a steelhead leader which is good at turning over big flies and in windy conditions. The trout leader formulas are out of the Dennison Leader Making Kit and are considered the "Orvis" leader formula. The Steelhead leader formula is a Kauffman formula out of a Scott Richmond book on fishing the Deschutes river. Note that sometimes the tippet sizes you can find don’t match the sizes in the leader formulas. For example, some leaders call for the leader to start with a .021 butt section but Maxima Clear isn’t available in .021. So use the .022 instead. For more leader formulas, and more info on tying leaders, try the LeaderCalc spreadsheet available at

For the butt and taper sections I like to use Maxima Chameleon or Maxima Clear. They are stiff and tough. You can use Maxima Ultragreen if you like a slightly limper leader. For the tippet I like Rio PowerFlex mono. It is limp and strong. Orvis Super Strong is also good. A typical store-bought leader is about four dollars. A spool of Maxima leader material typically runs around $2.75. Tippet material runs about $3.75 a spool. Landing "The Big One"… PRICELESS!

General Trout Leader: 10’ 4X for 5/6 weight line.

Material   Leader Diameter   Section Length   Strength  
Rio.010" 1X6”13lb
Rio.008" 3X 12”8.2lb
Rio.007" 4X24”6.4lb

Light line leader: 6X for 3/4 weight line.

Material   Leader Diameter   Section Length   Strength  
Rio.010" 1X6”13lb
Rio.008" 3X6”8.2lb
Rio.007" 4X6”6.4lb
Rio.006" 5X8”5.0lb
Rio.006" 6X22”3.4lb

Hopper Leader: 2X for 5/6 weight line.

Material   Leader Diameter   Section Length   Strength  
Rio.010" 1X8”13lb
Rio.009" 2X20”10lb

Steelhead leader for 8/9/10 weight line.

Material   Leader Diameter   Section Length   Strength  

General Trout Leader: 10’ 4X for 5/6 line.

Assemble from butt section to tippet. Then add optional perfection loop if desired.

Knotted leader diagram

Views: 118922  •  Comments: 57


March 28th, 2008
Mike Walleye

Nice quality post Troy! Excellent content that I will use one day when I start fly fishing. Right now, most of all my fishing is around walleye. Once my two sons get older, we will all start fly fishing together.

You blog is now part of my blogroll ;)

July 23rd, 2008
Rick Setina

Nice post Troy. I just started tying my own leaders and the first ones I tied for my 4 wt and 2 wt rods turned over very nicely. My wife took a video of me casting and the 2 wt leader turned over well from what I could see. Thanks for the post and the formulas.
October 2nd, 2008
bifurcated monkey

that is some of the most thorough leader information i have ever seen. the post combined years of local knowledge, book information, and common sense all in one document. nice work. thanks for the info. and mike walleye, you can catch the walleye on the fly, it is tricky, but can be done. good fishing,
the monkey
May 2nd, 2009
Ed Witt

Thanks for the info on hand tying your own leaders. It was well written and easy to understand. Well done!
July 1st, 2009
Johnny Utah

Great article. I'm just wondering how come you use Rio tippets instead of just staying with maxima?
July 7th, 2009

Dittos on the clear, concise treatment of the topic. In my home river, mid-summer evenings present sometimes maddening opportunities to fish over micro-mayfly spinnerfalls. Accentrella, Seratella, Caenis cover a range of sizes from #22 all the way down to where TWO spinners must be imitated while tied end-to-end (head to head) on a #28, and there's room left over on the hookshank. I do not believe hooks are made small enough to tie a single imitation! Selective feeding (particularly to size) is quite common when the spinnerfall is heavy, but of course with a tremendous availability of food, the delivery of your fly has to be accurate, delicate, and have good/lucky timing. To avoid micro-drag in anything but the smoothest currents with tiniest patterns usually rules out 6x or even 7x; 8x and finer is often required. Even then getting a strike is challenging, and then hooksetting is also tough what with the small hook gaps involved. Some might understandably view such fishing as an affectation (I did, and sometimes still do) but like Everest its there... waiting to be conquered. Duping even a modest number of cautiously sipping trout in the season's characteristically low, clear water brings a unique sort of satisfaction.

My question: do you have any recommendations for leader/tippet formulas when the tippet might range as fine as 8, 9, or 10x?

While most observers offer spontaneous comments on how nicely I can cast (its a subject I teach, after all) I am finding that ultra-fine tippets are quite prone to tangles, whether or not the pattern itself happens to induce any twist when cast. It seems that the finest tippets will not always straighten completely on the backcast, and so when coming forward one or more of the knots can sometimes catch the tippet. Its no fun trying to untangle the spider web-like stuff in fast fading light, I can assure you! In most cases its faster to cut it all off and start over fresh.

Any/all thoughts or relevant experiences will be much appreciated.

'4u2 / Don
September 30th, 2009
Mike Rockenback

I'm having trouble with my 7'6" full flex Orvis 3 wt, turning over flies ranging from 14 to 26; tying my own, with butts .021 down to 005 and 6. I can readily tie a blood knot but have been using doub. surg. (faster) with knot sense. should I be gunning for a shorter leader? I've tied everything from 7 to 10 feet. thanks
July 13th, 2010

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Some might understandably view such fishing as an affectation (I did, and sometimes still do) but like Everest its there... waiting to be conquered.
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Okay, so that explains it! With your tips, I can finally see some success with fishing. I used to hate fishing because I felt that the fishes didn't like me, but maybe it was simply caused by using store-bought leaders.

Thanks for giving us the details on the right way to hand tie leaders.
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