Photograph by Steve Barnett

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Leader linguistics, tippet talk and tips...

...or Casts? What’s the point?

The English language is a clever thing. It absorbs words and expressions from any source if they are useful. English in the world of dry fly fishing is no exception. The old names we English used to use for naming the connection between the fly line and the fly were “Cast” and “Point”. Today, almost without exception, the American names are used. We now refer to the “Cast” as the “Leader” (the bit attached to the fly line) and the “Point” as the “Tippet” (the bit on the end that attaches to the fly). This is a most satisfactory arrangement with no ambiguity and a greatly reduced potential for confusion.

It will certainly help when explaining some of the ways you can fiddle about with the connection between your fly line and the fly...

Perennial questions about leaders on the fora and at winter club night talks include:

How long should my leader be? How long should my tippet be?
What’s the best way to tie it onto my fly line?
Shop bought tapered leader or build it myself? What knot? What material?
Best way to attach with a braided loop?
Furled leaders are best, right?

Before any of these questions are answered, let’s get the ground rules clear. All these answers below relate entirely to dry fly fishing in moving water courses. Not still waters and not anything but dry fly fishing!

Q. How long should my leader be? How long should my tippet be?
It depends!

There is no correct length to suit all conditions. However, a well constructed leader is remarkably easy to manage in lengths that many folk would say were “long”. A short leader is anything less than the length of the rod you are using. On some windy days you may be forced to use such a leader to have any chance of banging it out into the teeth of the gale. In normal conditions a leader that keeps the fly well away from the fly line is best. This usually means a leader between 12 and 20 feet long, including the tippet. This is only a guide. You may be fishing in conditions that force you to use a much shorter leader. On some windy days, when logic usually dictates a shorter leader, you may be better off with a much, much longer leader that simply fails to turn over in the headwinds! Certain fish that, on normal days, are impregnable can be tricked into making that mistake you are hoping for.

Click on the drawing to enlarge it
Can you work out what is happening here? What would happen with a cast to the fish using a “normal” leader that turned over perfectly?

Q. What’s the best way to tie it onto my fly line?

This causes all sorts of friendly argument on the fora. Remember these answers are specifically for DRY FLY fishing. We are not concerned with quickly taking off the leader to change from dry to wet with a team of droppers. We also need to be able to go from short to very long and still be able to manage the whole contraption with aplomb!

The ideal method has to be strong, slip through the guides easily without jamming (a 20 foot leader will force this upon you) and it must not cause a “hinge” effect through being less stiff than the fly line and the leader. A hinge renders delicate presentation almost unachievable!

This is why I use the needle knot to attach the (sacrificial) butt, which I make out of a yard or so of 22lbs nylon monofilament. This is thick enough to make a very shallow step down in taper from the end of the fly line and stiff enough to ensure no hinge effect when the leader turns over.

Q. Shop bought tapered leader or build it myself? What knot? What material?
You will be dry fly fishing in a variety of conditions. You will be changing the tippet from thick to thin to very thin to suit the size of fly you need for the circumstances at the time. The widest range of choices is what will meet your requirements best. So my recommendation is to build leaders yourself, using the best knots and the best materials.

For example:
Tie on the 22lbs BS nylon monofilament butt using the needle knot as above.  It should look like this when tightened.

Use the four turn water knot to tie on one or two yards of 15lbs BS nylon monofilament.
Tie on a tippet of a yard or two of 3x co-polymer monofilament.
That’s made a leader of from three to five yards suitable for attaching big flies.
For smaller flies, halve the 3x and tie on a two yard tippet of co-polymer of 5x, 6x or 7x.

You now have a basis on which to experiment. You are also able to simply rebuild the leader if you have a tangling incident that is beyond reasonable hope of restoration!

Q. Best way to attach with a braided loop?
Don’t! They hinge the link between fly line and leader. They come off at very inopportune moments. They slurp the water about when you pick the line off the water to recast. They throw a lot of spray on the surface when you false cast with them.

Q. Furled leaders are best, right?
Well they are lovely looking things and they turn over beautifully but they make the same disturbances that braided loops make. It is possible to make them land gently but it is harder to do so than with leaders built of monofilament lengths.

The simple method above has proved to be best. It gives you all the flexibility you will ever need. You become self sufficient. All you need are a few spools of monofilament and knowledge of the knots.

What say you?

Regular Rod


There is a stronger knot for joining two lengths of line together than the four-turn water knot.  It is the figure of eight knot and I am indebted to Steve Kale for his persistent defence of this knot made me re-examine it and test it against the four-turn water knot.  He was right.  It is stronger and I will be using it from now on.  This blogpost and video shows you how to tie the figure-of-eight knot to join two pieces of line together.  If you prefer the four-turn water knot that is fine but there is a stronger knot and that is the "figure-of-eight" knot.


  1. I find this most interesting. Being rather new to fly fishing, I naturally bought braided loops. I can now understand the shortcomings of these braided loops and can also see the obvious advantage of the needle knot when having to wind the leader past your rod tip when playing a fish.
    I will certainly give it a try.
    Just a couple of questions:
    Why is it necessary to heat the needle and for how long?
    Could I use a loop to loop connection for the tippet as this is the length that gets shorter as you change flies. I find I need to replace this quite often. If not a good idea, what do you do when replacing a tippet?
    Another most helpful piece of info. Thank you.

  2. When you have heated the needle just long enough for the end of the fly line, with the needle through it, to begin to "writhe" a little. Stop heating the needle and pull it out with pliers. The hole will now be glazed inside with a thin layer of melted fly line core. This makes it easy to push the 22lbs BS monofilament through the hole.

    Don't use loop to loop for any part of a dry fly leader set up. Especially the tippet to leader joint. This joint has to be as strong as possible and the four turn water knot is stronger than any other for the job.

    Changing and replacing the tippet frequently is normal. It is best to do this rather than fish on with a damaged tippet, or one that has become too short through changing flies, or needs upgrading because you are putting on a big fly like a sedge or daddy-long-legs.

    The leader set up described above may all need replacing more than once during a busy day. The sacrificial butt of 22lbs BS nylon monofilament can be used over and over again and again, until it has been shortened to about half its original length. This takes more than a full season to happen. If you replace the butt once a year you will cut off a tiny bit of fly line each time and make the new (heated) hole. The line will have worn out before the shortening will have any negative effect on its performance.

    I'm glad this blog is helping you and thank you for your feedback, comments and questions.

    Regular Rod

  3. I'm really struggling with this needle knot. Can't get the needle through the line. Can easily do a nail knot which will achieve turnover but seems 'snaggy' in my rings. HELP!

  4. You only need to get it into the line about 5mm. Try twisting the needle round like a drill as you push it into the end of the fly line. What fly line is it? Does it have a braided core or is it a monofilament core?

    Regular Rod

  5. I think the core might be the problem.
    Can you recommend a good line for the Wye?
    The one I have used this season so far is a cheapo with lots of memory.
    I use a #4 rod. Double or forward taper?

  6. Hullo. Not that I am expert by any means. However, I use a tapered leader which I change at every fishing trip adding tippet on as conditions dicate. In my case, at the insistence of a wye river keeper. However, needle knots can be a bit of a pain so I use this one:
    It works quite well, and you can add a bit of waterproof, yet not melting glue to make it even smoother through your rings. It's not as nice as a needle knot but it helps ham fisted horrors like myself along a bit.


  7. Lion Tamer, can you hang on a couple of months before replacing your line? There could be something to your advantage in waiting...

  8. Polly, if you give the needle knot a proper trial, you will soon find it is quite an easy knot to do. My first attempts were messy. But after a bit of trial and error it became almost second nature.

  9. Regular Rod,
    I will hang on.
    I've been on a lake today and tried out the inferior but easier nail knot with a tapered leader. (I do not have mono in the sizes that you recommend at the moment but will get some). The difference amazed me. I never thought of the hinging effect before but after reading your explanation, the dynamics of it are plainly obvious. The needle knot is obviously preferable as the leader comes from the centre of the fly line; so neater and less chance of a snag. I will practise on some old line until I get it right. And I will!
    PS I tend to work in line diameter rather than breaking strain because of different manufacturers claims and wondered what make of monofilament you use.
    Kindest regards

  10. Tony, the butt I make out of Bayer Perlon 22lbs BS, the mid-section out of Maxima Chameleon 15lbs BS, and the tippets I make out of Rio Powerflex or Suppleflex (but if Daiwa ever bring Super Shinobi out again I will go back to it).

    Regular Rod

  11. Hi RR
    I cracked it in the end. The knot is virtually impossible with cheap Far Eastern lines. The 'core' if it exists is so difficult to penetrate. I have learned a lesson here.
    Tried it on a Sparton streaker (a British made Shakey line no longer made I fear) and the needle went through first time.
    Interestingly, having once threaded, I tie the knot in a different way to you, although it ends up identical! I find my way more easy to control probably because I am left handed but cast, bat and drum right handed!
    Far,far superior to the nail knot. So inline and so smooth.
    Have used a 20lb Shakespeare sea line 0.40mm as I could not find Bayer in the size you suggested. Have bought 15Lb Maxima as you recommended.I may experiment with tippets but Airflo flourocarbon has never ever let me down. I have used Stroft but don't trust the stuff in smaller diameters.
    I can't thank you enough, and I don't think there is any need for braided loops on reserviors either. Just take two rods!

    You must write a book!

  12. Rod, just to clarify, are you saying (roughly) 22lb, then 15lb, and then i could add something very thin like 7x ? Is turnover of a size 18/29 fly ok with this?

    Incidentally, i ditched the loop today and nail knotted my leader direct to the line. Had a good morning's fishing - so thanks again.

    But can you clarify re the 6x/7x , and perhaps how long this thin tippet can/should be ?

    I'm an average caster, maybe better. River fishing only....

  13. Yes Spider. The 22lbs BS is the sacrificial butt, with the 15lbs BS that is four turn water knotted to it. Together they make the butt- and mid-section of the leader. To the 15lb BS line you attach what could be the tippet.

    The biggest step down from the 15lbs BS for me is to 5x in one go but normally 3x would be the thickness to tie to the 15lbs BS. If the fly was as small as you indicate then 6x or 7x would be tied to the 3x. The length of it is determined by the conditions. This can be anything from a couple of feet for casting into a violent headwind, a couple of yards for normal conditions, or three or four yards if you want the leader to NOT turnover and for the fly to fall back as in the crude drawing near the top of this post. (Click on it to enlarge it for a better view).

    Regular Rod

  14. Up to now I've always used braided loops to attach line to leader - NOT ANY MORE!! Used your formula, attaching butt with your knot or nail knot. What turnover! Casting, I'm glad to say, will never be the same again. Many thanks

  15. The pleasure is mine. Thank YOU for your feedback!

  16. Great tip and looking forward to giving it a go, keep the tips coming. Thanks.

  17. Great tips, but cannot find 22lb Bayer Perlon anywhere. What else (floating monofilament) do you recommend?

  18. Yes, this season I have found the same problem. However, I have been using another line that is absolutely ideal. If anything it is better than the old Bayer Perlon. It is Ghost Line by Profish 0.4 mm diameter, 22lbs and it comes in a 275 yards spool for £3.99. It is a clear line and is very supple. It knots beautifully for such a thick line and it is excellent for the butt section of the leader.

    If you are in the UK and cannot find it, mine came from Country Stores, telephone number 01792 875050.

  19. Can you tell me. If I was using a 3wt DT3F line what would be the starting mono to get to 3lb tippet. 22lb would be to thick to start with, would you start at the 15lb and then 8lb, something like that?


    1. Hi Ian

      The WF3F 'EXPERT' Dry Fly Lines have a tip diameter of 0.83 - 0.85mm. The Ghost Line by Profish at 22lbs BS is 0.4mm diameter. Cut the 22lbs mono at an angle and you get a point on it the same shape as the point on a hyperdermic needle. Follow the directions for making a needle knot and you will find it is reasonably straightforward to use the 22lbs as described. It will slide in through the hole left by the heated needle. (You don't need to heat the needle for long.)

      The stiffer 22lbs monofilament will make the turn over much better than using 15lbs at the start.

      The leader could go: 22lbs 1 yard; 15lbs 2 yards; 3x (8lbs) 18 inches; 3lbs 1.5 yards.

      If you want a shorter leader then you could go: 22lbs 1 yard; 15lbs 1 yard; 8lbs 12 inches; 3lbs 1 yard.

      Another way for a short leader is to go: 22lbs 1 yard; 15 lbs; 1 yard; 5lbs (5x) 1 yard.

      But experiment as sometimes a longer leader is very much better for the reasons touched on above.

      Regular Rod

  20. I have bought 22lb line and 15lb line but didn't check the diameter. The 22lb line is 0.35 and the 15lb line is 0.40. A lesson to be learnt do not rely on poundage lol... I also bought cheap mill end line to practice on before placing it on my expensive line. Your fly tying SBS's are great many thanks for a very informative website

    1. Oh Ian what a blessed nuisance about the line diameters!

      If the 15lbs line at 0.4 is stiffer than the 22lbs line then I would use that. Strength is not the important thing here, stiffness is.

      0.40mm is awfully thick for 15lbs monofilament. Comparing the two lines side by side, which is the thicker? Sometimes the labelling is not accurate on some brands.

      Regular Rod

  21. I'm pretty much a confirmed Hardy tapered leader devotee, however I'm about to take the plunge and tie up a couple of 'home mades' following your recipe to the letter. First hurdle to negotiate is where to find the Bayer Perlon in 22lb. breaking strain. A link to a spool would be very much appreciated RR. Thank you in advance,
    Tim at 16:15

  22. I like 22lbs 0.40mm Ghostline from Profish, it's very supple, but any monofilament about 0.40mm will be fine.

  23. I've tried Ghost line and had some issues with memory. I've found is Amnesia is much better and any memory is soon lost by a simple stretch of the line.

  24. I have previously used a furled leader attached using a mincom and found frustration with the mincom not running through the rings, constantly having to pull it through manually. Using a leader made to your spec and attached with a needle knot has overcome this. It works OK with a single fly but tangles when trying duo, but you did say it was just for dry fly.

    Thanks for some interesting and thought provoking posts.


  25. Billie Trouters8 August 2017 at 12:01

    Hi Regular Rod,

    After reading a bit here I decided to go down the route of building my own knotted tapered leaders.

    I went to the effort of making a very nice and neat needle knot which certainly does seem better than the standard nail knot that I was using. I attached a 22lbs butt section to my fly line and then stepped down to 15lbs and then 6lbs to which I'd tie a tippet ring so I can make the remaining tippet as long or short as I like, without cutting into the DIY leader.

    I fail to see the advantage of this when compared to knotless tapered leaders. Knotting heavy monofilaments together creates horrible clunky knots on the leader for a start and as far as I can see will be good at catching weed + rod rings etc. Is this the case?

    I much prefer the idea of a needle knot -> knotless tapered leader -> tippet ring. This way unless something goes horribly wrong the leader should last ages.

    Anyway, I'll give what I've put together a chance but how are multiple big knots down your leader preferable to a nice smooth taper?

    1. Hi Billy Trouters

      You will be surprised at how little trouble you get with the knots in the leader. The figure eight, or the four turn water knots, tighten down to quite small sizes. The occasional need to shake the rod when pulling the leader back out through the rod rings, if a knot catches at all, is worth putting up with, to gain the advantages of leaders that you make up yourself to meet the specific requirements of your fishing in whatever conditions you face on each fishing day.

      It is worth being prepared to not have a leader that you hope to preserve for as long as possible. By being ready to alter the leader several times a day you can always have the ideal set up for any changes in conditions that you come across.

      Tippet rings add a needless failure point compared to simply tying the tippet to the leader with a single knot. Also knots that are designed for joining leader materials are stronger than knots designed for attaching a ring, such as a tippet ring or hook eye.

      Cut into that "DIY leader", it's a consumable. The more frequently you do so, the more fresh the materials in your leader are, so the risks of failure caused by abrasion, wind knots and such are reduced.

      Persevere, dry fly fishing makes you fish in such a variety of places and conditions that having full control over your leader set up makes a really worthwhile difference to your chances of success on the day.


  26. Billie Trouters8 August 2017 at 18:00

    Cheers Rod, I'll definitely give these leaders a go anyway. Glad to hear the knots don't cause much of an issue.

    I've cracked the needle knot and figure of 8 knot thanks to this website anyway, which I'm very grateful for :) It is nice to know that if anything does go horribly wrong I have all the tools at my disposal to make a brand new leader.