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Building a Tapered Leader

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Today there are more choices than ever when it comes to tapered leaders and I think most people are content to use the manufactured, knot-less variety. But, as with fly tying, there’s a good bit of satisfaction and knowledge to be gained by building your own. I learned to tie tapered leaders when I purchased an Orvis leader-tying kit some 30 years ago. I keep the kit around for sentimental reasons and still use some of the leader formulas that came with it. Nowadays, you don’t have to buy a dedicated kit, although there are some available. You simply purchase spools of leader material in different diameters and tests, do a little web research to find some well-established formulas and then have at it.

Here’s a fairly easy-to-assemble 10’ 4X tapered leader that works well for early season, high water fishing with a 5 or 6 weight rod. It’s heavy butt section allows it to turn over well, even when throwing weighted nymph rigs and large streamers.

Most all tapered leaders are built based on a 60/20/20 ratio. In terms of length, this means the leader will be 60% butt section, 20% midsection and another 20% tippet section. So, for this 10’ leader, we’re going to have a butt section 6 feet long, connected to a midsection 2 feet long, which, in turn, connects to a tippet section approximately 2 feet long.

To build the leader, you’re going to need a yardstick or a tape measure and nippers capable of cutting heavy mono, clean and close. Toenail clippers with lots of leverage and straight-edged blades work remarkably well. For leader material, fairly stiff Maxima Chameleon is used for the butt section. It’s formed by joining 4 feet of 30 lb test to 2 feet of 20 lb test. This butt section will then be attached to the midsection formed by joining 1 foot of 15 lb test to 1 foot of 8 lb test. Here, however, we’ll use slightly limper Maxima Ultragreen. The tippet section also uses Ultragreen and is formed by joining 1 foot of 6 lb test to 14 to 18 inches of 4 lb test or 4X leader material.

I find it easier to do all the measuring and cutting to length at once for the different leader pieces. I cut every segment approximately three inches longer than is called for, to allow for the extra material needed to tie blood knots, and to leave tags about an inch long that will be cut off after the knot is seated. Placing the cut material next to the spool it came from will identify it. If you ever lose track, a leader gauge, which measures diameter, will help to determine which spool it came from.

Procedurally, I start with the heavier butt material first, then work my way smaller and cut the thinnest tippet material last. Once you have all the segments cut to the correct length and laid out with their corresponding spool, it’s time to begin the building or tying process.

Get hold of the 4 foot long piece of 30 lb Chameleon. On one end, tie a perfection loop. It’s important this particular knot be seated very well, especially when using heavy mono. Snip the tag end off, but not too close. The loop allows the butt end of the leader to be attached via a loop-to-loop connection to the loop on your fly line. As a result, leader changes are easy, as compared to re nail-knotting your leader to the fly line every time. If hinging is a problem for you, by all means use the nail knot method.

Pick up the segment of 20 lb test and cross it over the non-loop end of the first segment in preparation for tying a blood knot with 3 turns on either side. Make sure to lubricate the knot well with saliva before firmly seating it. Your blood knot might look a little uneven, like this, because it’s a fairly large jump in diameter from 30 lb down to 20. But the knot will be plenty strong even after you snip both tag ends off flush. With the two segments joined, you’ve completed the butt section of the leader.

Get hold of the 15 lb mono and, with a blood knot, attach it to the butt section. As a habit, I like to bring the tag end of the left side of the blood knot from back to front, and the tag end on the right, from front to back. When stepping from 20 lb Chameleon down to 15 lb Ultragreen, 4 turns on either side of the knot works well. Again, it’s important the knot be lubricated in order to seat correctly. Continue building the rest of the leader, segment by segment, in the same manner, finally attaching the length of 4X tippet to the 6 lb test to form the whole tippet section.

Blood knotting this final segment on, means you need to cut back into the previous segment and tie another blood knot every time you replace your tippet. As an alternative, you can use a tippet ring and improved clinch knots to secure the 4X tippet to the rest of the leader. This way, there’s no cutting back, just snip the tippet knot and tie on a new length.

With your tapered leader complete, starting at the tippet end, coil it around the four fingers of your left hand. When you reach the butt end, loop it around the coil five times. Post-it notes, with the sticky edge folded over, work well for identifying different leaders, as they all look about the same once they’re coiled. Small resealable bags, available at craft stores, are great for keeping leaders protected and organized. Don’t be afraid to experiment with a variety of leader formulas. Oftentimes, changing your leader to suit the conditions can make all the difference in the world.

When you go to use one of your leaders, take it out of the bag and insert the fingers of your left hand into the coil, like so. Get hold of the loop end and count to remove the five turns holding the coil together. This will allow the rest of the leader, including the delicate tippet, to come off your fingers smoothly, without tangling.

Building your own tapered leaders isn’t for everyone, but it’s one of those things that all fly fisherman really should know how to do.