Fifty Fly Fishing Tips: #15 — Tie custom leaders — Here’s why

by | Nov 5, 2017 | 14 comments

I started tying my own leaders when the small streams I fished required something different than what I could find in the fly shop. I needed a short, punchy leader to carry a #12 Royal Wulff back into the brush and yet somehow land with enough slack for a short dead drift on the shadowy surface. I still have the 1991 Charles Meck book, “Fishing Small Streams with a Fly Rod,” and if allowed to open naturally, the paperback binding on my well-used copy falls open to the page about leader formulas. That’s where I got my start — tying those 5-7 foot leaders, and learning to make the adjustments.

These days I mostly fish larger waters with the Mono Rig, and I tie a 26 foot leader in about five sections. Oh, I’ve certainly used manufactured, extruded, tapered leaders through the years, but I’m never satisfied. So I keep tying all my own leaders, both short and long ones.

There’s really not much to it. And once you dial in your own preferences and adjustments to a leader formula, you won’t tie many leaders each season. But finding those variations is half the fun.

Here are three great reasons for rolling your own.

Fit the situation

With a manufactured leader, all you really adjust is the tippet section. Sometimes that’s enough, but too often you end up making do with a leader that isn’t right for the water in front of you.

Consider the small streams I mentioned earlier; I have more control and confidence when fishing my own small stream leader. Most off-the-shelf leaders are over-sized for the backcountry streams — they’re too thick and too long. Sure, I can shorten the butt section and trim the tippet section, but I can’t adjust the taper, and in most cases, the tapered section is too long for a tight, rhododendron choked brookie stream that’s six feet wide.

In such places, I often adapt my hand-tied leader to match the conditions. I might keep the tippet section, but trim the tapered section, just enough to condense the whole thing to under six feet.

Likewise, I make the same type of adjustments to my standard dry fly leaders, nymphing leaders and streamer leaders. Whatever the case, whatever the water before me requires, I can lengthen, shorten and modify the leader to precisely match the situation.

READ: Dry flies need slack — So give it to ‘em, George Harvey style.

The skills to adapt

I’m not suggesting that you tie your own leaders from scratch on the stream. No. Tie them at home, and occasionally modify them onstream, when needed.

But tying those blood knots and double surgeon’s knots over and over, clipping, wrapping and twisting the monofilament gives your fingers a chance to learn the habit of tying knots. And when it comes time make onstream adjustments, when you need to shorten the 3X section, you won’t hesitate in front of a pod of rising trout feeding in the waning light of dusk. You won’t waste time.

Tying your own leaders gives you the skills to adapt.

Thinner butt sections

From George Harvey, I learned that the butt section of a leader should match the flexibility of the fly line it’s attached to, and not the diameter. I couldn’t agree more.

Most manufactured leaders are designed with butt sections around .024” -.020”, roughly matching the diameter of our trout fly lines. But those thick mono butt sections are far stiffer than my fly lines. I prefer to start my leaders with butt sections of .017” Maxima Chameleon since it’s a much closer match to the flexibility of the 3-6 weight fly lines that I commonly use. To me, the difference is extraordinary.

Do it

I encourage you to seek out leader formulas that fit your own situations. Don’t accept whatever comes off the wall at the fly shop. Instead, buy a few spools of Maxima Chameleon and start tying your own leaders.

My point here is not to give you specific leader formulas. You can find those in many other articles and books, and you’ll adapt them to fit your own situations. And you don’t have to use Maxima Chameleon either.

That said, I’m happy to share my own preferences.

You can find my favorite dry fly leader here.

I use the Mono Rig for most of my nymphing and much of my streamer fishing, and that formula is found here.

Tying your own leaders is well worth the time invested. A leader designed for your own specific purposes puts you in more control of the outcome. And tying your own leaders is another aspect of fly fishing that draws you deeper into the game.

Fish hard, friends.

Enjoy the day
Domenick Swentosky

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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  1. I assume you use the standard Blood knot or Surgeon’s Knot for tying up your leaders.
    You might want to try the Infinity Tippet Knot. It is easier, faster, cleaner, and just as strong I(if not stronger) than the Big 2. Not quite as pretty as a good Blood Knot but well worth a look. Don’t let tradition stand in your way, this new knot is an absolute game-changer, especially under actual fishing conditions (tired, cold fingers, wind, buck fever, etc.) Cheers!

    • Thanks for the tip, Rick.

      For my purposes, I’ll stick with the blood knot and the double surgeon’s. With all due respect, I don’t know how the infinity could be considered cleaner than the blood knot. That’s why I stay with blood knots for all the upper and middle sections of my leader, because I don’t think anything out there forms as much of a clean, streamlined knot. That’s super important to me for the times when my leader does get into the guides of my fly rod.

      I could see using the infinity for the tippet sections, but I don’t see how it’s easier than a double surgeon’s either.

      In fact, my favorite knot for the tippet section is the Orvis Tippet Knot. I like the angle and the way the upper tag finishes — I use it for droppers.

      Thanks again, for the input, though. The important thing, of course, is to comfortable tying whatever you choose.


      • Interesting. I, too, use the Orvis Tippet Knot (forceps hack), but I’ve never tried the top dropper. Do you find it tends to tangle less?

  2. Since you led off the discussion with the 5-7 ft leaders for small stream fishing, any chance you could share your favorite formula in that category? You have us the dry fly formula, and the mono rig. Complete the presentation with your favorite short small stream leader. Enquiring minds want to know.

  3. Great article! I started tying my own leaders about a year ago and wonder how I fished all those years with extruded tapered leaders. I have been tying Borger uni body style leaders lately and love the simplicity.

  4. Would you have a template for a cardboard leader disc . . .

    • Hi Jack.

      Nah, I wouldn’t try to make one from cardboard. Whatever you take on the river eventually gets wet, so no cardbaord.

      I roll my leaders onto empty Maxima spools. Or I use Sea Striker 4 inch leader wheels. Look those up. They are just about perfect.



  5. Hey Domenick,

    I’ve got a stupid question that I haven’t quite been able to understand – what exactly is the advantage of tapering your mono rig from butt section to the tippet section. I’ve played around with many styles of leader, and I’ve seen from your posts that you do a system of decreasing types of Chameleon or Amnesia up to your tippet section. Out of laziness and to reduce knots in the leader (which I always struggle with getting hung up on my guides), I’ve wondered why not just use a long, flat piece of Maxima (maybe like 20-30 feet) up to a tippet ring, then the sighter, followed by another tippet ring and the tippet itself. I fish a lot of heavier nymphs so I imagine turning this rig over wouldn’t be too difficult, although potentially there would be problems with lighter flies? Anyhoo, just curious as to your thoughts on simplifying down a leader like this.

    • Good thoughts, Noel.

      The purpose of any leader taper is to dissipate the power in the presentation and to evenly pass on the loops and curves formed in the leader to the tippet, landing the fly with accuracy. Those same principles hold with a Mono Rig. Without the taper, casting is a little clumsy. I’ve tried it.

      Also, and just as important, all material sags off the rod tip. Fly line sags a lot; 20 lb Chameleon sags some, and 10lb Gold Stren sags less. The thinner materials of the transition and the sighter — the taper — results in having thinner lines out of the guides. Less sag equals less drag.

      Make sense?



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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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