Dry Fly Fishing — The George Harvey Leader Design

by | Jul 21, 2019 | 36 comments

Summer is my favorite time of the year to throw dry flies. While I do spend many spring trips casting dries during the major hatches of the East, I also enjoy excellent nymphing action all through those wet months. So I fish a lot of dry dropper from April to June. And I often tight line nymphs right through a good hatch.

But about the time most of the mayflies are finished, when the leaves turn a deep green and the vegetation on watery rocks starts to match, I wholeheartedly enjoy prospecting my rivers with ant patterns and small caddis. It’s a game of casting accuracy and exploration, of covering water and tucking a dry fly into some shady corner pocket with a just a little slack behind it. And for a while, nothing in life is finer.

So, now is a good time to start the dry fly series I’ve been working toward. If you’re a Troutbitten regular, you clearly understand my preference for underwater presentations. And yes, nymphs, wets and streamers are my default approach for most of the trout waters I visit. Because day to day, those flies catch more trout.

But I spent my first decade with a fly rod doing the opposite. I fished dries as a first option and threw nymphs only when the dries failed. I fished a lot of small wild trout streams back then. So my casting style developed with a short, compact stroke — with speed and tight loops for accuracy.

And from the beginning, I was lucky. My only fly fishing mentor — the local fly shop owner — directed me to George Harvey’s book, Techniques for Fly Fishing and Fly Tying. Joe Humphreys’, Trout Tactics came to my hands shortly thereafter, and with those texts together, I had all I needed to learn trout fishing on a fly rod.

Dry flies were my first love.

I don’t believe I ever bought an extruded, knotless leader back then. I tied my own leaders from the beginning, with blood knots and nippers under the bright bulb of my tying desk. Only later did I learn how critical the Harvey leader design was to my early success.

Because, for dry fly fishing, nothing is more important than the leader.

Another Article

A while back, I wrote an article for Hatch magazine, where I laid out many of these same ideas in a different design. If you check that one out, you’ll notice how the formula I prefer now is slightly adjusted from the one I used then.

That’s fishing. Give an avid angler a couple years, and things are bound to change. My preferences shifted because my needs changed, if just a bit.

I’ll get to the formulas below. But first, here’s a rundown on why the George Harvey dry fly leader design is so special — how it’s constructed and why it works.

Slack where you want it

Harvey leaders are designed to land in s-curves. Those swirls, arcs and circles in the leader are absolutely vital for a dead drift. As the fly travels downstream, the s-curves unfold to lend a little slack to the fly. Without some curves to feed naturally into the drift, a dry fly drags immediately.

The dry fly angler must understand the goal of his cast — land the fly with some slack in the leader behind it. And do not straighten the leader on the water’s surface.

(There’s an excellent way to achieve this. I call it the Stop and Drop.)

READ: Troutbitten | Dry Fly Fishing — The Stop and Drop

The Harvey leader is designed more to this purpose than any other leader I’ve used. When properly cast, the thicker back half of the leader lands with soft curves, and the thinner front half of the leader lands with circles and swirls. The whole leader, then, is in a position to feed slack to the dry.

How’s that?

The George Harvey dry fly leader is designed with a much lighter butt section than other standard leaders. Essentially, some of the power in the fly line is dissipated with the thinner materials. Standard leaders are designed to be multi-functional. They are designed for turnover, to maximize power coming through the fly line and push the leader straight to the target. So their butt sections are thicker. But the Harvey design is different.

This is not to suggest that Harvey leaders don’t have power. Given a decent casting stroke, even beginners easily turn over the leader and send the dry fly to the destination. And advanced anglers — those with a little experience in pushing loops into monofilament — can make full use of the design, sending not just the fly its target, but easily landing the s-curves in just the right seam to accompany the dead drifting dry.

This is how a good cast with a dry fly lands on the water.

The Cast

In the near future, I’ll dig deeper into this. But for now, just know that a good forward cast starts with a good back cast. Accelerate and stop between two points (about 10:00 and 2:00). The hard stop on the forward cast is important. And after that crisp stop, the rod tip drifts down toward the water’s surface.

This is how the s-curves in the leader are created.

The Formulas

Below, I’ll list a couple leader recipes for George Harvey’s dry fly leaders. I’ll provide Harvey’s original, from his book Techniques for Fly Fishing and Fly Tying. And I’ll link to an article where, later in life, Harvey preferred a softer butt section.

I’ll also list my own favorite variation. Like many other anglers, I’ve tweaked the design for my situations, to match my own goals. You will do the same.

But I do recommend starting with one of these as a base. Don’t modify materials or lengths until you’ve gotten the cast for these leaders under your hands. Only then will you know what minor adjustments you prefer. And if you do change things, be open minded to the performance. Watch the leader and the fly. See if it does what you need.

George Harvey’s Original Dry Fly Leader

20” — .015” (15# Maxima Chameleon)
20” — .013” (12# Maxima Chameleon)
20” — .011 (10# Maxima Chameleon)
12” — .009 (6# Maxima Chameleon)
12” — 3X soft nylon tippet material
18” — 4X soft nylon tippet material
22–30” — 5X soft nylon tippet material

** Note ** Harvey calls for “hard nylon” in the butt section. I’m told he used Maxima Chameleon or Mason Hard Type Nylon. Chameleon does not offer a diameter in .011. But a micrometer reveals Maxima #10 to be pretty damn close.

George Harvey’s “New” Formula

Fly Fisherman magazine published an article in 2000, written by George Harvey. It’s an interesting read. Harvey reflects on the leader design, saying he believes it to be his most important contribution to the industry. And I tend to agree.

For the new formula, Harvey says, “I choose the softest leader material I can purchase.”

Of course, after coming across the article about a decade ago, I had to try it. So I used Maxima Ultra Green for the butt section. I also fooled around with some Stroft for the thicker sections.

After a few months of testing, I reverted back to using Maxima Chameleon for the butt section, and I still prefer it. Perhaps I simply developed my casting style to that leader over so many years. Or maybe the stiffer nylon really does allow me to push and manipulate the front half of the leader more directly, and place the most important s-curves leading to the dry fly exactly where I want them.

Either way, when cast correctly, the whole leader is designed to land with s-curves.

My Favorite Harvey-Style Leader

20” — 15# Maxima Chameleon
20” — 12# Maxima Chameleon
10” — 10# Maxima Chameleon
10” — 8# Maxima Chameleon
12” — 2X soft nylon tippet material (or 8# Gold Stren)
12” — 3X soft nylon tippet material
14” — 4X soft nylon tippet material
20-48” — 4X, 5X or 6X soft nylon tippet material (to match fly and conditions)

There is some diversion above from the formula I listed in the Hatch Magazine article a couple of years ago. Ironically, right after I wrote the piece and gave it to the editor, I started playing around with formulas again.

The main difference is that I’ve taken away the 20# piece, and I start the butt section with 15#. In truth, the 20# was there to do more work while nymphing, for those rare occasions where I would ask the dry fly leader to do a little more. By starting with 15#, I get a few more s-curves in the butt sections laying on the water, without losing much power.

The Knots

Blood knots should be used in the thicker diameters. To me, there’s no question about it. A well-tied blood knot is a tapered, streamlined joint. Clip the tags flush with the knot, and there’s no need for coating the junction with Knot Sense or anything similar.

For all the knots down to the 2x section, I use blood knots. Once I’m into the small diameters and the softer tippet material, I prefer double surgeon’s knots or Orvis tippet knots.

The Adjustments

In an upcoming article I’ll go over the tweaks — the minor and sometimes major adjustments needed to match the base Harvey leader design to different flies and river situations. Harvey addresses much of this himself in his excellent book. And because I’ve now used the leader for all my dry fly fishing and some nymphing scenarios for all my fly fishing life, I have my own preferences for adaptation.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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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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36 Comments

  1. Dom, let me start by complimenting you on your website. It is my favorite and has really helped me up my game. You do a great job of explaining the “why” behind everything and that greatly helps expand my ability to adapt and find solutions when the fishing gets tough. I have been using the George Harvey leader and it does a fantastic job of getting a few seconds of drag free drift even when putting a dry into a tiny dead water pocket surrounded by complex currents. However the question I have is do you have a target for how far you expect the dry fly to fall relative to the fly line? I am probably averaging around 5′ with this leader design in low wind conditions using a parachute type cast with a high, hard stop. The slack is great but sometimes I feel that having the fly line so close to the fly potentially spooks fish. How would you modify the leader design to get another 3′-4′ of separation? Should I just add another, say, 6′ to the 15# butt section or add 6′ of 20# Chameleon as the first section? Does the diameter of the fly line affect the choice? I am using a WF 5. I think, ideally, I’d like to see the first 4′ of butt land fairly straight on the water and then have the rest of the leader fall in the desired s-curves and piles.

    Reply
    • Hi Rich.

      Thanks for the compliments about Troutbitten. I appreciate the support.

      My answer: I think you should open up your casting approach. The cast you described is the basic, default cast with any dry leader, and yes it works especially well with the Harvey design. But over an hour of fishing, let’s say, I may use fifty variations on that style. It’s all about adapting to the currents and wind and other conditions with your rod and arm angles, where you stop your power stroke, how far you drift forward, where you land the s-curves, etc. There’s really endless options. Sometimes I shoot a pile cast with the back half of the leader, landing the butts sections in a pile on the water and letting the tippet section unfold toward the target.

      Generally, I feel like what you are describing and what you want to achieve can probably be done without adjusting the leader. But that’s just a guess. Hard to know unless I was standing beside you.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
      • Dom, thanks for your views. I’ll experiment with different casts before messing with the leader.

        Reply
    • Great article on the Harvey Leader. Like you, I got the original formula in ’92 from George’s book, and later some variations of it from Humphrey’s “Trout Tactics.” It took me a while to adjust my casting. I kept with it, and it resulted in upping my success by 50 percent, as George promised in his book. I wrote him to thank him for the leader, and we exchanged letters (remember them?). Learn the leader; catch more fish.

      Reply
  2. Hey Dom… great site. I’ve been playing with the leader just messing on grass, and it feels really really nice to cast, very easy to manipulate.
    Do you ever (or possibly tried and decided against) use a tippet ring at the end of the 4x to save cutting back into the final tippet length when changing flies? Or have you tried it a found it affected the presentation / S-curves.
    Cheers Matt

    Reply
    • Hi Matt. Yes, I’ve tried just about everything.

      I do, at times use a 1.5 mm tippet ring, high quality from Streamside Anglers website, in the dry fly leader. BUT, I don’t like it at the last junction. I sometimes include it between the chameleon and the tippet section, so usually, in my formula from the 8lb to the 2x . I don’t like it any further ahead on the leader than that. But if I put it there, then my butt sections never gets shorter.

      Make sense?

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Yup, perfect sense, cheers Matt

        Reply
  3. Dom,

    Thanks again for a great day of fishing. The part of the morning that we spent Trico fishing using a Harvey-style leader and dry fly casting techniques put a new set of tools into my tool box. Now all I need is a new pair of boots to go with my tools…

    Looking forward to the S-curve article.

    Best,

    Steve Lamade

    Reply
  4. Dom,

    Great article! Do you attach this leader directly to the 24 foot long, 20# Maxima Chameleon “butt section” of your mono rig?

    Thanks!

    JC

    Reply
  5. Dom,
    Can you suggest a substitute for the 12” — 3X soft nylon tippet material? I can’t find Rio Suppleflex in this diameter. Maybe 12″ of 6# Gold Stren? – Or another 3X tippet from a different manufacturer?

    Reply
    • Sure, Steve.

      Any name brand tippet will be fine. I like the Supplflex, but Rio’s regular nylon is great too. There’s a link above, I think. Cortland, SA, Orvis all make great nylon tippet material. Nothing seems to be a super soft as Suppleflex, but it doesn’t need to be, either. Soft is good enough. And all the leading companies make good, soft nylon tippet.

      Make sense?

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Just curious: If you’re fishing with 6x do you taper down with 5x after the 4x? Or is it 4x to 6x?

        Reply
        • I’m going to guess that it’s in the ballpark of 18″ 5x to up to 30″ of 6x for low water conditions with 6x.

          Reply
          • No. Actually, more and more, I just go from the 4 to the 6. That’s assuming that the 4 I’m using is pretty soft. If I do put 5x in the middle, I’ll run it about 14″.

            Also, I don’t fish 6X for low water conditions. I may switch to 6X once in a while, but it’s always because of the fly size (real small) and not because I think trout will spook from tippet size ( I don’t).

            Cheers.

            Dom

  6. Hello Domenick, what’s the advantage of the Gold Stren? Why not just 22″ of 8# chameleon?

    Reply
    • Hi Andrew. I don’t think I recommend 22″ of Gold Stren anywhere

      In the formula above, for my favorite Harvey style leader, I listed a foot of Gold Stren as a sometimes-substitute for the 2X section. I often make my leaders that way, because the Gold Stren acts as a subtle sighter in the middle of the leader. I rarely find that fish spook from it, if ever. Yet it gives me a reference in my leader, showing my how the whole thing is drifting.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
      • Thanks! That makes sense Domenick. Since the 8# chameleon was followed by the 8# Gold Stren, I wasn’t sure why it wasn’t just one longer section of 8# (either chameleon or gold). Glad to hear you haven’t felt like the gold has spooked fish. I’m loving the new leaders. Thank you for the article!

        Reply
        • Sure thing, man.

          Reply
        • Hey Andrew, thanks for asking that question, because I was about to. But to add more detail, don’t just assume that 2 different lines are the same diameter or stiffness. For example, the 8# Maxima claims to be .010″, but I have some here and I just mic’ed it at .0125″. Maxima Chameleon is always fatter than what they claim, and therefore stiffer. So if you’re following a formula that calls for a certain diameter, you have to check the diameters yourself and don’t necessarily trust the manufacturer. If the formula calls for a certain brand and # size like Dom is doing, you’re fine because this is the actual leader he’s fishing.

          I also mic’ed some Stren 8# and it came out at .011″ which is exactly what they claim. So going from 8# Maxima down to 8# Stren makes total sense (even though if you look at the spools, you’d think you’d be going from .010 UP to .011!).

          But I guess my comment to Dom is that 8# Stren and 2X soft tippet do not seem interchangeable, since the Stren is actually 0X. Of course the bottom line is how the thing actually casts, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it I guess.

          Reply
          • Good stuff, Jeff.

            For me, you last sentence sums it up. I choose materials based on stiffness and flexibility. That’s what it important, not the diameter. And sometimes 12 pound brand X is much more flexible than brand Y.

            Cheers.

            Dom

          • Thanks Dom, I will be tying some of these up. Have a nice Christmas 🙂

  7. Dom,
    Thank you for the great article. I’m moving from fishing primarily a 9’/5wt with standard tapered leaders to a 7′ 3wt for smaller creeks. Its time I start tying my own leaders. How would you recommend modifying the Harvey formula for a lighter, shorter rod on smaller water?

    Reply
    • Hi Daniel,

      I often modify the leader for smaller streams. Keep the ratios the same for all the sections but the last piece of tippet. That one I still keep around 14-24 inches, even in real small water.

      Make sense?

      Dom

      Reply
  8. Hi Domenick

    I’m curious about your opinion on further leaders?

    Thanks!

    Reply
      • Yikes, typos courtesy my cell phone! I meant to ask your opinion on *furled* leaders…

        Reply
        • Hi Chris.

          I don’t care for furled leaders at all. I don’t like how they hold water and spray it a bit on the pickup. And I don’t like their weight. I’ve used them enough to have a strong opinion that I can get a much better cast with s-curves and a drag free drift with the Harvey leaders.

          That is just my experience, though. I know plenty of guys like furled leaders and make them work. But they’re not for me.

          Cheers.

          Dom

          Reply
          • Thanks Dom!

            I am just back from a week long trip to a favorite tailwater and for the first time used your Harvey leader described in this post. It’s simply perfect and I can’t imagine it can get any better. I’ll be using it from now on for sure.

            One thing I do have trouble with is getting a precise measurement on my blood knots. I guess that comes with practice. But I’ve found that I can be an inch or even two inches off on length simply because I have trouble dialing in the knot a specific point. I want to believe it doesn’t make an enormous difference, but I’d still prefer to get it exact.

            Thanks so much for all the wonderful articles
            Christopher

  9. Dom –

    I stumbled across your website a few months ago (referred to in a podcast by Tom Rosenbauer as I recall). As echoed by many others, I find you tips and tactics very beneficial and enlightening, and your stories quite entertaining and frustrating – since living in Texas affords me little opportunity to fly fish for trout. So just a bit envious 🙁

    In an effort to keep my hand in when I can’t be on be on the water, I spend a lot of time fly tying – and have tied some leaders as well.

    I have question on leader tying regarding section lengths. When you refer to a section of say 20″, is that the length of the cut section BEFORE tying to the next section, or AFTER? I have tried to make each section the length referred to in the formula after tying. But, I have found it challenging to determine how much extra leader to add in order to end up with the appropriate length after tying the attaching knot. I’m not off by much, but those few inches over 5 or 6 sections adds a foot or more to the overall length of the leader.

    Appreciate your help – and please keep it up!

    Larry

    Reply
    • Hi Larry,

      Thanks for the support and the kind words about Troutbitten.

      Basically, you will learn how much material you waste for a blood knot. In my case, it’s about 1.5 inches. It becomes very consistent over time. So I allow for that waste and add it to the material length before tying the knot.

      Cheers.

      Dom

      Reply
  10. This is a late comment, so maybe no one will see it, but after years of hearing about the Harvey style leaders, I finally tied one up (I had all the components around) and just cannot believe how great it is for its intended purpose! I had previously used long Trouthunter extruded leaders but really prefer the presentation of the Harvey. Excellent post and this is the best fly fishing content on the web for me! Thank you!

    Reply

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