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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N