Long leaders have become common in fly fishing. They’re now widely accepted by anglers, because employing a tight line advantage often catches more trout. But just like the fly lines they substitute for, the range and variety of long leader formulas leads to a lot of confusion.
This article, and the video appearing below, considers the design and function of long leaders, focusing on the materials used to build them.
Mono Rigs, euro rigs, tight line or contact rigs: Yes, there’s a difference in those terms. But everything we’ll consider here applies to them all. Basically, if what is outside of your rod guides is the leader only (or even just a thin euro fly line), then it helps to understand how the leader build affects our possibilities for how we might fish.
READ: Troutbitten | Thin and Micro Thin Leaders for Euro Nymphing and the Mono Rig
READ: Troutbitten | Category | The Mono Rig
READ: Troutbitten | Design and Function of the Troutbitten Standard Mono Rig
READ: Troutbitten | Euro Nymphing and the Mono Rig
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Leader design is always a compromise between two basic things: power and sag.
For fly anglers, a powerful leader helps push the fly and the leader itself, doing much the same intended work as a fly line.
But more powerful almost always means the leader is thicker. And with that thickness comes the other element we must consider in leader design — sag.
READ: Troutbitten | Fly Fishing Leader Design
Drag Free Drift
Fly fishing often requires a drag free drift, and that’s when sag matters most. Because without care, attention and some talent, line and leader sag most often leads to drag.
Thicker leaders drag more, and we can readily see this on the surface with dry flies. It’s easier to get s-curves and drag free presentations to the dry fly with 6x than it is with 2x. The 2x simply gets pushed around more — it drags.
The same principle applies underneath the water with nymphs and streamers. Thicker leaders and tippets often lead to more drag.
Now take that same concept above the water and in the air — use a thicker line for your leader build and you can see the results. Heavier material sags and creates . . . that’s right . . . drag.
Too much sag can also put us out of control, so we can’t do what we want with the flies underneath. It takes away our tight line advantage.
Remember, the point of these long leader systems, in the first place, is to eliminate the negative impact of fly line sagging off the rod tip. And an extra thick leader can have a similar effect.
VIDEO: Troutbitten | The Tight Line Advantage Across Fishing Styles
So if we don’t like sag and drag, why not use the thinnest materials for our leader, all the time?
Because remember, leader design is a compromise. If you choose the thinnest material, you’re choosing to have no power in the leader.
Where you choose to make that compromise is up to you, but it helps to understand the advantages and disadvantages first. Understand your options.
Standard vs Micro
Let’s compare two leaders that are almost opposite in design: What I call the Troutbitten Standard Mono Rig, with a 20 lb butt section, vs a Micro Thin Mono Rig, which is 5 lb butt section
The Micro Thin rig is fun to use, because you’re fishing with as little leader sag as possible. Micro Thin is very much the end point. You can’t get any thinner. So It’s nice to know that you’ve gone all the way to the end of the road, and you can stop blaming any slow action on leader sag.
That’s the advantage of a Micro Leader — as little sag as possible.
But what are the disadvantages of a Micro leader? There are a few, and it always comes down to a loss of power.
Remember, power in a leader allows us to push things around and even cast the leader itself.
And that is the key to understanding what is in your hands.
We do not need power in the leader to turn things over and send a nymph to the target. Obviously, we can cast flies with a Micro leader. Turnover is too often misunderstood here.
Because, with weight in the system, we can use that weight to make the cast. Essentially, that’s what we’re doing when using a Micro leader. The skinny leader doesn’t have enough power to cast itself, so we’re using the weight of the fly or split shot to take the leader along with it.
We don’t need leader turnover to get the fly out there.
However . . .
The Standard Rig is a Hybrid
What I love about a powerful leader (like the Standard Mono Rig) is the way it does turnover, it pushes the fly and carries itself to the target, without relying on the weight of the fly.
Instead, the leader makes the cast.
That’s why I call the standard Mono Rig a hybrid system, because we are using the leader to push the fly to the target (very much like a fly line) while the fly is also pulling the leader to the target.
We use that extra power of the Standard Mono Rig to push everything into place. That allows for the following options:
— For a tuck cast
— For alignment of the leader-curve in the air (aerial mends)
— To push a yarn indy around, or a dry dropper
— To align the indy or the dry fly in one seam
— For alignment of a floating sighter
— For on the water mending
This is why I say the Standard Mono Rig is a versatile tool. Aside from being well suited for adding an indy, a dry dropper or a streamer, it’s this versatility of options, on a pure tight line (no indy or dry dropper) for how that tippet and leader will enter the water. That’s what makes all the difference. And it comes from the extra power built into the Standard design that a Micro rig simply doesn’t have.
Disadvantages and Solutions
If we do choose a more powerful leader, like the Standard, it’s important to understand the inherent disadvantages.
Yes, thicker leaders sag more. However, a little extra sag won’t destroy your presentation.
Understand the following three points:
First, anything inside of 45 degrees is almost inconsequential, regardless of the fly weight. You can see this in the video above. If the angle of the sighter is more vertical than 45, sag and drag is greatly reduced on any leader.
Second, a tuck cast helps negate the effect of leader sag, and only with a more powerful leader can we get a great tuck cast. A good tuck puts us slightly out of touch while the fly drops, so any leader sag above the water is inconsequential for the first few seconds of drift.
Third, there is enough weight to counteract any leader sag. And lighter rigs do not always drift better. Sometimes, more weight with more control provides a better drift.
READ: Troutbitten | Your Best Bet on Weight
READ: Troutbitten | Are Light Nymphs More Effective? Is Less Weight More Natural?
Let’s acknowledge too, there is always some amount of leader sag — even with the thinnest Micro leader. And good anglers use that sag to guide the flies down one seam.
READ: Troutbitten | One Great Nymphing Trick
What to Use
I use the Standard Mono Rig the most, because I love the feel of casting the fly and the leader into the best placement.
I also love the option of quickly adding an indy, a dry dropper or throwing a larger streamer and still having a tool that is well built for those jobs.
The Standard Mono Rig is my favorite leader, but that doesn’t mean it’s best for everyone.
I also carry and fish Micro Mono Rigs as well. I enjoy switching over and knowing that I’ve taken leader sag out of the equation. Sure, all leaders sag, but a Micro leader removes it as much as possible.
So if I want less sag at more distance, I might choose a Micro rig. But I might also stick with the Standard rig, tuck it in and float the sighter until I’m within the 45 degree angle that I mentioned above. Then I’ll lift the sighter and finish the drift with a tight line. There are a lot of options . . .
You and Me
Knowing a leader’s strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging them and understanding your options is the key.
Go wade into a river and test things out. Have an open mind.
Here’s one more piece of advice . . .
It’s tough to learn on a Micro and then go to a Standard, because you’ll spoil yourself with the illusion of no leader sag.
So learn to cast the Standard. Spend some time seeing and feeling its advantages, and then do the same with the Micro. Learn the Standard first. Find the cast, the punch and speed required, then take that casting stroke over to the Micro, and you’ll see the benefits of each leader build.
Try fishing other leader designs too. I carry a leader with a 10 lb butt section that I call Thin. You might think that, being in the middle, it would be the perfect solution — the best of both worlds, maybe. But it’s not. A Thin rig has its own set of problems and benefits.
As always, there’s a lot more to be said and understood about this topic. But taking this knowledge to the water is the best way to learn. Put these leaders in your hands, and test for yourself. Have fun out there.
Fish hard, friends.
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T R O U T B I T T E N
You alluded to this, but it’s worth mentioning again that one fundamental difference between a heavier mono rig and a micro version is how they’re fished. Specifically, micro aficionados tend to fish primarily across stream and stay in pretty tight contact to their nymphs. A micro rig is good for such a practice because the angler is fighting many kinds of drag during the drift. Interestingly, the most successful comp angler who uses something that’s close to your standard mono rig, Pat Weiss, nymphs the way you do, mainly upstream (or close to it). There’s nothing like an upstream tuck cast with a heavier mono rig to get a wonderfully almost-in-contact drift.
I hear ya. I do think that having success with the cross stream approach on a tight line has a lot more to do with what is under the water than above. So, skinny tippet rather than thicker helps. Also success with a cross stream approach depends on the fish, too. There is ALWAYS some cross lead when fishing across. I don’t care how thin the leader is, everything tracks toward the rod tip.
I have been fishing the standard mono rig for several years.
I tight line/high stick nymphs and streamers. A great system, I have never went back to a standard leader. The mono rig is truly superior. Thanks for sharing.
How often do you replace your monorig?are there any obvious signs of wear and tear or loss of effectives? Love the whole system!
Meh. Usually when I damage it by snagging it in a tree. I never really get to the point where I’m seeing UV wear or a change in performance. But I change leaders and experiment a ton out there too, so no one leader ever gets more than, let’s say a couple hundred hours on it, for me.
I guess if you do see wear or fading or notice a performance change, I would swap it out.
Dom, what are you using here for standard butt section? You said micro was 5 lb amnesia and I thought you used 20lb chameleon for standard butt that green stuff looks different….
Right on. I mention this in most videos, because I know that will be confusing. The green stuff is OPST LAzar Line. I only use it to film, because it shows up better than Chameleon. Truth is, is doesn’t hold a candle to Chameleon for performance. It’s less powerful, holds more of a coil and becomes pretty unwieldy in the cold weather.
Good stuff as always, Dom. Are you using two different rods for mono and micro leader? Here’s my problem. I’m a one-fly rod guy. Always have been, always will be. With my 10 foot 4 wt I fish everything from tricos to 90cg buggers, drop –shot weights, steelhead flies, 2 inch heavily beaded streamers, you name it. My experiments with a 6 lb micro leader on my 4 wt seem to be OK. But am I missing something by casting micro leaders on a 4 wt versus a more typical 1 or 2 wt?
Also, I’m considering buying a Diamondback Ideal Nymph 3 wt, hoping it’ll do all the work of my old-ish 10 ‘ 4 wt AND maybe it’ll be a better compromise with a micro leader. But maybe I’m not thinking through this correctly. For example, if all 3 wts have a “euro” tip action (noodly), then a 3wt may not work for me. I hope I’m making sense! What do you think?
Hi Toney. No way am I using two different rods out there. There’s no good way to carry two rods. And I’m more accurate by using the same tool, day after day. It’s just more efficient to have a versatile tool. Micro leaders cast well on a 4 weight. Just need a good casting stroke. I’ve seen “euro” rods make anglers pretty lazy about casting — that turns into lobbing, and you know my take on that.
“. . . am I missing something by casting micro leaders on a 4 wt versus a more typical 1 or 2 wt?”
NO! Absolutely not. In fact, you are likely gaining something — well, you’re staying versatile.
“Also, I’m considering buying a Diamondback Ideal Nymph 3 wt, hoping it’ll do all the work of my old-ish 10 ‘ 4 wt AND maybe it’ll be a better compromise with a micro leader.”
All rods are a compromise if you want it to be versatile. For me, the 3 weight will give away too much power, and you’ll suffer when trying to do all the things you mentioned.
I think the following Troutbitten article will really help you out:
The Best Fly Rods for the Mono Rig and Euro Nymphing
Just an observation. It seems that the industry is trying to fool us a bit with the length of fly rods. It used to be that ten foot was the new cool length that we all gravitated toward a few years back when we were introduced to euro. Now we have ten foot six inches for that extra reach and ten foot zero went away. And now we have ten foot TEN inches (Diamonbacks, e.g.) and I’m frightened that it won’t be stiff enough for the way I want to fish. And ALL this so that people aren’t frightened out of the market entirely with the thought of an elecen foot rod. OK, I might have some of my facts wrong, but I am concerned that the extra 10 inches in length will make the rod less versatile for me. Thanks, Toney
The extra length will make the rod less versatile. That’s just a fact.
Whoops, I added a comment intended for the article on fly rods you sent. Here’s my comment for this article: I was suspecting your answer: I lose too much versatility going lighter than 4 wt. More than anything, I need to fish EVERYTHING with one tool. Shoot, I was into Coho this winter with my trusty 4 wt and predators followed by whitefish on little beads with just a tippet change.
One thing I may do is get a stiffer 4 wt. My cheapo rod needs more stiffness because I want to increase the feel of the river bottom, esp now that I’m experimenting with drop-shotting. So I may want to pick up the Diamondback 4 wt instead of the 3 wt. Also, really looking forward to your next series of videos where, if I heard correctly, the camera will follow you and maybe the gang around on the water in reality-TV style to see everything in action. Cheers, Toney
Ha. Nice. I like your version of the Fish Along concept. We want to do those trips to. We call them fish-n-film.
The Fish Along videos will be all self shot. GoPro, cam on a tripod, small gimbal stuff, etc. A
Looking forward to it.
Probably a dumb question, but when you talk about amount of line being fished leader and tippet or just leader.
Thanks I appreciate your work..Del
Leader and tippet