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On the fly

By BOB PUCCINELLI

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


Beginning fly-fishers often get confused and frustrated when building leaders.

A lot of reference materials make it sound like you need a degree from MIT to construct one ... "the midsection should be tapered down using three or four different pieces of mono, you need to tie a Bimini twist for your tippet, and if the moon is in the seventh house fluorocarbon is the material of choice." This is all great, but most of us would rather spend our time fishing than tying knots. There's no question a properly constructed leader is essential to fly-fishing. If done correctly, the energy of the fly line will travel down the full length of the leader, resulting in a smoother cast and more accuracy. But fishing is all about escapism and having fun. So there is no need to make things more complex than necessary.

The basic leader consists of three parts: the butt section, the midsection and the tippet. The butt section may be the most important part: It is connected directly to the fly line and it continues the flow of energy from the line to the fly.

In a typical 9-foot leader, this section should be about 5-feet long -- about 60 percent of the overall length. This is the longest and heaviest part of the leader.

It's crucial the correct diameter monofilament be selected when building this section. Take about 8 inches of fly line and about 8 inches of mono and overlap them. Try to roll both pieces at the same time into a loop. If they bend at the same rate, you have the right stuff. For an 8-weight fly line, this is usually about 30-pound monofilament. Once the length and the correct size mono have been determined, the butt section must be attached to the fly line.

There are a number of ways to do this: The loop-to-loop method can be used, or a direct knot such as the Albright special or the common nail knot will work just fine.

But for strength, ease of tying and aerodynamics, an improved nail knot might be best. To tie this knot, take the tip of the fly line and double it by bending about an inch of it over. Next tie a common nail knot over the doubled fly line.

If done properly this creates a bulge where the fly line was bent that will lock the knot in place.

The midsection is the step-down portion of the leader. It maintains some of the energy from the butt section while slowing the fly to hit the water softly. This part of the leader is usually about 20 percent the total length -- about 2 feet -- of a 9-foot leader.

As far as sizing the mono for this section, it is normally about 10 pounds lighter than the butt section.

The tippet is lighter and thinner than the first two sections. It is a softer, more supple piece of mono that allows the fly to swim as naturally as possible.

Like the midsection, the tippet is about 20 percent of the total leader -- about 2 feet -- for a 9-footer. Like the midsection compared with the butt, the tippet should be about 10 pounds lighter than the midsection. The tippet is the last piece of the leader and can be tied to the fly, but there aren't many fish with soft mouths in salt water, so a bite tippet often is used. A bite tippet is a heavy piece of bite-resistant mono. The method of attaching the midsection to the butt and the tippet to the midsection is a matter of personal preference.

The loop-to-loop method lets the angler change out sections of the leader quickly without having to retie knots. This system works but has drawbacks: The loops sometimes fail when fighting big fish. The loops also cause a hinging action in the leader during casting and affect the way the fly turns over.

The way most fly-fishers connect various leader sections is a blood knot. It is a strong, aerodynamic knot that is relatively easy to tie. It also pulls straight through the water, picks up few weeds and slips through the rod's guides easily. You can build more elaborate leaders, and at times you need to. If you are chasing tarpon or bonefish, or if you want to conform to International Game Fish Association standards, you might need to adjust the leader configuration.

But if you learn a couple of knots and remember the 60/20/20 formula for leader length, dropping 10 pounds for each section, you can build leaders that perform well in most situations.

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