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Hand Tied Leaders For Fly Fishing

Updated on July 18, 2016

Take Me To Your Leader

Most fly fishers fish with a taper leader. This type of leader is typically sold by size and advertized by "X" designations, such as 3X for a large leader and 6X for a small leader. The "X" designation means the number of times the leader has been run through an acid bath to reduce the diameter of the leader. For example, 4X went through the bath four times. However, being a tapered leader, the bottom portion of the leader went through fewer baths, while the tip went through as many times as advertised by the "X" designation. Most leaders are fished without a tippet. The fly is tied directly to the leader. As the fly fisher changes flies, the leader is shortened a little bit after each fly is tied on. Some fly fishers will eventually tie on a tippet to the leader to preserve the length of the leader and extent the useful life of the leader. Eventually, the leader wears out and is discarded.

Make Your Own Leader

An alternative is to tie your own leader. Simply put, several diameters of different leaders are tied together, the largest diameter is tied at the bottom onto the fly line and smallest diameter ending at the tip and tied to the fly. Why would a person want to do this? Here are some reasons:

  1. Hand tied leaders are less expensive than tapered leaders.
  2. You can really custom size your leader in terms of length and diameter.
  3. If you get wind knots in your leader, you can remove that diameter section of the leader and replace it with a new one, thus extending the life of your leader.
  4. Your leader tends to be more stiff due to the number of knots in it - a good thing if you want a stiffer leader.

How Do I Tie My Own Leader?

Probably the most intimidating factor is purchasing the right size leader segments for the type of leader you need for the type of fish you are pursuing. Relax, there are a good number of people who have pioneered making hand tied leaders. Their efforts are summarized in a publication titled LeaderCalc ( A portion of this publication is shown below.

A sample portion from LeaderCalc
A sample portion from LeaderCalc
A hand tied leader tied on a 6wt forward floating fly line.  Most of the knots are on the right side of the roll.
A hand tied leader tied on a 6wt forward floating fly line. Most of the knots are on the right side of the roll.

LeaderCalc is a simple matrix. The second column lists the type of fishing application (ie: panfish, largemouth bass, salmon) while the remaining columns to the right indicate the length of each segment for each diameter leader that is cross referenced from the row at the top of the chart. Most leaders are constructed of four or five segments. The last, smallest segment is really considered the tippet.

There are several manufactures of leader segments. They are placed on plastic wheels and hence named leader wheels. When purchasing leader wheels, avoid purchasing them based on the "X" designation. "X's" don't really tell you the diameter of the leader and when tying your own leaders, matching the right diameter is everything. Go by the measure of 1000th's of an inch or 1000th's of a millimeter - both are listed on LeaderCalc.

Tying the leader is straight forward. Attach the first, and largest diameter, leader to the fly line using a nail knot. For subsequent leader diameters, use blood knots to include the last leader that serves as a tippet.

Typical leader wheels.  Note that the diameters for each leader is labeled in inches
Typical leader wheels. Note that the diameters for each leader is labeled in inches
The nail knot
The nail knot | Source
The blood knot
The blood knot | Source
The perfection loop
The perfection loop | Source

Some Tips On Tying Your Own Leader

  1. Tie your leader segments directly from the wheel. Why? Because if you cut the segment off at the wheel first and attempt to tie it to the fly line or the next, larger leader segment, and you fail at the knot, you will have to cut the segment short to attempt the second knot. If you keep the segment attached to the wheel and measure it from the successfully tied knot, you will retain the proper segment length.
  2. Trim the tag ends of nail knot and blood knots as close a possible. This will minimize algea and weeds getting caught on the knots and keeps the leader from getting tangled onto itself.
  3. If the species of fish you are fishing for is not spooked often by the leader, consider applying a small drop of quick set glue on the blood knots. This tends to smooth out the knots and minimize fouling with algae and vegetation.
  4. Instead of using a blood knot at the last leader segment connection, connect both segments with perfection loops using a loop-to-loop connection. In this manner the last segment (the tippet really) can be changed out without ever having to cut/tie the second to last leader segment to the tippet. In short, you leader remains the same length, while the tippet gets shorter when tying each new fly on. When the tippet gets too short, you can remove it from the loop-to-loop connection and attach a new length of tippet to the leader with again a loop-to-loop connection.
  5. If you fish with fairly large flies that need a stiff tippet, try using a fluorcarbon.
  6. Try to make your leaders as close to their design listed in LeaderCalc. I have tried experimenting with different leader diameters and lengths and generally have had poor results.

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