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A Simple but Workable Leader System

by Dave Hughes

My mind doesn't wrap itself very successfully around technical matters, and I'm lazy about leaders. For many years I hand-tied a variety of leader lengths, tapers and tippets from formulae, and carried them in a bulging vest pocket wherever I went. I always had the precise right leader for everything from a tiny and tumbling mountain stream to the broadest and smoothest tailwater flat. I also found myself always neglecting them and using a single 9-foot 4X base leader that I would extend and fine down if glassy water and selective trout demanded it.

As time went on, leader manufacturers began making knotless tapered leaders that were far removed from the noodles of yesteryear. When leaders became better and better I began tying my own less and less and finally have simplified my own trout leader selection to a single 7.5’ 3X knotless base leader. I always have a foot length of 25# to 30# stiff monofilament butt nail-knotted to the end of my line. The base leader is tied to this with a 3-turn blood knot. That way, every time I need to replace a leader, I nip the butt and not my fly line tip.

I carry spare tippet spools in 3X, 4X, 5X and 6X. This allows me to rebuild the 3X leader if I’m fishing a heavy nymph or streamer. I add a two-foot 4X tippet to fish a moderately large fly, size 10 to 14. If I desire to go smaller, size 16 or 18, I use a foot tapering section of 4X and two feet of 5X. The finer I want to go, the more tapering sections and longer tippet I add. As you can see, the system automatically adjusts itself to fish longer and finer as the situation demands. The leader remains in balance and therefore, turns over flies nicely. The largest benefit for me: my vest pockets don’t bulge and no brilliant thoughts are required.

When I want to dangle nymphs, in all but the deepest and most brutal water such as my home Deschutes River, I use a yellow yarn indicator. I snip about an inch of yarn, dress it with dry fly floatant, bend it in half and slip knot it into the leader where I want it, anywhere from the depth of the water to twice its depth, depending on its speed and the weight of the nymph or nymphs I’m using. The more weight I need to suspend, the larger the fan of yarn I use.

That’s my leader system for about 90% of my fishing. For delicate hatch-matching situations, I carry one or two 10-foot base leaders in 5X and again lengthen them with 6X and rarely 7X for the tiniest flies and most selective trout. I’m sure this system is oversimplified, but it compensates for some other aspects of my life, which are overcomplicated.

Dave Hughes Articles

Dave Hughes is the author of more than 20 books about fly fishing. They include the classic Western Hatches with Rick Hafele, American Fly Tying Manual, Handbook of Hatches, Reading Trout Water, Dry Fly Fishing, Nymph Fishing and the massive reference Trout Flies. His latest book, published in 2009, is Nymphs for Streams and Stillwaters. Dave, a native Oregonian and Vietnam Vet, is an accomplished amateur aquatic entomologist. His hobbies include collecting, identifying, and photographing the aquatic insects that are fed upon by trout, as well as tying and fishing the flies that match those insects and fool those trout. His articles on fly fishing have appeared in Field & Stream, Gray’s Sporting Journal, Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, Fly Fisherman magazine, American Angler, and Fly Tyer. Dave served as editor of Flyfishing & Tying Journal for eight years, and is currently Elements of Success columnist for Fly Rod & Reel. Check out Dave's website at: www.davehughesflyfishing.com

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