Tying Your Own Leaders for Fall Fishing Success
By Troy Letherman
For Alaska fly anglers, proper leader construction is of fundamental concern when preparing to fish for our primary fall species: steelhead, trophy char, rainbow trout and coho salmon. Most leaders, especially the commercially available extruded leaders, perform poorly when casting big salmon flies and the types of heavy streamers designed for fishing trout on the swing. Hence, unlike in traditional dry-fly fishing where soft leaders are preferred for making delicate dead-drift presentations, most streamer leaders are tied with stiff monofilament, the kind designed for saltwater, and range from 7 ½- to 9 feet in length. Mason Hard Mono, Rio Saltwater and Maxima Clear are all good choices for fall in Alaska.
So while lots of different knotless tapered leaders exist commercially, anglers willing to spend the extra time tying their own can construct better leaders with just the right combination of turnover, stiffness and abrasion resistance.
In general, leader length should be about one and a half times the depth of the water, and by hand-constructing their leaders, fly anglers can very easily alter the length to fit the conditions. Learning how to tie blood and surgeon knots with speed will save valuable time on the river, as will tying up a handful of leaders in advance, especially for nymph or bead-egg anglers who’ll more than likely lose a few rigs to the bottom or a foul-hooked sockeye.
To construct a generalized streamer leader, start with a butt section that is at least 65 percent of the diameter of the fly line (diameters are included in fly line literature) and then design the leader using a formula that will get you to the desired tippet strength. For example, begin with a three-foot butt section of .025 monofilament, stepping down via a blood knot to three feet of .020. Then, following another blood knot, attach one foot of .015 mono, which will be connected to two feet of .012 or .010 tippet. A leader like this, with the proper stiffness, will kick over most bulky flies with ease.
When utilizing a sinking line in freshwater fishing situations, such leader lengths aren’t typically desired. Other than in supremely low and clear waters—when it’s doubtful a sink-tip would do much good anyway—four- to six feet of standard monofilament leader will be plenty. An exception is in preparing saltwater leaders, when anglers may need to go to longer, 10- to 14-foot constructions. This is typically the case when silvers are pooled near the surface of tidal estuaries, where spooking the fish is of utmost concern. Anglers might also want to step their tippet strength up to 15-pound test in the salt, again using stiff monofilament leader material, as saltwater tippets need to be able to withstand abrasion from kelp, barnacles and in some areas, jagged rocks.
Last, while not streamer fishing, a lot of autumn angling in Alaska revolves around the salmon spawn, and thus requires nymphing egg imitations.
In this case, as always, leaders should vary along with the conditions—length and tippet size are regularly dictated by spooky fish and shallow or deep flows—but a standard leader setup for average Alaska nymphing conditions would be nine feet of stiffer monofilament, hand-tied and tapered down to a 2X (.009) tippet section. Anglers can start with 32 inches of 30-pound test mono connected via blood knot to 21 inches of 25-pound test. Following another blood knot, 12 inches of 20-pound test will lead to an identical 12-inch section of 15-pound monofilament, then eight inches of 12-pound and another eight inches of 1X, which is knotted to the 18-inch tippet section. Also, a tag end left off a blood knot at the tippet can serve as a dropper to keep split-shot from damaging the mainline.
Anglers who wish to can attach a strike indicator between the first blood knot and the loop-to-loop connection with the fly line. The most commonly used indicators in Alaska are hi-vis Corkies pegged to the leader with a toothpick or heavily ginked Antron yarn. For surface presentations, anywhere from nine to 12 feet of leader is usually plenty to avoid spooking the fish. And although they occur rarely, there are situations when Alaska fly fishers will need to utilize fluorocarbon tippet material for making presentations, either on the surface or below, to extremely wary fish.