Terminal Tactics

Fishing success begins with your leader, tippet and knots.

by George Anderson

LEADERS, TIPPETS, AND KNOTS are the vital links between you and the next outsize trout that inhales your fly. A good terminal tackle system is a joy for both the novice and expert to use. A bad one is a disaster. I'm constantly amazed at the junk I find attached to the end of the average fisherman's fly line. At our shop, before we send clients out on a guided trip, the first thing I do is to check their line and leader. Once they are out on the water the guide doesn't want to spend valuable time completely re-rigging two or three outfits. A good leader and tippet are the keys to success - in casting, presentation, and playing fish. Leaders that are designed correctly can turn over a fly in a moderate breeze and allow anyone - to cast more accurately.

Shelling out for the finest leaders and tippet material on the market won't set you back like shopping for a new BMW, so go ahead and splurge. You'll land many more fish and curb those anxiety attacks that develop during the height of a hatch when you leave one fly after another in the fish.

Knots make a big difference, and learning how to tie the strongest and most reliable knots is no more difficult than learning to tie lousy ones. The combination of the wrong leader, bad tippet material and weak knots can be frustrating, and it's not only beginners who face this situation.


PICKING A GOOD LEADER today is little more difficult than back in the days before nylon, when cat gut was the only thing available. Take a quick look at what is on the market today and you'll find knotless tapers, compound tapers, knotted leaders, sinking leaders, slender butts, heavy butts, braided-butts and hot-butts. Where should you begin? There are lots of good leaders on the market today, and with a little experimentation and testing on your part, it's not hard to find a leader that suits your needs. There are also many leaders out there that you need like a case of the flu in January.

For all of my floating-line fishing I use a universal leader. The trick is finding or building a leader that performs well enough to fish dry, nymphs, and even the occasional streamer if the need arises. I leave the butt and taper section of this leader permanently attached to the fly line and change only the last part of the taper and tippet as needed. In order to use this system, you have to be somewhat adept at tying knots, which requires a little practice and decent eyesight.

Another popular method is to attach a permanent butt section to the top of your fly line and have this butt section end with a perfection loop knot. With such a rig you can attach complete new leaders using a loop-to-loop connection that is quick and easy and doesn't require tying any knots in the field, except for your tippet knot.

A good leader for a floating line should cast accurately and turn over in a variety of weather conditions with flies from small dry to beige weighted nymphs with lead on the leader. Both knotless and knotted leaders work well, provided they have enough stiffness in the butt section. I stick with leaders that are .020" or larger in the butt section - .020" to .021" is fine for small line sizes, 2-weight through 4 weight. Once I jump up to a #5 line, I go to .022" to .023" and use that size butt right up to 8 weight lines. On 8 weight and heavier lines .024" to .026" butt diameters help these big lines turn over smoothly.

I use as long a leader as possible on my floating lines, normally 10' to 13'. The extra length helps to avoid spooking trout while fishing dry flies, and it also helps you to fish nymphs more effectively. Length depends somewhat on your casting skill and the ability to throw a tight loop. Rod design also enters the picture at this point. Rods with relatively fast actions and softer tips can help any fly fisherman fire tight loops at both long and short distances. With good equipment, even beginners can turn over a 10 to 12 foot leader, if it is designed properly and if they understand how to keep the leader in tune.

Today, most commercially-made leaders are available in lengths of 7 1/2', 9' and 12'. There are also a few good 10 foot leaders available. Unless you are using a sink-tip or sinking line, stick with the 9 to 12 foot leaders. Some people feel that they should not use a leader longer than their rod, but this is a misconception. If the leader or butt section is attached to the fly line with a good, smooth connection like a needle knot, nail knot, epoxy or super glue splice, it sails right through the guides without hanging up. My favorite connection is the needle knot. It can be tied quickly in the shop or out on the stream and is one of the strongest and most reliable connections.

The key to making the longer leaders turn over is to have plenty of stiff butt section and a short taper followed by fairly short tippet sections and a final tippet no longer than 3 1/2 feet. Even the worst tapered leaders on the market usually turn over a small dry fly in windless conditions, but when you are faced with a 20 mile-per-hour blast of wind or you need to throw a big heavily-weighted nymph and some split shot, these whimsy leaders just don't cut it. I'd love to get some of the guys who designed long leaders with .018" butts out here fishing in the West on our average windy day. I'd love to see them try to sling some serious lead along with a weighted stonefly nymph. That might change their thinking about leader design.

For butt sections, my favorite materials are Maxima or Amnesia, but any fairly stiff monofilament will do nicely. I do not like either float mono or braided mono for butt sections. Neither material provides the necessary energy transfer of the stiffer, round monofilaments. The big advantage knotted compound leaders have over the knotless leaders is that after the stiffer butt section a softer and much stronger monofilament can be used for the final taper and tippet sections.

Knotless tapers must be manufactured with one type (or stiffness) of material only. In selecting a good knotless leader, try to pick one that has at least a .021" diameter butt and fairly long butt section before it drops off into the taper. The medium-stiff, knotless tapers perform better than the very soft ones, even though they may sacrifice a little limpness at the tip. Remember, you can always cut back a couple of feet at the tip of the leader and add one of the super-strong and softer tippet materials. Any time you are using a knotless taper, it is wise to add a level tippet section, once you have changed a half-dozen flies the tippet becomes at least one X size larger.

A 15 to 36 inch tippet will also help you get a better, drag-free float or drift with the current and increase your chances of taking difficult fish. Knotless leaders can be a big advantage over knotted types when you are faced with a lot of algae or weed growth in the water. Knots pick up moss, particularly when you are playing fish, thus making it more difficult for you to land a big fish.

Leaders for Sinking and Sink-tip Lines

IF I'M USING A SINKING line to get the fly down deep, I use a shorter and less complex leader. The key is to keep your fly down at the level of the fly line. You don't want the fly riding close to the surface when your line is five feet deep. For straight-sinking and sinking-tip lines, I like to use a 4 to 5 foot knotless - tapered leader with a 12 inch tippet. The butt section does not have to be as large as with a floating line, and for lines in the 6 to 8 weight range, I normally use a leader with a .020'' butt and very quick taper. Much has been written about using very short leaders on sinking lines, but if the water is clear I feel strongly that reducing the leader to less than four feet spooks to many fish. A 4 to 5 foot leader keeps the fly down just about as well as a 2 foot leader, so why go shorter? The slightly longer leader also cast much better at longer distances.

If you are fishing streamers in fast-moving water, you can get by with a much heavier tippet and go right up to 2X or even 0X. On the other hand, if you are fishing small nymphs in a still, clear lake or slough, you may have to go to both a longer leader and a much finer tippet.

Tuning for performance

OVER THE YEARS many leader formulas have appeared, but perhaps the most famous is the Ritz formula developed by the late French angler, Charles Ritz. His formula for leader construction was 60 percent butt, 20 percent taper and 20 percent tippet. The success of this formula, however, depends heavily on what you want to call butt, taper and tippet. For example, my formula for a 4X leader tapers as follows: The butt sections taper from .022'' down to .017", the taper section goes from .017" down to .009" and the tippet material measures .007 or 4X.

If you are tying or buying knotted leaders, it's easy to alter the performance of the leader by adding or decreasing the length to these various sections. If you want the leader to turn over faster, you can do one or more of three things: Increase the length of the butt sections, shorten the taper sections, or shorten the tippet sections. Sometimes subtle changes can make a big difference, so make minor alterations at first.

The best way to get the leader to kick over is to shorten the taper sections. Look at the level sections just above the tippet section. If they are 10 to 12 inches long, shorten them to 8 or 10 inches each. This usually does the trick. Shorten the tippet from three feet down to two feet. If the leader seems to turn over too quickly, and you are looking for a more gentle delivery, often all you need to do is to add a little length in the tippet. Sometimes, if the taper sections above the tippet become too short after a period of tying in new tippets, you must take that time to rebuild the leader completely from 0X section on down.

If you don't want to take the time to rebuild, pull out a new leader, chop off the butt sections and tie the new taper and tippet onto your permanently-attached butt sections. Eyeball the connection carefully or, better yet, measure this connection to insure that the new piece you are connecting is either equal in diameter or .002" smaller than the butt section above. If you tie a new leader with a heavy butt onto your existing butt, you will have too much butt section percentage-wise, or worse yet, you may end up with a "hinge" in your leader cause by tying the larger diameter of the new leader butt onto the existing smaller butt section.

My Favorite Knots

LEARNING TO TIE good knots pays big dividends. You'll land more fish, lose fewer flies and make it feasible to use lighter tippets that will help you fool more fish. Your terminal tackle system is only as good as these connections and a bad knot can decrease the strength of the overall system by up to 50 percent. Using the Berkley line testing machine allowed me to examine these different knots as they were being put under stress and also to test precisely one knot against another.

Two knots that I use to connect pieces of monofilament are the blood knot and the triple surgeon's knot. Both are high-strength knots, and if tied properly, they test between 85 and 100 percent (of the manufacture's rated breaking strength for a given diameter). I like blood knots for connections in larger-diameter leader material, since the blood knot is slimmer than the surgeon's and slides through my guides with less resistance.

Down in the tippet sections, the triple surgeon's and Stu Apt improved blood knot gives close to 100 percent knot strength. For connecting the fly to the tippet I normally use an improved clinch knot, or better yet the Trilene knot, which is an improved clinch knot tied by doing through the eye of the hook twice.

A duncan loop knot is another good tippet - to - fly connection, and quite strong. On larger hooks, from #10 on up, that have large eyes, it's important to use the twice-through-the-eye improved clinch or duncan loop knot to keep the knot from slipping loose easily.

I try to emphasize to beginning fly fisherman in our fly-fishing schools to practice the two or three fishing knots you need to know so you can tie them quickly out of the stream. IF you take more than a minute to pull a spool of tippet material out of your vest and tie on a new tippet, you need more practice. The same applies to tying on a fly. The ability to change tippets and flies quickly is the mark of any accomplished fly fisher. There is nothing more frustrating than having to take from 15 to 20 minutes to rebuild your leader during the most intense part of a hatch while big trout boil the water all around you.

One of the big hangups in tying knots, especially for fly fisherman over 40, is seeing well up close. Don't be ashamed to admit that you don't see as well as you once did. Pick up a pair of magnifying type eyeglasses for close work. There are great products on the market that will solve the problem, including simple bifocals for glasses wearers. Inexpensive reading glasses, Hat Eyes, or a product called the Flip Focal all work wonders.

Tying High-Strength Knots

TYING GOOD KNOTS takes practice but there are a few tricks to use to help tie the perfect knot. The critical factor in obtaining high knot strength is howe tightly the coils of the knot pull up when you are finished tying it. Time and time again this became evident while I tested using a Berkely monofilament tester. When using the machine, I could watch what was happening with the knot as it, along with the line and knotted connection, stretched before breaking. A good triple surgeon's knot that pulled up tightly would slip little during the stretching process and break at close to 100 percent of the strength. On the other hand, a poorly tied triple surgeon's knot that felt tight, but was obviously not perfect, slipped noticeably just before breaking and then broke at perhaps 60 to 80 percent strength. I'm guessing that the heat along caused by the slipping under pressure causes the monofilament to break prematurely.

I found that in tying either the double or triple surgeon's knots, it's important to apply equal pressure on the pair of ends as the knot is being pulled up. Another trick that people have used for years is to wet the knot with saliva before pulling it up tight. The saliva acts as a lubricant to help tighten the knot. However, I discovered last year when testing Dai-Riki that adding saliva or water actually decreased knot strength because for some reason the "lubricating" made drawing up the knot tightly more difficult. The new Umpqua and Orvis materials reacted in the same manner.

In watching the surgeon's knots break inconsistently, I started thinking about suing something else as a lubricant to allow the monofilament to pull up smoothly and tightly. Obvious things came to mind like grease, silicone, or perhaps liquid detergent. After considering what a fly fisher carries on-stream, I also decided to test fly and line dressings.

For openers I tied up some triple surgeon's knots and tightened them until the single loop double over into a figure 8 about 1/4 inch long. I dabbed on some Gink fly dressing I had handy on a few of the knots and on the others I tried Dawn liquid dishwashing detergent. After the final tightening by hand, I ran them up to pressure on the Berkely machine and bingo. Sundenly I had knots that broke at close to 100 percent. Using the 4X to 5X tippet connection and Dai-Riki material, for instance, I began averages of 4.8 lbs with Dawn and 4.9 with Gink. Compare this with dry-knotted strength at 4.18 lbs. and you can see that there is a significant improvement in knot strength using the lubricants. The average for straight 5X Dai-Riki was only 4.8 lbs. I discovered also, however, that pulling the knots up evenly was an important factor, for even with the lubricants, a few broke prematurely. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to test a variety of lubricants, but I'm confident that there are many other fly and line dressings that would work equally as well.

When tying the surgeon's knots, without using any lubrication, I found that the triple surgeons is approximately 10 percent strong than the double surgeon's knot. A well-tied blood or barrel knot gives 85 to 90 percent knot strength, and by doubling over the smaller side and tying a Stu Apte improved blood knot, the knot strength improves to nearly 100 percent. Lubricating the blood knots also helped to bring the breaking point closer to 100 percent. In tying either the blood knot or the Stu Apte version, I like to use five or six turns per side when tying small diameter materials such as those used in tippets. Up in the leader butt section two or three turns per side is plenty and makes a smaller, cleaner knot. And, of course, in the upper sections knot strength is not a worrisome factor.

Paying more attention to terminal tactics such as leaders, tippets, and knots, can help you become a better fly fisherman. You'll also land more big fish in the process. 

George Anderson, a former guide, is the owner of the Yellowstone Angler in Livingston, MT.

George Tippet Testing