Photo: Dave McKenzie
Whether buying a knotless leader off the shelf or tying together your own, you must consider things like the fly line you're using, style(s) of fly you plan on tossing, wind conditions, and water clarity.
There's simply no single best leader for all situations. There are ones that are long, short, stiff, supple, section lengths can vary, etc......you get the picture! We already broke down some quick leader knowledge in our "Fly Fishing Basics Section" right here, but I wanted to go slightly deeper on a few things that might help our readers out.....
Adding Tippet- Knotless tapered leaders are great, but they can have relatively short tippet sections. Depending on the type of fishing you're doing, this might not be such a big deal, but it can be. Another issue with these leaders is that there's no set point that you can distinctly see where the narrowest tippet diameter begins. With a leader you tie from scratch, there will be knots at all the various joints so you know exactly where each piece begins and ends, but not so with these tapered knotless leaders. That makes it more difficult to know exactly how much good tippet you're starting with or how much remains (if any) after you start changing flies throughout the day.
When fishing flies like small dry flies, tying on additional tippet to the end of the existing leader can be beneficial or even mandatory. You can try adding anywhere from two to four feet (or maybe more?) of your own tippet that's the same or less than the diameter/strength of the main leader's tippet. The added tippet (especially a very supple material) allows small flies to drift more naturally in mixed currents and you have a longer, distinct buffer zone as far as usable tippet goes. This added line also softens turnover to allow small dries to "float" down to the water's surface rather than splat down unnaturally.
Also, remember to factor in how much tippet you plan on adding when choosing the length of the leader you want to buy. There might be some trial and error here to get everything just right as far as presentation/turnover, but that all comes with experience. That long tippet piece you tied on is probably great for fishing tiny dries on a calm day, but it might lack the power to efficiently turn over a big beadhead nymph or hopper in the wind. Also, don't overlook shortening the existing leader before tying on your extra tippet piece to keep the overall length where you want it.
Try a Tippet Ring- A while back, I did a quick review of RIO's tippet rings here. Tippet rings allow you to do things like add a dropper fly or, better yet, prolong the life of your leader. As you change flies, the tippet length gets progressively shorter and shorter to the point where a new section will have to be tied on. Each time you have to retie a new connection knot from the main leader to the new tippet piece, the main leader length shrinks a bit as well. No matter if you're using a knotless tapered leader or one you made entirely, adding a tippet ring to the end of a leader can help. With a ring in place, you simply tie the additional tippet material to it. When the tippet becomes too short or you just want to switch to a longer/lighter tippet piece, just clip it off and tie the new tippet piece back onto the ring while keeping the rest of the leader untouched.
Sometimes It Ain't That Serious- If you fish streamers a ton like I do, leaders can be much simpler and often much shorter than average. For example, when streamer fishing in a river with a sink-tip line, anglers often use a very short leader as it helps the line pull the fly down fast and affords you better control of the fly. As an added bonus, a short leader turns over easily so there's no worry about using a tapered system.
When I say short, just a single 3 or 4 foot piece of line might be all you need for quickly stripping large streamers through river pools and runs. When streamer fishing in a brisk current, fish concentrate on that meaty fly zipping by without scrutinizing the leader setup, plus the end of a sink-tip line is usually very dull in color for stealth. With that said, I do use longer streamer leaders with sinking lines, too. Examples of when I'd go this route would be when fishing very clear water in saltwater or a lake, or if I don't need the fly to sink extremely fast.
For me, these longer leaders would be a more typical length of about 7 feet up to 9 or 10 feet and consist of just two or at most three pieces of line (I usually tie my own). You'll also want to employ longer leaders when streamer fishing with a floating line. This will allow the fly to sink on its own more effectively, especially with the more tippet you use since it's the thinnest part of the leader system. The heads of floating lines are typically more visible as well, so the longer leader gives you better separation between fly line and fly.
The old 60/20/20 leader rule can be used as a starting point for these longer leaders (as explained in the link at the beginning of this article), but that formula can be adjusted or thrown out the window based on conditions and how you're fishing. Remember, with any leader, the longer the butt section in relation to the leader's length, the worse the sink rate but the more powerful the turnover. The longer the tippet, the softer the turnover but the better the sink rate.
There's so many variables involved that there's no one-size-fits-all for leaders. One angler may set theirs up one way, yet another angler has a different preferred method. Casting ability, line style, wind, fly size, and how you're fishing must all be factored in. Leader setups can seem unnecessarily confusing, but a simple approach often works just fine. If it all seems particularly daunting, have a local fly shop help you get started, then as you gain experience you'll quickly get a handle on what works works for you!