Basic Knowledge of Fly Fishing Leaders Cures Beginner Casting Woes

When I started fly fishing, I spent weeks researching about different fly rods and reels and constantly bugged everyone in sight about what flies the fish were hitting. But I spent very little time learning about leaders. In fact, I skipped over that part in my fly fishing book, thinking I’ll come back to this if I ever need it. After all, I can just buy knotless tapered leaders. Right?

When I bought my first fly fishing reel, fly line and backing, the salesperson also showed me the tapered leaders he used, so I bought a couple of packs of 9 Foot 5X tapered leaders. These leaders worked well for me when I fished small (size 14-20) dry flies  for trout on my local stream. My casting improved and most of the time, I caught a few fish.

leader effect on fly casting

Figure 1. Example A: Leader too Short or too Light, B: Leader too Long or too Heavy and C: Leader Just Right.

When I tried to fish the reservoir for larger trout, my attempts at casting large streamers with the same 9 foot 5X tapered leader was a total flop. Dangerous is a better description of what happened and I’m lucky I didn’t loose an eye or get my ears pierced.

It seems funny now that I could recite the purpose of the leader (provide a nearly invisible link between the fly line and the fly and at the same time bleed off the energy from the cast so the fly turns over and lands quietly on the water), but expected the same result when casting a much larger fly with no adjustment to the leader. I think of myself as a semi-educated, semi-intelligent guy, but how did I expected the same result using a much larger fly?

Rules of Thumb for Fly Fishing Leader

I know now, the #10 weighted streamer was too big for for a 9 foot 5X tapered leader, but how is a novice supposed to know? What are the tell-tell signs? What are the rules of thumb?

Figure 1 is my attempt to explain what happened to me. Example A shows a cast that results in the leader all piled up in one place. This is not always bad and you may want to do it on purpose with a parachute cast to put some slack in the line, but this is not good when you don’t want the slack, but want to cast like example C.

It is caused by a leader that is too short and/or too light for the fly line and fly combination. The heavy fly shoots past the line and bounces back when it runs reaches the end and lands in a heap. It is dangerous because the fly also does this on the back cast, so when we try to cast forward, it is out of control. Heads up! Watch Out! Fore!

Example B shows what happens when the leader is too long or too heavy for the fly line and fly combination. There is too much drag and the fly fails to turn over. This also leads to more “wind knots”, which are mainly caused by such open loops.

Rules for Buying Tapered Leaders

There are some very complex formulas for tying your own tapered leaders, but how do you know which is the correct tapered leader to buy?

For starters, you should know what fly size your particular weight rod and line is designed to cast. Table 1 shows the general rule of thumb for fly rod and fly line weight and fly size. I have seen many different recommendations and some may argue that Table 1 is too liberal, others that it is too restrictive, but it will still serve as a good starting place.

Table 1. Fly Rod Rod/Fly Line Weight & Fly Size Table

fly rod flyline and fly size table

So Table 1 shows that my # 10 streamer was not a ridiculous choice for a 6 wt fly rod. It was my choice of leader that was ridiculous. So how do we fix it?

Since the choice of fly was within reason and we know the leader was too short and/or too light because the way it cast, we need to make the leader longer and/or heavier.

Another Rule of Thumb that helps choose the right tippet size for each fly size is to divide the fly size by 3.


  • Size 22/3 = 7.3 or 7X tippet
  • Size 18/3 = 6X tippet
  • Size 16/3 = 5.3 or 5X tippet
  • Size 12/3 = 4X tippet

There is some leeway to this rule as shown in Table 2, but it is still a good rule of thumb.

Table 2. Tippet Size & Fly Size Table

match fly size to tippet size table

So, for my #10 weighted streamer, 10/3 = 3.3 so a 3X tippet should work. Table 2 shows that 2X – 4X tippet will work for a #10 fly. Since the streamer was weighted, I should probably go with the larger 2X or 3X tippet. I decided on 3X to keep the tippet less visible.

So, 3X tapered leaders are sold in 7.5, 9 & 12 foot lengths. Is there a rule of thumb for leader length?

The rule of thumb is stick with the 9 foot leader, especially for beginners as longer leaders are hard to cast, so that is what I did. Now, using what I learned about how the rig should cast (Figure 1), I should be able to determine if the 3X leader was to light or too heavy or if the 9 foot length was too long or too short by the way it cast.

Return to the Reservoir

I returned to the reservoir armed with a new 9 foot 3X leader and tried the same #10 streamer.  If the leader was too long or too heavy, I planned to cut a foot off and try again. If it was too short or too light, the plan was to add a foot or two of 3X or 4X tippet and try again. My first few casts were so much better than before, but the fly still had too much weight or energy, so I added two feet of 4X tippet and cast again.

22 inch 4½ pound rainbow trout

Rainbow Trout – 22 inches – 4½ pounds.

Whoo Hoo! Now we’re fishing. I caught 5 or 6 cutthroat trout between 16 & 22 inches and a 22 inch rainbow. All of the cuttys were in the slot, so they were released, but the bow went home with me.

More Basic Truths, Rules or Guidelines about Fly Fishing Leaders

  • Leader provides near invisible separation between fly line and fly
  • Leader designed to bleed off energy so fly turns over and lands quietly on the water
  • Most leaders used for trout are 7½-9 feet with 4X-7X tippet
  • Min-Max leaders for trout 6-15 feet with 3X-8X tippet
  • Use longer butt section for stiffer presentation
  • Use shorter butt section and longer mid section and tippet for  softer presentations and less drag
  • Shorter leaders provide better control
  • Longer leaders support finer tippet for shy fish

Got Tippet Rings?

I also learned that after changing flies four or five times, the tapered leader is about a foot shorter that it started and the end of the taper is larger than the original. So, I learned to fix it by tying on another foot of 5X or 6X tippet and I learned to use tippet rings so I never have to cut the leader in the first place.

While I was learning about leaders, I ran across a statement that knot-less leaders were designed for an average caster to cast ­an average size fly an average distance. So I guess this means that to become a better than average caster or to cast longer than average distances, we have to learn to tie our own tapered leaders.

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  1. Lesley Rorrer says:

    Nothing works for me when I try fly fishing. I have never been taught anything about fly rods, weight and size of fly line or how to balance a 5’6″ rod. I would like to know more about ultra-light reels also.

    • If you are using a 5’6″ rod, you must be fishing small steams with lots of trees and shrubs to dodge. That is tough fishing. Tell me more about what type of fishing you want to do and what kind of streams you have.

      Most small streams have wild fish, so you have to be sneaky. It probably won’t matter what equipment you use, what techniques you use or what flies you use if you scare the fish walking up to the stream.

      Before worrying about balancing your rod or picking the right fly line, try using a short pole (collapsible, cane or willow) and a short piece of line and crawl up to the stream and dropping a black ant or worm (live or artificial/whatever is legal) into the water and let it float down past a log or through a deep pool. You may get tangled and not be able to land a fish, but first try to see if you can be sneaky enough to get a fish to bite.

      It’s easier to cast to fish in larger steams. And many fish are so used to seeing people that they don’t stop feeding. You don’t have to be sneaky to cast to these fish, but you have to present the fly in a natural manner. Think about it this way, they are used to people, but they have seen it all as far as flies and presentations. To catch them, you will have to have a fly they expect to see and it has to float perfectly (drag-free).

      One thing I have learned in the last few years (fishing with my fly fishing coach), is that we can get big results from making small changes.
      I wasn’t doing things that different from the way I fish now, but before I was lucky to catch a fish and now I expect to catch lots of fish. In fact, most times if I don’t get a strike after 5 or 6 casts, check to make sure the rig isn’t tangled, or covered in moss or that the weights or flies haven’t been lost.

      Part of the trick is learning when and where different techniques work and the other part is tweaking those techniques. For example, may people only want to fish dry flies. There is nothing more exciting that watching a fish take your dry fly, but sometimes if you want to catch fish, you have to fish under the water because there is nothing hatching and therefore nothing on top for the fish to eat.

      So when fishing under the water (nymphing or bouncing – see post on bounce rig), are you using enough weight? Too much weight? Is your indicator too large or too small? Do you need to adjust the tag lengths or the distance between the fly and the indicator?

      When dry fly fishing, concentrate on getting a good presentation and a drag-free float. I know guys that catch thousands of fish and only use a few types of dry flies. Matching the hatch always helps, but the main thing is the presentation and the float.

      You will catch more fish with short casts where you can mend properly and control the drift than with long casts. Work on technique first, then on reaching fish far away.
      You should always fish close anyway, otherwise you will scare fish that are close to you trying to reach those far away.

      Anyway Lesley, let me know where you are and what type of fishing you want to do and we will try to help you solve some of these problems.

  2. Ashok Vashisht says:

    I am a bit confused about leader choice. If my Rod is 8-6″, weight 5 and my line is WF5-F/WF6-F and I am using Flies/Nymphs in size 12-14 my Tippet would be 4X? But what is the formula to calculate the correct Leader?

    • I don’t think there is an actual formula available to calculate the correct length and taper or sections of different sized line. Some fly fishing articles publish “formulas”, meaning examples that you can try (see page 150 in Art Lee’s Book).
      I think it is more important to recognize when you are or are not achieving the cast that you want (as illustrated in Figure 1 in my post) and then know what to do to fix the problem of too much or too little energy being transmitted down the line to the fly.
      Also, it depends on how spooky (leader shy) the fish are in your stream and how choppy or calm the water is. Longer leaders are more difficult to control, but are better for shy fish in clear, calm water; as is smaller tippet.
      We generally stick with 9 foot 4X and 5X tapered leaders for most dry fly fishing. If we think the fish are spooked by the heavy leader, we add a foot or so of smaller tippet. But then we have to balance that with the size of fish we are likely to catch. They may bite better if we use small tippet, but we loose too many if the fish are big.

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