Basic Knowledge of Fly Fishing Leaders Cures Beginner Casting Woes

brown trout provo river utah trout

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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 tapered leaders. Right?

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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 was really a “chuck and duck” situation.

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 a 9 foot 5X tapered leader, but how is a novice fly fisher 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 because it is not bleeding off enough energy. It is not fishing properly and can be dangerous with heavy streamers 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!

The solution to a fly with too much energy is to add more tippet, especially by adding smaller (lighter) tippet before the fly. For example, If using a 9 foot 5X tapered leader and your fly is bouncing back, try adding an additional 12 – 18 inches of 5X, 6X or 7X tippet to the leader, then tie the fly on.

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.

The solution to a fly with too little energy is to remove tippet because you are bleeding off too much energy. For example, If using a 9 foot 5X tapered leader and your fly is landing in a heap, try using a 7.5 foot leader. You can also try removing 12 – 18 inches of the leader, but then the terminal end is larger than 5X. You may have to remove more 2 or 3 feet, then add 12 – 18 inches of 5X and/or 6X tippet back to the shortened leader before tying on the fly.

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

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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.

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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 ether too big or too small (in the slot), so they were immediately released, but the bow went home with me.

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More Basic Truths, Rules or Guidelines about Fly Fishing Leaders

  • Leader provides near invisible separation between fly line & 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 (cut into the wind)
  • 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

But remember that a 6X or 7X Tippet might entice a fish to bite because the line is nearly invisible, it will be very hard to land a big fish on that 2 lb (or less) test line.

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 (especially useful for nymhping rigs like the Provo River Bounce Rig).

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.

    • What ever size fly it is, multiply that size by 3 or 4 that’s your tippet size

  3. I’m new to fly fishing. I have only got one carp so far out of the canals in Phoenix, but not from lack of effort… I spend 3 hours a day stalking the edges of the banks, casting, tying, casting, tying. After reading this I think my lead is spooking the fish. I will try a smaller tippet and hope for the best.
    I am a carp chaser LOL so if there’s anything you could suggest…
    Thanks and fish on.

    • Hi Mike.
      Assuming you will get into big carp, it is a difficult to balance the need for small tippet for less visibility and the ability to hold large fish. Yes, you might get more hits, but you will lose a lot of gear.
      Also, do you think you are spooking them before you cast or that your rig is spooking them after you cast?

      We don’t specialize in fishing for carp, but always try to be quiet and move slowly until the fish prove to you they are not spooky.

      Cast in front of fish when you see them feeding (tailing). Let the fly sink and then give it a little twitch. When you feel a little tug, you will know what to do.

      Here is one of our videos (click here to watch video) catching large brown trout on 3X tippet

  4. Christmas present for husband. Please tell exactly what I need he’s a beginner. Size rod. Tippet. Leader ect. White River

    • Hi Jan:
      I know your husband will be delighted to find a new fly rod under the Christmas tree, but it isn’t that simple unless you know what kind of fishing he will be doing.

      I do not know what type of fly fishing he is planning to do.
      The rod size can mean both the line weight and the length of the rod.
      The weight of the line determines the size flies that can be used.
      Look at my charts above on this post.
      The length of the rod depends on what type of fishing. If he will be fishing for fish in open lakes, rivers, oceans or bays, a long rod will be needed (9 feet or longer).
      If he is fishing for trout in small tight streams, he may need a shorter rod (7.5 feet).
      Depending upon the type fishing he wants to do, he may need a floating line or a sinking line.

      But, for most beginning trout fishermen (and women), the combination that most start with is a 9 foot long, 5 or 6 wt rod, with a 5 or 6 wt fly reel loaded with backing and 5 or 6 wt floating, weight forward fly line.

      Are you also going to start fishing?

  5. I started flyfishing a month ago and your instruction articles have been a great help. I live in British-columbia, but one day I hope to go on a guided tour with you. Thank you very much!

  6. Okay here’s a stupid question for you. Is there a way to tell what leader or tippet you already have on a rod? I am a newbie, hubby bought my (supposedly middle of the road) gear, but now we have no idea what we’ve got.😜

    Thank you!

    • Only stupid question is one that is not asked… Your fly reel should have backing, then flyline then leader, then you may also want to add tippet. You are probably asking about the fly line. Ask the people at the store where he bought it. If he bought it from a person, still take it to a local sporting goods store and ask them. If they can’t tell you, you are at the wrong store. Most good stores can help explain what type of fly line you need for the type of fishing you want to do. Also, the weight of the fly line has to be balance with the rod and reel that were designed to handle specific line weights. Usually folks use 6 weight line on a 6 wt fly rod, but there are exceptions, but not for you as a beginner.

      There is lot’s of “talk” about tapers, cores, coatings, weight forward etc. etc. etc. You’ve just reminded me I should do a post about all that “stuff” for the beginner.

      As for Leader and tippet, you can use the same leader for years if you are nyphing, but may want a new one (some do, I don’t) every time you fish dry flies.

      You should probably use new tippet each time you fish and you may even want to change tippet after you catch a few big fish since it may be prone to break.

      You have lots to learn. A good book my help I recommend this book for dry fly fishing), but it would be best to pay a professional to teach you for a day. Tell them you want more of a lesson than a guided fly fishing trip.
      We would be glad to take you if you find yourself in Utah.

      Good Luck with your new journey.

  7. Good spring afternoon! Spring is on its way here in MI with temps reaching the mid-40’s, but the lakes are still frozen. I’m getting the itch.

    My wife bought me a fly rod, reel and line for my birthday and I’m anxious to try and use it. Being a TX boy all of my life I’m used to 25# test on a MH baitcaster so this is going to be a challenge. She bought a 9-ft 8wt rod with a 7/9 reel and 8wt WF Floating line. I’m wanting to target large-mouth and small-mouth bass with an occasional foray into the trout streams. It seems from my research that I’ll be stretching the limits, both upper and lower, of the 8wt combo, but it may work for what I’m wanting.

    • Hi Shane. An 8 wt rod and line has a lot of flexibility. As you can tell from the chart (Table 1) in the post, an 8 wt line should easily cast size 14 – size 2 flies, which should work for you bass fishing there in Texas. It will also work for those big stocked rainbows in the Rio Guadeloupe. You may want to scale down a bit if you plan to travel to trout streams in my area.

      But I fished with an experienced guy several months ago that was using an 8 wt to cast size 28 & 30 gnats. Most people on the river use 3 – 6 wt because of the small flies we sometimes have to cast, but he was catching fish on the tiniest flies with his 8 wt. On the plus size, when we throw heavier streamers with our light weight gear, we have to play the “chuck & duck” game but it should be about right for an 8 wt.

      The floating line is primarily for fishing on dry flies on top, but it can be weighted to fish under the water. Depending upon how deep you have to fish, you may want to get a sinking line. I am sure there are folks in your area that can help you make the transition to bass fishing with a fly rod. If you get out our way, we can show you how we catch trout.

  8. Hi I hope you can help I just started fly fishing on small still water but want to I’m using 9ft 5/6wt but want to make my own leaders I tend to use size 12 to 16 size dry fly can you recommend what I can use for my leader and tie my own tippet
    Thank you

    • Hi Julian. Tapered leaders make it easy, but everyone used to have to build all their leaders. Art Lee’s fly fishing book has an entire chapter of leader formulas, but you can experiment until you find what you need. Everyone adds their own tippet (if needed) to the end of a tapered leader.
      The downside of building your own leaders are the knots. Each knot can catch moss. This may or not be an issue for you fishing in ponds.
      As discussed in the post, the purpose of the leader is to create distance from the fly line, but also because the line becomes smaller and smaller, it also dissipates the energy that is generated in the fly line when you cast, so the fly lands quietly on the water.
      An Example from the book to build a 9 foot 5x leader would be like this: 23 inches of .022 (inch diameter), 15 inches of .020, 11 in. .017, 9 in. of .015, 7 in. of .013, 6 in. of .011, 5 in. of .010, 4 in. of .009, 3 in. of .008, 2 in. of .007 and 23 inches of .006 (5x). Very complicated as you can see and requires you to keep lots of different line on hand.

      I never build anything so complicated, but have built a few simpler leaders when I was out of tapered leaders. Start with 36 inches of 2x, 24 inches of 3x, 18 inches of 4x and 18 inches of 5x. And then balance (shorten or lengthen) the last piece of 5 or 6x tippet to match the fly you are casting.
      You can see why most people buy tapered leaders. But buy tapered leaders and tippet from places that sell lots, so there is always fresh line on the shelves. Avoid places like Wal-mart where leaders and tippet may sit for months under the florescent lights. I made that mistake once because I had no choice, but broke more rigs in a single day than I did all Summer.

      I buy lots of leaders and tippet online at Amazon. Remember that light and heat can break down nylon material, so if you buy in bulk to save money, make sure to keep it in the dark and out of the heat. Leave your fishing vest one time in a hot car and you may notice your tippet is not as strong as it should be.
      Good luck on your fly fishing journey.

  9. Dennis Vernon says

    Can you recommend a book on setting up a rod from backing to line and leader and tippet as it seems to be a lot more in setting up a fly rod than matching a line to a rod

  10. This is a very helpful article. Like you I fly fished a long time before starting to realize now how important (and flexible) the leader/tippet configuration is. Another tip I read from the Orvis site, in the case of not enough turnover (example B here) is to add some material between the fly line and leader, matching the stiffness and diameter of the butt end of the leader. That way, you can take some off the finer end, such as the tippet or the end of the leader, but still maintain a longer leader overall, for cases when that’s important, such as with wary trout. Essentially you’re keeping a long leader by making the butt end longer, as opposed to the floppy tippet end. Thanks again for these helpful tips and rules of thumb. I know they’re going to help me in getting deeper into this.

  11. I guess I am a bit thick but I am having trouble understanding the fig 1 graph . Which part is the fly rod length and which is the wt. Also do you think sow bug fly’s would work in finland for browns in the fall with your bounce method

  12. Timothy G Wood says

    My wife and I are going to Alaska summer of 2022, we are planning on fishing for rainbow’s in the Kenai river using bed setup. We both have a #8 rod with #8 Floating line WF Taper. What number leader should I be using?


    • First thing I do when fishing a new place is to ask locals what their setup is for that time of year.
      Go to the flyshops or call them before you go. They will give good advice.
      Assuming you meant bead setup where you drift beads or “flesh flies”? I think most of those guys just use 10 or 12 lb line as leader.

  13. Tillman Sherman says

    I am starting up a skills session for new fly fishers in the Jackson, CA area. While searching for basic information to present to them I came accross your flyfishing leader-basics. I must congratulate you on your presentation. It is the most succint and well written account of basic learders. etc. that ai have read since 1970! THANK YOU!

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