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Yet a long leader is one of the greatest strike getters in fishing and a tapered leader is one of the greatest aids to good casting. If the butt section, next to the line, is heavy enough, a long leader is easy to cast and enables the angler to put the fly down accurately and quietly.
It is this heavy butt section that makes the leader lay out, and from it the leader is gradually tapered down to the tippet required for the fish being sought. For instance, when I go for big tarpon, I taper my leaders from a 30-pound test butt section through 25-, 20- and I5-pound test sections to a I2-pound test tippet, using this weight of tippet because tarpon fray a leader and the heavy diameter will make it just that much harder for them. For bonefish I taper the leader down to a 6-pound test tippet, or occasionally, if there is a lot of tough grass on the flats, I use an 8-pound test tippet. For brown trout in clear, shallow streams, I go to a 4- or 5-X tippet, while for the same fish in big, rough rivers, and using streamers, I tie on a 4- to 6-pound test tippet. But in all these leaders, regardless of the heavy or delicate tippet, I start with the same 30-pound test butt section and graduate down to the desired size.
In each case, the butt section and the tippet section should be longer than the other graduations. For instance on a I4-foot leader tapered down to a 6-pound test tippet, the ideal arrangement of lengths is three feet of 30-pound test butt section, two feet of 25, two feet of 20, I8 inches of 15, one foot of 12, one foot of I o, 18 inches of 8-pound test and two feet of 6-pound test. With such a heavy butt section the leader will have what it takes to turn the fly over, while the long, light tippet will make for a minimum of water disturbance, will be less likely to be seen by the fish, and will allow the angler to work the fly better.
By using heavy diameters in the butt section it is possible to cast a leader 25 feet in length, and I know one man who always uses a 30-foot leader. He catches a lot of fish, too, and while that is going to the opposite extreme, nevertheless there is no doubt about the efficiency of a long leader. Just to try it out one time, I tied a 45-foot leader, graduated from 45-pound test nylon leader material at the butt down to a 6-pound test point. With that leader and an HDH line on an 8-foot rod, I cast 70 feet.
And while such leaders are an unnecessary extreme, and would be no good for short casts, the illustration at least points up the fact that a properly tapered leader is but an extension of the fly line. And any fly fisherman who switches from a short, untapered leader to a properly graduated one, 10 to 14 feet long, will soon find his hits increasing.
In the taking of trout, especially, there is no doubt in my mind that it is the thin tippet that pays off. Once in Maryland I was fishing Beaver Creek, a small limestone stream. As I worked upstream I came to a long, narrow pool, not more than 20 feet wide. I paused to look things over, and immediately saw a fish break. That trout really looked big and without thinking I cut off the light tapered end of my leader and tied on a IX tippet. I crawled on my hands and knees into position and while still kneeling began to cast. The fly floated perfectly over the brownie's feeding station. Every once in a while he would rise and pick a natural off the surface. Each time he did that I got gooseflesh, and felt like putting a 10-pound test leader on. But my offering floated forlornly along, untouched.
Then, heart in mouth, I went back to my 4X tippet. The third float he took, and I had him for half an hour before the hook pulled out. I departed, having learned a lesson. Back I came a week later. Once again I saw and heard his break and once again it was too much for me. This time I started with a 2X tippet but once again I went down to the 4X before he hit. Then I was so tense that I struck too hard and left the fly in his mouth.
The third time I started with a 4X tippet and he took the first float. I had him on for about three seconds before the hook pulled out. But the fourth time did it. Having really learned my lesson, I started with the 4X tippet and again he took on the first float. After a half hour of battling to keep him from tangling in some roots on the far side of the pool, I beached him. He looked about seven pounds, a beautiful fish. I took the hook out and returned him to the water. Later I went back to try for him again and he wasn't there. Then, via the grapevine I heard that someone had taken a 6-pound, 12-ounce brownie from that pool by using an illegal bush-bob.
That experience alone made me realize that to consistently take brownies, the finer the leader the better-and the same applies in most types of fly fishing. It also taught me what a licking a 4X gut tippet will take. Such a thin strand is capable of landing a really big fish as long as the angler doesn't try to horse him in.
Where the water is deep and heavy, however, it is safe to use a heavier tippet. For instance, on the Taylor River in Colorado, early in the season I often use a 2X tippet, changing to 3X in the quieter parts of the pools. In fast, rushing water the fish do not notice the heavier leader and it is needed to bring a fish upstream after he has hit and plunged downstream into the swift water, where any quick jerk of the fight might break a fine leader. The same holds true in any similar water like the Gunnison and East Rivers in Colorado, or the big Montana rivers during the early part of the season-rivers such as the Yellowstone, Madison, Big Hole and Big Blackfoot-and in parts of the Deschutes in Oregon, as well as during the early fishing in the big Eastern streams. But when the river drops and grows crystal clear, tie on the 4X tippet in a hurry for regular strikes.
For a long, long time, since the horsehair days, gut has been the material of which leaders were made but during recent years nylon has surged ahead until today there are only a few anglers, myself included, who still swear by gut. Granted that in the heavier weights nylon leader material is just about unbeatable, when you go down to the really light weights there is much to be said for gut. Particularly for trout fishing, when using dry flies or nymphs, I prefer the entire leader made of gut because it gives a gentler presentation, causes less water disturbance and is more difficult for the fish to see. And while nylon stands up wonderfully in the heavier calibrations, when it goes down to such light tippets as 3X or ¢X and lighter, it is difficult to cast. Often even the slightest puff of wind will cause the tippet to birdnest and fall into a mass of twists and coils. And fish like to see their prey looking natural, not with a coil of leader material in front of it or sticking out of the water in a jumble, and they spot such things in a hurry, as well as the water commotion caused by a too-heavy tippet. The lighter the leader tippet the more strikes the angler will get.
Still more disconcerting is the fact that in cold weather nylon leader material of very fine calibrations is inclined to snap. During the cold days of the early season, or in the fall, the angler may lose fish by the nylon breaking under pressure and he may lose flies when they snap off in the air behind him as he casts in the chilly atmosphere.
I well remember fishing for Atlantic salmon in Newfoundland, using nylon leaders. I tapered down to a 4-Pound test tippet and lost several nice fish when the leaders gave each time. After losing a couple of flies, too, while false casting, I tied on a 6-pound test tippet and everything was all right from then on. A couple of days later when the weather warmed up, I once more put on the 4-pound test tippet and it worked fine. But if a 4-pound test nylon tippet breaks in cold weather, what chance is there for tippets tapered down to 3X and 4X? So when I go for fish that require extra fineness in the tippet-brownies, for instance-I stick to gut tippets for three reasons-better casting, better presentation of flies, and because the gut does not break in cold weather.
Even a fine gut leader floating along the surface may sometimes look very large indeed and may cause a fish to refuse your offerings. As far as I have been able to discover there has never been a really successful concoction on the market to make leaders sink. All the several kinds which are available last only for one cast, then, a false cast or two and there is the tippet, riding high and unhandsome again. So now, when I think a sinking tippet is needed for a certain fish, I rub the leader sink on and gamble all on one cast because I know that if that one cast does not produce, I'll never go to all that trouble again.
Most leader sink has a soap base and many anglers make their own. Or they use that which is readily available along most river beds-mud. Rub a little of that on and the leader will sink for a cast. Better still is fish slime. If you have a fish in your creel, just wet your fingers and rub them along the side of the fish, then on the leader, and it will sink. But in spite of the fact that I occasionally resort to some of this procedure, there will always remain in my mind some doubt as to whether or not a sinking leader is any better than a floating one. For although the sight of the tippet on the water disturbs me considerably, and I feel it must disturb the fish, too, yet 99 per cent of the times I take fish I do so with the whole leader floating on the surface.
Similarly, I am inclined to believe that color in leaders is of no great consequence, so long as the leader is fine enough.
In this day of ready-packaged deals, knotless leaders have appeared on the market and there is certainly nothing against them as a starting point. However, in practical use there is really no such thing as a knotless leader. Once he has changed flies on the stream, the angler has taken the first step toward removing the carefully prepared taper. He may untie the clinch knot where the fly is attached to the leader by pulling on it with his finger nail, but it will come away curled up and probably will have to be clipped before another fly can be tied on. After a couple such fly changes, the length of the light diameter required at the end of the leader has been so shortened that it is necessary to tie on another tippet to maintain the proper leader length and fineness-and there is the knot. Or the angler may lose part of the leader by hanging up on an overhanging branch-and again, there is the knot.
Certainly fish see knots because sometimes small fish will strike at a leader knot, but I don't believe a well tied small blood knot used for joining the various sections of a leader together scares them enough to make the angler lose strikes. And any slight disadvantage is offset, to me, by the fact that the knots add a little weight, which makes casting easier, and I, for one, will gladly accept any help I can get in improving my casting.
So, while I am not belittling ready-tapered, knotless leaders, they are not by any means essential to good fly fishing, and even if the fly fisherman has his tackle kit crammed full of them, he will still have to know how to tie a blood knot. In other words, it's more important to know how to tie a blood knot than to know where to buy a knotless leader.
All too many anglers put on a tippet of one weight, maybe hitting what they consider a happy medium in breaking strength, and never vary from that. Yet for really efficient fishing, every species and every situation may call for a different leader, and the knowledge of what leader to use, or the lack of that knowledge may easily make or break a man's fishing throughout the season.
For instance, in heavy water, wet-fly fishermen often use very heavy tippets and get away with it. The heavy tippet has the advantage there, of absorbing a sudden, hard strike, when the angler might ordinarily break off his fish. On the other hand, in clear water and still pools, he must go down to 2X, 3X or even 4X tippets to consistently take trout. But in this case he is using a light delivery, casting carefully, and hiding from the fish. He can watch his line for evidence of a hit or can spot the telltale flash as the fish takes, so he is ready and can set the hook with only a slight lift of the rod tip, thus avoiding snapping his leader.
Even the difference between 3X and 4X diameter often will be the difference between taking or not taking trout, especially browns.
When fishing for smallmouth or largemouth black bass, on the other hand, a heavier leader tippet than that used for trout is in order. A very light leader might snap under the force of the strike the angler uses with these species. For smallmouth bass a 4- to 6-pound test nylon leader tippet is small enough not to scare the fish and strong enough to stand the heavy hit combined with the angler's instinctive reaction. For large mouth, an 8- to I o-pound test is the choice. Largemouth don't seem to spot a large leader as readily as do smallmouth, and the bugs and flies being fished are usually larger. Then too, largemouth are heavier, and often lie around old docks, weeds and other obstacles upon which a light leader tippet might readily come to grief.
With the advent of some of the new nylon leaders it is possible to go very fine and still have considerable strength in the tippet. In salt water I am continually amazed at how much a nylon leader will stand. It is almost impossible to break a I2pound test tippet. I have tangled with tarpon weighing up to a hundred pounds, fighting them with a 12-pound test leader for as long as three hours. Eventually the tarpon always frayed through the leader with their gill covers but the nylon never broke under the pressure.
However, many a leader has broken from lack of care, and nearly always such a break comes at a time when the angler is particularly anxious to land a big one. The longer I fish the more I realize that you don't get too many shots at really big fish and that when you do, everything must be just right. And because the leader is the weakest part of fly fishing equipment, special care should be taken to be sure that delicate strand is in good repair.
The ones we lose are the ones we remember-and who wants to remember a record fish, lost just because of faulty equipment? I'll never forget one terrific fish that paid me a brief visit. I was down at the Isle of Pines, Cuba, fishing with Vic Barothy. I had just landed a bonefish that ran up and down along the length of the skiff as I tried to bring him in close enough to land. Finally I got him in, took the hook out and released him. As I straightened, Vic spoke.
"Look what's coming!" he said. "Looks like a permit!"
Down the flat a good 300 feet away a fish was pushing up a wave in front of him as he traveled slowly our way.
Without thinking to check my leader I hurriedly made ready to cast. When he was about 70 feet away I shot that inch-long white bucktail out. It dropped two feet in front of and a foot our side of him.
The wave turned without hesitation and rushed the fly. I had a hit and started to raise the rod tip to strike. And then the whole thing collapsed. The line fell in the water, everything went slack, and the fish got out of there a mile a minute.
"He was 30 pounds," said Vic. "You broke him off."
"I didn't break him off," I said. "The hook must have pulled out. I didn't even have time to strike."
I brought the line in and looked at the leader. It was cut through up in the butt section, the 30-pound test section. The bonefish had put a nick in it when he ran up and down along the skiff.
Had I checked that leader I would have had time-just-to change to another. Here was the one time when everything was in my favor to take a big fish. There were no obstructions around, nothing but open water for half a mile, no big sea fans, no upjutting coral heads, just a wonderful chance to let that fish run and fight. Maybe I would have landed him, maybe not, but I'd surely have liked to have a good leader to try it.
So, especially when fishing in the salt for such rough-mouthedscaled-finned fighters as the tarpon, ladyfish, snook and others, it always pays to run the fingers the length of the leader each time, after playing and landing a fish. And after a long fight with a fish, it is a good precaution to cut the bug or fly off, and re-tie it, just in case the knot has weakened. The more careful the fisherman is with his equipment, the better are his chances of landing those big hulks, and the lesser ones, too.
Nylon leaders require very little care, other than the above, but gut leader material must always be kept wet. It is almost impossible to tie a knot in a dry gut leader as the material will become brittle and break. The same applies on the strike when a fish takes. Many anglers tie on a dry gut leader, make a cast, get a hit-and of course the leader snaps. The only thing that prevents this happening more often is that usually it is impossible to tie on the fly without the leader breaking and warning the fisherman.
The tippets carried to add to the leader when necessary must also be kept wet at all times or they, too, will become brittle and break off at the slightest strain, even on the backcast.
The most satisfactory system I have found is to use a round leader box with several felt pads cut to fit it. The pads always must be kept wet. Between the two top pads I put the coiled tippets of the finest calibration I plan to use-these at the top because they will be the most often needed for replacement. Between the second and third felts I put the next heaviest leader lengths, and so on down to the bottom where I always keep several new, fully tied leaders, ready to use.
Both nylon and gut are inclined to curl, especially nylon, and particularly in the heavy butt sections. But even the more vital tippet will sometimes form into coils and float along in a ball so startling that no self-respecting fish would look at the fly while that monstrosity is riding close by. Sometimes the leader kinks can be taken out by simply stretching the leader slightly between the hands, but a better way is to carry a small piece of rubber, such as a bit of inner tube. By simply placing the leader between two folds of the rubber and pulling it through, it is possible to straighten the leader right out. Certain flies, such as fan wings, will cause a leader to twist, too, and here again the bit of rubber will help straighten it again.
One other point that further influences me in favor of gut tippets is that they always hold true on the exact diameters for the X classifications. On the other hand, manufacturers' specifications on diameters for the pound test strength in nylon tippets vary greatly, and it is necessary to be sure to get both the small diameter and the right breaking strength. Some nylon leader material now on the market is very thin, yet has a high breaking point. For instance, some of the 3.8-pound test nylon now in stores fits the 4X classification, whereas in gut the 4X would indicate a breaking strength of roughly a pound and a half.