CHOOSING A FLY FISHING LEADER
There are lots of brands, styles and types of fly fishing leaders on the market today, and as long as you choose a good quality one that is suitable for your type of fly fishing and one that provides a good value for its price you are going to be just fine. The most common leader types today are knotless tapered leaders, knotted leaders, and braided leaders. The most common materials are solid nylon (Commonly called monofilament) and fluorocarbon (technically known as polyvinylidene fluoride, or PVDF, but let's just call it fluorocarbon from now on!). The term monofilament is a little misleading, because leaders made from both nylon and fluorocarbon can be monofilament (single filament), but for modern fly fishing we usually use nylon and monofilament synonymously.
Today's tapered leaders are designed according to formulas that allow the energy flowing from your rod through your tapered fly line into the leader to be transmitted smoothly to the end of the leader. Properly tapered leaders can mean the difference between a good cast and a tangled mess.
KNOTLESS LEADERS: More than 90% of the leaders sold today are knotless tapered leaders. Unlike hand-tied knotted leaders, which are made from sections of various sizes of monofilament tied together in gradually decreasing sizes, knotless leaders are manufactured by an extrusion process that decreases the size of the leader at a constant rate throughout its length. Since the manufacturing process has improved dramatically in the last couple of decades, most fly anglers are perfectly happy using knotless leaders. They are reasonably priced, they have no knots to catch on guides and stream vegetation, and they cast well as long as the leader type is matched to the fishing conditions.
Nylon (or monofilament leaders) are the standard, and perform best under a wide variety of conditions. Nylon has a specific gravity of about 1.1 (with water at 1.0) so it tends to ride high in the surface film and sink very slowly. Fluorocarbon has a specific gravity of about 1.75, so it sinks much faster than nylon. There are many theories about whether a leader should float or sink, and whether one or the other spooks fish more, but the general consensus seems to be that nylon leaders are fine for the majority of fly fishing situations, and fluorocarbon might be the choice for stillwater or spring creek fly fishing over leader-shy trout or on heavily-fished waters. many anglers blend nylon leaders with fluorocarbon tippets, but be aware that fluorocarbon is a bit more difficult to tie knots with. The Triple Surgeon's Knot works well when joining different types and diameters of leader material.
A good example of blending leader materials is in strike indicator fishing. Since you want the strike indicator to ride high, you tie it to a nylon leader. However, you want the Beadhead Price nymph below the indicator to sink quickly, so you use fluorocarbon tippet material between the indicator and the nymph.
KNOTTED LEADERS: Many anglers
choose to hand-tie their own leaders, feeling that the leader is a
critical component and shouldn't be left to a machine. Tying your own
leaders is quite economical compared to buying knotless ones, and there
are lots of good formulas available or you can tinker with your own. It
is hard to find commercially hand-tied leaders anymore, but the ones
that are available are things of beauty. They are a pleasure to cast and
just have a classic feeling to them. Again, most anglers tying their
own do so with either nylon or fluorocarbon, or a combination of both.
There is something about a hand-tied leader that is very satisfying,
much like the feel of having your own hand-tied fly pattern tied on your
BRAIDED LEADERS: Braided leaders
have a following, especially among those who really delight in the super
delicate presentation of small flies over spooky fish. They are very
supple and transmit the energy smoothly from line to fly, and their
broader profile is wind resistant, allowing the fly to land delicately.
If you work often over finicky trout with small flies, you might enjoy
trying the braided leaders. You can use a much longer tippet (as long as
4-5 feet!) on a braided leader than on a monofilament leader, allowing
for a more delicate presentation.
LEVEL LEADER: A level
(or non-tapered) leader has a limited place in our arsenal. In some
fishing situations using sinking or sink-tip lines anglers will often
just tie a 3-6 foot piece of monofilament to their fly line. When
casting heavily-weighted or large flies (chuck-and-duck) a tapered
leader sometimes is a hindrance rather than an aid, and if you are using
a specific density of sinking fly line to get down to an exact depth,
you may not want the fly wandering around at the end of a long tapered
leader at different depths than the line.