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A Beginner's Guide to Building Leaders for Saltwater Fly Fishing

In saltwater fly fishing — when stronger fish, larger flies, and more extreme conditions are at play — it is critical to have a well constructed leader for success on the water. A leader is the connection between your fly line, the fly, and ultimately the fish. Understanding how to put together a well built leader helps anglers improve their chances of success on the water.

This article covers:

Understanding leader components

The three main components of a basic saltwater fly fishing leader are the butt section, the mid section(s), and the tippet. The butt section of the leader is attached to the end of your fly line, while the tip section is tied directly to your fly. Leaders can be customized to affect casting accuracy, casting distance, fly presentation, stealth, and breaking strength.

The butt section of your fly leader

The butt section is the thickest and stoutest part of the leader — helping to transfer the energy of your cast from your fly line to the fly. The butt section is often made of heavy monofilament, fluorocarbon, or other specialized leader material.

The mid sections of your fly leader

After the butt section, the next section or sections of leader dictate the nature of your leader's taper(aggressive or gradual). More aggressive tapers are typically better for fishing larger flies or in windier conditions,  while more gradual tapers can be better when lighter presentations are required to avoid spooking wary fish.

Shock tippet, bite tippet, light tippet, and their uses

The third and final section of a your leader is the tippet. Your tippet section can either be thinner or thicker than the thickness of your final mid section. Thicker tippet is often referred to as "shock tippet" or "bite tippet," and is meant to provide extra strength and abrasion resistance when targeting toothy or rough-mouthed fish like snook, tarpon, and barracuda. Anglers often opt for lighter tippet in clear, calm, shallow water when extra stealth is required.

Choosing the right leader materials

In saltwater fly fishing, it is important to use a line with strong pound-test rating (10 lbs. and above) to handle the aggressive runs and strength of saltwater gamefish. When selecting breaking strength and durable line, also keep in mind the size of the fly you intend to throw and weight of your line. Heavier weight fly lines may require thicker butt sections of leader for the most effective casting.

Monofilament fly fishing leaders

Monofilament is an inexpensive, widely available option for leader material. It has some stretch to it, making it shock absorbent, and is relatively invisible in the water. Monofilament is also fairly inexpensive compare to other clear line alternatives like fluorocarbon.

Fluorocarbon fly fishing leaders

Fluorocarbon is another leader material that has many advantages for saltwater fly fishing. Fluorocarbon is often a popular choice for a tippet material in saltwater leaders — as it is less visible to fish, more dense than water allowing it to sink to greater depth, it has better sensitivity abrasion resistance; this final feature is crucial for withstanding the sharp teeth, bony mouths, and heavy structure associated with pursuing many popular saltwater gamefish.

Wire fly fishing leaders

In special situations, you may want to consider special wire leader material like surflon or piano wire for gamefish with ultra-sharp teeth — like sharks, bluefish, or barracuda. These materials prevent these fish's razor-sharp teeth from sheering off your line at the fly.

Fishing leader spools and line memory

We recommend buying larger diameter spools of leader material when possible. Lines on larger spools often have less "memory" or kinks from being wound around the spool, can be easier to work with, and are usually priced better per amount of line.

Building the leader

Below is a step-by-step guide to build a simple saltwater fly fishing leader:

  1. Attach the butt section to the fly line using a nail knot or loop-to-loop connection. Check out this video on how to tie the Perfection Loop knot — an excellent choice of loop knot to attach your leader's butt section to your fly line.
  2. Tie a blood knot to connect the first mid section of your leader to the butt section of your leader.
  3. Create a series of blood knots or surgeon's knots to add additional taper section.
  4. Attach the tippet to the end of the leader using a blood knot.

Example: an aggressively tapered fly leader recipe for snook fishing

An example of on aggressively tapered leader construction for snook fishing is as follows:

Butt Section: 4 ft. of 60 lb. monofilament

Mid Section: 3 ft. of 30 lb. monofilament

Tippet: 10 in. of 25 lb. fluorocarbon

Note the use of 25 lb. fluorocarbon tippet to enhance the stealth and abrasion resistance of this setup. Check out our Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing for Snook to learn more about how to succeed when snook fishing.

Example: a gradually tapered fly leader recipe for tarpon fishing

An example of a gradually tapered leader construction for tarpon fishing is as follows:

Butt Section: 3 ft. of 60 lb. monofilament

Mid Section Number 1: 2 ft. of 40 lb. monofilament

Mid Section Number 2: 2 ft. of 30 lb. monofilament

Mid Section Number 3: 2 ft. of 20 lb. monofilament

Mid Section Number 4: 2 ft. of 16 lb. monofilament

Shock Tippet: 6 in. of 25 lb. fluorocarbon

Note the use of 25 lb. fluorocarbon shock tippet to enhance the stealth and abrasion resistance of this setup. The breaking strength or leader "class" of this setup is 16 lbs. of breaking strength. This allows anglers to easily break off tarpon in the instance of tangles or shark attacks. Maintaining a reasonably low class tippet in your setups is advisable both for the safety of the angler and the fish. For more on tarpon leaders, check out our article on IGFA leaders for tarpon fishing, or read our Ultimate Guide to Tarpon Fishing in the Florida Keys for more on the best gear for tarpon fishing.

Tips and tricks for saltwater fly fishing leaders

If you are newer to fishing and plan on booking one of AnyCreek's world-class saltwater fly fishing guides, ask them to explain their preferred leader setup for certain types of fishing. Fishing guides are here to will help you improve as an angler, and are experts at understanding the proper gear and tackle to use on their quarry.

When cutting your lengths of leader material to build your leader, be sure to add some additional length to your sections of material to allow for knot tying. Short tag ends can be a pain to tie knots with, so make sure to give yourself ample material to work with.

Always moisten your knots with water or saliva before tightening down to prevent line burns and ensure a proper cinch. When tightening, it's also important to pull with steady pressure instead of jerking or yanking to tighten — to ensure you don’t damage the material while cinching your knots. Always test your knots before use to avoid losing fish due to knot failure.

Leader care and maintenance

As it is the same with all fishing equipment, it is important to properly care for your gear to increase its longevity. Avoid exposing your leaders to intense sunlight for long periods of time — as UV light degrades most leader material and decreases its strength. Store leaders in a dry, cool places. Consider a leader wallet or spool pouch to organize leaders and spools to prevent tangling. 

It is also important to regularly check your leaders before each use for abrasion, degradation, and damage. Leaders mainly weaken around the knots, so give those areas extra attention when checking your tackle. If they show damage or wear, replace them immediately — as this can compromise the strength and performance of your leader system. There’s nothing worse than losing a fish due to poor preparation. 

Pre-packaged leaders for saltwater fly fishing

Pre-packaged leaders for saltwater fly fishing are convenient options that save time on the water. They come in various designs, such as saltwater knotless tapered leaders, and leaders designed to target specific species. Knotless leaders eliminate the need for leader construction in a pinch. You may want to consider having a couple packs of general-use, pre-packaged saltwater leaders in your gear bag to use in a pinch on the water, or if you have limited time to prepare a set of leaders for your next fishing trip.

FAQ's About Tying Fly Fishing Leaders

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