What Size Leader to Use

Fly Fishing
Fly Fishing for Beginners
Intermediate Fly Fishing
Added Date:
Tuesday, 1 Nov, 2016
I remember working in my uncle’s fly shop as a kid trying to decipher the leader board. 9 foot 3X, 7-1/2 foot 0X…by the time I got it all up on the board there were over 30 different leaders to choose from. Which one do I need for how I am fishing?
I remember working in my uncle’s fly shop as a kid trying to decipher the leader board. 9 foot 3X, 7-1/2 foot 0X…by the time I got it all up on the board there were over 30 different leaders to choose from. Which one do I need for how I am fishing? It's a question every novice angler asks.

It Depends on What You're Trying to Do

Tapered leaders usually come in two lengths, 9 foot, and 7-1/2 foot. The thickness of the “tippet” (the last foot or so of the tapered leader) starts at 0X (about 15 lb.) all the way down to 7X or even 8X which isn’t much bigger than the diameter of a human hair, and has the breaking strength of about one or two pounds depending on the brand. As the X number goes up, diameter and strength go down. So it becomes a question of what you are doing and what you are trying to accomplish. It’s best to start with big fly, big tippet. 

I was fishing the lower Madison with a first-time client. By all appearances he looked like he knew what he was doing—patched up waders, sun-bleached fly bag - this obviously wasn’t his first rodeo. I gave him a big old size-4 yuck bug (crawdad Pattern) and told him to tie it on while I put the boat in the water. We hadn’t got a half mile and he hooked in to a whopper. The minute the fish hit I knew it was big. We played him and played him. I noticed that he wasn’t putting much pressure on the fish, so I told him to close the deal and crank up the pressure. He said he was afraid that he was going to break him off. It was then I asked him what he had on for tippet. “4X,” he told me. “OH shit that changes everything. Be careful!” I chased that fish all over the river and we did finally run him down. A sweet 24-inch brown. Everything ended well but the odds were stacked against us the whole fight.


Go Big or Go Home

I like to go with the thickest tippet I can get away with. Fish can see the line no matter what. If a trout can see a size-28 mayfly nymph free-floating at night with no moon, it can see your leader in the middle of the day. 

It is not about the tippet, but how the fly behaves on the end of the line. When you try to fish a big heavy bug on a thin wispy tippet you will often break the fly off on the cast. They will eat it just fine, but you’re going to lose a lot of flies and a lot of fish. Conversely if you fish a small fly on a thick tippet it’s like the fly is on the end of a wire. It doesn’t sit naturally on the water and it doesn’t float right. Fish hate it.

This doesn’t mean you don’t need thin tippet for smart fish. The usual rule is: slow, clear water with well-educated fish means small flies and small tippet. Big, fast water, big flies and big fish call for a short strong tippet. 

When I fish streamers up close to the bank on the Madison I usually fish 0X. That’s almost 15lb. test, which is enough to straighten out a size 4 hook without breaking it off. When you’re fishing the bank, it’s a game of inches. You need to be near the bank, but you’re bound to overshoot once in a while and stick the grass or sticks on the shore. 

With 0X you can rip the damn snag out by the roots. Be careful because the breaking strength of 0X is higher than the breaking strength of most fly rods. Always point your rod at the snag when break off seems imminent! 

When I fish small dries on the upper Madison we spend a lot of time hitting the slicks behind the rocks. Very tricky cast. Dead water behind the rock with fast current on either side makes it hard to get a good drift in the slick. For this I want a long piece of 4X that I can pile into the slick so the fly has a lot of slack once it hits. 

I have a client who is great at this. He has his own special leader recipe. He uses a 13 ft. leader with a long piece of 4X on the end. He is an expert at the “pile cast” and because of the long thin leader can drop a dry in behind a rock and get it to float down the whole slick. Gulp!

A Good Rule of Thumb

So now back to the original question, what leader do I buy? The answer is a simple 7-1/2 foot 0X every time. Once you have a 0X leader on one knot, you can customize for whatever situation you find yourself in. If I’m fishing small dries and soft delicate presentation is required, I’ll tie on a long piece of 4 or 5X (3 or 4 feet) small streamer maybe some 2X with a piece of 3 or 4X off the back for a dropper. 


Big streamers tie right on to the 0X. Some guys will even tie a loop on the end of the tapered leader so they can make loop-to-loop connections of whatever tippet they want. This way you can go from fishing big streamers to small dries with one quick loop-to-loop connection. This also saves you from having to break out a new $4 leader after every 5 or 6 fly changes. This all requires a good collection of tippet. I carry 0X down to 5X. If I have to go to 6X I’m going to look for dumber fish. I can’t see that small any more. 

You also need to get good at your knots. If you don’t know how to tie a surgeon’s knot, learn it. It is faster, as strong, and enables you to change diameters much better than a blood knot. Also, tying flies on with loops allows you to get away with murder on tippet size. 

Remember they see the line no matter what, fluorocarbon or whatever. It is how the fly behaves on the end of the line. Loops allow the fly to move freely on the end of the line, allowing for a more natural drift, and in the end, that’s what it’s all about.
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A uniquely western mix of quaint and kitsch, West Yellowstone is a gateway to one of three, Montana based, national park entrances. While tourist shops and nature attractions threaten ... moreto distort the town’s true character, serious fly fishers should not be put off. In 2009, Forbes Magazine rated West Yellowstone as one of the top ten fly fishing destinations in America, describing it as the trout epicenter of the world. If that weren’t enough, in 2010, Forbes went on to list Firehole Ranch, located on Hebgen Lake, as the 5th best fly fishing destination in the world, one of only two cited in the US.

Epicenter is in fact an accurate way to describe this town. Top rated trout streams surround West Yellowstone such as the Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone and Henry’s Fork of the Snake. The Upper Madison, Gibbons and Firehole Rivers are a stone’s throw away. For those partial to float and deep-water fishing, Hebgen Lake, Earthquake Lake, Henry’s Lake and Island Park Reservoir provide a large roster of fishing options. Heartier souls can go ice fishing during winter months while for those inclined to participate, the region hosts several, competitive, ice fishing tournaments. 

Lodging choices are abundant, ranging from rustic campsites to absolute luxury. Year round sports opportunities are available including horseback riding, mountain biking, hiking, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling. 
Fishing Waters
Jackson is the ideal hub for exploring the Snake River, a surging, full spirited river that provides a direct connection between Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National ... morePark. The setting is breathtakingly beautiful – jagged peaks jutting into the sky while the river and its maze of channels and tributaries “snake” their way through the verdant, lush valley. Important to early explorers seeking passage west, the Pacific and Atlantic Creeks reach the Continental Divide at Two Ocean Pass near Jackson and part ways. The Atlantic Creek turns east, merges into the Yellowstone River and eventually flows into the Missouri while the Pacific Creek turns west and merges into the Snake, becoming the largest tributary of the Columbia, eventually reaching the ocean.

Known for its own unique trout, the Snake River finespotted cutthroat can only be found in the waters around the Jackson Hole valley. Considered by experts to have once been the only trout species in the Western interior, it has evolved into 14 different subspecies. To this day, its native range is limited to the upper Snake from Heart Lake to the Palisades Reservoir. Despite the finespotted’s hearty, undiscerning appetite and a seeming willingness to eat just about anything, experienced anglers view this fish as the most aggressive, hardest fighting trout to snare. As a result, when you catch one you earn major bragging rights. 

The most heavily fished areas of the Snake’s run through western Wyoming are the 35 miles in the park between Jackson Dam and the 17 remaining miles flowing through Jackson Hole. This section of the river is ranked as one of the best dry-fly streams in the West. Snake enthusiasts recommend floating the river although newcomers are advised to only go with a guide and veterans are reminded to exercise caution, as the water can be turbulent and unpredictable. Should you decide to wade, be mindful of swift currents along undercut banks and stick to quiet, shallow river sections and side channels. Great stream fishing can be found at Gros Ventre River and Flat Creek.
Maclean’s famous story, A River Runs Through It, is set on the now famous Blackfoot River. Despite this, Robert Redford’s 1992 movie version was largely filmed on the Gallatin as he ... morefelt the scenery and fishing were more cinematic. The river originates high in the mountains of the Gallatin Range inside Yellowstone National Park and flows for 115 miles until it intersects with the beginning of the Missouri River at Three Forks. Inside the Park, where it runs for more than 25 miles, floating is not allowed and there are restrictions on fishing. Once it exits the park, it crosses a forty-mile expanse of mostly public lands, and runs parallel to a highway that makes it quite accessible. Because the river is narrow for much of its run, float fishing is restricted from Yellowstone Park to the confluence with the East Gallatin River. No wonder this river has a great reputation for wade fishing!

Unimpeded by dams, the river provides consistent, easily waded flows from mid-summer through mid-spring. Rainbows predominate with an estimated 1400, 8+ inch, fish per mile from the West Fork confluence at Big Sky to the mouth of the canyon. Browns are abundant accompanied by occasional cutthroats, brook trout, white fish and graylings. New to the lower most band of the river are northern pike. Never known for trophy trout, the river offers excellent dry fly fishing and beautiful surroundings. Since the fish are recognized as indiscriminate eaters, the Gallatin has come to be known as an excellent river for those learning to fly fish.

Like much of Montana, the River played a significant role in the state’s history. First explored by Native American hunters, by the early 1900’s, the area eventually became known to fur-trappers and gold prospectors. By the turn of the twentieth century logging rose in importance to the local economy as loggers famously rode the logs down river to prevent them from jamming. The towns of Bozeman and Three Forks are most closely associated with the River although given the importance of Maclean’s legacy, Livingston should also be considered as part of its history and heritage.
Game Fish Opportunities:
The Madison River is arguably one of the best trout fishing rivers in all of southwest Montana, if not the entire world! It’s certainly the most talked over, written up and frequented ... morein the state of Montana – which is considered by some the capital of fly fishing. Anglers will find plenty of great access sites to wade or float along the Madison’s banks and reservoirs (including Hebgen Lake and Ennis Lake). Rainbows, browns, cutthroats, and more abound in this majestic fishing stream.


The Madison begins its course almost twenty miles into Yellowstone National Park. Within the Park, fishing rules apply: no live bait and catch and release only. Once outside the Park the river meanders past working ranches, stately conifer forests and cottonwood lined banks, interrupted by riffles and quiet runs that contain large rainbow and trophy brown trout. Flowing alongside Yellowstone’s West entrance road, the river enters Hebgen Lake, created by Hebgen dam, until it reaches Quake Lake, a bit downstream from the dam. At this point the river is commonly called either the Upper Madison or the Lower Madison, although in fact, they are one and the same.

Upper Madison – Quake Lake to Ennis Lake
Directly below Quake Lake the river roars into 5 long miles of Class V whitewater with steep gradients and large boulders along the way. As the rapids decline, the magic begins. For the next 53 miles, often referred to as the 50 Mile Riffle, the cold river runs north and the fish jump high. Annual runs of spawning trout make their way from Hebgen Lake, rainbows in the spring and browns in the fall. Known the world over for its “hard fighting” trout, it’s not unusual to pull a 25” brown from these upper waters. In deference to the purists and fly-fishing enthusiasts, it’s wading only from Quake Lake to Lyons Bridge. Boats may be used to access the river, but if you’re going to fish, your feet must be on the riverbed. Fortunately, the Hebgen Dam releases water throughout the year, leveling its flows and relieving it of spring runoff issues and summer shrinkage.

Lower Madison – Ennis Lakes to Three Forks
A short section of the river between Ennis Dam and the power station maintains relatively low water levels and provides wonderful opportunities for wading. Past the power station the river regains its muscle and for 7 miles winds through Bear Trap Canyon. Hiking trails offer the only entry, great for those that like to walk and seek the solitude of a designated wilderness area. Floating is permitted but requires a lengthy shuttle and the ability to work through Class III-IV whitewater. Once out of the canyon the river flows in shallow riffles until it reaches Three Forks and joins the Missouri. From Warm Springs to Greycliff, the river is easily accessible for drifters and wading.
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1 - 2 anglers
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Fishing Waters:
The Snake River is one of the most cherished streams in the world of fly fishing. As a permitted outfitter in Grand Teton National Park and Bridger Teton National Forest, Snake River ... moreAngler offers mores sections of the river than any other outfitter in the region. Snake River full day trips occur on eight sections of river within Grand Teton National Park, Bridger-Teton National Forest, and parcels under the authority of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These are considered amongst the most beautiful sections of river on which we guide, with majestic views of the Teton Range, the Gros Ventre Range, and Snake River Canyon. Well over 95 percent of the trout on this river are native Snake River Fine-Spotted Cutthroat trout and Yellowstone Cutthroat trout. The Snake River is considered to have the strongest population of Native Cutthroat left in the Rocky Mountain West.
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1 - 2 anglers
1 day
Full day float trip with lunch and flies provided. Come experience the Madison River, one of Montana's most famous trout fisheries, and for good reason. We are located near Ennis for ... moreyour convenience.
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1 - 2 anglers
1 day
With over 55 combined years of experience fishing the Montana rivers, we have the deep knowledge needed to guide you down this Blue Ribbon River. Located in Ennis, Montana, one of ... morethe top fly fishing towns in the world, Red Mountain Adventures is conveniently located to help you with your fishing experience on the Gallatin River.

Our guided float trips on the Gallatin River are perfect for novices to experts who gain from our deep knowledge and instruction on the Gallatin River. Book with us today and enjoy the best in Montana fly fishing.
Centrally located in Ennis, Montana near many blue ribbon rivers, T Lazy B Ranch is a full-service fishing lodge for people looking for an authentic montana fishing experience. ... more

Our full-service fishing guest ranch offers meals, lodging, and guide service with other activies for family members. With over 40 years of guiding experience, we offer guided float trips on the Madison River, Jefferson River, and Yellowstone River, as well as private fishing on Jack Creek, a creek that runs through the ranch.

T Lazy B Ranch History
Founded in the late 1800's, the T Lazy B Ranch was one of the first ranches homesteaded in the Madison Valley. For years it was a working ranch for sheep and cattle. In the mid-thirties, a lodge and three log cabins were added for guests and the ranch took on another dimension.

Authentic Lodging Experience

Our rustic and cozy cabins are located in an alpine setting on Jack Creek. If you have four or more in your group you will have exclusive use of the ranch. Each cabin sleeps two to four people with a maximum of eight guests. There is a modern, spacious bathhouse within easy walking distance of the cabins. Delicious home-style meals are served in our lodge at fishermen’s hours. Lunches are prepared for your day on the river. After dinner, you may want to relax around the fireplace and discuss plans for the next day.
Wow this is great...Starters can learn a lot from this post...Thanks for this...
What knot do you use to tie a piece of 5X to the OX? I have never seen this suggestion. Thx.

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