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How Long Should a Prepackaged Leader Last?

by Philip Monahan

Have a question you want answered? Email it to us at ask@midcurrent.com.

Fly Fishingphoto courtesy of TroutHunter

Question: How long should a prepackaged leader last? I feel like I’m going through them pretty fast, and they’re not cheap.

Answer: As with many such questions, the answer is “it depends.” In the case of how much use you can get out of a single prepackaged, tapered leader, it depends on three factors: your skill as a caster, how much abuse you subject the leader to, and how you go about adding tippet material.

Let’s start with the last one first. Whenever you buy a knotless tapered leader, you should add a foot or two of tippet material to the end. That way, as you change flies and trim off material, you’re not cutting into the more-expensive leader, but using up the cheaper tippet material. Many anglers will start off with just the tapered leader and then start adding as it gets shorter, but then you’re not always sure what the diameter of the end of the leader is, making it more difficult to decide what size tippet to add. If you know you want a 9-foot 4X leader, you can simply buy a 7-1/2-foot 3X leader and add 18 inches of 4X tippet.

Everyone knows that knots weaken a leader, but even the knots that you can undo take their toll on the breaking strength and the straightness of the leader. The better you cast, the fewer knots you’ll create, and the longer your leader will last. This is just one of the myriad benefits that come from learning to cast well.

Finally, if you are dragging you leader over rocks, stepping on it as you rig your rod at the car, or generally not looking out for its well-being, it won’t last as long as it should.

A good caster who diligently adds tippet to a leader and protects it from abrasion can use the same knotless tapered leader for many fishing trips. If you are changing your rig from a dry fly to a streamer setup, carefully rewind your leader and put it back in the package. If you take care of your leader, it will take care of you.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at OrvisNews.com.
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  • Anonymous

    Adding tippet to a new leader is penny wise and pound foolish. The wet knot strength of a triple surgeons is about 60% of the standing line and a blood knot is even worse. If the monofilament diameters are dissimilar (adding 4x tippet to 3x leader)  the knots are even weaker. When a tippet breaks it is invariably at the knot that ties to the fly. You could lose a couple or three flies before the tippet section of the pre-tapered leader is used up. 
    A lot people advocate cutting out a wind knot and rejoining the material with a “real” knot like a surgeon’s or blood knot. A wind knot isn’t great, but it is quite a bit stronger than the “real” knots used to replace it. Probably the worse thing you can do to a leader (aside from straightening it between rubber pads) is cast it without a fly or piece of yarn to slow down the turn over.

    • Phil Monahan

      I don’t find that I experience the breakage problem you describe, mostly because I believe in always using the heaviest tippet I can get away with. While I agree with the theory behind your argument, I don’t find that, in practice, it makes much of a difference. Plus, the people who tie their own leaders always have these knots to contend with and seem to do okay.

      • oahefive0

        What about leaders (or tippet materials) that are left in the package and out of the light?

    • Ed Davidson

      “A wind knot isn’t great, but it is quite a bit stronger than the “real” knots used to replace it.”

      are you saying a single overhand knot (aka “quick release knot”, for a reason) is stronger than a surgeons or orvis tippet knot?

      • Anonymous

        I don’t know what the Orvis tippet knot is, but an overhand knot in the middle of a standing line is stronger than a surgeon’s used to join two lines. 

    • http://www.midcurrent.com Marshall Cutchin

      Have to take issue with both the idea that the a triple surgeon’s is 60% knot — and that adding tippet to a new leader is a mistake.  Manufacturers of knotless tapered leaders have a hard time controlling diameter at the end of a tapered leader, and removing the last two feet of a prepackaged leader and replacing it with a continuous-taper tippet can make a stronger leader.  A “wind knot” can weaken a tippet by 50% or more.

      • Anonymous

        Hi Marshall-
        Try this: Tie an overhand knot in a piece of mono then attach the end of the mono to another piece with a surgeon’s knot. Pull. More times than not it will break at the surgeon’s. 
        WT

        • http://www.midcurrent.com Marshall Cutchin

          I just did.  It broke at the overhand :)   “Topologically speaking,” a surgeon’s is just an overhand tied with two strands of monofilament instead of one, so if a robot tied each one perfectly, it would be almost impossible for the single-strand knot to be stronger.  (Of course that doesn’t mean that the average knot tier will tie a surgeon’s perfectly.)

  • Anonymous

    I simply tie a loop knot in the end of the leader (usually a triple surgeons or non-slip mono loop) and then attach the tippet to that, using a loop-to-loop system.  

    The leaders (generally Airflo) last a LONG time and any break-offs generally occur at the fly.

  • Elkhair1

    I’d add that this applies to hand-tied leaders as well. I tie my own leaders and if I don’t add tippet on the stream, I find the last section gets whittled down too short before long. That makes it almost useless in re-building the leader at home later.

  • Sayfu

    Having knots is no problem.  I use blood knots, and have NEVER broken off a fish at the blood knot.  When the blood knot breaks, it is when I am hung up in the brush, and straight lining the rod trying to break off.  But what’s the deal with tying another tippet to an already included tippet?  Tippet lengths are 2ft. at minimum.  If you look at any formula for turning over leaders tying your own, the section above a tippet length is far less than 2ft long for turn over purposes.  I have seen no section above the tippet more than 10″ in length.  Just use a micrometer, to add new tippets to your packaged leader.  You may have to add in a 10″ section of a size bigger before adding the tippet.  And a loop knot to loop knot for including a tippet?…Don’t!  It is at the smallest diameter, and there is NO KNOT weaker than a loop knot.  If loop knots are used they should be used up at the heavy end, not at the weakest end.

  • Sayfu

    In response to  Wrentit’s analysis.  An overhand knot is the weakest.  Any tightening reduces the diameter of the standing line, and the line breaks. The granny bites into itself.  Fish knots involve wraps of line buffering up against something.  They prevent the biting into itself up till a certain point, and then the knot squeezes down and reduces the diameter of the line.  One of the very worst knots for strength is the loop to loop knot.  Mono bites into mono, and quickly reduces the diameter of the line.  And the triple surgeons?  Very strong, and stronger than the blood knots that I use to make leaders, BUT, I know how much pressure I can apply, and most importantly, there is too much waste of mono on the up side of my tapered leader when I join a tippet.  It reduces the upside taper much more than the very little extra I have to trim off after tying a blood knot.

  • Zach Matthews

    This is an interesting discussion but I’ll just agree with Phil and Marshall that overhand knots are trouble–certainly more trouble than a double surgeon’s tied to replace such a knot.  With extremely fine tippet (6X and smaller), which I fish a lot on our Southern tailwaters, there is an immediate and incontrovertible loss of strength if you allow a wind knot to stand in the system.  I would guess that this is due to the fact that a wind knot is forcefully set with dry material (not slowly eased into place with spit lubing the system). 

    In a wind knot, the polymers of the leader or tippet would obviously be more likely to be stretched near to breaking and also to suffer friction and thus heat when being jerked tight.  After all, the tip end of a line with no fly on it “cracks” because it is breaking the sound barrier. That’s a lot of force.

    When it comes to testing two knots by pulling on either end, I’m not sure that’s such a good test, either.  Try it with two Boga Grips some time.  Depending on how hard you pull on one side versus the other, it’s possible to have a difference of several pounds-of-pull going in each direction, best shown by the varying measurements on the two scales.  For testing knot strength, I’d want a real piece of measuring equipment and a machine doing the pulling.

  • Sayfu

    Zach..the problem with a wind knot is simple…It reduces the diameter of the line.  How strong is 3x if it has a wind knot, and gets reduced to 5x when the wind knot tightens?  It is the difference between the strength of 3x compared to 5x,  When you tie any fishing knot properly, and draw it up properly, the final pressure is applied against something, be it the hook, or the other wrap portions of the knot from an adjoining line…but draw it up improperly?,, it can end up biting into itself just like a wind knot does.  That is why the Bimini is rated so highly.look at all of the wraps applied that butt up, and prevent the knot from biting into the standing portion of line, and reducing its diameter.  But every knot will at its breaking point…sinches down and bites into the standing portion of line.  A triple surgeons is highly rated.  

  • Scott

    so what is the answer…..one year? two? three?

  • Jay

    You guys are making things way too complicated.

    First, the thicker part, from the last tapered part up to the butt, is way stronger than any tippet you’ll be using. Also this part will stay strong enough for years on end. No worries on this part of the leader.

    Just cut off the tippet part (around 30 inches?) and tie a small perfection loop. Now add tippet (loop to loop connection or just tie the tippet on the perfection loop) and fish away. This way, I’ve used leaders for more than 3 seasons.

    • Dunamis

       I’m using a micro ring now. Gives the same solution as the perfection loop. Not a bad idea. May contribute to a bit more drag though i guess.

  • Chuck

    First, try this: 

    Take a piece of any copolymer nylon  tippet material in say, 5X, and hold it at a short distance between your hands – about a hand-span or so. Now, stretch gradually and break, noting how much pull is required. 

    Then, repeat – only this time, hold your hands together, and jerk the material taut. If you start with just a slight jerk and gradually increase the tension through a series of jerks, you’ll find that it takes far more pressure under a steady prolonged pull to break the material than when jerking it taut, and you’ll also note that it takes practically nothing to break it via the jerk or sharp pull. 

    (Just for grins, try the same thing with a single overhand or “wind knot” in the material, and also with a triple surgeon’s knot and a five-turn blood knot.)

    This little experiment will tell you the difference between pull strength and shock strength. Think about this phenomena when striking fish. Same physical principle applies when towing one vehicle with another, and pulling the chain or tow strap snug before gradually accelerating. Go from slack to 30mph  before the strap tightens and something breaks. (Do not try this unless you’re up for a whiplash injury, bent frame, etc. Take my word for it.) Momentum wins, sometimes to our disadvantage.

    Now, try the same experiment, only this time, do it with a yard of material. You’ll find the pull strength increases, and the shock strength increases dramatically. 

    Why? The material has more room to stretch, or, more accurately, the stress of the shock is distributed over a greater surface area. You can do these same experiments with machines, as suggested in another post, and corroborate the measured evidence via mathematical formulae (start by thinking about the surface area of 8″ of 5X as opposed to 32″). The physical principles remain the same: same stress, distributed over a greater area, results in greater strength.

    That’s one reason why I fish long tippets, starting with about an arm’s length pull from a tippet spool held near the center of my body, or about 36″ – which shortens to about 30″ or 32″ when knotted at each end. I don’t measure, I just guess. After all, I’m just fishing and having fun.

    When that tippet gets down to about 20″ or so, perhaps longer or shorter in various angling situations, I re-tip. Two short strands of the same material begin and end their applied strength at the joining knot. Two joined 12″ strands of 5X have little more shock strength of one 12″ piece of 5X. Give me one continuous 24″ or 36″ strand instead – and when I go finer than 5X, I go longer as well. 

    Most tapered leaders arrive in the package with a tippet section that is too short. Trout Hunter (pictured) is an exception and is my leader of choice. Rene Harrop designed them and he knows how to fish…

    I may start with a fresh Trout Hunter but after the second fly change, I’ll cut off all but about a hand-span of the tippet and replace with a fresh strand as described above – about an arm’s length pull. If I’m stuck fishing another brand of leader with a too-short tippet I’ll do this first.

    The tippet knot then becomes my index for tippet length, and I have room to re-tip a couple of times in the same size or one size smaller. As that tag-end of built-in tippet is consumed, I can add short (about a hand span) patches of heavier material to repair the tapered leader, adding to its life. Keep stepping down in diameter from one strand to the next.

    Fishing with a too-short tippet is a waste of time. It costs drift, and takes, and can ruin my chance to strike an 18″ rainbow pouncing on a small emerger when I’m fishing 6X. 

    My knots of choice? Triple Surgeon’s down to 5X, four-turn Surgeon’s from 6X on down, with a Turle knot seated on the fly head to attach the fly (if I’m fishing a conventional down-eyed hook fly with a thread head – not for ring eyed hooks and bead-heads – for those I use a Palomar.) 

    The double Surgeon’s knot (commonly pictured in knot charts – why?) is a weak knot but gains an additional 50% strength with that third turn – has to do with surface area. The Turle seats the monofilament on a thread head – where the leader wins the tensile strength battle. Seat monofilament against steel, particularly with any of the hangman’s noose-style knots that stretch and weaken as they tighten, and steel wins. 

    Like my friend Rene, I live in a place where big trout on tough water can give my terminal gear an acid test. I either shape up, or lose fish – and the principles learned apply to less demanding situations, and can increase any angler’s chances for success and enjoyment. 

    I hope this helps to that end. See the article Leader Logic on my website for more.

    http://www.chuck-stranahan.com

  • Thomas Murphy

    Phil, love the suggestion of just add on to a shorter leader to start but I think the other issue of how long does a leader last is do they have an “expiration date” as in do they age at least in a perceptible amount.

  • Cliff Graham

    For such a beginner question, suggesting that one add two feet of tippet to their leader, right next to a picture of a 14′ leader is foolish.

    MAYBE 2% of the people who are going to click on this seeking a solution to something they don’t know possess the ability to turn over a 16′ leader.

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