Specialty Trout Leaders: Fine-Tuning Your Game

January 14, 2020 By: Bob Mallard

Fly Fishing Specialty LeadersI owned and operated a fly shop for roughly 15 years. As is the case with most fly shops, leaders were an important product category, and in my case second only to flies in regard to total sales. Leaders outsold tippet, the third highest selling product category, at a ratio of ten-to-one.

The four best-selling leaders in my shop were, in order, 9-foot 5x, 7.5-foot 4x, 9-foot 4x, and 9-foot 6x. The first outsold the rest in aggregate, and 7.5-foot 4x leaders outsold the last two in total. Interestingly, other than using 9-foot 4x for large dries such as stoneflies and hexagenia, I never used the other three.

Rather than go with a generic product, I prefer specialty leaders. I choose leaders that best address the specific set of conditions I am facing: Fly size, fish size, size of the water, degree of difficulty, etc. While most leaders will work, specialty leaders help take your game to the next level.

General Guidelines

A rule of thumb in regard to leaders is to match your leader to the length of your rod, figuratively speaking as that is not always possible due to the limited options. But there are times when a longer or shorter leader makes sense, and in fact, can really help.

It is important however that you don’t exceed your skill level, as a well presented short leader will outperform a poorly presented long leader in most cases. But to be clear, a well presented long leader will almost always out-fish a well presented short leader.

When it comes to leader diameter, x, you should consider the size of the fly, clarity of the water, fishing pressure, and to some degree the size of the fish you expect to encounter. As a rule, the thinner the diameter the more fish you will hook, but that’s only part of the equation.


When it comes to leaders for fishing small to medium match-the-hatch dry flies, length is your friend. The further you get your fly away from your fly line the better. This is where leaders in the 10- 15-foot range excel. Consider Umpqua’s 10-foot Trout, Orvis’ 12-foot Superstrong Plus, and RIO’s 12- and 15-foot Powerflex Trout.

Difficult Fish

Gentle presentations really help when fishing for heavily pressured fish, or in flat water. If you want to take your dry fly game to the next level, consider a supple leader with a long tippet section such as RIO’s 12-foot Suppleflex Trout and Scientific Anglers new 11- and 14-foot Absolute Trout Presentation.

Hoppers and Stoneflies

Large dries such as hoppers and stoneflies present a unique challenge. They can be hard to turn over and can make a mess of your leader. To address turnover, consider Umpqua’s 9-foot Power Taper which have a longer butt section that helps push bulky flies. As for twisting, don’t go too thin.

Hard-Fighting Fish

When it comes to hooking fish, tippet diameter is of utmost importance. When it comes to landing them, leader strength can be equally important. If you need a bit more strength, consider RIO’s 9-foot Powerflex Plus which at 6lbs for 5x is 1lb, or 17%, stronger than their standard Powerflex.

Fluorocarbon: A General Position

There is a lot of debate in regard to the utility of fluorocarbon leaders. Some say they’re not worth the money, and at more than twice the price of non-fluorocarbon leaders that doesn’t surprise me. Others say fluorocarbon has poor knot strength and that the lack of elasticity makes it harder to land fish.

I used to display samples of various 4x tippet suspended in distilled water in small vials in my fly shop. While most were highly visible the fluorocarbon were not, and that’s a fact. I’ve used fluorocarbon leaders since they first became available, and in my opinion they work quite well.


Swinging emergers can be deadly. Best done with a floating line, a fluorocarbon leader helps prevent your fly from skating. If you want to be a more successful emerger fisher, consider 9-foot Orvis Mirage, RIO Fluoroflex Trout, and Umpqua Superfluoro, and the new 12-foot Absolute Fluorocarbon from Scientific Anglers.


Streamers are tough to turn over. Accuracy and line control are critical as you need to react quickly to hits. If you want to improve your streamer game, consider 6-foot Deceiver X from Umpqua and 7.5-foot Fluoroflex Trout from RIO. Another option is RIO’s less expensive 6-foot non-fluorocarbon Big Nasty.

Stillwater Wet-Lining

Slow and steady is the game when stillwater wet-lining. Fish in stillwater get a really good look at your fly. If you like going down and dirty for stillwater trout, consider 9-foot fluorocarbon Orvis Mirage, RIO Fluoroflex Trout, and Umpqua Deceiver X, as well as 9- and 12-foot Scientific Anglers Absolute Fluorocarbon.

Length, material, and taper all impact leader performance and fishing success. While the length and material (at least in regard to fluorocarbon versus non-fluorocarbon, which is a topic for another day) are noted on the packaging, there is rarely a taper diagram. And unfortunately, many fly shops don’t carry specialty leaders. This is where a little research goes a long way.