Tying Your Own Leaders

Tying your own leaders is not difficult and will give you the ability to tailor leaders to your specific needs as well as to easily repair and modify leaders. Follow these basics to get started. 

Diagram of a fly fishing leader

Leader Parts and Pieces

A tapered leader is made up of three primary parts. The butt section, the thickest portion of the leader, attaches to the fly line. The midsection tapers the leader down from the thick butt section to the thin tippet, often in multiple segments.  The tippet is the final, lightest piece of material, added on at the end of the leader, to which your fly is attached.  

The butt end of a leader must be thick enough and stiff enough to transfer sufficient energy from the fly line to the leader to carry the fly to its target. The leader must taper down enough to dissipate some of that energy and deliver the fly with finesse. A large diameter long butt section will give you a more powerful presentation. A longer mid section and tippet will give you a lighter presentation. Don’t go too light or your leader will not be able to carry through enough energy to deliver your fly to the target.

If you're just getting started, we recommend using one brand and variety of monofilament, at least until you get to the tippet. Different brands, and different varieties within a brand, may vary considerably in terms of diameter per pound test, flexibility, hardness and slickness. A thick, stiff, hard monofilament will tighten down very differently than a thin, soft, flexible monofilament and tying a secure knot will be difficult. 

In addition to using materials with similar properties, make sure you don't step down too quickly or your leader will hinge and knots will be difficult to tie. With heavier material, down to 20#, a step down of 10 pounds per section will work fine. With lighter material, you'll have to look at the actual diameter, which is on the label of most monofilament spools intended for fly fishing. You can sometimes get away with a little more, but try to step down no more than 25% with material of 20# or lighter. To get the diameter of the smaller material, multiply the diameter of the heaver material by 0.75.

  • Example: Stepping down from 20# Clear maxima to a 12# tippet
  • 20# Maxima Clear has a published diameter of 0.017"
  • 0.017" x 0.75 = 0.01275", which rounds up to 0.013"
  • 12# Maxima Clear has a published diameter of 0.013", making this an acceptable step down

A Basic Leader Formula

Leader tying formula. The finished leader will incorporate the following lengths and weights stepped down: 48" of 40# material, 24" of 30#, 12" of 25#, 10" of 20# and 22" of 12#. When tying the blood knot use 4 turns each between the 40# and 30#, 4 turns in the 30# and 5 in the 25#, 5 each in the 25# and 20#, and finally 4 turns in the 20# and 5 turns in the 12#.This formula works well with Rio Saltwater or Maxima Clear monofilament. It will give you a 9’ 8” leader suitable for a 7 or 8wt rod. Each end of the knot will require an additional couple of inches of material, so add 4 inches to each segment if you pre-cut your segments. Use blood knots to attach leader sections together and create a loop in the butt end using a perfection loop.

The numbers to the right, under the "Wraps for Blood Knot" heading, is the recommended number of wraps to use for each half of the blood knot. When different diameters of material are joined together, the thinner material sometimes needs to be wrapped more times than the thicker material in order for the knot to tighten down evenly. Read the information under the "Blood Knot" heading below for more explanation. 

Adjust the length and material as desired for different actions and line weights. You can try stepping down from 30# directly to 20# or adding a length of 15# between the 20# and 12# segments. Once you get a leader adjusted how you like it, measure the sections and write down the formula for next time.

Leader Tying Knots

A number of knots can be used for joining monofilament together and creating a loop in the butt end of a leader. The following are our favorites for basic tapered leaders. 

Perfection Loop
Perfection Loop graphicThe Perfection Loop is ideal for creating a loop on the butt end of your leader which connects the loop at the front of your fly line. It is not a particularly strong knot but is very reliable in heavy material. It is an inline loop, meaning that it lays straight when tied correctly, as opposed to a Surgeon's Loop, which angles to one side. See instructions for tying the perfection loop.


Blood Knot

Blood Knot graphicThe Blood Knot is ideal for tying together monofilament to build leaders and to add tippet to existing leaders. When tying together materials of different diameter and/or stiffness, it is sometimes necessary to vary the number of wraps on each side so the two sides of the knot tighten down evenly. Start with 5 wraps per section. Use fewer wraps with thick material and possibly more in thin material with a large difference in diameter. Experiment with different numbers of wraps to see what works best for you. See instructions for tying the blood knot

Knot Tying Tips

Just as important as using the right material in the right lengths is putting the sections together securely. Leaders are only as strong as the knots with which they are tied. Knots reach maximum strength when tightened down completely and without damage to the material. Here are a few simple things you can do to improve your knots.

Lubricate Before Tightening

Fill a small bowl halfway up with warm water and mix in a drop of liquid dish detergent. Before you tighten a knot, dip it in the water. This will help lubricate the knot as you tighten it, both helping the knot to tighten down more easily and reducing the friction so the material is less likely to bind and damage itself.

Wear Gloves

You have to pull hard to completely tighten blood knots in heavy material. Wear a pair of thin, nitrile or rubber coated fabric gardening gloves to improve your grip and, more importantly, to keep from cutting your fingers. 

Tighten Knots Smoothly and Completely

Tightening a blood knot using nitrile coated gloves.Knots are best tightened down with smooth, constant pressure. This type of force can be difficult to apply with your arms alone. Before tightening down a knot, wrap the material you are joining around your hands on each side of the knot. Sit down and, with your knees close together, push your hands down on the outside of each knee with the leader material tight and the knot in the middle. Tighten the knot by spreading your knees apart until the knot is fully seated. 

Don't Trust Questionable Knots

If a knot doesn't look right, cut it out and try again. If you're having trouble joining two segments, try changing the number of wraps or step down to a material that is closer in diameter.

Test Your Knots

You'll learn a lot by testing your knots to the breaking point. An effective way to test a knot joining two materials is to wrap the thicker material around a pencil several times, place it on a carpeted floor, and stand on it with rubber soled shoes. Wrap the other end around your gloved hand and, while wearing glasses, watch as the knot breaks. A well-tied blood knot should move little or not at all before it breaks. A knot that hasn't been tightened down sufficiently will usually begin to slip, then will fail before fully tightening under much less pressure than a well tightened knot. It will leave a frayed end that was "burned" by the tightening material abrading itself.

You can test two knots against each other, for example blood knots between 20# and 30# monofilament with different numbers of wraps, by tying them together in a single length. Just pull until one of the two breaks.

Stay Organized

Your leader tying sessions will be more productive and go more smoothly if you stay organized. Keep your leader spools and whatever tools you need separate from your other fly fishing gear. The necessary tools are inexpensive and, if you tie leaders with any frequency, it's nice to have tools dedicated to the task. The tools list includes nitrile coated gloves, nippers, and tape measure. A sewing tape measure is inexpensive, takes up little space, and works well.  

Once your leaders are tied, coil them neatly, starting with the tippet, and finish by wrapping the butt section through and around the coil several times. Store leaders in small plastic bags with labels. Unless your leaders all use the same formula and materials, it's a good idea to write the formula and any pertinent notes on a piece of paper and drop it in the bag. The back of a business card works perfectly for this purpose. 

This relatively basic explanation of leaders and how to tie them will help you turn out very serviceable leaders for light inshore and heavier freshwater fly fishing. Leaders can be as complex as you want to make them. Don't be afraid to try different materials, different knots, other formulas and to modify any formula or existing leader as desired. 

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