Some Leaders for Trout

The design of the leader can be a significant aspect of fly-fishing success, whether we are talking trout or tarpon (in this case, though, we are definitely talking trout). Building your own monofilament leaders allows you to have broad design latitude and allows you to alter performance characteristics “on-the-fly,” so to speak. While one could literally write a book about nothing but trout leaders, this article should (hopefully) provide some useful formulae for various angling situations.

Leader Parts

A monofilament leader can be divided into three sections: (1) the “butt,” the large-diameter portion that attaches to the fly line; (2) the “taper,” the transition section(s) from the large-diameter butt to the thinner-diameter (3) “tippet,” the final segment to which the fly is attached. Butt section plus tapered section together form the “leader body” (Figure 1).


There are also “compound butts” and “compound tippets.” A compound butt is made from two segments of material, and is typically used when a heavier connection to the fly line is desired, but is not needed for the entire length of the butt as a whole. A compound tippet is made of two or more segments of tippet material, the last section(s) often being much shorter than the first. By altering the length and diameter of each section of a leader, as well as the material used, you can create a rather amazing array of leaders.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at a variety of trout leader designs (some of the text below is excerpted/paraphrased from GB’s book, Presentation (now out of print)).

Leaders for Dead-Drifting

The theory behind these leaders is quite simple: They must deliver the fly and then allow it to drift as naturally as possible. The concept behind dead-drift leaders sprang from the mind of George Harvey. He built a leader that turns over, but does not straighten like a poker. It falls to the surface in a series of “S” curves; curves that the currents must straighten before the fly begins to drag.

To do this, Harvey used a thin-diameter butt section, a long, tapered section and a long tippet. The leader carries enough energy to get the fly out there, but not enough to straighten like a poker. The Harvey-style “noodle” leader has become the paragon of modern dry-fly monofilament leader designs.

The dry fly leaders that follow are built a bit differently than Harvey’s (they use fewer segments), but the theory is the same. For size 10 through 14 flies, for example, a leader might be built with 1 foot of .017-inch, 4 feet of .013-inch, 1 foot of .010-inch, and 4 feet of 4X (Figure 2). A dry fly leader to fish size 20 and smaller dries, for example, might use 1 foot of .017, 1 foot of .013, 4 feet of .010, 4 feet of 4X, and 1 foot of 6X or 7X (Figure 3).

A 15-foot leader to fish the western spring creeks with size 16 imitations of the Pale Morning Dun? Start with 5 feet of .017, add 5 feet of .013, 1 foot of .010, 3 feet of .007, and 1 foot of .005 (Figure 4). It’s windy? Try 10 feet of .017, 1 foot of .012, 3 feet of 2X, and 1 foot of 6X (Figure 5).

Leaders for dead-drifting a nymph with split-shot along the bottom are a different story. They have to perform much differently than the dry fly leader. The leader has to help control the strike indicator, fly and split shot. It must also allow for rapid sinking of the fly, but still be abrasion resistant (the tippet will be scraping over the rocks of the bottom).

For such work, start with four feet of .020, step down to 1 foot of .013, and add a 4-foot tippet of 1X or 2X. To the end of the tippet add 6 to 8 inches of 4X (Figure 6). The fly goes at the end of the 4X. The split shot goes just above the knot that joins the 4X, the indicator goes anywhere on the piece of .013. The long tippet of 1X or 2X allows the fly to sink quickly and the fly drifts at the end of the 4X.

Leaders for an Active Retrieve

When fishing leeches, big wet flies, mice, minnow imitations, and the like with an active retrieve, a shorter, heavier leader is often called for. A 7-foot, active retrieve leader for a Strip Leech might consist of 4 feet of .024, 1 foot of .017, and 1 foot of .012 and 1 to 2 feet of 2X (Figure 7). If I needed to drop down to 3X or 4X, I would simply add a foot of it onto the end of the 2X. If I needed the tippet to be heavier than 2X, I would replace it with 1X or 0X.

Leaders with a Uni-Body

The “Uni-Body” leader comes from my father, Gary, who formulated it in the early 1980s as a way to conserve tying time while simultaneously allowing broad design latitude. The Uni-Body is not a single leader that does it all; rather, it is a way of thinking about the leader that allows the fly fisher to make rapid adjustments based on angling conditions. The original The Uni-Body leader body was formulated using Maxima Chameleon “brown” (with tippets being comprised of other materials, often Orvis SS).

The basic Uni-Body leader body consists of 4 feet of .020-inch and 1 foot of .013-inch (Figure 8). If you need a shorter or longer leader body, decrease or increase the length of the .020 (see examples that follow). Note: For 1- through 3-weight lines, you may wish to use .017 or .018 in place of the .020 when building the body of the Uni-Body Leader. For heavier lines (say 7-weight or greater), you may wish to go to a butt section of .024 (or thicker), with the subsequent sections following suit. I have also been using a .021 or .022 with .015, which you may find to be better in line weights 4 through 6.

For a Uni-Body system that is used to dead drift imitations along the bottom or to work flies slowly along the bottom in stillwaters, use the basic Uni-Body and add a compound tippet consisting of 4 feet of .010 and 6 to 8 inches of 2X, 3X, 4X, or 5X to the leader body. If 6X or 7X is needed, 6 inches to the 4X. The length of the finished leader will be approximately 9 1/2 feet (Figure 9).

To make a 24-foot Uni-Body Leader to sink a snail over a submerged weed bed in stillwaters use 18 1/2 feet of .020 and 1 foot of .013 (tippet consists of 4 feet of .010 and 6 to 8 inches of 4X) (Figure 10).

A leader for use in fishing nymphs with a Bow and Arrow Cast would need to be shorter than the rod, so the leader formula could be 1 foot of .020, 1 foot of .013, 4 feet of .010 and 6 to 8 inches of 4X. The total leader length would be 6 1/2 feet (Figure 11).

To make a Uni-Body Leader for dead-drifting artificials at the film, add 4 feet of .010 and 2 to 4 feet of 2X, 3X, 4X, or 5X to the leader body. If 6X or 7X is needed, add 1 foot to the end of 4X. The total leader length will be between 11 and 15 feet (Figure 12). A variation of this that keeps total leader length manageable, yet still allows for drag-reduction, is to add 1 foot of .010, 2 feet of 4X, and 2 feet of 5X or 6X. The total leader length is 10 feet (Figure 13).

To modify the Uni-Body Leader to fish leeches, minnow imitations, big wet flies, mice imitations, and so on with an active retrieve, add 1 to 4 feet of .010 to the leader body (Figure 14). If 3X or 4X is needed add 1 foot to the end of the .010.

And lastly, my lazy, all-in-one, Figures 2 through 14…



  1. Richard says:


    Very interesting leader system, and far different from what we have been use to, when tying traditional leaders. Without endless amounts of different size nylon, and a large number of knots?

    I will give it a try, this season.



  2. JB says:

    Richard—Thanks for taking the time to stop by the blog and comment. I hope that you find at least a few of the leader designs to work well for you. I have used the designs—and modifications of them—successfully for many years (indeed, I grew up with them).

    I do recommend 4/6 Blood knots or 3-Turn Surgeon’s (a/k/a Water) knots for the connections when dropping diameters quickly. I personally go with Blood knots in the leader body and Surgeon’s for the tippet section(s). Drop a line if you find a variation that you like for your own fishing.

  3. Hi Jason,

    What leader recipe do You use for dryflies?


    • JB says:

      Thomas—I’ll often use a leader that is variation somewhere between Figure 13 at the shorter end and Figure 12 at the longer end. The choice of section length and tippet size being adjusted with fly size, currents, wind, etc.

      I tend to use somewhat larger butt sections than what are shown here (in a different material than Maxima), but it an easy matter to adjust the remaining sections to similar diameter ratios. I also like to use a micrometer to check my materials, so I know what I really have in hand, versus what the spool might say.

      Ultimately, I want my dry fly leader to be cast-able (with reasonable accuracy) in the conditions I’m in, and to perform right on the water (assuming that I have given the leader the proper set-up with my delivery). If the fly behaves correctly and goes where I it needs to go, then I’m good.

  4. Grunde says:

    Hi Jason,

    I know it’s an old post but it is still very good, and it is very close to the leader system I use for almost all my fishing (yeah, got it from your father’s book back in the 90’es) :-)

    I do however have a question:
    What is your favorite fly-line to leader connection (for trout)? Do you have a good/flexible/quick solution to this?

    My own favorite is the good old nail-knot, but I don’t like tying one (and to snipp the tppet of the fly line) every time I have to adjust (lengthen) the butt section of the leader. I also don’t like loops on the fly line, even the modern small factory made welded loops are too bulky for my liking…


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