Home Fishing Tips & Advice Fishing Leaders: What They Are and How to Rig Them

Fishing Leaders: What They Are and How to Rig Them

Watch a video about how to rig your gear for trout, bass, flounder, or any other fish and the anglers in it will nearly always recommend tying on a leader. But, it’s usually just a quick mention between the rod and the lure they’re using. Not a lot of instructional anglers go in-depth when it comes to fishing leaders. They are such an essential piece of equipment that they deserve more attention and an article all their own. So without further ado, here’s everything you need to know about fishing leaders.

What is a Fishing Leader Used For?

A fishing leader serves two main purposes: to protect your line and to trick the fish. The leader is a length of line, usually a few feet long, that you tie to the end of the line coming off of your reel. For ease of explanation, let’s call it your reel line. Your lure or bait goes on the other end of the leader. You can tie a swivel between your line and leader if you’re using lures designed to spin. If you’re fly fishing, a tippet goes between your leader and your bait. In order, you want the reel line, then the swivel, the leader, and then the hook. For fly fishing, the order is reel line, leader, tippet, hook. 

When you use a lighter leader than your main line, it’s harder for the fish to see what the bait is attached to. Ideally, you want the fish to think what you’re presenting is its natural prey, whether that’s an insect, a shrimp, or a baitfish. If the fish sees the bait and then a big, thick line leading away and up to the surface, the surprise will be spoiled and the fish will know something’s up. Although they’re not often credited with much intelligence, fish actually do learn. If they’ve been hooked before, they’re less likely to go for an obvious lure.

The second reason you want a fishing leader is to keep your main line from being damaged. Under the surface of the water (and even above it), there are plenty of things to snag on. If you’ve gone through the trouble of adding weights, beads, or swivels to your line, you don’t want to lose it all. If you’re angling for sharp-toothed fish, you don’t want them biting off your line either. The fishing leader serves the function of protecting your line in those instances. If you lose that line, it’s a shame about the lure, but at least you’ve still got your reel line. It’s a simple fix to re-tie a leader and get casting again.

What are Fishing Leaders Made From?

Leaders come in a variety of materials, but the major three are standard monofilament, fluorocarbon monofilament, and steel. All of them are available in abundance from sporting goods stores and tackle shops, but monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders are the most common. Each type of leader has different qualities, which can help you decide which one is best for the situation. They all come in what’s referred to as different “tests” depending on how strong they are. You’ll find the test on the leader’s packaging, measured in pounds. A 20 pound test leader means that the leader can hold a fish weighing up to 20 pounds before it snaps. The higher the test, the heavier the fish the line can handle.

Let’s dig into the three types:

Standard Monofilament, or “mono”, is a single fiber of plastic. This is definitely the go-to for any angler on a budget. Mono is inexpensive to produce and comes in a variety of colors. DuPont was one of the first producers of nylon monofilament in the late 1930’s. It’s made by melting plastic and extruding it through small holes. Mono has a few qualities that set it apart: it absorbs water, stretches, and is usually pretty inexpensive to buy because of its low production cost. 

Fluorocarbon Monofilament is a newer material, made with polyvinylidene fluoride instead of nylon. Its advantage over standard mono is that it’s harder to spot in the water, it’s denser, and it’s tougher. It’s also got more stretch, which can be a pro or a con, depending on what you need. The downside is that it’s a bit more expensive than the standard version.

It’s worth mentioning that both kinds of mono have a shelf life, becoming stiffer and more brittle with age. That being said, this stuff takes a long time to break down in the environment – 900 years long. It’s also a hazard for wildlife that get tangled in discarded line. So, be sure to use your mono responsibly and clean up your site. Parks and reservoirs often have line disposal containers or recycling bins you can take advantage of. It’s never fun to get tangled up in someone else’s trashed mono.

Steel leaders are a different story. Made of thin flexible stainless steel wire, these leaders come in multi-strand, single-strand, and knottable options. They are by far the strongest of the leaders we’ve discussed. Steel can be a little tricky, since it can get bent and need straightening. There are special tools for this as well as different crimps to help you attach it to your reel line. 

Which Fishing Leader Should You Use?

With all of the options out there, choosing a leader might seem like a daunting task. But, there are several simple rules that will help you narrow down the choices and pick out the leader you need. Follow these tips and you can’t go wrong.

Simple mono leaders are good when light conditions in the water are low. Use these in muddy waters and in the shadows. They’re also a better option if you’re expecting a lot of vegetation or snags. The elastic nylon mono fiber can stretch and bounce to help you work the hook free. Since it sinks, mono isn’t the best topfishing leader, but is great for jigging and trolling. It’s easier to tie than fluorocarbon because of its flexibility and absorbs shocks better.

Fluorocarbon leaders, although a little pricier, are much less visible to fish in the water. If you’re fishing in crystal clear conditions, it’s the obvious choice. This type of leader material is less porous, so it absorbs much less water than standard monofilament. That’s an advantage if you’re using a chugger or popper lure and need it to skim the top of the water. 

Steel leaders are what you use when it’s time to bring out the big guns. Most anglers with a steel leader on the line are out fishing for shark, mackerel, or bluefish. If the fish can gnaw its way through a synthetic line, use the steel leader instead. There are variable strengths and thicknesses, depending on what you’re going after. They do have a significant impact on how the lure performs because steel is stiffer than monofilament. Some anglers prefer this, but it’s a matter of personal preference. 

As far as choosing the strength of your leader relative to your reel line, opinions differ. Some old timers swear by matching the test of the leader to the line. Others like a stronger leader or a stronger line. You don’t have to fish exclusively one way or the other, however. Like a lot of aspects of fishing, the more options you have at your disposal, the more you can adapt to conditions on the water. If you know you’re going to be in an area with a lot of vegetation, pick a lighter test leader than what your reel line is. If you know you’ll be in the clear, but your target fish is sharp-toothed, use a heavier leader than your reel line.

Fly fishing is a little different story, because of the tippet. Gear Junkie does a great job of explaining fly fishing leaders and tippets here.

How Long Should a Fishing Leader Be? 

Once you’ve determined whether you want standard mono, fluorocarbon, or steel, your next step is to decide how long you want the leader to be. There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to choosing length. When conditions change, your desired leader length will change too. Different lures call for leaders of varying lengths. Fly fishing leaders are going to differ from sea fishing leaders. Even though leader length isn’t set in stone, here are some guidelines you can use when measuring your mono.

Most of the time, you won’t need more than three feet. Dragging the knot between your reel line and your leader through the line guides on your pole over and over will weaken the knot and disrupt your cast. Since you don’t want that knot to fail, it’s a good idea to keep your leader short enough so that you can cast safely. If your leader is three feet, keep the knot at the tip of the pole and cast with those few feet. If your leader was six feet, you’d run the risk of hooking your fishing buddies in the eye when you get ready to cast out. 

Using a leader of about three feet gives you the opportunity to cut and re-tie your hook multiple times without needing to replace the leader. It’s also a good place to grip when you bring the fish up so you’re not getting cut up on a braided line. Remember that the fish can see your line and that the leader serves to put a less visible buffer between the line and the lure. So, if you’re using live bait or a lure that’s going to spend some time dangling in front of the fish, a longer leader is better.

A shorter leader has its advantages too. For one, it’s more accurate and safer to cast. For another, the fish can sense your leader in the water even if they can’t see it. The less leader you have in the water causing vibrations, the less likely fish are to detect it. Short leaders are good when you’re fishing topwater lures or spoons. Since the fish is swimming behind the lure, chasing it, the leader will be pointed away from the fish and less of a distraction.

How to Tie a Fishing Leader

No matter which leader you choose to go with, you’re going to need to attach it to your reel line. You can either tie the leader directly on to the end of your reel line or attach a swivel in between them. Every angler seems to have their favorite knot, but there are a few very reliable knots you should learn. 

One of the most common ways to attach a leader is to use a double uni knot. To tie it, hold the end of the leader and the end of the reel line parallel with the ends facing opposite directions. Give yourself a few inches between the ends (you can trim the lines later, after you attach them). Then, loop one end – either one – back on itself and over the other line so that you make a loop. Feed that end around both lines and into the loop. Twist it around both lines four or five times and then draw the end out through the loop. Do the exact same thing with the other end of the line. Once you’ve got them both tied, wet the knots and pull the ends so the two knots meet in the middle. Then, trim off the excess line.

If you want a visual of the uni knot, watch this video from SRQ Fishing Oasis below:

You can also use a wedge knot to attach the two lines. This one works if your leader already has a loop tied in it, which is the case with a lot of the pre-tied leaders out there. Tie a simple knot in the end of the fishing line first. Then, holding the leader loop so that you can look through it, pass the knot through through the loop from front to back. Bring the knot around to the front and cross it over the loop. After that, tuck the knot under the reel line. Pull the two lines away from each other to tighten the knot. 

Some illustrations of the wedge knot and a few more can be found in this Fishing-NC.com article.

Best Fishing Leaders on the Market

There’s no shortage of fishing leaders available on the market today. You can get spools of leader line in an array of pound tests for each type of material. The size range starts at a two pound test and goes up in even numbers all the way to 130 pound test. The mono is easier to add color to during production, so it comes in an assortment of colors to choose from. There are colors like blue and green that blend into the background and more attention-grabbing neons. 

Two of the best brands of mono out there are Stren Original and Berkeley Big Game. The Stren is UV coated to prolong the life of the line. Too much UV exposure makes mono brittle over time. Granted, it’s a long time, but it never hurts to have a little protection. It’s abrasion resistant, meaning it won’t break as easily if it’s rubbed over jagged rocks. This one also has little memory so it casts easy and is less likely to get tangled up. The Berkeley doesn’t have the UV protectant, but it’s a little thicker and a little tougher. This mono also comes in colors like brown, green, clear, and neon yellow-green.

If you’re looking to invest a little more and go with a fluorocarbon leader, two that perform well are Seaguar’s Gold Label and Berkley’s Trilene 100% Fluoro Professional Grade. The Seaguar is made of a blend of resins that make it stronger, but thinner and more flexible at the same time. That definitely helps when tying knots that will stay tied. The Trilene rates really high in customer satisfaction and its strength will let you drop down a few sizes without sacrificing durability.

Many hooks come pre-tied with a leader already. This eliminates the need to measure your leader and tie the hook. Neither of those tasks are terribly hard, of course, but the less time you spend on these little things, the more time you can spend reeling in The Big One. What type of hook the leader is attached to will likely be the bigger determining factor that helps you choose than what type of line it’s on. 

That’s the end of our lesson on fishing leaders. We’ve given you all of the basic information you need to get started, including the types of line, how to tie them and the best lines. Don’t get frustrated if the first thing you try doesn’t work. Just like a lot of things in fishing a little trial and error will soon land you in the right spot. As always, be safe and remember the number one fishing rule – have fun!

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Growing up on the south shore of Long Island, Chum Charlie has always had a passion for fishing. His favorite fish to catch is a striped bass and his favorite bait to use is bunker. Off the water, he enjoys blogging and sharing his favorite fishing tips & tricks that he has learned over the years.