I only use one basic leader system for all my nymph-fishing with 5-7 weight rods, assuming I don’t expect to have to switch gears suddenly to fish dries or streamers as well. The leader I use is designed to turn over heavy flies or complicated indicator/weight/fly rigs well, but to sink quickly and drift naturally. It works great both with indicator rigs and when using a Euro-style or other high-stick nymphing technique. Since we shift gears a lot around here, for instance by fishing an indicator in a deep run for fall brown trout and then high-sticking the pocket water just upstream, a leader that allows for such flexibility is critical.
I hand-tie these leaders, and the formula is quite simple provided you’re familiar with tying blood knots.
Perhaps the most important part of this multi-purpose nymph leader is the leader to fly line connection. I exclusively use a short (12-18”) section of 30lb Sunset Amnesia, a fluorescent orange shooting line that’s exceptionally stiff and easy to see, that I secure to my floating fly line with a needle knot coated with UV Knot Sense to smooth the transition. Not only does this stiff mono help turn over flies, it also serves as a strike indicator if need be when nymphing deep water without an indicator. Attach the leader to this butt section using a blood knot rather than a loop-to-loop connection. Since the leader itself is quite long, it will often need to be drawn into the rod guides to land a fish. A needle knot coated in UV Knot Sense and a blood knot will slide into the guides more easily than a loop in the end of the fly line or a needle-knotted butt section with a loop in the end.
The leader itself begins with four feet of 25lb Maxima Chameleon. This too is a stiff monofilament, though it’s not quite so stiff as the Sunset Amnesia. Make sure to pick Maxima Chameleon rather than Ultragreen. The latter is not as stiff. This long butt section is designed to provide powerful turnover.
The next foot of the leader consists of a short and aggressive taper and transition between types of leader material. It should measure about a foot in length no matter which tippet sizes you expect to use, and can have either two or three segments of equal length depending on the ultimate tippet size. For leaders tapering to 2X or 3X tippet, use six inches of 20lb Maxima Chameleon followed by six inches of 15lb Maxima Ultragreen. For 3X or 4X tippet, use four inches of 20lb Chameleon, four inches of 15lb Ultragreen, and four inches of 0X leader material of your choice. I suggest general-purpose mono.
The third major portion of the leader consists of four feet of level 1X or 2X, 1X if the ultimate tippet will be 2X or 3X and 2X if the ultimate tippet will be 3X or 4X. This section of the leader is thin enough to sink fast, while still sturdy enough to turn over acceptably well and to provide abrasion resistance and to last quite a while. This section may be composed of either monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material. I typically use standard mono for general-purpose use and fluoro when I need a fast sink rate or better abrasion resistance, for example when I am fishing for fall-run brown trout that might run hard and saw me off on boulders on the bottom, or when I am fishing a lake with a lot of wood a fish might wrap me around.
Next comes the leader-tippet connection. While a knot can work here, I prefer to use either a tippet ring or a tiny rolling swivel or inline swivel such as those gear anglers use to keep twists out of their line. While not as smooth or unobtrusive to the trout as a knot, tying the leader to one end of the ring or swivel and the tippet to the other using standard clinch or other knots typically used for fly-tippet connections allows for easy tippet changes without slowly chewing into the base leader as tying a new knot every time would. It also adds a little bit of weight.
Finally, the tippet should be short, a foot to eighteen inches in length. A shorter tippet will turn over better than a long one, and the long and relatively fine section above the tippet means that the tippet itself does not need to be as long to sink well or avoid spooking the fish. In addition, the swivel or ring tied in during the previous step serves an excellent “shot stop.” If split shot or other weight is added to the leader, it can be added above this connection, and it won’t slide down to the fly as it often does on a normal knotless leader. For this to prove helpful, the tippet needs to be short. Otherwise, the shot will sink fast, but the flies will lag far behind.
While not pretty, elegant, or graceful, this leader gets the job done. I’ve been using it both in my own fishing and while guiding for the past three seasons. The improved sink rate over a standard leader is particularly helpful. There’s a fairly high initial expense involved when using this leader system, particularly for a big spool of 25lb Maxima Chameleon, which is not cheap, but after the initial purchase of leader materials, each leader tied with this recipe is far cheaper than a knotless one.
I generally use leaders tied with this recipe with a ten-foot six-weight fly rod. This is my primary nymphing outfit since it allows for long roll casts with minimal effort, efficient mending at long range, and excellent reach when high-stick nymphing at short range. I also use the leader with my 11’ five-weight switch rod for long-range nymphing on the Missouri River and with standard nine-foot six-weights when dead-drifting sculpin imitations and Woolly Buggers under an indicator on the Yellowstone River. If you would like to use the same basic leader formula with lighter rods, in particular with anything lighter than a five-weight, you’ll need to drop everything down by a size. This is easy enough to do. Just start with a leader butt of 25lb Amnesia followed by four feet of 20lb Chameleon, then size everything else down accordingly.