Tips for Selecting Leaders, and the Top Five Leaders for Yellowstone
Leaders don’t get the love that fly rods, lines, or even reels do, but they’re very important parts of making good casts and presentations, and having the right leader also helps you fight fish harder. This post gives tips on choosing the right leaders for Yellowstone and Montana, then gives the top five most important leaders in this neck of the woods. This article focuses on leaders used with floating lines.
How to Choose the Right Leaders for Yellowstone
The following general rules will help you get in the right ballpark when you’re trying to decide on which leader to buy or put on.
- When choosing the diameter (the “X” rating) of leaders for Yellowstone, divide the approximate fly size you’ll be using by four. So if you’re using mostly #12 flies, use a 3X leader. If you’re using #16 flies, use a 4X leader. If you get a fraction when you do this division, it’s generally best to drop to the next smaller size leader. So if you are fishing #18 flies, use 5X. This rule isn’t set in stone, but it puts you in the right ballpark. For example it’s fine to fish a #16 fly on 5X especially when the fish are spooky, or to use say 2X when fishing a #10 streamer, when the fish aren’t as spooky.
- Choose longer leaders for spookier fish and shorter leaders when they’re not spooky.
- When fishing turbulent or murky water, opt for a shorter leader. When fishing gentler/slower/clearer water, opt for a longer one.
- When fishing deeper water with nymphs, opt for a longer leader, while if you’re fishing shallow, go short. This is because longer leaders have a longer thin section near the tip (the tippet and front portion of the taper) sink more quickly than thicker portions.
- Always fish short leaders (under five or six feet) with sink-tip or full-sink lines. This article does not go into details on choosing the correct leaders for Yellowstone when you’re using a sink-tip. I’ll just say you should keep them short and simple.
- Don’t add tippet to a standard packaged leader unless you have to. Most of the time, you don’t. Just tie your fly to the leader as it comes straight out of the package, only adding tippet when you’ve switched flies a few times or had to repair a tangle. About the only times it makes sense to add tippet right away is when you are wanting to make a super-fast sinking nymphing leader (when you should add a foot or so of tippet) or are confronted by spooky rising fish in flat water with many micro-currents, in which case it might make sense to add several feet of tippet to make your leader lay more limply in the mess of currents.
Top Five Leaders for Yellowstone
All of the above being true, a small number of leaders will usually prepare you for almost anything. These are my picks, and those of Parks’ Fly Shop’s other guides. They are listed in order, beginning with the most important (or most general-purpose) and getting less important.
- 9′ 3X Leader: Nine-foot 3X leaders are useful on their own through much of the season on all bigger rivers and streams. You can use them straight out of the package with a lot of small stonefly dries, terrestrials (hoppers), big caddisflies, and attractors like our beloved #12 Coachman Trude. They’re even the right choices for the largest Green Drakes in the Lamar Drainage in the early part of the season, and can be used with flies up to #6 if the water is clear, for example during the Salmonfly hatch during drought years. In addition, they’re easy leaders to modify if you need to go heavier or lighter. If you need to go lighter, cut off most of the tippet, then add 4x to create about a 9’6″ leader. Need to go heavier? Cut back slightly into the taper and add 2X.
- 7.5′ 4X Leader: A fairly short 4X leader is yourr ideal leader for short-range dry fly fishing on fast, broken creeks and streams through the entire season. It’s also a good choice on larger streams like the Gardner or Gibbon when smaller dry flies are the tickets, and can be lengthened and lightened to 5X in the event of a sudden hatch.
- 9′ 4X Leader: This is your do-it-all leader on flatter streams populated by spooky fish, including the Firehole, park section of the Madison, and the Lamar and its tributaries. Only on the Paradise Valley spring creeks is it a good idea to start with something lighter and/or smaller (and even there I would never drop below 5X for my base leader). This leader is also an excellent choice for a late summer and fall base leader on almost all waters. 4X is the right size for small hoppers or larger mayfly patterns that typically produce larger fish at this time, and by fishing a 5X dropper it’s ideal for the small BWO mayflies, ants, and midges that often produce at this time as well.
- 9′ 1X Leader: This is your “big nasty” leader, regardless of time of year. When I have clients fish “bugger bobber” rigs on the Yellowstone, dead-drifting streamers with nymph droppers under an indicator, I run this leader direct to a #4 streamer, with a 3X or even 4X dropper with a nymph or caddis pupa. In spring and fall when stonefly nymphs dead-drifted in deep holes move the big boys, I’m more likely to tie the base leader to a swivel or tippet ring, then add about a foot of 2X fluorocarbon to serve as my tippet. A big Girdle Bug with an egg or San Juan Worm dropper sinks like a brick but still casts well with this setup.
- 7.5′ 2X Leader: A short 2X leader is most useful early in the summer on the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers, when the fish are tight to the bank in only a foot or two of water, eating stonefly nymphs and other large “junk” flies near the bottom. Use them as-is straight out of the package. These leaders are also good choices for fishing Salmonfly, Golden Stonefly, and similar large dry flies right in tight to the bushes, or for fishing the “bugger bobber” streamer technique slightly later in the season, especially with slightly smaller streamers.
Of course, you could “roll your own,” and that’s when things get really complicated.