Smallmouth Bass Leaders
In fly fishing, a leader is a pivotal aspect in your rig. It’s ironic though, most bass anglers don’t give their leader much attention other than when it starts getting a little short because it has a major impact on the effectiveness of your fishing. The leader can make you hate a particular style of fishing (big bugs), or make your casting a breeze as you watch the line unfurl exactly as it’s supposed to.
Now, with all articles, books, and how-to videos, the information relates to the area I fish - Virginia. There are plenty of places where the information will be a little different, so if you deal with pressured waters, low/ clear flows, and somewhat larger river systems this may relate to your local fishery - but it might not as well.
Bass leaders can be incredibly spartan. I’ve used something as simple as 5 feet of 30lb. Maxima Clear. That worked. However, there’s better ways to make your leader, and you’ll want to know them because there are times on our local rivers you wouldn't catch a fish all day with that leader.
So let’s break down the things you’ll want to factor in for a better understanding to get you catching more fish.
This is where a lot of the confusion is - How LONG should I get this thing?
If you made a formula to create the ideal leader for your situation, it would factor in these things:
- Ease of Casting
- Pressure of Anglers
- Clarity of Water
- Depth of Fishing
It’s a general rule of thumb - shorter leaders cast easier. With this in mind, when bass are not easily spooked it’s easiest to use a short leader. Say, something 5 - 8ft. in length. That’s going to cast relatively easy, and it shouldn’t have a problem turning the fly over. (“Turn over” is the fancy fly fishing way of saying your fly goes where you want it to rather than falling in a jumbled pile on the water).
For some places more backcountry where fish see less pressure, they will eat everything in sight. Regardless of how long the leader is, the fish are going to hammer that fly. So shorter leaders means easier casting for you, and that’s what I’d be picking.
In Virginia, most of our major rivers get shallow and clear in the summer months. Added to that, our rivers see thousands of kayakers, rafters, and summer floaters who might also be looking to snag a fish. This means our bass get smart quick. They learn things floating overhead means danger, so when they see you, they usually shut down. Not all the time, but most times.
In these conditions it’s far better to come equipped with a longer leader - 8’ being the shortest I will use. I prefer using something 9’ and up or even closer to 12’ if I feel they are particularly snotty. This helps keep a proper distance between your fly line and the fly. The longer leaders can be unruly rigs to cast, but with a little practice and some more hints you’ll find below you’ll be able to get it out there with precision.
Another factor in length is, clarity of water. When our river’s are stained, say 2-3 foot of visibility, I have no problem throwing a 5 - 8 ft. leader. Opposite of that, in crystal clear water, you’ll want a longer leader to keep the fly line away from the fish.
With this in mind, a good reason to opt for a little bit longer leader, even in stained water, is that it will allow the fly to get down when casting a heavy sinking pattern like a Clawdad on a floating line. If you use a 5 ft. leader, you won’t be able to get that fly down very deep at all, and you’ll miss fish.
So to put it simply: My average leader length is 8ft. for a floating line. As the water gets lower and the fishing pressure increases, I will continue making the leader longer.
This is pretty straightforward. For smallmouth bass I use tippet material at a minimum of 10lb., more commonly in the 16lb. range. I don’t like losing flies to trees and river beds, and I want to be sure I have the strength required to land whatever is on the end of my line. So, make sure your tippet is heavy enough to do what you are trying to accomplish. With this, in most cases, the stronger the material, the stiffer it is.
Why does that matter? Well, read the next point!
Flexibility, or the stiffness of your leader, will greatly impact the ability of your fly to turn-over (See previous description). If you use a leader material that is too flexible, it will not be able to carry the momentum the fly line/rod has generated. This means it will all crumble into a pile, just like your spirit when you watch that big fish swim away after seeing your jumbled mess float through the water.
There are two ways you can avoid this: 1) You can cast with more force. Doing this will temporarily solve your problem. However, it will remove some of the rod’s forgiveness, and you may hear the *zing* of a popper flying off on your backcast. The second solution is better: 2) You can use a more stiff leader material. This is the solution I would point you too because it won’t require any extra energy on your part. You can use the same casting motion as you normally do, and the fly will still land where you want it to go.
The best way to hi-jack a stiff leader is to add heavier line to the butt section of the leader. That will give you the best casting results. If all you do is add 10lb. tippet to the leader, you’ll have a lot of problems with the fly actually launching out. So, add 30-40lb. Maxima Clear or Chameleon or whatever you prefer to the butt section of the leader, and you’ll be happy!