Losing terminal tackle while fishing is downright annoying, time-consuming, and expensive. However, losing that fish of a lifetime because of a break-off is more of an unnecessary tragedy. And that is why the question of "what is a fishing leader?" is such a relevant one for all fishermen.
So, what is a fishing leader, and why are they so important?
What Is A Fishing Leader: The Facts
To put it simply, a fishing leader is body armor for your terminal tackle.
It is a physical link of varying lengths and line materials between your mainline and terminal rig. Its sole purpose is to add shock resistance, prevent bite-offs, and reduce the effects of abrasion, all of which can cost you tackle or a trophy fish.
What Are The Different Types Of Fishing Leaders?
Before we get on with describing the different leaders and their uses, let's set some ground rules.
First off, there are few clearly defined, struck-in-stone answers when it comes to fishing leaders and their uses. Leader line types, lengths, and construction can differ fundamentally from one day to the next, even when fishing in the same spot.
Weather conditions, water visibility, and target species, amongst others, all play a role in on-the-spot leader choice. The best way of accurately answering the "what is a fishing leader?" question would be to define the problems leaders are designed to counter.
Once that's clear, it is easier to describe the products suitable for each solution.
Secondly, let's define the term fishing leader for clarity.
Theoretically, a "leader" is a length of line that connects the mainline from your reel to your terminal rig. A leader won't always connect directly to your hook and often links your main line to a separate terminal trace.
What Are The Different Applications For Fishing Leaders
Fishing leaders are used to address or counter several problems frequently encountered when fishing. The shortlist of these issues looks something like this.
Casting heavy rigs put enormous strain on your mainline, particularly if your mainline is braid with no stretch. Having your terminal rig break off during a cast is a sad waste of valuable tackle and time. More importantly, a runaway 8 ounce sinker would pose a serious threat to the safety of bystanders.
You can say the same of large fish making sudden runs close to the bank or boat. Fish will often make a frantic, last-ditch attempt to escape when you bring them close to the shore or boat. When you have a heavy, hard fighter on the hook, they can break lighter lines with ease if you're not prepared.
Shock leader line, lengths, and knots
In each case, a heavy leader can prevent break-offs during high-stress events. The weapon of choice for shock leaders is a monofilament line. Mono has a lot of stretch, making it particularly forgiving as a shock absorber.
Lengths and breaking strains for shock leaders depend on the specific angling situation. A safe rule of thumb, however, is double the length of your rod and double the breaking strain of your mainline.
Because of their length, shock leaders run through the rod guides or the reel's level-wind guides during casting and retrieves. This necessitates typing the leader directly to the mainline with a sleek, low profile knot that won't hang up or jam.
Among the best knots for mono to mono leader joints are the albright, FG, double-uni and bristol knots. Braid to mono joins are a little more complex to tie and the alberto, improved albright and FG knots are good choices.
Imagine spending hours fighting a monster shark only to be cut off on a muscle bed or reef with the fish in sight. Soul destroying about sums it up. And you don't have to battle denizens of the deep to fall foul of line abrasion either.
Many catfish anglers will tell you sad tales of trophy cats escaping after their line was nicked on the fish's dorsal spines. Rough scales and skin, rocks, and underwater snags all contribute to line abrasion tackle failures.
If you are targeting fish with spines or rough skin in areas rich in underwater structure, tie on an abrasion leader. The standards and knots, in this case, are similar to shock leaders with the exception of leader length. Monofilament is, again, the best choice but it's wise to extend the leader by an additional rod length or two.
One common strategy which shouldn't be confused with abrasion or shock leaders is the use of backing and top-shot. This involves spooling a reel with approximately 60 to 70 percent braid and filling up with heavy mono top-shot. In the case of 50 or 60 size conventional reels, this can translate to around 800 yards of braid and 250 yards of monofilament.
The backing and top-shot method are used extensively by rock and surf and deep-sea big game anglers. In these applications, the braid backing is generally of a higher breaking strain than the mono top-shot. For example, South African rock and surf anglers who pioneered this spooling method typically use 60- to 80-pound braid backing under 30- to 40-pound monofilament top-shot.
Although top-shot is not strictly a leader, it does serve a similar purpose and may come in handy at some point.
Braid line buffering
One of the most attractive characteristics of braided lines is their total lack of stretch. This makes braid super sensitive, transferring even the smallest movement at the hook to the angler. It also makes for very positive hook-sets, particularly when you've got a lot of line in the water.
However, braid line is a double-edged sword, and the positives come at a price. The lack of stretch makes braid line particularly prone to shock breakages. In this sense, a monofilament shock leader is called for in much the same way as mono to mono rigs.
There is, however, another downside to braided line -- it's also super skinny. Braid line is, on average, only a quarter of the diameter of comparably rated monofilament. While that's really great for cramming massive amounts of line onto small reels, it also means braid cuts like a knife.
So, use a mono leader to avoid having your thumb or index finger cut to the bone when you cast. Again, shock and abrasion leader length and knot standards apply here.
This is a bit of a grey area but bears mentioning here. Most fish have teeth of some description, some having dentition that would make a T Rex blush. However, even those with flat, pavement teeth can crush, nick, or abrade your line to the point of failure.
Now, in most cases, bite-offs can be prevented by using a short steel bite trace. That strategy works well for the most part but, in special cases, anglers will sometimes use steel traces of 10 feet or more.
These situations include fishing for species that are prone to roll on your line, or when fishing slide traces. In these cases, the trace technically becomes part of your leader.
Reduced line visibility
Many fish species are very line-shy and will completely avoid any bait that doesn't look right. For these savvy critters, low visibility line is an essential ingredient for successful hook-ups.
With light refraction qualities almost identical to water, fluorocarbon line is the ideal low visibility leader material. Other advantages of fluorocarbon are that it sinks quicker than regular monofilament and it doesn't have quite as much stretch. This makes hook-sets more positive without sacrificing too much shock absorption.
Unfortunately, fluorocarbon is more expensive than monofilament.
On the other hand, fluorocarbon leaders don't have to be very long which off-sets the price hike. It is also a little harder to tie with the
Trilene knot being about the easiest and most secure knot for fluorocarbon leader.
Suggested Fishing Leader Reading
If you'd like a more in-depth overview of all facets of using fishing leaders, you may want to consider these great books.
The Orvis Guide to Leaders, Knots, and Tippets
- Tom Rosenbauer
- Publisher: Lyons Press
- Edition no. 0 (04/01/2018)
- Paperback: 168 pages
The Complete Book of Fishing Knots, Leaders, and Lines
What Is A Fishing Leader: The Bottom Line
Well, there you go. Hopefully, this information will help answer your "what is a fishing leader?" question and give some insight into its uses.
Just remember the point made earlier about hard and fast fishing leader rules. The tips shared here will serve you well as a guide, but nothing trumps old fashioned experience. Given time you'll develop your own tips and tricks and build a sense of which fishing leader will work best for you.
If you have some advice or tips of your own or would like to find out more info, please use the comments section below.
Good luck and tight lines!