What Kind of Fishing Leaders to Use

The Size and Type of Fishing Leaders Makes a Difference

Man fly-fishing in a river
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Leaders. Some people swear by them; others swear at them. Freshwater anglers rarely use them. Kingfish, bluefish and mackerel demand their use because of the sharp teeth. But, are they really necessary on other types of fish?

Wire Lining for Grouper

We were just off of Elliot Key in South Florida trolling, actually wire lining for black and red grouper. Each year in late winter and early spring they come up on the patch reefs to spawn, and some rather large ones can be caught with trolling feathers close to the bottom.

The bottom around the patches runs from twenty to forty feet down, and rises to within three feet of the surface on top of many of these reefs. Trolling is sometimes a tricky proposition, maneuvering around and between the patches.

Grouper will run out from a hole in the reef, grab the trolled feather, and dig back to their hole if they can. The trick to catching the hooked fish is to keep them out of that hole. Once they “hole up”, the only way to get them out is to dive down with a gaff and pull them out. Following the line down, we grab the leader, gaff the fish and attempt to drag it out of the reef – no easy task on a forty-pound black grouper.We are successful most of the time on these dives, and almost always successful if we can get hold of the leader.

Sheepshead Leaders

We fish for sheepshead – my favorite cold weather fish – in the cold weather months. On my last sheepshead trip I noticed something about our terminal tackle. I had a ten-inch, twenty-pound test fluorocarbon leader on my eight-pound test line. Bob had no leader on his twelve-pound test line. Brett had a twelve-inch, plastic coated, braided steel leader with a large snap on the end. His #1 hook was almost as large as the snap. We will argue the merits and catch rates of these terminal tackle rigs at a later time; for this discussion, I want to talk about leaders in general.

Why Use One

Let’s look at the several possible scenarios given the types of leaders each of us used.

  • On my rod, the leader is there to prevent a fish from chewing or cutting the line with their mouth. I use a surgeon’s knot to join the leader to the line. If I hang up, I loose my hook, or in this case jig head. It takes literally about two minutes to tie on another leader and jig head. What I lost was only a jig head.
  • On Bob’s rod, he used no leader at all. The loss to him if his line breaks is the same as mine – one jig head - and the re-rigging time is faster. But the probability of his line being cut by a fish or a rock is much higher. Hence, I caught more fish than he did.
  • Brett is the one that stands to loose the most in this scenario. If he hangs up, his store bought pre-made leader is lost along with a hook or jig head. Fishing in and around rocks with this type of leader gets expensive for Brett.

Which One is the Right One?

So what’s the right leader in the above examples? I would say mine, and a check with Bob says I’m right. He was simply in too much of a hurry to re-tie his initial leader and consequently lost numerous fish to a broken line.

Heavy Leaders

Lots of anglers use a very heavy leader for larger fish. Our grouper in the reef would have been lost if we had used a lighter leader. The heavy leader helps prevent cutoffs from fish and structure. It also helps in landing or bringing a hooked fish aboard.

Heavy Line

Some anglers use very heavy fishing line and a leader that is heavy enough for the fish, yet substantially lighter than their line. If they hang on the bottom, the leader should break before the line, thus saving their sinker. Re-tying again becomes relatively easy.

Wire Leaders

Wire leaders present another challenge. They are difficult and time consuming to build, even with some of the magic wire wrapping tools. They kink easily and must be replaced when those kinks appear. Multiple fish can be caught on one leader, but not very often. That one kink puts a weak spot in the leader that will surely break on the next fish.

With king mackerel, bluefish, and other sharp-toothed fish, a wire leader is almost a necessity. Not many toothy fish are caught on a monofilament leader.

Be Prepared

Given the difficulty tying them, it makes sense to tie up a supply of them prior to heading out. I use those days when the weather is bad to my advantage and tie up a number of wire leaders. I keep them in small plastic zipper lock bags, and they last indefinitely if they are kept dry.

Bottom Line

A good leader, one appropriate for the fish being sought, can mean the difference between a full ice chest and an empty one. Common sense defines the word appropriate here. Don’t use an 80-pound test leader on eight-pound test line!

A Good Rule

The rule of thumb I go by is to use a leader roughly two and a half times your line strength. If you are using light tackle with eight-pound test line, a leader in the 20 to 25 pound test range will work well. A larger leader becomes bulky and tends to spook the fish. I go with this – small fish, small leader; large fish – large or small leader, depending on your preference. Light tackle anglers with light leaders have successfully caught some very large fish. In all cases, I leave the store-bought pre-made leaders where I think they belong – in the store! What you catch has a direct correlation with what’s in your leader. Believe it!