How to Select an Appropriate Fishing Leader

Mature fly fisherman on boat tying fly onto leader with boat, rear vie
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Leaders can be the difference between a successful fishing trip and one that ends up in the tank. In saltwater fishing, they are that important. But the importance is not so much whether to use one or not (we almost always need one), rather it is what kind of leader to use. Three basic choices are monofilament, fluorocarbon, or steel, or some combination or derivative of these three.


For lots of fish, monofilament leaders will work very well. The idea is to use a leader long enough to provide protection from either the rough mouth of a fish or from the sharp gill plates. Anglers fishing inshore with 15-pound test line will have that line cut unless a leader with a heavier strength is tied to the hook.

Gill plates on most saltwater fish are extremely sharp, On fish whose teeth are not sharp enough to cut a line, their gill plates are most certainly sharp enough. Used as a defensive mechanism by flaring the jaws, gill plates will cut anything they contact. A good leader helps prevent you from being cut off.


Fluorocarbon, which looks just like monofilament, has a special property that makes it almost invisible to the human eye under water. Whether it is invisible to a fish is another question. Whatever the answer, fluorocarbon works well in clear water situations and with wary fish. The disappearing quality is the issue of this leader.


Steel leaders are used where the fish being pursued has sharp teeth. Sharks, barracuda, mackerel, and bluefish all have razor sharp teeth that will easily cut monofilament and fluorocarbon. Generally, stainless steel wire is used, sometimes stained brown to reduce reflection. These leaders are popular for trolling, since the movement of the bait through the water masks the leader.


There are derivatives and combinations for all these leader types. Monofilament can be made with fluorocarbon content, the combination being less expensive than pure fluorocarbon. Wire leaders sometimes come as a plastic coated braid of wire. This version is more flexible and less likely to kink than straight wire leader.

But, whatever your choice of leader, there's one thing to keep in mind. Even with fluorocarbon, if you have a wad of junk, like snap-swivels, snaps, etc, on the end of your line, the entire leader arrangement will spook wary fish and reduce your catch. 

Final Tips and Advice

The best advice is first to simplify. Use only a swivel between your line and the leader, and tie the leader directly to the hook or lure. On light tackle, use a blood knot to tie the leader to the line and prevent even a swivel to avoid spooking the fish.

Second, use a leader long enough to protect your line from a tail kick. If the fish you are catching are two feet in length, make sure your leader is slightly longer than that.

Take care in tying your leader. Smaller fish are easy to catch and the leader can be in almost any array. Big fish didn't get big by being stupid -- the bigger the fish, you more tricks you need to fool them and make them strike.

Sloppy leaders with extra unnecessary stuff tied into them will prevent the larger fish from biting. So, be smart and take the time to build your terminal rig, including your leader, so that it will be as stealth as possible. You will thank yourself at the end of the fishing day.