It wasn’t long ago that fishing with a leader tagged you as a muskie or pike angler, a fly-fisher or a novice. How times have changed. With the popularity of today’s braided and gel-spun super-lines, leaders have taken on a whole new meaning. This is especially true for bass, walleye, trout, salmon and panfish anglers. In the past, they simply tied lures to the ends of their monofilament. Now, fluorocarbon and flexible stainless steel and nickel titanium leaders have completely rewritten the playbook. Here’s what you need to know.
It’s generally agreed that super-line is vastly superior to monofilament for many reasons, not the least of which being its resilience. You can spool a round braid onto your baitcaster or a flat gel-spun onto your spinning reel and almost forget about it. Why? Super-lines are virtually unaffected by heat and sunlight and seemingly last forever. In fact, some gel-spuns made from Micro-Dyneema become softer and more manageable and function better the longer you use them.
Along with their extreme sensitivity, low-stretch super-lines are also very thin, enabling you to cast lures farther and get them deeper. You can also feel strikes better and set the hook faster. However, they have a drawback: they’re visible under water. So, what to do? The answer is simple—attach a fluorocarbon leader.
Fluorocarbon is an ideal material for this purpose because it’s virtually invisible to fish. It reflects light to the same degree as water does, so it blends in completely beneath the surface. And with fluorocarbon, you can even get away with using a leader that’s at least two to four pounds stronger than your main line. If you’re fishing with 10-pound-test braided or gel-spun super-line, for example, you can use a 12- or 14-pound fluorocarbon leader. The key is to attach it with back-to-back uni-knots to form a strong, seamless connection that will run smoothly through your rod guides (see directions, below).
You can also use heavier fluorocarbon leaders for toothy critters. Muskie and pike anglers are now fashioning 80- to 100-pound-plus fluorocarbon leaders to replace the metal ones they’ve traditionally used. Many muskie hunters also praise fluorocarbon’s invisibility, as though hiding the leader from a fish big enough to gnaw off your arm is somehow important when you’re throwing a gaudy, raucous, feather-festooned, foot-long lure.
The real benefits of using fluorocarbon for muskies and pike are the line’s flexibility and resistance to abrasion. You can simply work most big muskie and pike baits better with a heavy fluorocarbon leader than you can with one fashioned from wire. So, are metal leaders going the way of the dodo? Hardly.
In an odd twist of sorts, as more and more muskie and pike anglers move away from metal leaders, an equal number of walleye and bass anglers are embracing them. More specifically, they’re turning to stainless steel leader material that can be tied. American Fishing Wire’s Surflon Micro Supreme, for example, is amazing. I’ve used it on at least half of my walleye and bass rods for the past five or six years.
The reasons for its stellar performance are many and varied, starting with the fact that pike and muskies can’t bite you off when you’re fishing with light line for bass, walleye or lake trout. At the end of the day, you’ll not only still have that fancy $30 jerkbait hanging from the end of your line, you’ll also have landed some bonus big pike or muskies.
But can wary bass, walleye and trout spot the leader in clear water, and does the material hinder the action of your lures? The simple answer is no. Constructed of 49 hairlike strands of stainless steel wire, the leader is thinner than comparable strength monofilament or fluorocarbon line, especially in the 13-pound-test, .013-inch-diameter size I favour for bass and walleye fishing.
At the same time, it’s soft and flexible. Being no-stretch, it’s also sensitive, so you can feel when fish bite and set the hook quickly. By no mere coincidence, saltwater anglers are now using it in the ultra-clear waters of the Caribbean to fool the most introverted, tackle-shy, toothy critters swimming in the ocean.
But here’s the best part. You can snip off whatever length of leader you prefer and tie it to your braid, gel-spun, monofilament or fluorocarbon main line using any of your favourite knots. I stick with the standard back-to-back uni-knots for the main line to leader connection and an improved clinch knot for attaching the lure to the leader.
That said, when I’m fishing topwaters I’ll use a perfection loop, surgeon’s loop or Rapala knot if I plan to walk-the-dog or otherwise impart maximum motion. And yes, you read that correctly. I now regularly use short, invisible, four- to six-inch snippets of Surflon Micro Supreme stainless steel wire when throwing small surface baits for bass in pike- and muskie-plagued waters.
For another metal leader option that you can tie on and just forget about for the rest of the day, try nickel titanium. Originally developed for dentists to make braces, this space-age material comes in 30-foot-long coils in either single or multi-strand versions. Terminator makes the most popular variety. I like the tackle maker’s 20-pound-test, single-strand size as it’s incredibly thin—only .012 inches in diameter—and therefore nearly invisible. Nickel titanium is perfect for fashioning finesse jerkbait and crankbait leaders when you’re fishing for bass, walleye and even panfish in lakes and rivers where pike and muskies prowl. I call it “crankbait insurance.”
For the thinnest nickel titanium, use a simple Albright knot (see right) to attach the leader to the end of your main line. To fasten the lure to the leader, use a standard clinch knot. Don’t sweat it if you can’t pull the clinch knot perfectly tight; nickel titanium is so flexible, it’s difficult to bind completely but the integrity of the knot won’t be compromised in any way.
If I need to make a heavier custom leader for pike and muskie, meanwhile, I use 70-pound-plus-test, crimps, swivels and snaps. On that note, if tying and crimping nickel titanium sounds like too much effort, you can buy superb pre-fashioned leaders made by Canadian tackle whiz Bernard Yong-Set. I don’t know how he pulls the knots so tight on his lightest Stringease leaders. And his heavier, toothy-critter leaders feature dual rotating ball-bearing swivels and Stay-Lok snaps. They’re all works of art and cost so little that making your own is hardly worth the effort.
I think the same about Terminator’s nickel titanium leaders. I once used and abused a 15-strand, low-vis, gun-metal black Terminator leader for an entire muskie season and it was as straight, flexible and strong at the end of the season as the day I tied it on.
Attaching a piece of fluorocarbon or flexible stainless steel to your main line is simple using back-to-back uni-knots. Here’s how:
Start by laying five to six inches of your leader line alongside your main line and form a loop with one of the ends.
Wrap the end six times around both lines.
Moisten the knot and pull it tight.
Repeat above with the tag end of your main line.
Moisten the connection between the two knots and pull them tight.