Fly Fishing Gear & Tackle: Part 1

By Guy Turck •  Updated: 11/08/22 •  10 min read

They say the little things in life can make it all worthwhile, and fly fishing is no different. A little attention to detail can make your gear and tackle work for you rather than against you. Flies that won’t float, leaders that won’t turn over or break too easily, or hunting through the 101 pockets of your fishing vest for that elusive but essential item are just a few of the myriad frustrations which can humiliate even the staunchest of anglers.

Volumes have been written on the whys and wherefores of rod and reel design, not to mention fly lines and waders. But how much attention is given to the minutiae of the sport. I often tell my fishing clients that a fly fisherman is like a chain which is only as strong as it’s weakest link. In other words, you won’t actually land a fish unless all the elements of the process come together at once. From the cast, to hooking and playing, to netting and releasing your prey, one weak link, one chink in the armor, will prevent the fulfillment of your goal. And often, it’s the unrecognized weak link that is the culprit.

What follows are two of the most important, yet severely underrated pieces of equipment you own and what you can do to make them work for you.

How To Choose The Best Fly Fishing Hooks

Typical scenario: 

“When I set the hook, I feel the fish, my rod bends, but I never seem to solidly hook the fish. I’m either setting the hook too early or too late but I’m not sure which.”

Or, “When I hook a fish I have it on for a second or two before it inevitably escapes.”

Possible culprit: A dull or poorly designed hook.

It is not sharp enough if you can’t easily scratch the back of your thumbnail with your hook. Carry a hook hone in your vest for on stream touch ups to your hook points.

A sharp hook is a must if you want to hook fish solidly with any consistency. This is particularly true when fishing for bass or any other “hard-mouthed” species as opposed to a fish with a “soft mouth” such as a trout. But that is not to say a sharp hook is not important when trout fishing. Anglers who fish small flies, size 16 and under, must pay particular attention. Smaller hooks tend to be fished on lighter tippets and, not being as strong as their larger counterparts, tend to break off or straighten during the hook set. Therefore, the hook must be sharp so that penetration can occur with the least possible resistance. Dry fly hooks, which use lighter wire than a nymph hook to be easier to float, are particularly prone to this problem.

Removing the barb can be a big help here. Barbs provide unwanted resistance to hook penetration. Flattening the barb to the hook will assure that your tippet strength is not wasted on the act of burying the barb, but rather hooking and playing the fish.

I look for chemically or lazer sharpened hooks for all my tying and fishing needs. Hook manufacturers have made great strides in this area over the past ten years, but I still see many dull hooks with huge barbs in fly bins to this day. If you are a tyer, Tiemco hooks are a good choice as are Dai-Riki, Gamagatsu and Partridge. Mustad hooks, on the other hand, should have their barbs crimped and be sharpened before use. Another bonus to the chemically and lazer sharpened hooks are their smaller barb size. If you resist crimping your barbs for fear of losing hooked fish, the smaller barb is a good compromise between hookability and landability.

If you don’t tie your own flies, buy flies from manufacturers that tie on quality hooks. To my knowledge, the only fly manufacturer who does this is Umpqua Feather Merchants, which ties exclusively on Tiemco hooks. There are others who also use quality hooks that I am unaware of. Ask you local fly shop who they get their flies from and what type of hooks they use.

Occasionally a hook is not designed properly. Typically, the point will be too short making it too easy for the fish to torque off the hook. If a particular hook model is giving you trouble in this department, look for a suitable alternative. There’s always another option.

Choosing The Best Fly Fishing Leaders

Typical scenario: 

“I can’t get my leader to turn over.” Or, “I can make a nice loop with my fly line, but the leader piles up in a big ball and won’t straighten out.” Or, “It’s too windy to turn over my fly.” Or, “I can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn with my fly.”

Possible culprit: Poorly or improperly designed leader or an imbalance between fly and leader.

It must have happened a thousand times. An angler is having casting woes and believes it’s his or her rod, perhaps the line, or most likely, their own ineptitude which is causing the problem. In such cases I like to grab their rod for a few casts to see what the disgruntled angler is up against. More than half the time the solution is simple, their leader is trashed. It may just be poor design or it may have had so many flies tied on and cut off that the original design no longer exists. Whatever the case, a properly designed new leader can often work wonders in helping to turn over the fly accurately.

So what, exactly, constitutes proper leader design? This is a little more difficult to pinpoint because different leader designs are used for different situations. A downstream, slack-line pile cast (whew, that’s a mouthful) would require a different leader than firing streamers into and through streamside brush. Suffice it to say that if your leader isn’t doing what you want it to do there is probably a relatively simple adjustment you can make to get the desired behavior.

For example, longish, heavy (25-30 lb. test) leader butt sections provide power to a cast and will help turn over large flies, even into the wind. But if you find your presentations are too indelicate and your fly is splatting on the water only to sink immediately, you’ll want to lengthen your mid-section and/or tippet (or, perhaps, shorten the butt section) thereby reducing the amount of power applied to the fly.

Experimentation and experience will help you make the right decisions regarding leader alterations. Each leader consists of a butt-section, a mid-section and a tippet section. Alter sections one at a time until the desired results are achieved.

The General Principles Of Fly Fishing Leader Design:

1) Leaders taper from their heaviest section (the butt) to the lightest section (the tippet). The nature of that taper (severe or gradual) and the relative lengths of each of the three sections determines the behavioral characteristics of the leader.

2) Shorter leaders, which are inherently more powerful but less delicate, work well in windy conditions.

3) Longer leaders tend to have less power but provide more delicacy and are appropriate for conditions that require subtle presentations and absolute dead drifts.

4) A long leader can still be made to turn over if it is properly designed and carefully constructed.

5) For more power, lengthen the butt section and/or shorten the mid-section and/or tippet.

6) For more delicacy, lengthen the mid-section and/or tippet.

7) Don’t try to cast a size 6 grasshopper pattern with a 5X or 6X tippet. It simply won’t have the power to turn the fly over.

8) Don’t try to cast a size 16 dry fly on 3X tippet, it will almost surely sink because 3X tippet provides too much power for that size fly.

I highly recommend you learn to lie your own leaders. Many good leader formulas are available from various sources. Ultimately you’ll want leaders of different lengths and tippet sizes. Store bought knotless leaders have gotten better over the years, but I still find them to be lacking in certain situations. One problem is that I prefer to use a stiffer leader material for the butt section yet have a limper material for the mid-section and tippet and this is not possible with a knotless leader which is composed, naturally, of entirely the same material from butt to tippet. For me, they tend to be either too stiff or too limp.

To tie your own leaders you’ll need to purchase monofilament in the full range of diameters from .022″ (30 lb. test) to .005″ (6X, usually 3 lb. test). I prefer Maxima monofilament for the larger diameters (30 lb. test to 10 lb. test). It’s stiffness and abrasion resistance make it perfect for leader butt sections. For tippet material (which is also monofilament, of course) I like Dai-Riki or Umpqua in sizes 0X to 6X (or 7X). The Dai-Riki is stiffer and more abrasion resistant, the Umpqua more limber and supple.

Attach the various lengths of monofilament with either a blood knot or a double surgeon’s knot in the lengths specified by the leader formula you are following. While the initial cash outlay is greater, you’ll save money in the long run by tying your own leaders and, more importantly, gain a significant advantage in functionality.

Two of the best fly fishing leader formulas:

  1. 12-foot, 4X

34″ – .022″ (30 lb. Maxima)
25″ – .020″ (25 lb. Maxima)
18″ – .017″ (20 lb. Dai-Riki or Maxima)
15″ – .015″ (15 lb. Dai-Riki or Maxima)
12″ – .013″ (12 lb. Dai-Riki or Maxima)
10″ – .011″ (0X Dai-Riki)
10″ – .009″ (2X Dai-Riki)
20″ – .007″ (4X Dai-Riki)

  1. 9-foot, 4X

24″ – .022″ (30 lb. Maxima)
18 3/4″ – .020″ (25 lb. Maxima)
13 1/2″ – .017″ (20 lb. Dai-Riki or Maxima)
11 1/4″ – .015″ (15 lb. Dai-Riki or Maxima)
9″ – .013″ (12 lb. Dai-Riki or Maxima)
7 1/2″ – .011″ (0X Dai-Riki)
7 1/2″ – .009″ (2X Dai-Riki)
15″ – .007″ (4X Dai-Riki)

Both formulas produce powerful leaders which turn over very well, even in the wind. Don’t worry if your lengths don’t exactly match the formula, as long as you get pretty close you’ll be OK. To make a 5X leader, simply cut the 4X section back to 10″ (on the 12-foot leader) and tack on 20″ or so of 5X. For a 6X leader, use 10″ of 4X, 10″ of 5X and then 20″ or so of 6X. Your leader will be more than 12-feet, but will still turn over nicely.

One word of caution. While theoretically you can use whatever tippet material you like (I suggest sticking with Maxima for the butt sections), not all brands of tippet material will hold a knot when matched with a different brand of tippet material. Make sure your knots are not going to slip before tying up a bunch of leaders. I have not had any problems with Dai-Riki, Umpqua, or Climax, but I have had problems with Rio not holding knots when matched with Dai-Riki or Umpqua. So beware when mixing and matching different brands of tippet material.

Using sharp hooks and finely tuned leaders will go a long way towards increasing your on stream enjoyment. A well designed leader will accurately place your fly on the water and the sharp hook will greatly aid a solid hook set. In Overlooked Gear & Tackle: Part 2 I’ll talk more about “the little things” that aren’t so little.

Guy Turck
Jackson Hole