Adjusting Your Leaders for Fishing Situations

The right length and makeup tip the balance in the angler’s favor

July 28, 2017

The purpose of a leader, in its basic form, is to protect the fishing line against chafing or parting from contact with a fish’s jaws or body. Yet there’s much more to fabricating a leader system than simply tying on a length of heavy monofilament, fluorocarbon or wire.

fishing offshore from center console
The proper rig lets you concentrate on the fish. George Poveromo

It’s a skill that takes into account how the fishing outfit will be used and the best leader material for the task. It’s about performance as much as protection.

By the Rules

When fishing for records, or in many tournaments, International Game Fish Association rules stipulate that with lines testing 30 pounds and greater, a maximum of 30 feet of double line or 30 feet of leader is permissible. If both double line and leader are used, the combined length can’t exceed 40 feet.


For lines up to and including 20-pound-class, the allowance is 15 feet of double line or 15 feet of leader. If both are used, the maximum combined length can be no more than 20 feet. A maximum-length leader is especially advantageous in catch-and-release fishing, where winding the leader through the rod tip or having a crew member touch it during the fight constitutes a legal catch. Sailfish and marlin release tournaments are perfect examples. But such leaders aren’t only for targeting billfish; wind-ons are also perfect for besting other large fish the likes of striped bass, snook, tarpon, dolphin and tuna.

Variations of a Theme

For drifting live baits with 20-pound monofilament on both conventional and spin outfits, I rig with a 24-inch Bimini twist on the end of the fishing line and a Bristol knot to join the double line to 40- or 50-pound fluorocarbon leader, for a combined length of 15 feet. For my deep rods, intended for blackfins, kings, wahoo and even sailfish, I stray from IGFA guidelines and opt for a short double line and a 40-foot wind-on leader of 30-pound fluorocarbon, followed by a small barrel swivel and 2 feet of 40-pound fluorocarbon or titanium terminal leader. A removable sinker hangs from an open snap swivel on one leg of the double line, some 40 feet from the bait — where it won’t be noticed or influence the action of the live bait. During the late battle stage, the sinker is removed so the fish can be wound right to the gaff, if desirable table fare, or to gloved hands, if intended for release.

My objective with the mentioned setups is to fashion a leader that’s light enough to coax bites and preserve the action of live baits yet durable enough to withstand abrasion from a rough bill or jaws and the pressure of leading fish to the boat. Furthermore, the leader length facilitates a quick legal release, plus it protects the line, should a leaping fish fall onto it or become tail-wrapped.


For general offshore trolling, and for these same reasons, I incorporate 20-foot ­wind-on leaders and 10-foot ­primary leaders on my 30-, 50- and 80-pound-class conventional outfits.

wire leader for pitch baits
Pitch Baits: Use a leader just long enough to adequately protect main line. Illustration by Steve Sanford

1.) 10 feet of 30-pound flouro 2.) In-line circle or J-style hook 3.) Bristol knot 4.) 24 inches of double line 5.) Bimini twist 6.) 12- to 20-pound main line

pitch-bait rig
Casting: A shorter leader increases both distance and accuracy. Illustration by Steve Sanford

1.) 3 to 4 feet of leader 2.) Lure or baited hook 3.) Bristol knot 4.) 24 inches of double line 5.) Bimini twist 6.) 12- to 20-pound main line

rig for drifting live baits
Drifting Live Baits: A long leader eases fish handling boat-side. Illustration by Steve Sanford

1.) 15 feet of 40-pound flouro 2.) In-line circle hook 3.) 24 inches of double line 4.) Bristol knot 5.) 20-pound main line

Don’t Overfill

Reels filled with too much line pose problems. During casting or when free-lining a bait, the line that was originally wound on tightly will begin to expand and unravel from the spool. And a heavier wind-on leader will only aggravate the situation. Keep this in mind when filling a reel and leave some room for such expansion.

Precision Counts

The leader systems outlined above are fine for drifting or trolling but inefficient for casting, as long leaders hinder accuracy and distance and require extra effort to launch small baits, which often throws them off the hook.


For casting, I rig with a 4-foot leader. The short leader ­allows me to keep the leader-to-line connection from entering the reel, so casting is smooth and precise. It’s ideal for overhand casts. However, the size of the fish should always be a factor. For example, for offshore fish, I hedge my bets by using short casting leaders on 20-pound spin tackle. The heavier the main line, the better it will weather contact with a fish’s body.

Abrasion-resistant braid is ideal in conjunction with short casting leaders. It’s a great substitute when monofilament line isn’t required. On more than one occasion, we landed sailfish on light spin tackle with 20-pound braid and a 3-foot, 40-pound fluorocarbon leader.

When casting distance isn’t a concern, a longer leader is recommended. In May, when a large dolphin swam up to our boat, I grabbed a 12-pound-class spin outfit rigged with 10 feet of 30-pound fluorocarbon leader and a J-hook baited with a live pilchard, made an underhand cast to the dolphin, and passed the rod to Corinne North Fuller.

During the spirited fight, the dolphin leaped and fell back onto the leader, not the 12-pound mono. A half-hour later, we boated the 36-pounder. The outcome would have been different if I’d used a 4-foot leader.

Solid Connection

I’m a fan of the Bristol knot for joining a leader to double lines. It’s small enough to pass smoothly through the rod guides and bail roller of a spinning reel, and also works on small conventional reels.

When using a Bristol knot to join a mono or fluoro leader to monofilament fishing line, there are approximately 24 wraps in the double line and eight wraps comprising the Bristol. For joining a mono or fluoro leader to a braid double line, due to the slickness of braid, it’s imperative to double the amount of wraps in both the double line and Bristol for maximum knot strength and holding capacity.

Wire Up

When metal leader is required, go as light and as short as possible. Make it just long enough to prevent cutoffs. A metal leader can be as simple as a small barrel swivel at the end of a mono or fluoro leader, a foot or two of wire, and a hook. Fabricate leaders in advance and change them when kinked or damaged. Titanium, performance-type wire has a smaller diameter than single-strand of the same strength, is flexible and impervious to kinking, and ideal for live-baiting for Spanish and king mackerel.

Quick Changes

Leaders take abuse, so thoroughly inspect them after each fight. If chafed near the hook by smaller fish during not particularly stressful battles (i.e., schoolie dolphin, small blackfin tuna, etc.), cut and retie above the damaged section. However, after a tough fight with a large fish, even if the leader still appears fine, change it, particularly if it’s fluorocarbon. Once the chemical properties of fluorocarbon have been stressed, it loses its ability to blend with water and, in turn, to fool more fish into striking.


More How To