The Logic of Bonefish Leaders

The Logic of Bonefish Leaders

Build your own for better presentation.

  • By: Chico Fernandez
  • Photography by: Jim Butler
Casting Bonefish Leaders

For the third day in a row I had set my alarm for 5 a.m, and after a quick cup of café con leche I drove across the then-small city of Miami (this was in the early ’60s), over three bridges and onto Key Biscayne. Then, after a left turn onto a narrow, partially hidden, sandy road, I parked under a large seagrape tree, a tree I had parked under many times before. From there, just a quarter-mile walk along the beach brought me to the northeast shore of the key, where I looked out on a large, open flat facing the ocean.

This outside flat, still productive today, was mostly covered in turtlegrass, with just a few sandy potholes at its deepest end, before it dropped off into deep water. The day before, with a low, incoming tide, I cast in vain to several large bonefish that came up on the flat to feed, their large tails waving in the air as they looked for a variety of crustaceans on the bottom. My best casts spooked them, even when I added an extra foot or so of tippet to my leader. Now, having added a bit to the leader again, and knowing this would be the last day that the tide would let me fish these bones early in the morning—at least for another two weeks—I waded slowly along the flat to give it one more try.

When I finally made a cast to the first tailing fish, I was pleased my delivery did not scare him. Instead, a bit agitated, he followed the fly for a few feet and then took it. I felt him, but did not get a solid hook up, and the bonefish, having felt something strange in his mouth, exploded and headed for deep water pushing a large V-wake.

Encouraged by my limited success, and trembling a little, I waded toward the next fish, tailing at the edge of one of the sandy potholes. When I finally positioned myself within casting range, it was apparent this was a big bonefish. This made my casting a bit more difficult. (It is a well-known theory in Chico’s physics: The bigger the bonefish, the larger the casting loop. I think it has something to do with the nervous system.)

On the first couple of casts the fish ignored me and continued to root against the bottom, its tail and sometimes even the tail wrist completely out of the water. On the next cast, the small “splat” of the fly must have caught his attention, for the bonefish quickly came over for one of those thorough inspections that only an old, experienced fish submits you to. He followed the fly closely for a long stretch, but no matter what kind of action I used, he wasn’t totally convinced. He was now very close. Knowing I didn’t have much more time on this retrieve, I tried one last trick: I simply stopped the fly and let it sink to the bottom, as if it were trying to bury itself.

Slowly and deliberately, the bonefish tailed on the fly. I tightened on the strip and he was on, running to deep water, leaving a large swirl of foam and mud where he had been feeding. He ran fast as he crossed the flat, but once in deep water he slowed down a bit but did not stop. It was the classic 200-yard run, which in reality was probably about 80 yards. And that’s still a very long run.

When he finally stopped, so far away from me and in deep water, it took a long time to turn him around, but I eventually brought him back almost to the exact place were he had fed. And after holding him for a few long seconds, I released him and watched him swim away. I have always figured that bonefish weighed more than 12 pounds, but however big he really was, I know the experience surpassed the weight. I’ve taken thousands of bonefish since, but I still remember that one.

By now it was near 8 a.m., and I heard the sound of morning rush hour, reminding me of a college class I had to attend to. So I clipped off my fly as I was half running back to my car. As I was reeling up the leader, I noticed it seemed very long. At home that evening, I pulled the leader off the reel to measure it; to my surprise it was almost 13 feet long. That was unheard of to me in those days, when my typical leader was a nine- or 10-footer. I couldn’t believe that such a leader would turn over as easily as it had that morning. Ever since, my average bonefish leader has been much longer than my rod’s length.

Now, a long leader may be a bit intimidating to you, and you may find it hard to cast well. But most bonefish flies are small and at best lightly weighted, so you should be able to turn over a 12-foot leader with little problem. All you need is for the fly line to transfer energy to the leader; that requires a well-built leader. Allow me to share with you just how to make one.

A leader has three parts: the butt section, the mid-section and the tippet.

The butt section, usually one piece, is the heaviest part of the leader and it’s attached to the fly line. The butt is the leader’s backbone, and it’s the section that is most responsible for turnover.

The mid-section is the part that helps make a smooth transition between the fat butt and the narrow tippet. On a bonefish leader, it is usually two, three or four pieces of mono, depending on how light your tippet is. This section might step down from 20-pound mono to 15 and 10, avoiding abrupt changes in diameter (such as jumping from 20- to 10-pound, for example).

Finally, there is the tippet section, which is only one piece. This is the thinnest, weakest section, designed to create the illusion that the fly is swimming freely and unattached.

The leader build is generally expressed as a formula, a simple notation of the proportion of butt, middle and tippet as a percentage of the total length. So a leader that uses a butt section 50 percent of its length, a mid section 30 percent of its length and a tippet 20 percent of its length is a 50/30/20. And on a 10-foot leader that would be a five-foot butt, three feet of mid section(s) and two feet of tippet. That simple. One of the most famous formulas is Charles Ritz’s 60/20/20. He loved this build because the extra-long butt section was great for the windy areas he fished. And even today, on windy days or when casting extra-heavy flies, this is the formula I use.

I typically use long leaders, but let’s make a 10-footer, which is good for all-around use. And the math is easy. We’ll use the 50/30/20 formula, so we will start with a five-foot butt section. But how heavy should it be?

Generally, you need a butt that is close to the flex and weight of your fly line, so the energy transfer is as smooth and efficient as possible. With this in mind, we’ll select a butt section for your specific fly outfit. For a 6-weight you can use 25- or 30-pound mono, but I mostly prefer 30. For a 7-weight, definitely 30-pound. For an 8-weight you can use 30- or 40-pound, but I prefer 40. And for a 9-weight, 40-pound.

We’ll build a 10-foot leader for an 8-weight line; select a section of 40-pound mono that is a foot or so longer than the five feet you need (you’ll use some material tying knots at both ends). Tie the butt to the tip of your fly line using a nail knot, or a loop knot if you are going to loop your leader. I much prefer the nail knot for its simplicity, and small profile.

For the mid-section, which is three feet in total, add about a foot of 30-pound, a foot of 20 and a foot of 15, using blood knots.

Now, for the tippet section. In the Bahamas or Belize, I’d probably use 10-pound tippet, but for the big bones in the Florida Keys and Miami I generally use 12. Let’s just say you are in the Keys; you’d add two feet of 12-pound tippet, and you’re finished. Once your leader’s built, you change tippets periodically, and occasionally the section above it. Not much maintenance and it delivers great performance.

Part of the beauty of making your own leader, besides that it costs only pennies, is that you can change it to adapt to different conditions. For example, if I have a very long leader, one suitable for a flat-calm day, but it’s blowing 15 miles an hour on the flats that morning, just retying every blood knot will reduce the leader in size, proportionally, and help it turn over against the wind. And on a calm day, when bonefish in shallow water are very nervous, just replacing your two-foot tippet with a three-footer helps your fly land that much more softly. And if you want the fly to sink faster, a longer leader assists with that, too.

The bottom line is that nothing makes a better presentation than a properly tied leader, wind or no wind.

The Right Material

I feel strongly about the use of standard-flex leader material. Very stiff material produces terrible knots, and the fly will not swim naturally. Very supple material gives you little turnover power and more wind-knots. You definitely want a compromise between the two. Many manufacturers offer appropriate monofilaments.

There is an alternative to all this, and that is knotless leaders like the ones you may use in fresh water. While they have improved in the last few years, they are still too soft for me, particularly in the warm environments where we find bonefish. And the butt sections are usually too short, especially once you have used part of it to tie to the fly line. When you have changed flies a few times or broken a tippet on a fish, you have to add tippet material to your knotless leader; if you know how to tie a blood-knot to repair a leader, then you know how to build one from scratch, with good material. —C.F.

Chico Fernandez, the author of Fly-Fishing for Bonefish, is one of fly-fishing’s top teachers. He lives in Miami.