A tarpon leader

A tarpon leader

Gary Meyer | Tuesday, 22 May 2018

In the next few weeks, I’ll be down in the Keys for a few days of continuously targeting large tarpon. To be honest it is not my favorite way to fish for them but it is fun none the less. It is the epitome of sight fishing and there are plenty of targets. The downside is many, actually, most, are hard to feed. The water is clear and the fish are usually visible although often the shots are rushed as the fish are on the move and quite often not detectable until very close. Sometimes you get lucky and a fish or two from the school will roll at the surface giving away their approach. Other times, especially in the morning you can find stationary “laid up” fish, which is more like the way we find them up near the Everglades.

There is a lot of preplanning involved. Water depth and clarity, tide phase, sun position and bottom structure are all components for choosing where to be at certain times. And then you hope someone else did not beat you to your spot. Tarpon fishing this time of year is very popular and there are many other boats on the water doing the same thing.

Over the years I have heard of many ways to construct a leader for this type of tarpon fishing and I have tried a number of them. I have pretty much settled upon a system that is actually rather simple. There are a few steps where I have reduced the complexity to such a point that many folks are surprised it is not a point of failure. However, I am almost always correct when I guess where the leader fails. Often, leader failure is actually the plan, which I know many do not understand, but knowing where it will fail, and just how much strain the leader can take, is to my way of thinking a sign of a competent tarpon angler.


I’ll share the knots I use and let you decide what you think.


My leader consists of only three sections: a butt section, a class tippet, and a bite tippet. The butt section is almost always constructed in 60# nylon monofilament, the class is 20# nylon also, but in the bite tippet, I choose to use fluorocarbon. Most often I use 60# for the bite but if the water is clear I will step down to thinner stock. The overall length of the leader also depends on water clarity but my normal length is around 12’. I don’t use a tape measure; instead, I rely on my wingspan, which is about 6’. I like my butt section to be over 60% of the total length. Folding it into thirds is an easy way to find 20%, and from there I can estimate the length of my class tippet which I like to be around 40% of the total length. The bite tippet I start with is around 15”, which I allow for in the class tippet.


Now the knots. Starting from the flyline, the first knot is actually a nail knot that is made in 12# nylon that I use to form a loop at the end of the flyline. I use only a single nail knot. I know many use multiple nail knots here and often more elaborate whippings, but I have never had a failure even after reducing down to one!


The second knot is a perfection loop tied in the end of the butt. A key to this loop is to make it rather large. I want the legs to be over one inch long. Tied this way the loop will flatten and travel easily through the guides when the loop to loop connection is made.


The connection between the butt and the class is a simple blood knot. The class tippet here is doubled with a Bimini. I don’t bother with twisting the legs. This connection is very rarely the one that fails. Three turns in the 60, five turns in the doubled 20. BTW… it is in making this Bimini where much of the 15” of the bite is compensated.


The connection between the class and the bite is the weakest link in the leader, by design. Here I use a Slim Beauty but the class is only doubled. I do not normally use a Bimini here. By using 20# instead of the usual 16# most other tarpon anglers use I can allow for a lower percentage connection and still pull as hard as my usual 11 wt flyrods can handle.


To the fly, I tie a variation of the Homer Rhodes loop knot credited to Steve Huff. The difference is the overhand knots are doubled. It allows for a straighter loop. I have had this loop fail (slip) but in every case, I am pretty sure the problem was with me being in a hurry when attaching the fly


I have never actually used a scale to determine how many pounds of strain I can put on this leader. But over the years I have developed a touch for how it feels right before it fails. I know I can lift 5# of dirt in a pail over a pulley and the entire system will still have some elasticity. It is when that stretchy feeling goes away that I know I am nearing the point of failure.


This leader will normally fail near the end of the fight when I am putting straight line maximum pressure on the fish to hasten the release. Seldom does it fail during the fun part of the fight, but it is tarpon fishing and they do some strange things in the air that will catch you off guard.