The Leader to Hand technique of fly fishing is a paradigm shift in modern thinking
The Leader to Hand technique of fly fishing is a paradigm shift in modern thinking

Fishing on the Frontier – Part 40: The Changing Paradigm

Right now, there is huge excitement about what is happening in this sport we love so much, particularly the single-handed fly rod discipline, with trout and grayling, and let’s be fair, any species – salt water or fresh – that can be caught on fly.

Let me concentrate on the salmonids though because these are what most of us target and catch, and certainly what fascinate me the most.  Any species that can be caught on ‘fly’, however, is worthy quarry in my view, even if the fly has nothing of an actual invertebrate in its design.  A streamer fish imitation is just fine in my book; even egg flies and the ubiquitous blob.  If we don’t approve, then we don’t have to fish them do we, but also we should not belittle anyone’s sport, with whatever species.   I would love to add the sea trout here to my own list of favoured species; but I’m afraid these mostly belong to a former life.  Agricultural practice throughout Europe has driven the sea trout, the giant specimens anyway, from the waters I loved so much in my younger day, such as Loch Maree, the most wonderful sea trout fishery that ever existed. It is gone now, finished, laid waste by the fortunes of the few, the salmon farmers, and the ignorance and corruption, frankly, of those who were set task to protect, but yet failed.

Without any doubt the most important aspect that determines success or failure in this branch of the sport is presentation.  If you look at any factor that historically has changed the sport, such as Frank Sawyer’s radical ideas on nymph fishing in rivers, you can see that it is nearly always related to the underlying principles of good presentation.  These might be large scale, hugely influential changes, or tiny nuances of rod or line design, or perhaps improved fly patterns, which nudge the sport gently towards development.  Most aspects are the latter; very small scale.  Few can be on the ‘Sawyer scale’ of events, because we cannot collectively, as practising anglers, take on such rapid, paradigm-altering approaches very often.  We are far more comfortable with slow, methodical development, and we are very cautious about change, particularly in Britain.

fotf40_3_478523128.jpgRight now, however, stemming from continental Europe, we are experiencing one of these major changes; one that is changing the way we fish.  It is called the leader-to-hand, not to be confused with the oft-mistaken ‘French leader’, which is but a subset of l-to-h, designed for fishing small nymphs in low, clear rivers, mostly for very spooky fish.  L-to-h has far greater range of applications than French leader, and most especially for dry fly.  Neither is it restricted to rivers.

Since 2006 I have been developing leader-to-hand techniques.  Firstly this was indeed with French leader, presenting small nymphs in clear rivers, using the various, evolving indicator sections to detect takes from the spooky target fish.  I was even able to explore this radical approach with some top European exponents, which speeded up the learning process a little, but I was frankly stuck for quite some time, focused too much on the nymph, thinking that this entire approach was fit only for the low, clear rivers where we were practicing it. Also, without a doubt, I was overly-dependant on conventional fly line, hugely reluctant to come away from this and explore a whole new casting and presentation regime. The major breakthrough came for me via the San River, when I first observed double World Champion, Pascal Cognard, fishing ultra long leader (no fly line) with micro dry flies.

Approaching the problem of a very challenging period on San in the same way was a real eye-opener for me, and certainly set off a train of development that has resulted in completely changing my river approach, and is now making headway into still water applications. This included working away from the simple, ultra-long tippet sections, or even the woefully inadequate early French leaders to developing a suitable rod and leader rig that was capable of the consistent presentation that was needed.  There are problems with this, of course, but we are there now with custom built leaders and it will not be long, I suspect, before the commercial product is with us.  Already we have the rods capable for purpose, with the Greys Streamflex XF2 11′ #3 and the XF2+ #3 being the best examples (by a very long way).  These rods are absolutely outstanding with conventional three weight fly lines, so we really cannot go wrong with them.  The 11 footer wins the day in terms of pure presentation and control (that extra foot really does make a vast difference), but the XF2+, being 9′ 6”, extending to 10′, is a better travel rod and somewhat more versatile.

Leaders are much more of a problem.  The best of the commercially available product are the Camou tapered leaders made by Hends.  These are nine metres of knotless taper and are good for the basis of a nymph fishing l-to-h; though I’m afraid are unsuitable for dry fly presentation.  There are others, none of which are good for dry fly, and most only passable for nymph.  I suggest that you make your own, which is not too difficult, provided you have absolutely the right materials.  Beware of buying some of these anywhere other than from a reputable dealer, who you know has fresh stock.  Copolymer material, which forms the basis of a hand leader, does not have a very long shelf life.  Judging by some of this material I have come across, including some sent to me by a well-meaning friend, it seems to have been lying around for years.  Copolymer loses strength in its decay process, but much more importantly becomes stiffer and more susceptible to memory.  Having said that, the completed leaders, other than tippet sections, last a long time, when the starting materials are of suitable quality.  I am currently using one that has seen me through almost a hundred sessions!

fotf40_2_675076559.jpgStart with fairly thick diameter copolymer (around 0.5mm), and step down – steeply – to 0.2mm at the junction between leader and tippet.  You need appreciable mass close to the tippet, however, which transforms the leader into something which is ‘castable’ in the conventional sense, so this is a crucial point.  I use an appropriate length of braided nylon monofilament, which is looped at each end.  This material is suitable for use with either nymph or dry fly presentation, because it is important that this section remains afloat and this material takes Mucilin so well (one application usually lasting through an entire session).  The tippet is attached to the other loop.  Tippet length varies from 2 metres with nymph, up to 4 metres in good upstream wind conditions for dry fly.  If you get stuck with all this – because the materials can be difficult to find, and it can be confusing in the first assembly – then go to Pat Stevens at FlyTek who has them in stock.  The overall length, including tippet, is between 16 and 18 metres, and with dry fly this is nearly always all cast, with the junction between leader and backing in the fingers, or against the cork of the handle.

There is a lot to take in here with this radical new approach to the single-handed fly rod, but as a starting point, one can only encourage anglers to experiment with very long tippets and light floating lines, and not to be  overly entrenched in preconceived ideas.  I strongly recommend that one starts the whole process with short line nymphing, both with single and double nymph rigs, and learn how to present keeping everything tight between rod tip and ‘indicator’ or floating braid section, slightly leading the flies through each drift.  Gradually increase your dexterity with your range, learning how the l-to-h allows you to keep control and contact to a far greater extent than conventional fly line allows.  Then the big leap, something that will change your river sport at the very least, forever: full blown leader-to-hand with dry fly.  Then you will see hitherto undreamed of drag-free presentation, and utterly the most elegant aspect of the sport we have ever experienced.

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