Leader of the Flies by Capt. Mike Schoonveld

Leader of the Flies by Capt. Mike Schoonveld


chinook salmon flasher flies great lakes fishing

I catch dozens and dozens of fish each year on trolling flies, sized from little “tied on the hook” coho flies to big ol’ laker takers. All of these are pulled behind some sort of dodger or flasher made of metal or plastic.

Myself and other fishermen I know spend hours contemplating and hundreds of dollars acquiring various sizes, models and colors of dodgers and flashers. Should I use an eight-inch or ten-inch? Should I use a silver and blue one or a blue and silver one? Do the fish really give a hoot? Maybe the green and silver one would have been a better choice?

great lakes flashers sink fishing

Myself and other fishermen I know go through the same mental debate and the remainder of our lure budget selecting the proper fly to trail along behind either the silver/blue or silver/green attractor we selected. Should it be a green fly, blue, multi-colored, three inches long or four? I could get an ulcer just pondering it all.

Now consider this. Dodger/fly combos or flasher/fly set-ups are not two part lures; they are three part lures.

The dodger is at the front, the fly is at the rear and in between is a length of fishing line connecting the two. Does it make sense for Great Lake anglers to spend as much time and treasure as they do on the flashy part at the front or the pointy part at the rear and give little or no thought to the leader connecting the two?

Granted, the leader doesn’t hold the glamour of the other parts. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the importance.


Though some fly makers sell their flies sans hooks, beads or leader material, most are sold preassembled, including a length of either monofilament or fluorocarbon line. Do you know what is tied to the trolling flies you use? Do you know if it’s mono or fluoro? What’s the breaking strength of the leader? Does the fly maker know what’s best? Will the fish give a hoot? Do you give a hoot?

Most people will likely admit they don’t give a hoot or they trust the fly maker. Perhaps some people give a hoot but not enough to swap the original leader with something else. Should people give a hoot about all this hooting?

I vote yes. Hooting matters—occasionally. Occasionally, it matters not. The problem is no one can guess when the fish give a hoot, one way or the other.


Science guys in white coats can explain why fluorocarbon line is less visible underwater than traditional nylon monofilament line. They care about this, I don’t care if you care about this but I do care about this. I just don’t care why.

Why do I care? Because fish have proven their eyes are sharp enough and their pea-sized brain is powerful enough to occasionally make them wary of biting something attached to a fishing line—any fishing line. However, line-shy fish have also proven time and again, they can be duped into biting a lure tied to fluorocarbon line while avoiding the same lure tied to monofilament line.

That’s enough reason for me to want fluorocarbon line tied to the bait or lure I’m putting in the water to catch pea-brained fish. I figure if I can catch some of the smart fish, I can lure in most of the stupid ones. Once my downrigger rod springs to life with a fish at the end of the line, I don’t give a hoot about its IQ.

No leader is too short if the fish will bite it. salmon flasher fly flies

No leader is too short if the fish will bite it.


Line comes in a variety of breaking strengths. That’s important for a number of reasons—most of them having nothing to do with the size of the fish an angler is trying to catch. Otherwise, we’d all fish with one-pound test line for pint-sized sunfish and 1000 pound test to fish for blue marlin. Panfishers commonly select line 10 or 20 times stronger than is needed to lift the fish out of the water without breaking. Big game fishers commonly select line 10 to 20 times lighter than the fish they are chasing.

Sometimes—as stated above—line visibility is key.

The link between visibility and line strength is straight forward. Stronger line is thicker than less strong line and thicker line is easier for a fish to see than thinner line. This is true fluorocarbon line, nylon monofilament, or any other kind of line.

Despite manufacturer’s marketing claims of underwater invisibility, fluorocarbon is only “less” visible underwater than nylon monofilament. It’s not invisible. That being the case, the stated principle of thicker line being more visible remains true. Fluoro is less visible than mono, but stronger fluoro is more visible than thinner, weaker fluorocarbon line.

So, if thinner, weaker line is less visible and we want to catch our share of the smart fish in the lake, does is make sense to replace the manufacturers’ leaders with thin, less visible fluorocarbon leaders?

There’s no black and white answer to this question. All things being equal, the answer would be yes. Day in, day out, you’d hook more fish using 10-pound test fly leaders than 20-pound test. Twenty-pound test would out fish thirty. Fifty wouldn’t be as good as forty, all things being equal and visibility the only factor. Some days, the fish won’t give a hoot if the leader is fluorocarbon, mono, dacron or fluorescent chalk line string.

Needle pliers and needle teeth are tough on flies and fly leaders.

Needle pliers and needle teeth are tough on flies and fly leaders.


Flies are not the most durable lure in my tackle assortment. They are towards the bottom. I’ve worn out flies in just a day. I don’t have many that endure into their third season or even their second. They are made out of material not much stronger than Kleenex. Between dragging through the water when being used, fluttering around in the wind when not being used, getting bit by fish with needle-like teeth and pulled from toothy mouths with needle-nosed pliers, a good fly’s useful life is short.

Almost as flimsy as the fly is the leader. They are subjected to many of the same abuses as the fly—especially the needle teeth and needle pliers.

The last few inches of a fishing line tied to a spoon or plug is faced with similar abuse and most anglers routinely run their finger down the last few inches of line to feel for nicks or abrasions on the line after catching a fish. If they detect something suspect, it’s easy to clip the line back and retie.

It’s not so easy to do on a fly, since the re-do means a complete do-over. Start with a fresh length of line, thread on the fly, thread on the beads, tie on the hook, measure the leader and tie a loop knot on the end. Now do it in the wind, on a bouncing boat, and while your fishing partners are urging you to hurry and get the hot lure back in the water.

I don’t want to do that. You don’t want to do that. So persnickety-smart fish or not, I don’t select the lightest line possible for my fly leaders. I want to be able to ignore slight imperfections, knowing my 30-pound test leader won’t test 30 pounds anymore after it’s caught a few fish; but even if it’s lost a third of its strength, it will still hold up to the next fish attached to it. Sure, I’ll swap out flies or make new leaders if the nicks or rubs warrant the switch. I just don’t want to have to do it after every fish or two.



Anyone who has read many of my previous GLA articles know I have several “rules of thumb” I follow when fishing the Great Lakes. Some people even think I’m all thumbs. Perhaps so.

When I first started fishing salmon and trout with dodgers and flies—very few used flashers back then—there was a rule of thumb most everyone followed when it came to making a leader to connect the fly to the dodger.

The rule said a fly should be swimming along exactly nine inches behind a six-inch dodger, 12 inches behind an 8-incher and so on. Since the curly-Q swivel thingy most dodger makers use to facilitate attaching the leader-loop to the end of the attractor is over 2 inches long, the actual leader for an eight-inch dodger really needed to be only 10 inches, from the front of the loop attached to the curly-Q swivel to the head of the fly on a six-inch dodger needed to be seven inches to put the fly in the perfect 1 1/2X position—assuming the measurement was supposed to terminate at the head end of the fly.

I don’t know if the measurement was supposed to terminate there and I always wondered if I should be measuring to head or the middle or to the rear end of the fly. I still don’t know for sure where persnickety leader makers end their measurement.

This captain didn’t follow the 1 1/2X leader-length rule great lakes fishing salmon

This captain didn’t follow the 1 1/2X leader-length rule.

I do know if a fish is so persnickety it will bite a fly on a 20-inch leader but won’t touch the same fly on a 19 or 21 incher that fish is probably too smart to ever get caught. That doesn’t mean length isn’t important. A fish that will strike a fly on a leader around 20 inches long, probably will care if the leader is only 12 inches or if it’s 30 inches—probably.

When I was a firm believer in the 1 ½ dodger length rule, I occasionally had my eyes opened—or blackened—for following that rule. Both taught lessons.

Most fly makers package their fully rigged flies with two or three feet of leader material tied to the fly, but without a loop knot at the other end. This forces the user to tie his own loop knot and determine his own leader-length. I’d often see novice anglers loading up with dodgers and flies with extremely long leaders. (Really extreme-looking to us 1 ½X rule adherents.) Often the neophytes just tied a loop to the end of the leader line as it came out of the package and ended up with a 3X or even 4X long leader. I just shook my head.

Then I just shook my head again when they returned with fish caught on their rule-breaking, long-leadered flies. “No self-respecting salmon would bite that,” I thought, then realized, “Some salmon have no self-respect.”

The day I gave up on my 1 1/2X leader-length rule stands out in memory. I was fishing close by another captain, far from being a rookie, and he was kicking butt while I was striking out. We were in radio contact and close enough I could see some of the fish coming over his transom. We were both using similar flies and identical 6-inch dodgers. He finally asked how long a leader I was using. Of course, I was following the 1 ½ rule. Captain Bob suggested lengthening the leader to 18-inches.

“Heresy!” I thought as I clipped a leader and rebuilt the fly with that ridiculous length of line. By the end of the trip, all my D/F rigs had been reworked and my faith in the 1 ½ rule was forever crushed.

Now, I have no rule to follow and if anything the leader lengths I use now are more on the long side than the short side.

Occasionally, I’ll drop down to the 1 ½X length when I’m loaded up with metal dodgers. More often the leaders are 2 ½X to 3X long. When my flies are swimming behind plastic flashers such as Spin Doctors, Coyote Flashers or Dreamweaver Paddles, 3X to 4X is the norm. I often experiment with different fly leader lengths as often as I switch colors to find what the fish prefer.

 fishing great lakes lake trout


In general fluorocarbon line is stiffer than nylon monofilament. In particular, regardless of what kind of line, heavier line is stiffer than line with less breaking strength. The question then, does the stiffness of the line have any affect?

Many anglers say, “definitely” and most who believe this opt for stiffer lines, regardless if that means using a heavier, more visible line. Where I may use 30-pound fluorocarbon, they choose 50 pound.

Assuredly, when a dodger or flasher pulls though the water, it dodges or spins. That movement then translates to the fly trailing behind. The “stiffness matters” guys believe the stiff, 50-pound line gives the fly more action than if it were attached to 40- or 30-pound test line.

With short, 1 1/2X to 2X length leaders the increase in action when using stiffer line is sometimes enough to be noticeable to both fisherman and fish. Does the enhanced action elicit more strikes? Sometimes it does. Somedays it could be a turn-off as was probably happening the day I lost confidence in my 1 ½X rule of thumb.

As the length of leader between attractor and fly increases, the amount of action imparted through the leader to the fly diminishes. Once the leader gets to 3X or longer, the difference between using 30-pound or 50-strong becomes imperceptible to me and likely almost imperceptible to the fish.

At some point, leader visibility becomes more important than an extra millimeter of wiggle in the fly material. Where along the continuum from not-important to highly-important is for you to decide.

Actually, the whole point of this article is to get you to decide, or at least give as much thought to your leaders as you do to the attractor ahead or the fly trailing behind. Do you now give a hoot?


All fluorocarbon lines are not created equal. Minor tweaks in the chemistry of the raw product imbues the finished product with subtle, but sometimes important differences such as stretch, limpness, abrasion resistance and others.

Most manufacturers offer two major fluoro-types. One type comes in reel-filler or longer lengths. The other type is spools of fluorocarbon leader material. One quick distinction is the price of a 300-yard spool of fluorocarbon line is about the same as a 30-yard spool of fluorocarbon leader. That’s 10 times the price per yard. Is it worth it?

Both fluorocarbon line and fluoro-leader are nearly invisible under water. The stuff made to be leader material is somewhat stiffer and more abrasion resistant than the type engineered to be “castable.” You decide which best suits your needs and budget.


No knot is as strong as the fishing line used to tie it. The knot is always a weak link so fly leaders come with two weak links—one is the knot connecting the leader to the hook, the other is the loop knot at the front end used to secure the set up to the dodger or flasher.

Don't use the same knots suggested for nylon monofilament when using fluorocarbon line as leader material. The materials are different and a knot good for one usually doesn't work as well on the other. 

- written by Capt. Mike Schoonveld


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1 comment

Many saltwater fisherman shifting back to mono leader

Michael Collins

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