Polyleaders – What They Are, Why We Like ‘Em

Ask Charles - he'll know.  Photo: Cameron Miller
Ask Charles - he'll know. Photo: Cameron Miller

One relatively recent development in the world of spey fishing is the broad use of polyleaders. Since polyleaders are a bit of a mystery to some folks, we asked Charles St. Pierre, Northwest spey fishing and equipment guru, to do a little writeup for us on what these things are all about.

Here’s what Charles has to say about polyleaders.

As with most recreational pursuits, fly fishing is a sport that is driven by passion, performance, and technology. Fly fishing and fly casting performance are often measured by different criteria depending on the fishing situation, but there’s always one thing in common – the essential connection of the fly line to the fly. Collectively, we refer to this connection as the “Leader”.

The term “Polyleader” was first coined by Airflo. Rio Products also produces a “Versi Leader” system that is similar to the Airflo product in construction and use. As their names imply, these are leader systems that vary in material composition, length (from 6 to 15 feet), and sink rates (from floating to 7 inches per second or “ips”). The construction of the polyleader involves using a level core of monofilament and then applying a supple tapered coating in a wide variety of densities for different presentations.

The purpose of tapering the leader is to store the energy from the fly line on the forward cast and then dissipate that energy smoothly as the cast unrolls and straightens before it settles on the water’s surface. The taper of the leader essentially becomes an extension of the forward taper of the fly line to create the most accurate and efficient presentation possible with the fly.

By contrast, when two lines of varying diameter and density are connected to each other and then cast, they often “hinge” and are unable to transfer and sustain energy to fully and accurately turn over the fly. Hinge is virtually non-existent with tapered leaders. This creates tighter loops that will defeat nearly any wind and can be used effectively with all but the largest flies. In the case of the sinking leaders, the taper also works to lessen drag – and that allows the leader and fly to sink deceptively fast within the water column. In many cases, polyleaders sink as fast or faster than level sinking line of equal or slightly greater mass and density.

Both Rio and Airflo manufacture these leaders with welded loops that attach via loop to loop connections to any fly line. The front end has an exposed core at the tip to attach varying lengths of tippet.

Smoother and more efficient turnover in most fishing conditions, greater accuracy, variety of use and application, and efficient sinking properties make us big fans of these leaders. They just might become the most versatile fishing tool in your bag too.

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  1. andrew says

    Hi Jes! Yes, I’d certainly say that in our neck of the woods (the Pacific Northwest), the use of polyleaders is very much on the rise.

  2. Joey says

    Intersting artical. Are poly leaders only for scandi heads or can they be used at the end of a skagit head?

  3. andrew says

    Hi Joey, you could probably get a polyleader to work at the end of a Skagit head, but in general they’re going to work a lot better with a scandi head. Scandi heads typically have longer, finer front tapers that transition really well into a polyleader. Skagit heads have much shorter front tapers that are designed to turn over heavier sinktips; the transition from a Skagit head to a polyleader would be really abrupt.

  4. Herb Ladenheim says

    I am using Airflo poly leaders with Airflo cold water striper WF lines. They also work well with other brands of WF lines. Are you saying I am misusing them – i.e. that they are solely designed for the spey world??

  5. andrew says

    Herb, not at all! We’re just talking about polyleaders and spey fishing in this article. That’s great that you’re having success using them with your striper fishing.

  6. Seth Harris says

    I am new to spey casting/use of a spey rod. I have a 14′ medium action9/10 wt. rod and I just purchased a Airflo tactical steelhead shooting head line(9wt). The line came with an 8″ floating line and was wondering what type of polyleader should I buy for atlantic salmon fishing on Quebec rivers. I currently have my reel backing attached to an Airflo ridge running line (30wt) which in turn is connected to the shooting head and finally the 8′ line is connected to the fron of the shooting head. I added a 12′ mono tippet. My question, is the setup OK and what length polyleader should I buy (1.5 ips) . Should I use a short or long tippett? Keep in mind that I am a novice spey caster,although I can cast well with a single handed rod. Thanks for all and any advice Seth

  7. andrew says

    Hi Seth, thanks for stopping by. I’ve got some clarifying questions on your setup – we’ll drop you an email and help out however we can!


  8. says

    Andrew asked if I could field your question on Poly Leaders and leader lengths for the Airflo Tactical Steelhead. If you look closely at the floating tip included with the line, you’ll notice it has ridges running lengthwise along the tip. These ridges give the front of the line excellent “stick” to the water as you form your d-loop. We typically use Poly Leaders on lines like the Scandi Compact to accomplish the same thing. That said, you don’t need to use a Poly Leader with the Tactical Steelhead. I would recommend using a 10′ to 12′ tapered leader. If you want to try a Poly Leader, go with a 10′ Salmon/Steelhead Poly Leader with 3′ of tippet looped to the front. If you need to get your fly down in the water column, you can loop off the floating tip and replace it with a 12′ #9 weight sink-tip in Intermediate, Type 3 or Type 6. This line will struggle if you try to cast a heavier sink-tip than Type 6. If your fishery requires getting the fly really deep, the Skagit Compact is designed to throw heavy sink-tips and larger flies.
    Hope this helps!

    -Tom Larimer
    Airflo Pro-Staff

  9. Paul says

    Great post guys… I bought the 15ft RIO versileader pack to go with the 460 gr AFS on my Z-7136, but am having difficulty casting it. It feels too long and difficult to manage. What is the most effective versileader length for this setup? And, can I just cut-back the versileader to a more manageable/efficient length and add tippet, or does that ruin the tapering and performance?

  10. andrew says

    Paul, you’ll probably find that a 10 foot versileader / poly leader is going to be a lot easier to deal with on that setup. 15 feet of leader on a 7136 is a lot! Cutting 5 feet off the front of your 15 foot versileader wouldn’t be a bad way to give it a try – the result might not be exactly the same as a 10 foot versileader but it’s definitely not going to ruin its performance.

  11. Wayne Loren says

    I have a question about tippet length-it seems like almost every angler has a different opinion on the length of tippet to use with different weight polyleaders. What would you suggest the best length of tippet would be on a floating poly compared to a 7ips. sinking poly leader. I am fishing a 14ft. Loop 9wt. Does the length of rod make a difference.


  12. says

    Hi Wayne
    As far as tippet length is concerned for the floating leader, I would suggest adding a tapered mono leader of 8 to 10 ft. in 18 to 15 lbs. strength. You can then add a bit of tippet to that if necessary to extend the life of the tapered mono leader. I’m assuming you intend to fish this for dry flies (18 lbs.) or small wet flies (15 lbs.) and a mono tapered leader will do the job better than level mono for both. It should be a nice fit for your 14 ft. rod for a bit more line to anchor but you may prefer using this set up with a shorter 10 ft. polyleader if the overall length of the line seems a bit long. I don’t know how long the poly leader you have is or the style of casting you prefer. My suggestion is to try it and decide for yourself what you like best. For the sinking poly leaders, I would recommend a tippet length of 3 to 5 ft. of level mono.
    I hope this helps and enjoy…
    Charles St. Pierre
    Northwest Speycasting

  13. says

    Great article! I have always ran my own sinktip leaders off my single handed rod, and since picking up a spey setup I have been hearing from everyone to run the poly leaders when swinging. Trouble is, they just told me about the poly leaders and not the length. Paul’s question was close to what I was going to ask, but I am running Rio’s Powerspey for my Z-7136. I’ll be trying out the 10′ versi leader to boot. Also, I had one buddy telling me to ditch the Powerspey and go with the Skagit setup with the versi leader, but from what you guys are saying, it’s almost bettter to have a line that tappers down to a thinner diameter like a scandi. Will the Powerspey be too thin at the end to allow me to properly transfer the lines energy into the poly leader?

    Also, what are some other lines you guys reccomend for a long belly line? I was looking at the CND lines, as the Powerspey for my setup seems to only have 60′ of head length and that’s pretty much the max distance I am able to cast it.

    Thanks in advance.

  14. says

    Hi Ctobias
    To answer your question about the Powerspey and it’s turnover capacities using the Versaleader / Polyleaders; it depends…
    It depends mostly on size and mass of the fly. Casting technique also is a factor but this set up will effectively turnover flies up to 1/0 that are un-weighted including spey and traditional wet flies more commonly used in low water and late summer and fall fishing. I have used the Versaleaders / Polyleaders with the Powerspey and other long belly weight forward lines in this capacity with very good success in the past for late summer and fall fishing. Scientific Anglers, Airflo, and Nextcast also make long belly lines that suit this type of presentation as well…
    That said, this set up will not effectively turnover flies with additional mass from the addition of large lead eyes, large cone weights, or water absorbing materials that are commonly used for winter and early spring fishing. These flies will work better using a a skagit style line because the mass of the line is compacted into a shorter length thus supporting the additional mass and size of the fly…
    I hope this helps…
    Charles St. Pierre
    Northwest Speycasting

  15. jim says

    I have a 15ft airfo 7in pr min sink poly leader attached to a 6/7 400gn rio afs out bound
    the afs has been cut back to 30ft ( is getting old and the front 6ft was badly cracked )
    the 15ft turns flies over a lot better than 10ft on the original 36ft ads length.
    Question , I am considering a 5/6 powerspey ( save stripping on frosty mornings)
    Is there an optimum length poly leader for longer belly lines
    Rod is a loop 1206 ( 12ft #6wgt) i fish with size #8 and #6 flies (red setters and woolly buggers)

  16. says

    Hi Jim

    It’s sounds like your fly size is not an issue for what your trying to do with the poly leader so you’re good to go for fishing them…
    To my knowledge, there really is no “optimum length” for a poly leader to use with a long or shorter belly line. From a fishing stand point, the length and sink rate of the poly leader to use would depend on the water conditons for your presentation…
    From a casting standpoint, the length of the poly leader might be an issue but this has a lot to do with the rod you intend to use. Generally speaking, the shorter poly leaders should be a better “fit” with the shorter rods and the longer poly leaders with longer rods for adequate anchor stick. I believe the Rio Power Spey 5/6 is around 55’+ in length. If you add a 15′ poly leader to the 5/6 PS, you now have 70′ of line to work with and that’s a lot of line for a 12′ 6” rod to handle IF you have all or most of this 70′ outside the rod tip. While casting you need enough line outside the rod tip to load the rod effectively, in this case around 50’+ including the poly leader (estimated), so this line might not be the best “fit” for the length of your rod or with a longer poly leader…

    Hope this helps…

    Charles St. Pierre / Northwest Speycasting

  17. Brad says

    Great article! I’m writing in the hopes that maybe it still gets looked at once in a while. I was wondering about sink tip suggestion for a echo 1o’10” 6wt switch rod. I maily skate drys and I have had good success w/ a compact skandi 390gr and a “10′ salmon/steelhead clear floating” polyleader and was wondering what you might sugest for getting flies down a foot or two w/out givving up the ease of casting this rig gives me?


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