The length of a leader, when targeting trout or steelhead should at a minimum be a couple of feet longer than the length of your rod. While the length of the leader when bait fishing really depends on the depth of presentation.
How long should a leader be when spinning for trout?
When spinning for trout with lures, relatively long leaders work best.
I like my leader to be long enough so it wraps around my reel several times prior to casting. In practice, I will frequently fish leaders about 3 or 4 feet longer than the length of my rod. So if I am fishing a 7ft rod, my leader will be between 10-12ft.
Other than the expense, there is no downside to a longer leader.
Why such a long leader?
I fish with such a long leader for several reasons. I will explain each in turn.
1) A long leader reduces the chance of a fish breaking off or throwing the hook as I try to land it. This is because the weak link in the line is the knot between the leader and the mainline, and I do not want a panicking fish to be able to apply pressure directly to that knot, especially at such close quarters.
When the leader is wrapped around the spool, then any pressure will be applied to the reel’s drag, rather than the line. It helps soften the impact.
2) When casting, it is good to have the leader wrapped around the spool so the reel itself will absorb some of the shock generated by the cast. A long leader greatly reduces the chance of the line snapping during a cast.
They also give me the confidence to fully load the rod, when required, and cast it at maximum power. A powerful cast can result in a few extra feet of distance, usually, that does not matter but occasionally it can make a world of difference.
3) More often than not, I fish braid when targeting trout and steelhead. A long leader protects my fingers from braid cuts.
Braid cuts occur because braided line has an extremely thin diameter, which can slice through my skin like butter. These very fine cuts can get painful, because after every cast. The line will find its way into the previous opening.
4) Again when fishing braid. A long leader increases the distance between the visible mainline and the lure. Trout are not stupid, they can see line, and that can scare them. A longer leader spooks fewer fish, especially in clear conditions.
Best length leader when trolling?
The length of the leader when trolling is not as important as when casting. It can be slightly shorter but if I am completely honest. I basically use the same setup.
While a leader when trolling can be shorter, I still want it to be long enough so the joining knot, is wrapped around the spool when trying to land the fish. This means the best length leader when trolling for trout is a rod length plus 3 or 4ft.
Some people recommend a 7ft leader for trolling, will a leader of that length is really only suitable for very short rods. Such a short leader will often result in the knot still in the guides when trying to net a trout. This is just asking for a break-off to occur.
How long should a leader be to prevent the trout from seeing the mainline?
A leader of only 2 or 3 feet is usually sufficient if all you care about is avoiding line shyness in trout. In discolored water, it is possible to get away with an even shorter leader.
How to know when it is time to replace a leader?
I replace leaders for several reasons.
The main reason I replace leaders is because they have become too short. I normally replace it, when the leader is so short that I have to touch the mainline during the cast.
Another time I replace leaders is when they have been damaged, if I see noticeable abrasion or other signs of damage I will likely cut it off and tie on a new one.
The final reason I will replace a leader is when water conditions change, I might change to smaller diameter leader when the water is very clear or will change to a heavier one when fishing in fast current or around structure.
How long should a leader be when bait fishing for trout?
The best length of a leader when bait fishing really depends on the depth of presentation, and whether you are fishing beneath a float, free lining, or fishing off the bottom with a weighted presentation.
I will now discuss each fishing technique in turn.
Best leader length when floating fishing
There is no best or optimal leader length when fishing baits beneath a float. Most fishermen, for reasons I will explain below will typically fish leaders between 3 to 4ft.
The depth at which the trout are feeding determines the length the leader needs to be. If the water is five feet deep, and the trout are feeding close to the bottom, a leader of around 4 feet is required.
The maximum leader length is determined by castability, very long leaders become difficult, if not impossible to cast. Longer rods are also more capable of picking up and casting longer leaders.
Leader length when fishing in still water
Leader length for drifting floats in moving water
Best leader length when free lining for trout
Free lining is when the only terminal tackle used is the hook and bait. The idea is to allow the bait to float freely, or slowly sink through the water column. It is a mid-water presentation style.
There is no need for a float or sinker of any significance. Although, some people will choose to use a small ball or running sinker to assist in casting and to force the bait to sink faster.
Longer leaders work best when free lining because there is nothing that restricts the maximum length. I generally use a rod length plus a few extra feet. So usually results in a leader around 8-12ft long depending on the road. I use a longer leader on a longer rod and a shorter leader on a short rod.
Best leader length when bottom fishing
There are various ways to bottom fish, but they all rely on a sinker to hold the bait close to the bottom. In most bottom fishing presentations, you will want the first bait to be about a foot above the sinker. Sometimes, it is worthwhile to have a second bait an additional foot or so up
When bottom fishing, I generally use a leader of around 3-4 feet in length. I will then attach several traces around 6 inches in length.
If the bottom is weedy, you might want to position the bottom bait further up the leader so it floats above the weed.
General leader questions
Is it best to attach a leader with a swivel or knot?
It is best to attach a leader to the mainline with a knot, depending on the type of line you are fishing will determine which knot is best to used. When connecting braid to monofilament, I personally like to use a knot called the Aussie Quickie it is a modified version of the bristol knot. I will make between 7 to 9 turns. I also use the same knot when joining monofilament to monofilament, I simply reduce the number of turns.
The problem with using a swivel is that they should not be wind through the rod guide, so using a swivel limits the length of the leader to what hangs out the end of the top guide. So a couple of feet max. In my book, that is more of a trace than a leader.
What is the difference between a trace and a leader?
The main difference is the trace is very short, usually less than a foot long. It basically there to prevent fish from biting through the line. They are typically used for fish with sharp teeth like pike or sharks. Most of the time they are not required when trout fishing.
I say most of the time, because I have read that people who trout fish in pike infested water will often use a trace to prevent their lure from getting bitten off.
What breaking strain should my leader be?
As luck would have it, I have written another article that covered this exact question and more. It can be here. Which leader setup is best for trout fishing?