Our Outdoors: Lead On

Spanish mackerel have an incredible set of teeth that require thicker fluorocarbon leaders, like the 30-pound test tied in above this Clouser minnow fly. (Simonson Photo)

By Nick Simonson

Another cast, another strike, another hookset met with the sensation of nothing on the other end.  The line wound haphazardly on the spool of my reel without the weight of the lure to keep some tension on the retrieve.  It wasn’t the first time I had been bitten off in the swirling blue-green surf of southwest Florida, but it would be the last as I whipped the tip of my rod into the salty gulf water in frustration.

As fast as my legs could pedal the rusty roadster bike back to our family’s rental, I was on my way to remedy the situation and return to the fray, and the frayed lines of the morning’s first round with the ephemeral Spanish mackerel that seemed to ebb and flow with the tide and the schooling greenbacked baitfish that lined the shore.

Like northern pike in any Midwest water, Spanish mackerel have a vicious set of teeth that will set free any lure not properly protected by a few strands of wire or a thick monofilament or fluorocarbon leader.  When happened upon, the schools feed and strike voraciously, slamming lures and flies the second they hit the water or just a twitch or two after and their devastating dentures need to be accounted for, despite their compact size, as those strikes will often engulf the front end of the offering and quickly sever even the toughest superline.  On this particular day of shore casting saltwater adventure, the pint-sized powerhouse mackerel once again slammed the message home about knowing when to beef up the bottom foot or so of line.

Leaders, whether metal or monofilament, provide the brace between the teeth of predator game fish and anglers’ offerings, and coming to the water unprepared to prevent potential bite-offs can produce frustrating outings.  For standard tackle, single or multi-strand steel leaders provide protection from the teeth of big predators, particularly for casting plugs or trolling spoons in waters where pike or muskies lurk.  Single-strand bite leaders are also popular with the flyfishing crowd, as they are easier to turn over on the cast and don’t interfere as much with the presentation of large, but light, patterns for pike, muskies and other fish with the ability to slice through standard lines and leader material.

With the advancement and development of fluorocarbon as both line and leader material in the past decade or so, anglers now have a clear water option for their leaders.  Many muskie anglers swear by fluorocarbon leaders and use them over metal to convert following fish into strikes, as they are less spooky to highly-pressured fish.  Additionally, fluorocarbon, with its light-refracting capabilities is less noticeable in the water than monofilament and typically provides a higher pound-test breaking point and more abrasion resistance, making it the go-to leader material for clear water applications.  However they’re connected to the main line, having a selection of leaders or leader material on hand, is important depending on the conditions and the species pursued.

For commercial leaders pretied with swivels, standard knots like the improved clinch knot or palomar knot will suffice in connecting the leader to the main line. When connecting a single-strand leader of monofilament or fluorocarbon, knots like the double uni knot or the double surgeon’s knot provide solid, direct connection between the main line and the leader that, when tied correctly, don’t need a second thought or a whole lot of extra consideration when it comes to setting the drag on the reel.  Practice each knot a to get them down before they are needed, so they are second nature on any water where tooth-filled creatures lurk and a leader is necessary for fishing success.

With a roll of 30-pound test fluorocarbon in tow, my sunburned legs pumped the black-and-orange roadster bike back to the public beach access where the mackerel were still swirling in the shallows.  With a two-foot stretch of the leader material tied into my surf-casting rod and my fly line, I was quickly back on the fish and the bite-offs disappeared as I landed a dozen more of the 12-to-16-inch mackerel that slashed and bit at silver spoons and greenbacked streamers that I ripped through the waves.  After an hour or so, the bite faded with the falling tide, and I headed home for lunch, happy to have captured another session with the fleeting fish and reinforced the importance of having a good leader on my side, whether in the sun-warmed waters where I stood in the south, or the soon-to-be-freed prespawn flows in the northern tier…of our outdoors.


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