Preparing for a Saltwater Trip to Belize – Leader and Tippet Building 101

Disclosure, I wrote this article before my actual trip to Belize.

Capitanas log stardate 20190815. The date is August 15th, 2019 and I’m a nerd. I’m actually a fly fishing nerd, and yes I use to watch star trek but that’s beside the point. On the 19th I will take a red-eye down to Atlanta, GA for a connection flight to BZE (Belize City) on the 20th. Being 4 days away from departure a rolodex of items not to forget flip through my mind. I keep thinking of my passport… I know it’s in that one drawer but I had better make sure today after I get home from work. Fishing wise I keep thinking to myself, “Ok the list of equipment on the Blue Horizon Belize at Thatch Caye Island Resort website says for tarpon a 30lb 9ft leader with 12-18 inches of 60, 80 pound shock tippet.” This suggestion has been whirling around in my head for the past 2 weeks.

You see I have been on a couple destination trips now and have had knots that I tied fail on large fish, hooks bend out and swivels be pried open just above the popper. I feel I have solved the swivel problem with an extensive swivel haul at my local outdoor store. Seems like a random issue but if you never have cast a very large popper you may not know that after a few casts unless you have a swivel that rotates inline with your fly, your fly line will start to twist. I learned this the hard way, aka first hand. The absence of a swivel in this kind of setup is not ideal because A.) it frustrates you to no ends and B.) over time if you don’t tend to it, it will cause your line to split or crack and poof you’re down another $100. 

So back to this tarpon leader…I pretty much have two options. One is what Capt. Buddy Kirkhart once referred to as a “homeboy” leader. It is essentially 50, or 60 or whatever lb test you’d like of STRAIGHT flouro. I know this works because I once used a 60 lb test 10’ piece of flouro with a perfection loop on one end (loop to loop connection to the line) as well as a perfection loop to the fly. I used this 60lb test “homeboy” leader to land a 50lb GT on the flats of Kiribati. In that situation, it really didn’t matter because the only obstacles between the fish and I were deep blue water on the edge of a flat and maybe some coral that I was hoping my 60lb flouro would withstand. Also in these shallow flats the GT was the apex predator and only had to fear human anglers (this statement will make sense later). At that time all I knew was that building a leader was not my specialty.

A month prior I had gone to Columbia and lost 3 huge Peacock Bass on class tippets that I tied. I was using improved Albright knots that I learned from videos online. Theoretically, they should have worked just fine, but with a rushed learning period and no one to provide feedback except for my comparisons to images on Youtube I really had no idea what I was doing. The only other time I had to care about leaders for that large of a fish or greater was when fishing for tarpon in Islamorada, FL this past June 2019.  And on this trip is where I learned the benefits of using a class tippet.

  1. Should your rod break or your reel come loose or any other kind of equipment failure occurs and you have a 100+ lb fish on the line, ideally, you want that reel back and you want those rod pieces back. In this situation, a class tippet will protect your gear if your 11 or 12wt tropical line has a 50lb core, or theoretically anything with a greater pound test than your class tippet.

a. PAUSE. I just realized that some might not be familiar with the term class tippet leader. Essentially this type of leader is comprised of 3 main sections (sometimes even just 2). The first section (the part closest to the fly line or butt secion) is something hard to break, like 40 to 60lb test. It is something with a substantial diameter such that a smoother transfer of energy can occur from fly like to leader during a cast. Connected to that you have a smaller lb test piece of line: the Class Tippet is usually 20-16lb way down to even 2lbs in some cases. And depending on the species in many cases the 3rd section is a bite tippet. This piece of line is something with a little thickness to it like 40-80lb test so that the targeted species cannot chew through the part of the line that comes in contact with its mouth. This 3rd section is connected to the fly. Ok, back to the benefits of using a class tippet…

2. Say you are fishing and stripping in line on a boat… doot doot de doo just enjoying the scenery then BOOM huge hit! Your line starts ripping out of the boat from the pile that you’ve made down near your feet. Where is it wrapped around?? Feet? Toes? Fingers? A wrist?? One morning in the keys this happened and the line was flying out of the boat so fast that it caught one of my fingers…pop! Guess what? I lost the fish but I got to keep my finger!! Amen.

3. Lastly, say you have the biggest permit you have ever seen on, or the most hydrodynamic bonefish known to woman, OR a tarpon so shiny you are blinded when the sun glistens off its mirrored body jumps. And then all of a sudden! Out of nowhere! Dun dun. Dun dun. Oh hi Jaws. Oh you wanna eat my disadvantaged fish? Not on my watch. With a class tippet you have the choice to selflessly point your rod tip directly at your prized (almost landed) fish and perform a sad but HERORIC long distance release. And then you sleep well at night. 

Ok so what is my dilemma? Well… I’m embarrassed to say but I do not feel confident in being able to tie a leader with class tippet inline. Who’s with me here!? Believe me, I have tried to learn. I learned all about improved Albright knots but after those leaders, I made failed me I don’t trust them. Actually, really I should say I don’t trust my ability to tie that specific knot correctly. What do I trust? At home, I have leader that Capt. Mike Alfano tied. It has a 16lb class tippet that was broken right in the middle of the class portion after a 2 hour fight with a 120lb tarpon. (my rod snapped on this fish so actually had that not have happened I highly suspect the leader would have stayed intact.)  So what does that tell me? This leader is drool face emoji GOLD. I’m going to do some research tonight and report back tomorrow. 

I’m back! After a little DM-ing I got the skinny a couple of leader options. The first is from Capt. Mike Alfano of Islamorada, Florida. Mike is a guide who has spent immense amounts of time understanding tarpon behavior, migration patterns and feeding habits and will be sure to put you in the right spot at the right time. He has a variety of leaders he uses for adult tarpon and was kind enough to send me this recipe. 

  1. If your fly line comes with a pre welded loop 
    • Perfection loop on 6ft of 60 lb
    • Loop to loop connection
  2. If you fly line does not come with a pre welded loop
    • Nail knot with 6 feet of 60lb (butt section)
  3. Blood knot
  4. 4 feet of 40lb
  5. Improved blood knot
  6. Just less than 18 inches of 20-16lb class tippet
  7. Improved blood knot
  8. Just less than 12 inches of 50lb “shock” or “bite” tippet
  9. Fly is attached using improved homer roads loop knot

Mike has been fishing for tarpon since he was a child and if you’d like to see the kind of tarpon he or his clients catch using leaders like these check him out @captain_mike_alfano Mike notes also that if using a clear fly line you can shorten the overall length of the leader a tad. And alternatively if using a colored fly line lengthening the leader a tad won’t hurt either. He further notes that lubricating the blood knots using chapstick can really make a difference. As a final check make sure that there are not any burn marks in the 16lb class after clinching them down. 

I was also able to track down a leader recipe designed for more inshore fishing using a 7-9wt rod for tarpon up to 40 lbs. This one comes from a guide I fished with last June Capt. Buddy Kirkhart @night_heron_light_tackle. By the way, if you are ever in the Stuart, FL region of FL (2 hrs north of Miami) do not hesitate to book him. He is one of the most hilarious and kind guides I have ever fished with and you are guaranteed a trip to remember. Ok back to the leader!

Buddy’s recipe: 

  1. Assuming your fly line has a welded loop
  2. Perfection loop
  3. 3.5 feet of 40 lb mono
  4. 2.5 feet of 30lb
  5. 18 inches of 20lb.
  6. 18 inches of 15lb
  7. 12 inches of 30 lb for the bite tippet
  8. All connections are a simple uni to uni knot
  9. From bite tippet to fly Buddy uses a Mirro-lure loop knot.
  10. Only substitute is a piece of 40lb bite tippet instead of that 30lb if the tarpon are on the plus side of 30lbs.
  11. He notes that this basic leader works in 90% of all his situations and turns over well. 

Further, he notes that he ties his “traditional” tarpon leaders complete with a bimini twist and blood knots for his 10-12wt rods and/or poons over 50lbs. For this type of leader I won’t go into detail but if you’re interested in learning more about that kind of leaders and are in the Islamorada area swing by the Florida Keys Outfitters and hit up Jill Tisdale @jill_bird who ties them day in and day out at her local fly shop, for tournaments, visiting anglers, etc. 

For all of these knots, I was able to look up Youtube videos sent by Mike Alfano or with a simple Youtube search.  I know a lot of us get comfortable with the luxury depending on our guides to make the leaders but I feel it’s important for myself to have a basic back up plan in the case that I’m traveling to a destination where class tippet leaders aren’t the norm and I just feel more humane and safe using one. Also, no judgment on “homeboy” leaders as I’m all about that life given a specific situation. With leaders packed, may the good lord fill Thatch Caye Island with massive tarpon, permit, bonefish or another goliath. Amen.

Article by Ruth Simms (@navajoflyfisher). All photos from her trip with Team Flylords down to Thatch Caye Island Resort while fishing with Blue Horizon Belize in the famed Permit Alley region of Southern Belize.

Lodge Spotlight: Thatch Caye Island Resort – Blue Horizon Belize

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