How to make wind on leaders 1

Jan 20, 2006 by

In big game fishing it is invariably necessary to use a strong and abrasion resistant leader between the main reel line and the hook, lure or bait. This leader protects against abrasion caused by the fish’s jaw, bill, gill plates, skin or fins and, once the fish has been played to the side of the boat, it gives the crewman something to hang onto to help control the fish while it is gaffed, or tagged & released (preferably the latter!). Though wire leaders are sometimes used, it is now far more common to use heavy nylon monofilament leaders, sometimes of up to 600lb breaking strain.

With the type of tackle most commonly used in conventional big game fishing (30lb test and higher) the overall length of the leader is permitted to be up to 30 feet in length in accordance with IGFA regulations. Though 30 feet is an exceptionally long leader, most anglers who target large species such as Blue and Black Marlin, Swordfish or very large Tuna are still likely to use a leader of at least 20 to 25 feet in length. The conventional method for connecting the heavy leader onto the main reel line is to use a suitably rated ball-bearing snap swivel; the swivel is essential to prevent line twist and the snap link allows the leader and the hook or lure to be changed quickly and easily. The main reel line is tied onto the eye of the swivel, usually employing a length of doubled line formed with a Bimini Twist or Aussie Plait, and the leader is clipped onto the snap link through a small loop crimped at the end of the leader. This connection method is strong, simple, reliable and well proven and, for these reasons, is the most popular way to connect heavy leaders onto the main reel line. However, there is a practical problem.

When a fish has been played, and all the main line is back onto the reel, the snap swivel will come up tight against the top guide of the rod. At this point there is still a considerable length of leader beyond the rod tip and the fish will still be well out of gaffing or tagging range. The only option is for the crewman to grasp the leader and hand-line the remaining 20 to 30 feet into the boat in order to draw the fish alongside. This is probably the most dangerous part of the fight, both in terms of losing the fish and the risk of physical injury to anyone in the cockpit, especially the crewman. The sudden change in pressure and line angle when the leader is grasped can sometimes pull free a delicate hook-hold and the yards of loose leader lying in the cockpit of the boat is just waiting to entangle anyone, or anything, that gets in the way.

Wind-on leaders provide a method that allows most of the heavy leader to be wound through the rod guides and onto the reel. This allows the angler to bring the fish right alongside the boat without the crewman having to take over and hand-line the last few yards. It also eliminates the loose coils of leader that would otherwise create a hazard in the cockpit. The basic principle of a wind-on leader uses a length of heavy, but flexible, braided line (e.g. Dacron) to form a loop at the end of the monofilament leader. This loop is used to attach the leader to the main reel line by means of a loop-to-loop connection and is both slim and flexible enough to pass through the rod guides and onto the reel. A full explanation will follow later in the article but any fly fishermen reading this will already be familiar with the mechanics of how this works. The method used to connect the braided loop, or butt, onto the end of a fly line or the fly line onto braided backing is exactly the same in basic principle.

This sounds like the perfect set-up and the wind-on leader system eliminates the major safety issues and inconvenience caused by conventional big game leaders. This is true but (as is so often the case) one set of problems have been solved, only to be replaced by some new ones.

Firstly, the braided Dacron connection, that is so fundamental to the wind-on leader, is in itself a potential weak point. When new and correctly constructed the Dacron connection is incredibly strong and is very unlikely to fail. However, as this connection will pass repeatedly through the rod guides, often under heavy pressure, it is quite susceptible to damage and abrasion. I regard wind-on leaders as high maintenance items of equipment and it is essential to check the leader, the Dacron connection and the loop and knots in the main reel line very frequently, i.e. before every trip and after every battle with a fish. If you see signs of wear or damage then immediately change or re-make the leader and re-tie the loop and knots in the reel line.

The other problems with wind-on leaders come with the snap swivel. A snap swivel is still required at some point so as to prevent line twist and to allow convenient attachment of the hooks or lures. Rather than being at the junction between the leader and the main reel line, the snap swivel is now positioned part way along the leader. For example a 25 foot leader may be made up of a main section that is 20 feet long and which is connected to the main reel line via the braided Dacron connection. The remaining 5 feet of leader is connected to the hook or lure and the two pieces are joined using the snap swivel and a pair of neat crimped loops. This allows the bulk of the leader to be reeled-in through the rod guides and, once the snap swivel reaches the top guide of the rod, the fish is separated only by the remaining 5 feet of leader and is well within gaffing or tagging range.

The snap swivel raises two issues. Firstly, it is now positioned quite close to the bait or lure and rather than being 20 to 30 feet away (as with a conventional leader), it is now only 5 feet away. Some anglers feel that the presence of the snap swivel so close to the hook can spook fish. I am in two minds about this; perhaps when fishing with natural baits, or in the case of notoriously leader-shy fish such as spooky Tuna or Sailfish, there may be some truth in this. However, where large lures are being trolled at speeds of 7 or 8 knots I can’t see that the additional disturbance caused by a swivel will have a major detrimental effect. The second issue relating to the snap swivel is its physical strength. With a conventional leader arrangement, where the snap swivel is located between the main reel line and the end of leader, the snap swivel need only be rated according to the breaking strain of the main reel line. For example, with a 30lb test reel line the maximum breaking strain at the leader connection is 60lb, after allowing for the effect of the doubled line. The snap swivel, therefore, need not be rated much higher than 60lb test. In the case of a wind-on leader however, the location of the snap swivel has been moved to a point within the main body of the leader. In the case of a 300lb test leader, for example, the snap swivel must also be rated for at least 300lb test, otherwise it will introduce a weakness into the system at a highly critical point. A 300lb test snap swivel is quite large and bulky and, when considering really heavy leaders of 400lb, 500lb or 600lb test, this problem becomes even more noticeable. With the very heaviest leaders it can become impossible to obtain conventional snap swivels with sufficiently high breaking strains. In these cases anglers often have to use the very largest and strongest swivels coupled with a stainless steel bow shackle in place of the snap link. These are usually employed for wire rigging on sailing yachts and are extremely bulky to say the least!

Sadly, wind-on leaders are not a magical solution to all our leader problems. They have their advantages, but they also bring other problems along with them. You must weigh up the pros and cons and decide whether conventional or wind-on leaders best suit your style of fishing. And the obvious question; do I use wind-on leaders myself? The answer is; yes, sometimes. The factor that decides which I use is not so much influenced by the style of fishing as by who I’m fishing with. If I am fishing with other experienced anglers and with a highly skilled and experienced crew I will use conventional leaders. I just feel that there is less to go wrong structurally with a conventional leader and, if I am working with an experienced crew, I know that they understand the risks and problems and know how to minimise them. On the other hand, if I am fishing with less experienced people, who could make an innocent yet costly mistake, then I prefer to use wind-on leaders, just on the grounds of safety in the cockpit. The other situation where I would definitely use wind-on leaders is if I were fishing short-handed, e.g. without a dedicated cockpit crewman, this would again be on safety grounds.

The all important braided Dacron loop, that is fundamental to the function of a wind-on leader, has already been mentioned in brief earlier in the article. Braided Dacron is manufactured in the form of a hollow tube of woven fibres and it is this tubular effect that allows a streamlined connection to be formed with the main monofilament leader. If a piece of heavy monofilament is threaded inside the hollow core of the Dacron the effect is similar to the Chinese finger handcuffs. As the leader is put under tension the Dacron contracts and grips around the monofilament – the harder the pull the tighter it grips. Exactly the same principle also allows super-strong loops to be formed in the Dacron by simply threading the Dacron back inside itself (with the aid of a threading needle) and leaving an open loop. In this case, as the Dacron is put under tension it grips onto itself and the loop cannot be pulled open – again the harder the pull, the tighter the grip.

If you’ve never seen this system in practice it is very difficult to believe just how strong the braided Dacron connection can be, it seems quite implausible that nothing more than friction can provide a strong, reliable connection. However, please remember that all the fancy big game fishing knots, that are used everyday with complete faith, also hold together due primarily to friction. The psychological problem that some people have with trusting a braided Dacron connection is probably due to it not having any twists or wraps within it, as opposed to knots, which are nothing but a series of twists and wraps. Just remember that friction is friction, whichever way you dress it up.

Here’s the list of components and tools that are required to make wind-on leaders, along with a few important comments.

1. MONOFILAMENT LEADER – Pick the type, colour and breaking strain that meet your requirements. The construction method that is described here best suits medium to heavy weight leaders. The same method can be used successfully for lighter leaders, but for anything of 100lb BS or below there are simpler ways to make effective wind-on’s. Please e-mail if you would like advice on this.

2. BRAIDED DACRON – The breaking strain and diameter of the Dacron used to form the connection will vary depending on the weight of the main monofilament leader that has been chosen. The Dacron must not be too thick in relation to the diameter of the monofilament otherwise it will be baggy and will not grip as well as it should, however, it does need to be as heavy as possible to maintain strength and durability. In general I always make sure that the Dacron is a lower diameter than the main mono leader, that way you must expand the Dacron slightly to thread the mono inside and this means that it will grip very tightly when put under tension. The list below shows the weight of Dacron that I match with various popular breaking strains of medium to heavy mono leader. However, it is often advisable to do your own thread and grip test * before making your own leaders as the diameter of different brands of mono and braid can vary considerably for a given breaking strain.

400lb BS Mono or Higher 200lb BS Dacron
300lb BS Mono 200lb or 130lb BC Dacron *
250lb BS Mono 130lb BS Dacron
200lb BS Mono 130lb BS Dacron

3. CRIMPS AND ANTI-CHAFE TUBING – These need to correctly match the monofilament being used for the main leader. They are required to secure the snap swivel and form the connection that joins the main wind-on section of the leader to the short front section that carries the hook or lure.

4. SNAP SWIVEL – This must be rated at a similar breaking strain to the main section of monofilament leader; otherwise it will become the weak point in the leader.

5. SUPER-GLUE – We will use a few dabs of Cyanoacrylate Super-Glue type adhesive to add extra security to critical areas. Please note that I do not use the standard general purpose super-glues that are typically sold in general hardware stores. The reason for this is that they tend to be very hard and inflexible once cured. My recommendation is Loctite 4850, this remains slightly flexible after curing and it also has a thicker consistency and fractionally longer cure time than some other products. Checkout the internet for your local Loctite stockist.

6. JOINT PROTECTION Rigging Floss or Shrink Tubing* – It is necessary to protect the end of the join where the Dacron meets the monofilament. Dacron tends to fray at the open end and it will soon unravel after a few passes through the rod guides if not adequately protected. The traditional method is to cover the joint area with rigging floss (dental floss) tied in a series of tight, touching half hitches. An alternative method that I have used employs a one inch long section of a special low temperature* plastic shrink tubing. Be careful here; this is not the same as the shrink tubing that is often used to make stiff hook rigs, this tubing requires quite high shrink temperatures (typically 150C minimum) and this heat would damage and weaken the monofilament leader. The low temperature tubing that I use is made for use with temperature sensitive electrical components and will shrink at a temperature of approx. 80C, which can be achieved by the use of a hair dryer. Importantly, this is cool enough to avoid heat damage to the heavy monofilament. This shrink tubing is available from specialist electrical equipment suppliers such as RS Components.

7. TOOLS - The following tools must be available:- Heavy mono cutters, crimping pliers, sharp braid scissors, tape measure, marker pen, abrasive paper and a threading needle. These items are self explanatory with the possible exception of the threading needle. We must have a suitable needle to help thread the Dacron braid back inside itself. It is possible to buy special wind-on leader needles from some specialist big game tackle stores, but I make my own. The one used to illustrate this article is a 22 inch piece of fine stainless steel welding rod (brazing rod would also be fine) with a neat eye formed at one end. A threading tool can also be made by doubling over and twisting a length of springy stainless steel wire, leaving an open eye at one end. Key points to note are that the eye must be narrow and with no rough edges, or it will not pull through the Dacron. Also, do not sharpen the point – round off the end instead. A sharp point will constantly burst through the side of the Dacron during threading; a rounded end is much easier to control.

If you’d like to raise any questions or seek clarification on any points within this article, feel free to contact me at on the Sekard Technology website at

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