Steel Leaders vs. Fluorocarbon Leaders for Musky Fishing

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Musky Fishing is a special pastime for many anglers. While many of us have become hooked on smaller, simpler species, musky remain the king of the lakes. The big, muscle-bound monsters provide one-of-a-king excitement when it comes to freshwater fishing.

They also provide a unique set of challenges.

The leader type used for musky angling is a personal preference from one angler to the next. You are sure to get different opinions and answers depending on the angler you ask. The fact is that some leaders are better suited to certain tasks than others. In this article, we will explore what leaders you should consider for specific situations, as well as some personal preferences and choices.

Why are Leaders Important When Musky Fishing?

If you’re a seasoned musky angler, this is a no-brainer. For those of you that are new to musky fishing or are considering dipping your toes in this hardcore angling world, this might seem like a foreign concept. Maybe you have used a braid-to-fluorocarbon rig in the past, but probably for a much different reason. When fishing for bass, crappie, or other smaller species, a leader is often used for a variety of reasons, including visibility, abrasion resistance, or depth.

When targeting “toothy” species, however, the leader plays a more practical role.

Muskie (and pike) both have razor-sharp, needle-like teeth that can shear through your line like a razor blade cutting a string. It doesn’t matter how thick or tough your line is – musky anglers typically use 80 to 100 pound woven super braids, and they are still no match for a muskie’s teeth.

Muskies can swipe at your bait and “miss” or make a headshot, which they so often tend to do. In this situation, if you don’t have a leader, you will lose your bait, no doubt about it. Not only that, but now you have to deal with a 25 dollar lures disappearing. Depending on the hit, the mishap could also lead to a potentially dead musky – something no true musky angler wants!

Steel Leaders

Steel leaders have been around for a long time in the musky fishing world, and for a good reason. They are strong, durable, and serve their purpose quite well.

Steel leaders can be separated into two separate categories: straight wire and strand wire. Below, you can find more detail on both types, include how and when to use them.

Straight Wire

Straight wire leaders or steel leaders that don’t flex and are rigid have become a niche for many musky anglers. I use these leaders for two different lure types: glide baits and dive-and-rise jerk baits.

Using straight wire for glide baits drastically improves the action on a glider, creating a solid pivot point for the bait to walk. This is similar to how a hinge works on a door, with only one pivot point.

Flexible wire style leaders or fluorocarbon leaders bend and curve which reduces the amount of energy transferred to a glider, thus reducing its action. I also run straight wire leaders without a snaplock fastener and tend to use a simple split ring and attach it to the glider.

The use of a split ring instead of a snap-lock removes a pivot point (and thus energy loss from the equation).

This is the same concept with the rise-and-dive jerk baits, but instead of a horizontal plane, it is vertical. I use jerk baits in heavy cover on a regular basis as well. With a straight wire setup, you can snap your rod and line hard and fast, allowing the leader to slash through vegetation that will foul up your lure.

Steel Wire Leaders

Standard flexible steel wire leaders have been a staple for musky anglers for decades, and they are great for most fishing applications on the water. From bucktails to rubber to crankbaits, they work for practically any musky lure type.

This does not mean that steel wire leaders don’t have downsides, however. The most glaring downside is probably be visibility. They are very stealthy, and this could cause missed opportunities, particularly in clear water lakes.

In present-day angling, wire leaders are used less and less. With the growing popularity of monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders and their benefits, many anglers have decided to switch to these types exclusively, though many traditionalists still stick with them. They prefer the security the wire leaders provide while remaining durable after long-term use. Steel wire leaders are far less susceptible to damage or breaks caused by nicking or fraying.

Fluorocarbon Leaders

Fluorocarbon leaders are now probably the most frequently used general all-around fishing leader in musky fishing, alongside monofilament. These leaders generally run in the 80 to 100-pound range and provide exceptional stealth compared to steel leaders, which can make a huge difference in clear or heavily fished waters.

Keep in mind that fluorocarbon leaders do have downsides, however. They are susceptible to nicking or fraying after getting chomped on by a fish, or due to abrasion from the environment (encounters with rocks or timber, for instance).

It’s important to inspect your leader on a regular basis to prevent failure when it counts the most. This especially applies after catching a musky. You should always inspect your leader to ensure it was not damaged after every bite – even those that get away.

While it’s possible for a fish to shear through a fluorocarbon leader, this is pretty rare. Over the last 15 years, I have not had this happen once, so it’s a pretty safe bet you will not have any issues.

Fluorocarbon Leader Tech Tip

I have a personal preference toward fluorocarbon leader setups and personally know only a few anglers who run them this way. Still, after doing so, I can comfortably say I will never go back to the standard tie-on leader setup.

I take a simple length of fluorocarbon leader and tie it directly to my line using a double uni knot. This eliminates the barrel swivel altogether and leaves only the snap-lock on the tie end.

This setup has a few advantages.

One advantage is for night fishing. When fishing in the pitch black of night, you won’t have to worry about jamming a metal barrel swivel into your rod tip because you can see it. Instead, you will feel and hear the knot running through your guides. This signals you to immediately start your figure-eight, giving you a massive advantage when it may feel like you are fishing with a blindfold on.

Another advantage is keeping your leader setup lighter. This is important to me when I run shallow running baits like Larry Dahlberg’s Mr. Whiggley. The weight of the barrel swivel will increase the sink rate and cause your bait to drop nose-down instead of a very slow, horizontal fall.

Conclusion

Leaders aren’t all the same, and certain leaders can really excel at giving you the best lure presentation possible while giving you the peace of mind that you won’t lose your bait or cause harm to (or lose) a musky. Use the best leader suited to your needs and lake conditions, and be sure it’s made from quality components to lessen the risk of failure.

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