You are at the beach fishing and you rare back and cast. You hear a loud CRACK and you watch your bait, hooks, and sinker go flying out into the ocean, but they are no longer attached to your line. It's time for you to learn about shock leaders.
What is a shock leader? - A shock leader is an extra length of line which is heavier than the main line on your reel, and is attached to your main line at the beginning. It's seems it got its name because it is intended to absorb the shock, or extra stress on the line, during a cast.
Why use a shock leader? - The primary reason is to keep the scenario above from happening; sinkers flying around with no line attached are a safety hazard and it also gets frustrating (and expensive) when you have to replace your rig and sinker every other cast.
The shock leader also has an added benefit; the heavy line of the shock leader is nearest the bottom of the water and also nearest to any fish you hook and since it's heavier, it's more resistant to abrasions and nicks that could cause the line to break and result in you losing your fish.
Why not just fill the reel with heavy line? - The heavier the line is on your reel (spinning or conventional), the shorter the distance you will be able to cast. So you don't want to fill your reel with very heavy line. Instead you just add a section of heavy line at the beginning which quickly leaves your reel and allows the lighter main line to flow during the cast, minus the loud CRACK which no surf fisherman likes to hear.
What strength shock leader do I need? - There is an old wife's tale, which circulates where ever surf fisherman can be found, which says you need ten pounds of "test" for each one ounce of sinker that you intend to cast. Fishing line is rated in tensile strength by "pounds of test". Your main line for the beach should be around 15 lb test line. So according to the old wife, if you want to use a 4 ounce sinker, you'll need a 40 lb test shock leader.
Problem is, even though some people seem to think that old wife wrote the Holy Grail of Shock Leaders, her formula doesn't hold true for everyone. If you are a laid back old guy (like me), you might not even need a shock leader because you gently toss your baits out in the ocean and don't create much stress on things when you cast. On the other hand, if you are a twenty something guy who lifts weights and drinks a lot of Red Bull when you are fishing, you might need a shock leader that's twice as heavy as what Grandma recommends.
You have to determine, through experience, what is the right strength shock leader you'll need. Grandma's rule is a good place to start, but remember that the shock leader does the same thing that a reel full of heavy line does; it slows down and shortens your cast. So you want a strength that is not going to break when you cast but at the same time, you want to avoid overkill.
How long should my shock leader be? - Again, since the shock leader is much heavier than your line and will slow down your cast, you want it to be long enough to do its job but not way too long. A good formula for length is twice the length of your rod, plus 8 to 10 turns around your reel. That gives you enough to allow for knot tying. A perfect length for your shock leader is 8 to 10 turns around your reel, out through the guides of your rod, and down to the rig when you are ready to cast. This varies as different people like different lengths of line "hanging" when they cast, so it's better to start out a bit long. It's much easier to make a shock leader shorter if you measured it too long than the other way around…
How do I attach my shock leader to my line? - This is a question that has plagued surf fisherman for many years. Short answer is you tie a knot. The problem is that nobody seems to be able to agree on which knot is best. The knot that is best is the one that is both the strongest and the smallest. But strong and small are determined by who tied the knot and what size shock leader was used to tie it. Sound like a vicious circle, huh? It's really not that bad, let me explain which knot is best for you.
Your choices include the Albright Knot, The Double Grinner Knot, The Blood Knot, The Blob Knot and (according to Google), and a hundred other knots. Let's keep this simple as we are discussing the basics here.
For years I preferred the Albright knot. In my opinion, it's a very strong knot. I never had one come untied. But a few years ago, a friend showed me the Double Grinner knot, and suggested that I use braided line instead of monofilament for my shock leaders simply because the diameter of the braided line is much smaller. So now the Double Grinner is my favorite knot for shock leaders. But be advised that is subject to change.
Which knot is best for you? You need to decide. Since you need to master the skill of tying the knot correctly, it's very important that you pick one that you can master. The Alright and the Double Grinner will get you started, and Google can find you instructions for tying just about every knot that was ever invented. At the bottom of this article you'll find a link to a video on the Double Grinner that you can watch.
No matter what knot you chose, practice it with some scrap line for a while before you decide to tie on your actual shock leader. A weak shock leader knot will result in the same scenario described above; your bait and hooks and sinker (this time with the shock leader too) will go sailing off into the ocean unattached.
A final note on safety - The good news about the dreaded CRACK is that 99.9% of the time, the unattached equipment goes flying out into the ocean where it can't do my harm. In your travels around the surf fishing part of the Internet with your friend Google, I'm sure that sooner or later you'll discover the "pendulum" cast. When you do, please hit the back button on your browser.
Pendulum casting is fine for long distance casting contests held in a field. Since it involves swinging the sinker in an almost 360 degree arch, if the CRACK occurs the sinker could go in ANY direction; back to the parking lot, up or down the beach, etc. Only fools and drunks would use a pendulum cast on a beach with other people around.
When you are fishing on the beach, be aware of people around you. A four ounce sinker could easily kill someone if it strikes them in the head.
To watch a video on how to tie the Double Grinner Knot, click HERE.