Fly fishing leaders and tippet, at first glance, seem relatively simple. A tapered leader followed by a piece of thin tippet will allow for precise casting, delicate fly presentation, and relatively drag-free drifts.
While even the most novice fly fishermen probably have experience using both, many don’t realize the various options and intricacies that come with choosing the appropriate set-up for the situation.
Whether you’re brand new to the concept of leaders and tippet or a seasoned fly fisherman, this guide should provide some clarity on what they are, how to use them, and the various options available.
Leaders vs. tippet: what’s the difference?
At its most basic level, a leader is a piece of fishing line designed to connect the thick, colored fly line to a fly. While the heavier fly line provides the weight necessary to complete a fly cast, the leader serves as a thin, clear connecter to the fly to avoid spooking fish. It also allows for clean unfurling of the line at the end of each cast.
Most leaders you’ll find at the store are tapered in thickness from one end to the other. The thick end, or “butt section,” is attached to the fly line and provides stiffness and strength to the top of the leader. The thinner end will attach to tippet and ensures a more delicate presentation of the fly. Leaders most commonly run around 9 ft in length, although a wide variety are available from 6-15 ft for different situations.
While the leader provides the backbone of the connection between fly line and fly, the tippet material adds more precision to the set-up. Like a leader, tippet is clear line. It is tied to the thinner end of the leader to connect the leader to the fly. Like its name suggests, you can think of tippet as the “tip” of the leader.
Tippet is often very thin, although it is sold by the spool in various sizes, labeled using a numbered “X” scale, which will be covered later in more detail. As a general overview, tippets with higher “X” numbers are thinner, so a 6X tippet is thinner than a 3X tippet. A 5X tippet is considered a good standard for most trout-fishing situations. Fly fishermen often carry multiple sizes of tippet to accommodate different scenarios, and tippet can be used to build a leader in a pinch by connecting thicker pieces to thinner pieces to form a rough taper.
As a note, once the leader and tippet are connected, they are often referred to collectively as the leader. It’d get pretty annoying to hear “I got a tangle in my leader and tippet” every time.
How long should a leader and tippet be?
The length of line used depends a lot on the situation. In general, shorter leaders/tippets are used for less-spooky fish in rough or murky water, while longer lines are used for wary fish in calm, clear water. Some species, like bass, aren’t very line-shy and can be easily convinced to take a fly at the end of a short, thick, untapered leader, while trout could be spooked by the mere thought of such a rig.
Here’s a chart to give you a feel for some common leader lengths.
|6-7 ft||warmwater fishing for species like bass and panfish, as well as extremely narrow trout streams that require little to no casting|
|7.5-8.5 ft||medium-sized trout streams with non-spooky fish|
|9-10 ft||your all-around trout leader for medium to large streams, especially where there are rocks or riffles to break up the glassy surface of the water|
|11-13 ft||lake fishing for trout, or for calm, clear trout streams with spookier fish|
|14-15 ft||the clearest and calmest trout streams with spooky fish, or lakes with spooky fish|
So how much tippet should you add to the end of the leader? That often comes down to personal preference. Some people like to add several feet of tippet to make a long leader and account for break-offs that could shorten the tippet throughout the day. Other people tie on a foot or less if the leader is already the length and thickness they’d like to fish. In other words, there’s no single tippet length that is good for all situations, and you shouldn’t stress over it too much.
Tippet thickness and the “X” system
All right, it’s time to get into the nitty gritty of tippet sizes, the “X” system, and how to choose the right tippet. Remember, the larger the “X” number, the thinner the tippet. Here are a couple other good rules of thumb:
- thinner tippet works well for smaller flies and smaller fish, although it could be useful for tricking larger fish that are wise and spooky
- thicker tippet works well for larger flies and larger fish, as well as for warmwater species that are not line-shy
- thin tippet gives the fly a more natural movement in the water
When selecting a tippet, there are quite a few things to take into consideration. What are you fishing for? What is the water clarity? What size fly are you using? How spooky are the fish? Are you tying multiple flies on?
Like I said earlier, 5X tippet is a good starting point for your average trout-fishing day. For murkier water or larger flies, you might go up to 4X to give yourself a stronger, stiffer line. For clearer water or spookier fish, 6X might be necessary. I rarely find 7X or 8X to be necessary for trout unless I am fishing an extremely small fly in extremely clear water. 4X-6X tippet should cover almost all trout-fishing situations. For warmwater species, thick tippet from 0X to 3X can usually be used without a problem.
You can also tie tippet from one fly to another to fish multiple flies at the same time. While it’s fine to use the same tippet for both flies, I like to use one size thinner for the second fly (or third if you are using three). That way, if my bottom fly catches on a snag in deep water and I have to break the line, I can often only break the second half of the rig and get my top fly back.
This chart will help you choose the best tippet for your day on the water.
|X Size||Diameter||Pound Test||Fly Sizes|
Leader materials: monofilament vs. fluorocarbon
The age-old debate continues. Which should you use, monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders? As with most leader-related questions, the answer depends on the style of fishing. While neither material is inherently better than the other, they serve different purposes due to the unique qualities they possess.
Technically, the word “monofilament” just means that there is a single strand of line (vs. braided lines of multiple filaments), which would actually include single-strand fluorocarbon leaders as well. However, when people reference monofilament leaders, they usually mean monofilament nylon leaders. These nylon leaders are what we’ll be talking about in this section.
The first clear benefit of monofilament leaders is that they are usually less expensive than fluorocarbon leaders. This is because they are cheaper to produce, not because they are lower quality. Again, given the right circumstances, monofilament leaders can be the right way to go, so saving money on them is a big plus.
Probably the most important feature of monofilament leaders is their ability to float on water. When dry fly fishing, monofilament is definitely the better choice, as having a floating leader will help the flies stay afloat.
Another important quality to consider is the stretchiness of nylon. This can be a pro or con, depending on what you’re looking for in a line. A stretchy line can make it harder to feel subtle strikes and get solid hook sets, but it will also be more forgiving when fighting larger fish. Assuming it’s being used for dry flies, feeling the strike should be less of an issue. Stretchy nylon can also be helpful for knot tying, as it will be less likely to slip than the stiffer fluorocarbon.
One of the major downsides to monofilament line is its strength compared to fluorocarbon, especially after a long day of fishing. Over time, nylon absorbs water and becomes weaker, causing it to be less abrasion-resistant. This means that rubbing on rocks, logs, or other debris could lead to line snapping. It also breaks down in UV light, so prolonged exposure to the sun can cause the line to weaken over time. This doesn’t mean you need to hide your tippet every time you go outside, but it’s often recommended that you replace monofilament line after a few years if it’s had a lot of exposure.
If you do choose to fish monofilament line underwater, one final thing to consider is its visibility. Nylon is more visible in water than fluorocarbon, so fish are more likely to spot it as it passes by. Again, since monofilament is better used with dry flies, this isn’t always a huge issue.
What’s nice about trying to remember the differences between monofilament and fluorocarbon lines is that often, they are just opposites of each other.
While monofilament line is good for dries because it floats, fluorocarbon is good for nymphs because, since it is denser than water, it sinks. Actually, fluorocarbon has quite a few attributes that make it the clear winner for nymphing. Apart from sinking, it is also much stronger in terms of abrasion-resistance because it doesn’t absorb water like nylon. Since nymphs are far more likely to drag on the river bottom and hit rocks, it’s nice to have peace of mind that the line can withstand the abrasion. It’s also nearly invisible underwater, which is obviously desirable for fishing subsurface.
Two downsides of fluorocarbon are its cost and stiffness when tying knots. If you want to fish fluorocarbon, you’re going to have to be willing to pay a little more. I like to have fluorocarbon tippet in just my most-used sizes for this reason. There’s no point in paying extra money for fluorocarbon tippet you rarely use. However, if you nymph often, the cost can be worth it. The stiffness of fluorocarbon, while good for detecting strikes, does make knot slippage a possibility. You’ll want to double check your knots before throwing a fluoro rig into the water.
A final note on fluorocarbon that all fishermen should know is that it takes around 4,000 years to break down naturally. While even monofilament line takes several hundred years to break down, and should by no means be thrown on the ground as litter, fluorocarbon should always be packed out to avoid leaving it on the ground for the next few millennia.
A third option: braided leaders
Just to cover the bases, braided leaders should also be mentioned. Compared to monofilament and fluorocarbon line, braided leaders in fly fishing are fairly rare. Braided lines are pretty true to their name: they are made up of multiple line filaments. While these lines tend to be much stronger than single-filament lines, they are thicker and tend to spray water during casting. This means that they are rarely used for spooky fish like trout.
That’s all folks. Have any questions about leaders or tippet? If so, I’d love to hear ’em!