Learn The Fly Fishing Basics and How to Fly Fish!




Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet: What, Why and How

One of the many items you probably have seen while browsing online or local fly shops is a great wall of leader and tippet material.  There’s a lot of it out there.  Just what is a leader and how does tippet come into the equation though.  In this post I’m here to answer your questions and concerns about fly fishing leader and tippet materials.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet - The Fly Fishing Basics Visit Front Range Anglers!

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet – The Basics

In your fly fishing gear setup you have the fly rod, fly reel, fly line and flies.  How do you connect all of those trout-tempting flies to your line so that you can cast them out though?  That is where the leader and tippet material come into play.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet - Umpqua Leader - The Fly Fishing BasicsThe fly fishing leader and tippet are what provides a nearly invisible transition from the fly line to the fly.  Fly fishing leader and tippet comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and even colors.  The first main purpose of the leader and tippet is to connect your thick, colored fly line used for casting to the flies that you are trying to present to the fish, with a material that won’t scare them away.  The second main purpose of the leader and tippet is to complete the transfer of energy built up in the fly line through the casting stroke through the line and down to the fly so that your line rolls over and straightens itself out if a fairly straight line.  If you cast and your fly and line lands in a giant birds nest of line on the water, you won’t have much luck enticing those fish to take your fly.

So with those two main purposes behind the fly line, leader and tippet manufacturers have produced a wide assortment of products to meet the demands placed on it.  First off though, let’s define what a leader is and what a tippet is.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Defined

One of your first questions is probably what is the difference between a fly fishing leader and tippet.  In the simplest terms, the leader is the main clear material that is connected to the end of your fly line.  This will be a material that is usually a fairly heavy weight where it attaches to your fly line (the butt section) and will taper down in weight/thickness to the point where the tippet attaches.  If you are familiar with conventional fishing methods, the leader is pretty much the same as the fishing monofilament used on your spinning or casting reel.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Material - The Fly Fishing Basics Visit Fishwest.com

The section of the leader that attaches to the fly line is generally on the heavy side of the pound test rating.  This is called the butt section.  Many anglers will start with a 20 pound test butt section of the leader to attach to the fly line and taper this down to around 4 pound test or so.  This leader, on average, will be about 9 feet in length.  This is a good starting point when learning the fly fishing basics and just getting started.  You may have seen the 4X, 5X and so on leaders materials in fly shops…I’ll discuss the ‘X’ rating used in fly fishing further on.

The fly fishing tippet is the lightweight portion of material that you attach on one end to the end of the leader and on the other end to the fly.  Using the lightest, yet strongest, tippet possible without having the fish notice it is the key here.  This is where you can keep the same leader section attached, but change your tippet size depending on the nature of the fishing you are doing and the situation at hand.

I briefly touched on the whole leader – tippet setup, let’s discuss this a bit further to give you an understanding of how to effectively use this

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet – Setup

As previously mentioned, the heavier leader material is attached to the end of the fly line.  Also, the typical length to use when learning how to fly fish is around 9 or 10 feet (this can be lengthened or shortened depending on the situation).  Your goal with a leader setup is to create a taper from the butt section down to as thin as possible tippet section.  This allows the energy from the fly line to transfer as efficiently as possible through the leader and tippet in order to straighten out as best as possible.

So if you start out with 20 pound test leader material attached to your fly line and taper this down, your last couple feet of material will have the tippet attached to it, which provides the best ability to fool the fish you are after without it seeing the line that is attached to the fly.

You can see that tapering a leader from 20 pound test down to 6 or 4 pound test can be a struggle to do in just 9 feet.  And with that, the whole art or hand-building custom tapered leaders is a vast and varied topic.  You can search around online and discover multiple different articles for custom tapers and the purposes behind them.  That is far above what this post will cover though.

Fly Fishing Tapered Leader - The Fly Fishing BasicsMy recommendation is a simple one.  In your local fly shop you see many varieties of pre-built knotless tapered leaders.  These are modern wonders in the world of fly fishing as you get the optimum taper without the knots to snag on weeds and other debris in the water.  Find a knotless tapered leader that is in the length of 7-9 feet that tapers down to 3X or 4X (again, I’ll clarify the ‘X’ rating in a minute).  This will allow you to attach you preferred tippet size material to the end or even just fish right out of the package with this setup if 4X is your desired tippet size.  It’s much simpler than hand-building your leaders.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet – Materials

The materials that fly fishing leader and tippet are made of are of two main types: monofilament and fluorocarbon.  These two types of materials coincide primarily with the type of fishing you are doing.  I won’t get into all of the technical details between what monofilament is and what fluorocarbon is.  There are a few main differences between the two.

Monofilament - Fluorocarbon - Fly Fishing Leader and TippetMonofilament has more stretch than fluorocarbon and it also floats on the water easier.  Fluorocarbon has less stretch, resulting in more sensitivity and stronger hooksets.  It also sinks faster in the water column and is more durable and abrasion resistant due to its hardness and the materials it is made of.  Fluorocarbon is also near invisible to the fish.  However, fluorocarbon is more susceptible to your knots breaking than monofilament and requires proper lubrication when you cinch your knots down.  One other item is that monofilament is considerably less expensive that fluorocarbon.  Each are adequate to be used when fly fishing though.

You can see there are pros and cons to each different type of fly fishing leader and tippet material.  Cost keeps many from trying the benefits of fluorocarbon.  Each does a great job when you are out on the water though.

I try to keep it simple by determining what type of fishing I’m doing that day.  With fluorocarbon sinking quicker and providing its higher abrasion resistance and greater sensitivity, I typically use this when nymph and streamer fishing.  With monofilament floating easier, I tend to use this when fishing dry flies.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet – The ‘X’ System

The ‘X’ rating system for fly fishing leader and tippet is confusing at first, but doesn’t need to be.  I’d like to touch on this a bit to help relieve some of the confusion that many newcomers to fly fishing have with fly fishing leader and tippet material.

Manufacturers use a simple rating system, denoted by the ‘X’, that describes the breaking strength and diameter of the fly fishing leader and tippet material.  The typical scale that these run on are a range from 03X down to 8X, with 03X being the thickest and strongest and 8X being the thinnest and lightest.  So basically the ‘X’ size of leader determines how strong and how thick or thin the leader and tippet are.
Here’s a simple chart showing typical fly fishing leader and tippet sizes on the ‘X’ Rating scale:

Tippet Size Tippet Diameter Pound Test Fish Size
03X .015″ 25 lb. Big Game Species
02X .013″ 20 lb. Large Salmon
01X .012″ 18.5 lb. Striped Bass
0X .011″ 15.5 lb. Salmon, Steelhead
1X .010″ 13.5 lb. Bonefish, Redfish, Permit
2X .009″ 11.5 lb. Large & Smallmouth Bass
3X .008″ 8.5 lb. Bass & Large Trout
4X .007″ 6 lb. Trout
5X .006″ 4.75 lb. Trout & Panfish
6X .005″ 3.5 lb. Trout – Easily Spooked Fish
7X .004″ 2.5 lb. Trout & Panfish / Delicate Presentations
8X .003″ 1.75 lb. Trout & Panfish / Small Flies

Shop and Receive **FREE** Shipping on all Domestic Orders at Fishwest.com!

Practical Use:

A common rule that helps to determine what ‘X’ size tippet to use to attach your fly is to take the size of the fly, say a Size 16 Parachute Adams for example, and divide that fly size by 3.  In this example our fly is size 16, divided by 3 gives you 5.3333.  That would work out to be approximately a 5X tippet size.  Say your fly is a size 4 streamer… 4 divided by 3 gives you 1.333, which would in turn be approximately a size 1X tippet.  It’s a simple and easy to use rule to help you determine the proper tippet to use while out on the water.

Conclusion

Fly fishing leader and tippet doesn’t need to be a complex part while learning the fly fishing basics.  I hope that this article has given you a basic understanding of what leader and tippet are, how they are used in fly fishing, and why you need them.  If you have any questions or comments, please don’t hesitate to ask below in the comments or drop me a line on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.  I’d be happy to help with any questions you might have.  Happy fishing and tight lines!

New Course Available!
Mayfly Nymph Identification - Fly Fishing Entomology Course

Want to know what fly to attach to the end of your leader? Be sure to check out the new Fly Fishing Entomology course. I’ve partnered with The Catch and The Hatch to bring you this amazing resource. It will help you learn to identify the insects you encounter on the water and then put that knowledge to use in selecting the perfect fly to help you catch more fish. Check it out today!

Find Out More 

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 25+ years, web developer, and Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

  • Spencer Cook

    Great article. Something very important to note that will set you apart from 80% of fly fisherman out there, make sure you attach your tippet material to the end if your leader so that it does not straighten out completely when casted. There is an amount of slack that is desirable to avoid “micro drag”. The last couple feet of your leader should have some slack in it upon hitting the water. The way I usually do that is by putting on a 24 to 36 inch length of tippet as my terminal end. There are a lot of subtleties that will make HUGE differences. I prefer to tie my own leaders to more effectively manage this. Google: “Harvey slack leader” and you’ll be well on your way to catching all the fish you want! Thanks for the post.

    • Those are great tips Spencer and thank you. I remember starting out and how confused I was trying to understand all the intricacies of a “good” leader. There’s so many different options/varieties/setups. Tips like yours will definitely help those just learning this fine sport.

      • Clive

        Thanks for the article and Web page I found this most useful
        I live on the borders of Scotland and I believe there are some great waters for myself to try
        I used to do a lot of match fishing but I have just brought some new fly tackle
        So I will be trying out these techniques etc
        Thanks again for the most helpfull info
        Much appreciated from a newbee to fly fishing

        Regards Mr foster

  • Kyle Carmody

    Will a 12# saltwater tapered leader work ok with a 10# tippet? I understand the tippet will be marginal bigger but don’t want to go any lighter for snook and redfish flats fishing.

  • Many thanks! Excellent information.

  • Robin Negus

    Question: is it possible to use braided line as tippet material? it’s light and strong, but I could see complications arising when tying it to a mono or flouro leader…any thoughts? would it just land as a heap maybe?

    • There are some braided leaders I’ve seen on the market though I haven’t used them. Your main problem is going to be energy transfer with them. All that built up energy from the fly line will typically diminish once it hits the braided portion. And like you said, it usually ends up landing in a heap instead of straightening out.

  • Ashok Vashisht

    Hi

    I am just starting to buy my Fly Fishing Tackle for Trout and small Mahseer in India. For a Rod (6), Line (WF 6) what would be the correct Leader and Tippet . Is it 5X (leader) and 4X (Tippet) ? Or do Leader and Tippet always share the same size viz 5X/5X, 4X/4X ? Also, will my WF6 Line work fine in fast flowing rivers and lakes too ? Is their a chart which equates the following date : (a) Line weight, (b) Leader, (c) Tippet and (d) the size range of Dry/Wet Flies and Nymphs which work with this line/leader/tippet combo ?

    Ashok Vashisht
    India.

    • The leader/tippet setup isn’t specific to the fly rod and line weight. It is primarily specific to the fish species you are targeting and the situation you’ll be fishing. Your leaders will need to taper in size/diameter down to your final tippet size. So you may start out with a 20 lb test butt section attached to your line and then taper it down to 10 lb, then 2x, then 4x and so on (That’s just an example though). What I recommend is purchasing a pre-made tapered leader setup, say a 9ft 4x. This will give you the taper you need and you can adapt it to your situation. Either trim it down in length and add on a heavier tippet, or extend it out to 5x or lower at the end of the 4x. That may sound confusing, but the main idea is to taper your leader/tippet from thick to thin.

      To answer your second question, your WF6 line will work just fine in those situations. The main consideration to change would be if you are fishing for smaller or larger fish species which might fit better with a lighter or heavier line.

      As for a chart, I can’t really think of anything specific, but a key point to know is tippet to fly size. What you’d do is take your fly size, say size 12, and divide that by 3. This gives you 4 which would then equate to a 4x tippet size. So you would have your leader then taper from the thick butt section down to a final 4x tippet size. That divide by 3 rule is pretty good at getting your tippet size right. Let me know if you have any other questions. Hopefully that has helped a little bit.

      • Ashok Vashisht

        Thanks a ton, Clint. It has helped a lot. I am a bit confused on the Leader / Tippet relationship though. For example, as I bigner I buy a Weight 5, 8’6″ rod and pair it with a WF6-F line (RIO intouch Gold for example) and then target Trout (upto 2 lbs) and Mahseer upto 2 lbs (bigger fighter). I understand I would be using nymphs (10-14) and Streamers (6-8 ???). So my tippet would be 4X. But, how do I chose my Leader and is their a Leader/Tippet formula ? Regards.

      • Ashok Vashisht

        So if I fish with a WF6-F line for (a) size 12-14 flies I would be using 4x tippet. But what would be my leader rating (how do I calculate) (b) If I use size 6-8 flies I would be using 2x tippet. Again how would I calculate the correct leader in case b.

      • Ashok Vashisht

        My issue is if I start with a fly/nymph/streamer size range say (a) # 12-16 and (b) # 6-8 how do I plan the leader & tippet combination. I am told to calculate the Tippet by dividing Fly size by 3.

  • Brently Howell

    My question is, lets say you have a 4x leader tied on and you change to a smaller fly and will need to go to say 8x. Can you just tie on 8x tippet to the end of the 4x leader. or any size for that matter.

    • Niko

      That’s exactly what you do. To attach the tippet to the leader use a double surgeons knot (there are other knots but this is my preferred leader-tippet knot). Plan to have about 12″-18″ of tippet between the leader and the fly. Something I like to do is buy a 9 ft 5X leader (I rarely use a tippet above 5x), cut off about 2 ft of it and extend my planned tippet size by those 2 feet which ends up being a little over 3 ft of tippet. That gives you a longer stretch of thin line and helps keep from scaring off picky fish.
      If you plan on fishing with more than 1 fly at a time make sure the planned tippet sizes are equal or decreasing in size (i.e. a woolly bugger on 5X tippet trailed by a nymph on 6x tippet not the other way around). Also, dry flies should always lead wet flies (i.e. an elk hair caddis trailed by a midge). Hope that helps and best of luck fishing!

    • You can; however, one thing to keep in mind is the size differences in tippet material. Jumping from 4x to 8x there is a significant change in the diameter of the tippet material. This can cause problems with your knots holding and even lead to premature breakage. A rule I’ve used and one I’ve always heard is to never go more than a 2x jump between tippet/leader sections. In your example, you’d be doing a 4x jump. So a better setup would be to go from 4x to a section of 6x and then your final section of 8x. This gives you a better taper and also prevents any complications mentioned before.

  • Greg Sheu

    Good article, I never fly fished, but have thought about to pick it up. I have a question, is it okay to use bigger X number tippet for bigger hook? Like number 6 hook, but on 6X tippet? According to your article, it seems to use 2X tippet better, but just my question. Thanks

    • Hi Greg, while you can technically use any size tippet you want as long as it fits through the eye of the hook, it’s not always the best choice. In your example, you’d be using a larger fly with a very fine tippet. This is a recipe for breakage. I won’t say it’s impossible to hook and land a fish with this setup, but more that in my experience the odds aren’t in your favor. The main reason behind the rule of dividing your fly size by 3 to get your tippet size is that this will allow you to use the strongest tippet material you can while still allowing your fly to have natural motion in/on the water.

      The opposite of your example would be to use a smaller fly, say size 18, with a tippet that is 2X or so (just for example). This would make your fly very stiff in the water and not have a natural motion, ultimately turning fish away. However, it would have great strength and you wouldn’t likely snap the fly off. In your example, a size 6 fly on 6X would have great natural motion, but the breakage factor increases. It’s more of a balancing act than anything else. Hope that helps. Let me know if you have any other questions.

  • John Gilman

    Clint,
    This is a GREAT article.I have just started fly fishing; and by that I mean any kind of fishing. Fly fishing has been on my list for some time and I got a class for birthday present. I love it – though I have only been out once 🙂
    The whole leader/tippet/sizing/length equation was difficult to understand until I read this article. THANK YOU.
    I am headed out on a backpacking trip to Yosemite next week and plan on getting some time in along the way.
    I was planning on stopping in at a local fly shop for some tips and flies – but any advice.ideas you have would be welcome and appreciated. I have decided it’s easy to not get it wrong, but getting it right is a learned skill – if that makes sense.

    A question: I bought a Reddington Hydrogen 8.5 4wt and Zero reel. I chose this because I seemed to control it better and it’s super light (which is important for backpacking). But I find myself thinking I am going to want to fish for fishing sake, not as part of another activity – which bring waders into the equation. any thoughts or opinions on what might be a good middle-of-the-road pair. at this point I am thinking it will generally be small streams and lakes (?). So many options and features to choose from…

    Thanks.

    John

  • Vermont Gary

    So…is there a trick or setup where I cut off my fly, spool my line, break down the rod, and secure the leader end on the reel so I can find it (easily) next time out?

    • That is a very good question. I’ve always just resorted to leaving a bit of the tag end of the leader extending out from the reel in order to find it. I’m sure there has got to be a better way. Maybe I’m just a little too lazy to abandon my old habits.

  • Rob

    Great article!! I just bought my first fly rod as I plan on doing alot of Kayak Flyfishing in tournaments next year. Gonna practice all winter with the casting. Then move onto the kayak in spring. Win or lose in the bass tournaments, trying my hand at a new technique is rewarding enough. Practice practice practice.
    Time to buy some leaders and tippets to suit me for LM and SM bass.