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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

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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

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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

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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!

About Clint Losee

Clint Losee is an avid fly angler of 20+ years and aspiring Utah Landscape & Nature Photographer. You can connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+.

Comments

  1. 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.