The answer is ‘yes’. You should always use a section of tippet on the end of your tapered leader to prolong the life of the leader.
That’s because if you don’t use the leader, as you are changing flies you will begin eating into the length of the leader and before you know it, your 9ft tapered leader becomes an 8ft leader or a 7ft leader.
Using a length of tippet also allows you to adjust the overall length of the leader.
Sometimes if I fly fish some local trout streams (see our article on fly fishing in streams) and find myself fishing a flat slow-moving pool I often want to lengthen my leader because this sort of fly fishing calls for longer leaders.
That’s easily done by adding a few feet of tippet and then simply chopping that off when I get back into the fast water – or find myself casting upwind – and don’t need that length of leader.
In this scenario my leader is still intact and the leader length hasn’t been shortened.
What is the purpose of tippet?
Attaching a length of tippet to the end of the leader means you aren’t eating in to the profile of the leader when you are changing flies.
The leader’s profile has been created carefully to unfurl properly and put the fly down how and where you need it.
If you start snipping away even small sections by attaching and removing flies from the end of the leader, you are going to shorten it and change the taper or profile of the leader leading to poorer performance even with a decent casting stroke.
So using a tippet is always recommended for this reason alone.
Other advantages of using a section of tippet when fly fishing
You can adjust the overall length of the leader by adding more or less tippet (within reason). For example, you can make a 12ft leader into a 15ft leader by adding an extra 3ft of tippet.
You can gear up for stronger fish by adding thicker tippet or for more fussy fish by adding thinner tippet. The tippet is the weakest point of your rig, so it governs the overall breaking strain. Say if you are trout fishing, you can change from 4X to 3X tippet if you spot a large trout close to cover. Similarly, if you are getting rejections in really clear water, you can downsize to 5X tippet to get the eat.
You can change material. If you are nymph fishing and want to accelerate the speed of sinking of the flies, you can use fluorocarbon tippet as fluoro sinks while mono floats in terms of its natural density. Having a good set of nippers helps with changing tippet and changing flies.
Do You Need Tippet for Fly Fishing?
Strictly speaking you can attach the fly directly to the end of the leader, but it is not recommend for the reasons above. Having to replace leaders frequently becomes very expensive fast.
What tippet size do I need?
Tippet sizes for fly fishing for trout vary between 5x or 6x at the lighter end and 2x or 3x at the heavier end.
(The typical fly fishing tippet size range goes from 03X down to 8X, with 03X being the thickest and strongest and 8X being the thinnest and lightest. Note that the ‘X” relates to the tippet diameter, not the breaking strain. So one brand of tippet material in a 3X might be stronger that another’s.)
Like most fly fishers, I carry a spool of each of tippet size which allows me to upsize and downsize my tippet as required.
Hint: I always get fly fishing leaders that end in 3x rather than 4x or 5x as there is little point in adding 3x on to a leader that’s tapered down to 5x as 5x (usually around 4 pounds breaking strength) will be the effective breaking strength.
Some fly fisherman select their tippet size based on the size of the fly they are using. I don’t advocate this approach. Obviously you don’t want to be using heavy 2X tippet with a midge pattern or other smaller fly, but you really need to base it as much as possible on the strength of the fish you are targeting and how spooky they are.
To illustrate that point, when I fly fish in New Zealand I am often sight fishing to brown trout in crystal clear water using #18 nymphs or dry flies. But you can’t just think about the fly size and say, “That’s a tiny fly, I will go with 6x tippet”.
For starters, these are big fish. Add in strong current and the presence of structure and you quickly realise that 6x ain’t going to cut it. You really need 4x and even 3x where you can get away with it from a visibility point of view.
Obviously this makes changing flies a bit trickier as you try to get the thicker tippet material through the small hook eye with the tiny size fly, but just persevere and you’ll manage it.
Similarly big flies don’t always need thick tippet. You could be fishing a large woolly bugger but still using 5x size tippet if the water is clear and you are casting to spooky fish.
What tippet length is best?
This depends on what you want the overall length of the leader and tippet to be. Generally trout fishing leaders come in in 9ft, 10ft at the shorter leader side and 12 ft and 15ft on the longer leader side.
I like to make my leaders manageable. By that I mean when I hook the fly on one of the upper guides and loop the line back beneath the foot of the reel seat (this is the best way to carry your fly rod while fishing) there is at least some of the fly fishing line pulled through the first guide.
See the illustration below to see what I mean.
With the nine foot five weight fly rod I use for most river fly fishing for trout, that means a leader of 10 – 13ft or so. I don’t like to use a longer leader than that unless I have to because having that section of fly line out of the top guide of the fly rod means it is easy to get the line out to required length with a few false casts.
If the leader is much longer than 13 ft, then when you have your fly rod configured for walking upriver or along the lake shore, there won’t be any actual fly line pulled through the top guide. If you see a fish and begin false casting you won’t be able to get the line out as there’s usually no enough force in the system to get the knot joining the butt section of the leader to the fly line (or loop connection) out of the top guide.
Is tippet expensive?
Yes, tippet can be expensive. It is certainly more expensive per yard than spools of ordinary monofilament line.
Tippet generally comes in spools of 25 or 50 yards, which usually sell for $5 or so. Fluorocarbon tippet is more expensive than mono tippet material.
Tippet is generally more supple than mono and slightly thinner for a given strength, which allows you to make more delicate presentations with dry flies in particular.
Fly presentation is less critical for nymph fishing or fishing streamers, so some wet fly anglers choose to use a conventional mono line (such as Maxima) instead of specialised tippet material.
Wet fly anglers also sometimes prefer fluorocarbon tippet material.
What Knot Should Use For Attaching Tippet to Tapered Leaders
There are really three solid choices in terms of knots for attaching tippet to a tapered leader (or any other kind of leader for that matter).
The Blood Knot
The Blood Knot is a great knot for joining two sections of mono, whether that’s creating knotted leaders or tying the terminal end of the tapered leader to the tippet. See the video below on using the blood knot to create a knotted leader – note you have to tie two blood knots to make the join, but it is a very simple knot to learn. It’s the same technique for joining the tippet to a tapered leader.
The Orvis Tippet Knot
The Orvis Tippet is a great option for joining a tippet to a taperer leader. The advantage it has over using blood knots to join tapered leader and tippet is that you only need to tie one knot. It’s a strong knot that won’t fail even when joining sections of line of different diameter. See below for illustrated instructions on tying the Orvis Tippet knot and our separate post for detailed instructions.
The Double or Triple Surgeon’s Knot
The Surgeon’s Knot is a viable alternative to the Orvis Tippet Knot. Personally I think it is not as strong, but it is a little easier to tie. In most cases a Double Surgeon’s Knot is fine, although you can tie a Triple Surgeon’s Knot for extra peace of mind.
Is there a limit to how much tippet I can put on my leader?
In theory you can put six feet or more of tippet, but the more you put on the more radically you are altering the taper on your leader and the poorer the energy transfer in your cast because you are adding a flat section of line to the terminal end of the tapered leader. Generally try to choose a tapered leader that is 2 to 4 feet less than your overall preferred length for leader and tippet and add 2 to 4 feet of tippet.
How Often Should I Replace Tippet Sections?
More frequently than you do now is probably the best advice. When flies get stuck in trees or fish dart into snags and rocks, our tippet gets little nicks and abrasions that reduces its strength. You should replace tippet sections whenever you leader suffers even minor damage.
When are fishing for very big trout or larger fish of any species in fishing locations where you get relatively few shots at them, it can be worth changing your tippet section after every fish hooked. That way you will catch more fish and have less heartbreaking moments!
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