We’ve all been there.
Scanning a fly shop wall covered in dozens of spools and plastic baggies adorned with various colors and technical jargon for lines that prove so vital to a fly angler’s success. What number X do I need? For that matter, what the heck does an X mean anyway?! What is the advantage of fluorocarbon tippet compared to monofilament leader? What’s the difference between tippet and leader again – and why do I need both in the first place?
Never fear! We’ve put together a handy explainer to arm you with the knowledge to make the right tippet choice.
Leaders vs. Tippet: What’s the Difference?
Fly fishing is a systematic approach to the craft of fishing. It requires harnessing potential and kinetic energy to load and cast a fly with accuracy and finesse. To do this, the last piece in the fly fishing system is a thin, tapered length of line known as the leader. The tippet is the final piece of the leader and is the narrowest diameter of the line attached to the fly. Without the tippet portion of the leader, a fly cast would lack that accuracy and would slap down on the water, which, in the case of dry flies, would appear unnatural to fish. Simply put, the system would be incomplete without a tippet on a leader – and less effective.
The top portion of the leader (the section that attaches to the fly line) is known as the butt section; the butt section is the stiffest and thickest diameter of the leader, and the butt attaches to the fly line. Today many fly lines connect to tapered leader material with a loop-to-loop connection; however, a nail knot will unite the two lines if a loop-to-loop is not provided.
The lower half of the right leader is the tippet. It is the tip of your fly fishing system and the portion that attaches to the fly itself. The tippet is the thinnest diameter of the line. Depending on the type of fly you are casting, a tippet can be quite flexible, allowing a fly to land softly on the water and a dry fly to float without restriction and appear untethered for a natural drift.
Besides being a part of the tapered leader, tippet is offered separately on spools. Since the tippet attaches to your fly, we cut and shorten it every time we change flies. Eventually, as you cut towards the butt section, the line will become too thick and stiff to cast certain flies effectively. In extreme cases, the diameter of the leader’s mid-section might be too large to go through the eye of the hook. Not to mention, the strength of the knot will suffer. Finally, without the tippet, the finesse of your cast will suffer since the tapered line extends out to provide accuracy and a natural landing of the fly.
The solution to the constant shortening of your leader’s tippet is to replace the amount of leader you cut off with a new section of the tippet. Additionally, you may require an extra tippet to fly fish multiple flies as part of your fly rig. So, it is also essential to purchase a spool of tippets with tapered leaders and ensure that the tippet you choose is compatible with your leader.
To attach the tippet to your leader, tie a double surgeon’s knot. This knot is easy to employ and is perfect for connecting a leader and a tippet of similar diameter. You’ll insert the tippet through the hook eye of one fly and secure it with a clinch knot. Multi-fly rigs can be created off of this set-up by attaching more tippet through the hook eye or off the bend of the hook. Try a dry fly nymph combo which is known as a dry/dropper.
Tippet Diameter and the “X” System
Everyone wants their fishing line to be as strong as possible, but it’s a balance. Tippet diameter correlates to the expected strength of a line, and line companies rigorously test their line so that we can trust what the package says.
While the diameter is critical to tippet strength, manufacturers have developed a system to make it easy for us to understand and choose the proper tippet sizes for our fishing needs. The “X” system is what the fly fishing line lists that correlate to this strength, with 0X having a large diameter and relating to 0.011 inch or .28 millimeters. In contrast, a small diameter like 7X tells the angler that this line has a much lower breaking strength (2.3 lb / 1,0 KG). 7X has a diameter of 0.004 inches or .10 millimeters.
Anglers should be aware that each manufacturer’s tippet specs vary. The above numbers are of Scientific Anglers.
Tippet Breaking Strength
The “X” system refers to a line’s diameter and breaking strength. Line companies will test each batch of line to ensure that it meets their standards and the strength they promote on the tippet packaging. RIO, for instance, lab tests each spool of the line by calculating the average breaking strength before releasing it to be packaged for sale. They do this using a scientific device that pulls a portion of the line and registers the applied force at which each sample breaks off.
By rigorously testing line batches, line companies, and fly anglers, can trust the tippet they purchase.
Tippet and Leader Materials: Monofilament vs. Fluorocarbon
Besides the lower price tag, the nylon monofilament (mono) line offers secure, biting knot strength. Mono is less dense than fluorocarbon leaders, which allows it to float. This can be advantageous when you want your fly to float or remain in the water column. A disadvantage, however, of mono is that it can be illuminated by the sun, making it visible to spooky fish.
A Fluorocarbon line or fluoro is a thinner tippet and is made with a hard coating. This coating makes fluoro abrasion resistant, stiffer, and less likely to absorb water. A stiff line is useful when turning over larger flies, as well as eliminated line twist with larger flies like terrestrials. It does not create as strong a knot as mono, but it won’t pick up light the mono does either, so it is virtually invisible underwater. This makes fluoro an excellent choice for gin-clear water and highly pressured, spooky fish. Fluorocarbon tippet material is about 4-times more expensive than monofilament.
Choosing the Best Tippet Brand: Our Favorites
Understanding how different tippet material can help your fly fishing plans can mean the difference between a good day of fly fishing and a great day. Luckily, there are plenty of great options for leaders and tippets available to fly anglers today. The following brands have worked for us. We know they will work for you too.
Trout Hunter offers a variety of lines in both fluorocarbon and mono, which they refer to as nylon. Their nylon line has a soft coating designed to improve strength, decrease memory, and protect the line from degradation. Don't go trout hunting without Trout Hunter.
Rio is truly a leader in the tippet space. Their innovation, quality assurance, and educational resources set them apart from other line companies. Any angler will benefit from their online instruction and become more knowledgeable about how and why to use different tippet materials.
SA is another fantastic brand and offers anglers colored fly lines, fly fishing leaders, and tippets they can count on in all types of fly fishing applications. True to their name, Scientific Anglers has systematically approached the challenge of line material with stringent testing. You can count on their fly fishing tippet material when on the water.
How Long Should a Leader and Tippet Be?
Tapered fly fishing leaders are commonly sold in nine-foot and seven- and one-half foot lengths. The length you choose should correspond to the size of your fly rod. A standard fly rod is nine feet long. So, choose a nine-foot leader if your rod is nine feet as a good starting point. If your rod is shorter, choose a shorter leader. As you clip the tippet section from your leader, replace the amount with the tippet to remain around that length. It doesn’t have to be exact.
Advanced Leader Techniques
Short Leader for Streamers
Streamer fishermen often use a very short leader. Streamer leaders may only be three-feet or shorter. When fly fishing streamers, there is no need for a taper. Instead, choose a strong piece of line with no stretch. For instance, a two-foot piece of 20-pound test monofilament is a perfect choice for streamer fishing. This will sustain a violent strike from large trout or other fish species, and the less stretch will help set the hook.
Long Leader for Dry Fly Fishing and Nymphing
Fly fishermen may choose longer than normal leaders for various stillwater applications. Static nymphing under a slip indicator in deep water will require long leaders. Often, fly fishing this way will necessitate fishing approximately one foot off the bottom in water in excess of 12 feet deep. To reach this depth, a non-tapered leader will allow for getting this depth quickly and consistently.
A longer leader may also be required in tailwater situations with extremely pressured fish or in winter when flows are low and the water is ultra-clear. Fly fishing dry flies and nymphs will benefit extra leaders in these conditions when you need to utilize a more delicate presentation with smaller flies.
Conserving Your Leader With Tippet Rings
Tippet rings are small steel rings that attach to the end of your leader. Many anglers can add a tippet to the attached ring, and you can save your leader from slowly being chopped down. Tippet rings are small enough to use dry fly fishing with smaller flies and are a wise investment considering the price of tapered leaders.
Your fly fishing set-up is a system reliant on all of its parts to perform. Leader and tippet material represents a critical point in that system because the line connects you to the fish. Additionally, without the tapered design, casting would suffer. Know how you want to fish, and adjust your tippet to meet those goals.