Leader and tippet explained

Leader and tippet can be confusing to the newcomer to fly fishing. Here are the basics on what you need to know about leader and tippet for fly fishing.

Leader and tippet explained
© Fly and Lure
Leader and tippet explained
Picture copyright © Fly and Lure
Leader and tippet explained
Tippet and leaders Fly fishing tips Estimated reading time 15 - 25 minutes

What is a tippet?

A tippet is the name given to the final part of your trout leader to which the fly is attached. Tippet material is pretty much the equivalent to the hook length or leader in other forms of angling.

Every time you tie on a new fly your tippet gets a bit shorter, so you'll need to carry a range of tippet material with you so you can tie on a new one when it gets too short.

The terms tippet and leader are used interchangeably but the fly is always tied to tippet.

How do you tie a tippet to fly line?

You don't tie tippet material directly to the fly line. You attach the leader to the fly line, usually via a loop-to-loop connection, then attach the tippet to the end of the leader. Not all fly lines come pre-looped, so you might need to first attach a braided loop to let you tie on your leader, or you might need to tie it directly via a nail knot.

Most modern fly lines come with welded loops to which you can tie your leader.

What's the difference between a leader and a tippet?

Leaders come in two main types: knotted leaders and knotless leaders. On a knotted leader, the leader is usually one or more thicker lengths of line which are attached to the fly line, with the tippet tied to the other end.

On a knotless or tapered leader, there are obviously no knots, so there's no obvious transition between the leader and the tippet. The tippet's still present, it's just attached seamlessly to the leader.

Knotless tapered leader combine the leader and tippet in a continuous piece of line.

What's the best tippet to leader knot?

There are several popular knots for attaching tippet to the leader line. Personally I prefer the strength of the double grinner or uni knot, but most fly fishers favour the double or triple surgeon's knot. Both are pretty easy to learn and tie when you're on the bank.

A surgeon's knot or double grinner knot is used to join the two pieces of line together.

What kinds of tippet material can you get?

There are three main kinds of tippet material: nylon monofilament (or mono), fluorocarbon (or fluoro) and copolymer. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages that make them more applicable to certain fly fishing situations, and it's often worthwhile having a variety of tippet material types at your disposal when you're fishing.

Some monofilaments are softer than fluorocarbon lines which can help presentation.

What is fluorocarbon?

Fluorocarbon is the popular name for polyvinylidene difluoride (PVDF). Fluorocarbon is often used as tippet material as it has a lower optical density than nylon monofilament line and a different refractive index, which means it is virtually invisible to fish.

It's also harder than nylon, so is more resistant to the abrasion of rocks and fish teeth, and because it's denser than nylon it sinks quicker too.

Fluorocarbon line sinks and is harder for fish to see.

Does fluorocarbon have any disadvantages?

The most obvious disadvantage of fluorocarbon is that it's rather expensive: usually two or three times the price of mono. It can also be slightly more difficult to knot (though not enough to be a major drawback, in my opinion) and you do need to moisten knots well so they slide up nicely.

Unlike nylon monofilament fishing line, fluorocarbon is also quite resistant to sunblock and insect repellent (apart from Deet, which weakens pretty much all things plastic).

It's also UV resistant, so while monofilament line gets weak with time as UV rays attack it, fluorocarbon lasts forever. For that reason, you should always ensure you pick up any stray bits of tippet material you snip off, otherwise they're going to be part of the environment forever.

Use a Monomaster to take home waste tippet, especially fluorcarbon, as this doesn't biodegrade.

How do I choose the right tippet?

There are various factors you'll need to consider when choosing the right tippet, including the size of fish you're expecting to catch, the size of fly you're using, how windy it is and how line shy the fish are in the location at which you're fishing.

Obviously, if you're expecting large fish you'd be foolish to try a stupidly light tippet, as they'll snap it like cotton.

Big flies tend not to work well on lighter tippets, wind can play havoc with light tippets on windy days and trout in pressured waters can become quite leader shy, forcing you to use a lighter tippet than usual.

Very thin line isn't always great with bulky fly patterns, so scale diameter up to suit.

How is tippet material sold?

Buying tippet is a bit different to buying normal fishing line, which tends to be sold by breaking strain alone. Tippet material is sold on small spools about 8cm in diameter which usually contain about 20-50m of tippet. The packaging usually tells you the diameter in inches (ie .011"), the breaking strain in pounds and kilograms and the tippet X rating.

Tippet is sold via its X rating diameter rather than breaking strain.

What is the tippet X rating?

The tippet X rating is based on the diameter of the line in inches. The tippet X scale goes from 0X tippet, which measures .011" in diameter, down to 8X tippet which is just .003" in diameter. There are even some ridiculously fine tippets available now which go down to 12X or 13X, though they're not common.

Importantly, not all tippet of the same X rating is of the same breaking strain. There will be small differences between brands and between types of tippet, whether they're mono or fluorocarbon.

Not all tippets of a given X rating share the same breaking strain. Stroft, for example, is very thin which means a low diameter line can still be very strong.

So how do I know what size tippet to use?

The easiest way to get to grips with the approximate size of tippet you should be using is to examine the tippet X system table below. This shows the diameter of each tippet X rating, the typical breaking strain you should expect and a rough idea of the sort of fly size the tippet material is best suited for. Of course, this is only a rough guide not a written rule you have to stick to. If you're fishing for stillwater rainbow trout then 3X and 4X are a good choice for most situations. If you're fishing for grayling and smaller trout on rivers then 5X and 6X should be fine.

Size Diameter Breaking strain Fly size
0X .011" 16 lb 2, 1/0
1X .010" 14 lb 4, 6, 8
2X .009" 12 lb 10, 12, 14
3X .008" 9 lb 10, 12, 14
4X .007" 6.5 lb 12, 14, 16
5X .006" 5 lb 16, 18, 20, 22
6X .005" 3.5 lb 16, 18, 20, 22
7X .005" 2.5 lb 18, 20, 22, 24
8X .003" 1.75 lb 22, 24, 26, 28

What about heavier lines?

The tippet X system only goes down to 0X and this 16 lb line isn't going to cut it for bigger fish, like salmon or saltwater species like bonefish. As a result, there's a second chart which covers heavy tippet ratings used for larger lines and bigger fish.

Size Diameter Breaking strain Fly size
Extra light (0X) .011" 16 lb 8, 10, 12
Light (02X) .013" 18 lb 4, 6, 8
Medium (03X) .015" 20 lb 4, 2, 1/0
Heavy .017" 25 lb 1/0, 2/0, 3/0
Extra heavy .019" 30 lb 3/0, 4/0, 5/0

What happens if I use tippet which is too heavy?

Using the right size of tippet can actually make quite a big difference to your success as it affects the presentation of your fly. The primary purpose of your tippet is to present the fly to the fish in as natural a manner as possible, and for it to be connected to your line in the least visible way.

What happens if I use tippet which is too fine?

If you're using tippet material that's too light (ie 8X for medium sized trout) then you'll probably get snapped off, especially if the fish jumps on a tight line, or as it makes its explosive initial run when it realises it's hooked.

You may also find that your tippet or leader tangles more readily. Your rod will cushion things to a degree, but very fine tippet and powerful trout is not a great combination.

Finer tippet can get you more bites, but you need to be careful or you may lose fish.

What if my leader is too short?

If your leader is too short, then your denser, heavier, splashier and more visible fly line is going to be closer to your target fish, so your chances of catching it could be reduced. A longer leader means your fly line lands further from the fish so is less likely to spook it.

Extend your tippet or leader to improve presentation over a shorter leader.

What are tippet bands for?

Tippet bands are elasticated bands which wrap around the outside of your tippet spool to prevent the springy tippet material from unravelling and leaving a tangled mess in your bag or pocket.

The more expensive brands of tippet material, such as the Orvis ones, come with a neat tippet band with a hole in, through which the tag end of the tippet protrudes.

These are great, as you can easily pull out the length of tippet you need, snip it off and still find the end again when you next need it. You can make a cheap tippet band from a rubber band or your daughter's scrunchy hair bands.

Soft scrunchy bands are often used to keep tippet from unravelling from the spool.

How long should my leader be?

Your leader and tippet need to be at least as long as your rod in most cases. A longer leader and tippet means your fly is presented further away from the tip of the fly line, which can increase cast rate. The downside is that the longer the leader gets, the harder it is to turnover. If your leader doesn't turnover, the fly will land in a heap of leader at the end of your fly line and you'll catch fewer fish and experience more tangles.

If you're a beginner, start off with a leader around 10 feet in length and work your way up to longer leaders as you become a better caster. Most fly fishers these days use leaders between 12-16 feet, but some competition anglers will fish leaders of 20-24 feet, which are a handful even for really skilled fly casters.

Start off with a 10' leader and move your way up to longer leaders of 16' or so as you become a better fly caster.

How do I straighten a twisted or kinked leader?

It's inevitable that at some point your leader is going to get a bit twisted or kinked. If this happens to tippet material it's generally best to just replace it, as tippet material should really be seen as disposable. However, leaders can last much longer and they're often easily straightened.

Fluorocarbon tends to suffer from twisting or kinking far less than mono, in my experience, and if it's good quality, you can often straighten it by giving it a gentle stretch.

Other leaders can be straightened by pulling the line through your fingers tightly, as the friction heats the line up and helps free the twists and kinks.

You can also buy special leader straighteners designed to do the same thing. These leather key-fob things have two rubber pads on the inside. You pull your leader between the pads and the friction warms the line up and gets rid of the kinks.

This usually works, though I've seen it make the situation worse on some lines, especially copolymer, so it really depends on the line you're using and the quality of your leader straightener.

Can I tie different brands together?

Some people think that you should only tie the same brands of leader and tippet together. However, it doesn't appear to make that much difference. Sometimes fluorocarbon tippet won't connect to mono perfectly, but it's generally quite usable providing you moisten and pull the knot tight neatly.

Tying two brands of line together rarely causes a problem with the right knot.

Why does the tippet sometimes go curly when a tie a knot?

This is known as pig-tailing and is caused by friction heat damaging the line causing it to become twisted or curly. Some lines are more prone to this than others, so if you experience this a lot then you may want to try another line. However, in most cases it can be avoided by moistening the line with saliva when you tie your knot. The saliva acts as a lubricant which helps the knot slide down with less friction, resulting in a cleaner, stronger knot and a straighter piece of line without the curls or twists.

Good line and a bit of saliva can prevent pig-tailing.

What are the benefits of tapered leaders?

Tapered leaders, as the name suggests, are tapered pieces of line. They don't contain any knots and start from a thick butt section and taper down to a thin tippet section.

The gradual tapering down to the point helps the fly turn over, which makes presentation better. The downside is that they're quite a bit more expensive than home made knotted leaders, especially if you opt for fluorocarbon.

How do I uncoil a tapered leader?

There's a definite knack to this. Get it wrong and you'll ruin your lovely tapered leader and end up with a knotty mess. I find the easiest thing is to carefully remove the circular coil of leader from the packet and place it over the spread out fingers of my left hand.

Then, while holding my fingers out to keep the leader in a tight circle, I carefully unwind the looped part until it's all unravelled.

Tapered leaders are notoriously fiddly to unravel.

How do I straighten a new tapered leader?

When they've just come out of the packet, pretty much all tapered leaders (or knotted leaders, for that matter) will exhibit a bit of curling. However, it's fairly easy to straighten the leader out.

I start by pulling and stretching the line in metre long sections starting from the point at which the leader connects to the fly line. A gentle pull of each section of the line generally straightens a kinked leader nicely.

What are tippet rings and how do they work?

Tippet rings are basically very, very tiny metal rings about 3-4mm across. They're made from incredibly fine metal and are small enough and light enough to float in the surface of the water, so aren't even heavy enough to drag down a dry fly.

The idea is that you tie the end of your tapered leader to one side and then attach your tippet to the other. Theoretically, because you only really need to replace the tippet, you can greatly prolong the life of your expensive tapered leaders by using tippet rings.

Tippet rings can be used to help you extend your leader and prolong its lifespan.

Why has my tippet twisted?

The most common reason for this is that you're using an air resistant fly pattern and a tippet that's too light. If you're fishing a bulky air resistant fly pattern you may need to increase the weight of your tippet to help it turn over better. If your fly is particularly air resistant or lop-sided this will be a particular issue.

If you're fishing bulk dry flies you may need thicker diameter tippet to prevent twisting.

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