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Understanding Fly Fishing Leaders and Tippets

Fly Fishing Tippet & Leader Material – Choosing your fly fishing leader and tippet, what you need to know and why
Choosing the right fly fishing leader and tippet material could be the difference between catching and not!
 
Tippet & Leader Material – Choosing your fly fishing leader and tippet, what you need to know and why….

It’s is all about presentation….
 
Choosing the right fly fishing leader and tippet matrial could be the difference between catching and not! It is all about presentation, the trick is to place your fly in front of a fish without spooking, making your offering as natural as possible and irresistible to a hungry fish! You do this by choosing and setting up your leader & tippet correctly between your fly line and fly.
 
Fly Fishing Leader, Tippet, what’s the difference?
  • The 'leader' is attached to the end of your fly line, normally using the loop to loop method, you can purchase leaders which are tapered to a tippet (more on this in a minute!), or you can purchase spools of leader material of which come in different strengths.
  • The 'tippet' is smaller (thinner) than the diameter of the leader, normally the same material. Advantages to using a tippet is that it extends the life of the leader, plus its flexible allowing your fly to float or swim more naturally. Tippet material comes in spools of different strengths.
  • 'Tapered joint leader tippet' You can purchase (and are extremely popular) a whole single length of your chosen material of which has a large diameter at one end (the butt end) and it tapers down to a thinner diameter (fly end). The advantage is that it is a whole knotless link between fly line & fly, gives great turnover and presentation. The disadvantage is they work out more expensive than purchasing a couple of spools of material and tying together your own. If just starting fly fishing, they are a great choice and will help casting and presentation. Shop for Tapered Leaders
Leader and Tippet material…. There’s such a large choice!
Now you know the difference between a Leader & Tippet, and you now know their purpose, how do you demystify the huge choice available? Leader and tippet manufacturers have produced a wide choice to cover all fly fishing techniques and quarry to meet the different demands.
The first thing is to determine, what type of fish and size you are angling for, this will determine the type and size of the fly. Flies come in all different shapes and sizes that range from very small #28 to large #2 or even bigger!
If targeting small wild trout then you will want to go ultra-light, to large stocked trout – mid-range strengths, then on to Salmon, freshwater predators – heavier still, and on to sea monsters! – Heavy gauge leaders.
To help determine what gauge leader and tippet to use with a particular size fly use this very basic table as a very loose guide. Other factors will determine your choice, including clarity of water, go lighter if the water is very clear and the fish are spooky, or if fishing tricky currents and drag is an issue, the thinner tippet will lessen drag on your fly.
Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet material…. There’s such a large choice!
 
Determine what gauge Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet to use
 
Tippet Size Tippet Diameter Pound Test (Approx.) Target Fish Size Rough Fly Size
02X .30mm 20 lb.
Large
Salmon
#4 - #2/0
0X 0.26mm 15.5 lb.
Salmon / Saltwater
/ Carp – Pike
#1/0 - #4
1X 0.24mm 13.5 lb. Salmon / Large & Small Saltwater / Carp – Pike #4 - #6
2X 0.22mm 11.5 lb.
Large & Small Saltwater
/ Carp – Pike
#4 - #6
3X 0.20mm 8.5 lb.
Large
Stocked Trout
#6 - #8
4X 0.18mm 6 lb.
Stocked
Trout
#12 - #16
5X 0.17mm 4.75 lb.
Wild / Stocked
Trout
#14 - #18
6X 0.15mm 3.5 lb. Trout – Easily Spooked Fish / very clear water #16 - #22
7X 0.12mm 2.5 lb.
Wild Trout /
Delicate Presentation
#18 - #24
8X 0.09mm 1.75 lb.
Wild Trout
Small Flies
#22 - #28
Leaders are helpfully sold with all the above information and are referred to and sold by their length
 
Leaders are helpfully sold with all the above information and are referred to and sold by their length (more on length later) and by the size or diameter of the tippet. Plus, manufacturers sometimes helpfully list by target fish, e.g. ‘trout leaders’ ‘salmon leaders’ ‘saltwater leaders’ etc.
 
Tippet Size in the chart - you may have seen the X system which we haven’t covered yet.  Tippet size refers to the diameter/width of the monofilament at that end of the tippet (attached to the fly) 02X (thickest) to 8X (thinnest).  This will be shown as an "X" rating, a diameter, or ‘pound test’ (Snapping point, e.g. a 6lb strength will / should not break until a dead weight of above 6lb. Though a skilled angler can land larger fish on lighter line)
How long should a Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet be from the main fly line?
Each situation will be different dependant on everything you have learnt so far. As a basic generalisation, shorter leaders / tippets are used for less-spooky fish in rough or murky water, while longer lines are used for wary fish in calm, clear water.  To give you a very rough guide, here are common ‘leader lengths’
 
Leader Length Rough Situation
6 - 7 ft Narrow trout streams / rivers that require little to no casting - Warmwater fishing for saltwater species
7.5 - 8.5 ft Medium-sized trout streams with non-spooky fish
9 - 10 ft All-around trout leader for medium to large streams / rivers
11-13 ft Reservoir / Lake / Loch fishing for trout, or for calm, clear trout streams with spookier fish
14-15 ft Crystal clear / calm water for very spooky fish
 
Tippet length to add to the end of the leader? Normally 2 -3 ft of which will account for breakoffs that will shorten the tippet throughout your day. As with everything though, this is subjective, some will only want a ft.
 
Leader Tippet material: Monofilament vs. Fluorocarbon – which to choose?
Monofilament or fluorocarbon leaders, which one? The answer depends on the style of fishing. Neither material is fundamentally better than the other, but they serve different purposes due to their unique features.
Monofilament - a single strand of nylon line
Monofilament - a single strand of nylon line. The positives, almost certainly the most important feature of monofilament leaders is their ability to float on water, especially when dry fly fishing, monofilament is the better choice, a floating leader helps your flies stay afloat.
Another important feature is the stretchiness of nylon, can be a pro or con, a stretchy line can make it harder to feel subtle strikes and get solid hook sets but will be more forgiving when fighting larger fish, though when used for dry flies, feeling the strike should be less of an issue. Stretchy nylon is also more helpful for knot tying, less likely to slip than the stiffer fluorocarbon.
The negatives, the major downside to monofilament line is its strength compared to fluorocarbon, especially after a long day of fishing. Over time, nylon absorbs water and becomes weaker, causing it to be less abrasion resistant, meaning rubbing on rocks, logs, or other debris could lead to line snapping. It also breaks down in UV light, so prolonged exposure to the sun can cause the line to weaken over time (keep stored in a dark area).
Visibility, If you do choose to fish monofilament line underwater, nylon is more visible in water than fluorocarbon, fish are more likely to spot it as it passes by, however since monofilament is better used with dry flies, this isn’t always a huge issue.
Lastly, and importantly one final thing to consider is Monofilament leaders are usually less expensive than fluorocarbon leaders, cheaper to produce, but not because of lower quality.
 
Fluorocarbon – Positives - While monofilament line is good for dries because of its floating ability, fluorocarbon is the opposite, is great for nymphing since it is denser than water, it sinks. It is also much stronger in terms of abrasion-resistance because it doesn’t absorb water like nylon, and when nymphing your Fluorocarbon is far more likely to drag on the river bottom and hit rocks it’ll be far more dependable because of this abrasion-resistance. Another huge benefit it is very nearly invisible underwater, which is obviously desirable for spooky / clear water fishing.
The Negatives - Fluorocarbon its cost, and stiffness when tying knots. Fluorocarbon is generally more expensive than mono. The stiffness of fluorocarbon, while good for detecting strikes, does make knot slippage a possibility, though this can be overcome with a double check of your knots.
Fluorocarbon Leader / Tippet
Specialist Leaders
Braided leaders
Braided Leaders
A braided leader is produced by braiding (also called plaiting) three or more line filaments together, normally nylon, however in the past they were made of other materials including horse hair. Compared to monofilament and fluorocarbon line, braided leaders in fly fishing are rare. These lines tend to be much stronger than single-filament lines and have just enough stretch to act as a shock absorber, they also offer excellent turnover and are almost indestructible. A big benefit to the fly fishing angler is using a sinking or intermediate braided leader is an easy and cheap way to convert a floating line into a sink tip, and you can easily change the braided leader to change the depth at which your flies are fishing. The negatives, they are thicker and tend to spray water during casting, meaning they are rarely used for spooky fish. They are heavy and struggle to float especially after being fished a little, picking up water scum and dirt, causing them to sink more than they float.
 
Furled leaders
 
Furled leaders do not spray water as badly as a braided leader do but do spray some water on the forward cast. They also tend to sink as soon as they are fished a little bit and absorb dirt and water. The advantages of a Furled Leader, compared to conventional monofilament, they have excellent turnover using its mass and suppleness, even at short distances. Tighter casting loops, resistance to wind knots. The furled leader help to reduce surface drag and acts as a shock absorber protecting against over striking and preventing light tippets from breaking while playing a fish.
Furled leader / Tippet
Poly-Coated Leaders
Poly-Coated Leaders
 
Similar to a fly line, with a core and coating, they are attached between the end of the fly line and the leader. Poly-Coated Leaders have an integrated loop which benefits the fly angler to quickly change leaders when conditions change or fish start feeding at a different depth, negating the need to change fly line, floating to a sink for example. Further benefits include low memory and built-in shock absorption.
Normally available in different lenghts,  and densities; Floating, Intermediate, Slow Sink, Fast Sink & Extra Fast Sink.
 
Environment
A final note on fluorocarbon that all fishermen should know is that it takes around 4,000 years to break down naturally. While even monofilament line takes several hundred years to break down and should by no means be thrown on the ground as litter, fluorocarbon should always be packed out to avoid leaving it on the ground for the next few millennia.