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Learn how the leader and tippet are chosen and why with The Painted Trout's guide.
Leaders and tippet—two key pieces of gear for any rig—are notorious for confusing beginning anglers. Even more so when every guide and fly shop employee seems to have their own preferences in brand, and their own recipes for building leaders. While personal preference can play a role, the basics of leader and tippet configurations are really quite simple. The leader is a tapered monofilament line that connects to your fly line, and the tippet is the final piece of either monofilament or fluorocarbon that connects to the fly. But you’ll need some insider know-how to figure out what works best for you in which scenario. Here, you will find our shop guide to getting started.
The “X” system is often the source of confusion for many anglers. While conventional lines are rated according to pound test, leader and tippet have an “X” rating (although most commercial tapered leaders are labeled with the pound test as well). The system is actually a simple means of describing the pound test and diameter of the line. The diameter is important to fly anglers for several reasons. Here are a few.
The size of fly you wish to throw must correspond to the size of the tippet in order for the cast to be successful. We go into this in more detail below.
Tippet choice is also determined by water, targeted species, and float/sink requirements.
Threading tippet through small hook eyes requires specific sizes.
The tippet cannot, in most cases, be larger than the terminal diameter of the leader. This is essential for the cast to be successful.
For example, 1x is a heavyset line intended for streamers and large nymphs. The diameter (.010) is also larger than leaders/tippets with a smaller X rating, meaning it will not thread through the eye of a size 22 dry fly. Contrary to intuitive logic, the smaller the number preceding the X, the heavier and thicker the line. Larger numbers indicate thinner and lighter lines.
Here’s a quick reference guide for practical purposes on the water.
0x, 1x, 2x, 3x: Larger nymphs and streamers. 3x is also common on big dry flies like a salmonfly or large hopper.
4x, 5x: Covers the large majority of trout fishing. 4x is stout enough for most nymphs but can also thread through hook eyes down to a size 16 or even 18. 5x is an all-around good choice for dry flies and smaller nymphs.
6x, 7x: Small nymphs and dry flies. This covers your size 16-22 flies. Smaller tippet is especially common on tailwater and spring creek fisheries where trout are very selective. 8x is used by some anglers, but landing a larger fish on such small tippet is difficult. It’s also hell to see if your eyes are over a certain age.
The actual pound test varies a little between manufacturers, but as mentioned above, the label will show the test alongside the tippet class.
The leader’s taper begins with a thick butt section, starting with its attachment to the end of your fly line, and gradually lessens to the final few feet of much thinner mono. It’s this end section that dictates the “size” of the leader (0X, 1X and so on). This taper helps transfer energy during the cast, thereby turning over the fly in the air so it lands where you want it to, without any snarls or snags. Tapered leaders of 7.5 feet and 9 feet are standard, but longer ones are also available.
These days, extruded commercial tapered leaders are so well designed and built that little needs to be done once you have it on your line. You can attach your fly then, or you may wish to add 1- -18 inches of tippet with a surgeon’s or blood knot. The additional length is essentially your working section. This means you can cut off sections while changing flies without cutting into the tapered section of your leader. If you only use the leader, a few fly changes will use up the taper. If you have not added tippet, this is the time to do so, otherwise and the leader will no longer have a balance taper and will require replacement. However you do it, make your leader last longer by adding tippet to the end.
One of the more common questions is “what size tippet do I use for this size fly?” Fly sizes and tippet “X” ratings both run inversely to size, a size 16 fly is smaller than a size 12, and a 4x tippet is smaller (finer diameter) than a 3x tippet. Here’s a surefire mathematical hack: divide the size of the fly by 4 and you will have a good starting point for tippet sizing. Let’s say your fly is a size 16. By dividing 16 by 4, we arrive at 4x. A 4x tippet is a good choice for a size 16 fly. Now, many anglers prefer to fish a little lighter than this. They can either divide by three (which gives a smaller product than dividing by four) or they can simply use the rule of four and then choose one size lighter tippet. In the above example, they would choose a 5x tippet for their size 16 fly.
Tippet comes in two material options, fluorocarbon and nylon (or mono). Either will work when used with the appropriate leaders, flies, and knots, but there are a few differences that are important to consider.
Fluoro is denser than water, and will sink faster than mono.
It is almost completely transparent underwater.
It’s very, very strong.
It never degrades in the environment. Unlike nylon, which will eventually degrade with sunlight, abrasion, and acidic conditions of soils, fluoro will never go away. It’s out there in the environment forever, snarled around submerged branches and other structures, wadded up alongside the river bank (endangering wildlife), and waiting to make any angler’s day difficult if it gets “hooked” by his rig.
It can cut into nylon if being attached to that kind of leader, requiring more attention when tying knots.
It’s around three times more expensive in the US.
Nylon floats better than fluoro.
Nylon can have more stretch for setting the fly on trout.
It’s less expensive.
It will degrade in the environment, not live forever in/on the stream.
It will degrade with time, especially in sunlight, so must be replaced.
It may be more visible to the trout, though this is more supposition than science.
All that said, fluorocarbon is many anglers’ first choice for streamers and nymphs, because it sinks quickly and is invisible underwater. Many anglers fish streamers and nymphs for decades with very few uses of fluoro and find nylon to be perfectly fine. However, saltwater anglers very often employ the strength and stealth of fluorocarbon when targeting the super-spooky and uncanny visual acuity of flats fish species.
Nylon’s advantages are many, and when fishing small dry flies, it is the only sane option. It is your best choice for technical dry fly fishing. Nylon is, as mentioned above, our preferred leader and tippet since it performs so well under so many conditions.
Make sure you match the tippet to your leader size closely (within 1x-2x) for maximum knot strength and replace old tippet weekly (or monthly at the very least). If you only fish a few times each year, start with a fresh leader and tippet on every outing. Fluorocarbon lasts forever, but in smaller sizes (6x and up), you may consider replacing it.
Every so often, you will encounter a situation that requires a custom leader. The standard 9-foot leader will cover you for many fishing situations, but custom leaders are easy to build and work well for specialty gear.
One common case for a custom leader is the sink-tip line. Sink tips cast much differently than a floating line, and the process is less about creating nice, even loops and more about a double haul that creates speed and enables distance to the cast. For sinking lines and fast sinking lines specifically, a short and stout leader is ideal. You can run four feet of straight 0x, or do a few feet of 0x with a few more of 1x or 2x to create a taper. Additionally, since monofilament tends to want to float, a long leader is a detriment, since it counteracts the sinking line.
High-sticking and euro nymphing techniques also call for custom leaders. The configurations here vary widely, with some anglers using a straight, no taper 3x leader at 12+ feet and others running a custom taper. Something like four feet of 0x, four feet of 2x, three feet of 3x, and three feet of 4x will build a taper to turn over flies while retaining the long leader approach used while high sticking. Having written that, I would like to add that the trends here change all the time and also, that these are more advanced techniques and by the time you are no longer a beginner, you’ll have all this in hand nicely.
In any case, when you build a custom leader, use a stout butt section to act as a shock absorber, then taper the leader gradually to your desired end length and test.
The rules change for big game and species with sharp teeth. Saltwater anglers usually use fluorocarbon, as mentioned above. Butt sections with 30- to 50-pound test are very common with 15- to 20-pound test on the end. The heavy butt sections are needed to absorb the initial shock of hard-hitting big game species. Salmon in the salt and freshwater are also good candidates for a straight section of 30-pound test, or 30-pound test tapered off a 50-pound shock section. You can go smaller for silver and pink salmon, but fresh chinooks and chum will test your 30-pound rig.
Pike, musky, and other sharp-toothed fish will sever right through your best leaders. Several brands make bite tippet that ties in knots just like regular tippet. The material is very pliable wire (sometimes coated) made to hold strong against sharp teeth. You can connect about 15 inches of bite tippet to your fluorocarbon leader and connect the bite tippet directly to your fly with an improved clinch knot or a big-game loop knot.
Of course we’ve probably given you more information than you were looking for. Also, you might be interested to know that some of our observations/recommendations are based on data and/or experience that may, in some cases, be a matter of debate among anglers who like debating such things.
If you have any questions or want more detail about anything, please call The Painted Trout at 734-580-2102.
Written by Zach Lazzari for Matcha in partnership with The Painted Trout.