Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Explained

The difference between leaders and tippets can often get lost in translation in the fly fishing world. Here we're going to give you a complete overview and leave you with some great fly fishing leader recipes.
Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Explained

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What are they? What material are they made of? How long should they be? How do you make them? What knots should you use?

These are all excellent questions that every fly fisherman should know the answer to, and in case you have any confusion about any other, we are here to enlighten you. Join us and we explain everything about leaders and tippets.

What is a leader

What is a leader?

Let’s start from the very beginning and first work out what a fly fishing leader actually is. A fly fishing leader bridges the gap between your fly line and your tippet. You tie one end monofilament you attach to the end of your fly line and the other end to your tippet.

They are there to put a distance between your fly and the visible fly line so that fish don’t see your fly line and don’t get spooked from eating your fly. Leaders come in two main forms which we’ll discuss below.

Types Of Leader

Tapered Leaders

A tapered leader starts thick in diameter at the butt section and slowly becomes thinner and thinner toward the end with a smaller diameter. This taper allows your fly to turn over for better fly presentation when you lay your cast down and reduces the leader’s visibility to the fish you’re targeting.

You can opt to make your own tapered leader or buy a ready-made tapered monofilament nylon leader that has been tapered chemically. The advantage of a ready-made tapered monofilament nylon leader is that there will be no knots or weak points.

See full post here on how to How To Make a Tapered Leader here.

how to make a tapered leader

How to make a tapered leader – short version

The only gear you’ll need to make a tapered leader is multiple test leader monofilaments including 20lb, 15lb, 10lb, and 6lb plus some UV glue, and to know how to tie a blood knot. Once you have the gear ready, this is how it goes.

We have a guide to the most important fly fishing knots here.

Take the heaviest monofilament for the butt section, which is what you’ll tie to your fly line to, and the next heaviest, so 20 and 15lb if you have the material mentioned above. Pull out about 3ft of both and tie them together with a blood knot. Now grab the 10lb and tie about 2ft of it onto the 15lbs, and repeat this step again with the 6lb tieing it onto the 10lb.

Test all your blood knots so you know they are strong and trim them down. Now add UV glue to each of the blood knots and leave them in the sun to cure. Job done!

Braided Leaders

Braided Leaders are two pieces of furled monofilament line that come together to make a braided leader. You can buy them from most manufacturers and they have some great advantages.

  • They are durable and last longer than other leaders
  • They turn over flies nicely for better casting performance
  • Being furled they stretch well when fighting a fish
  • Accurate on short and long casts
  • Work well with light flies like a size 22 dry fly

The only disadvantage to them is that being furled they are quite thick and easier for fish to see. And there is no taper, so it’s only their stiffness that turns them over nicely.

Specialty Leaders

You can go out and buy specialty fly fishing leaders link sinking leaders or indicator leaders. A sinking leader acts as a sink tip and will help your fly sink so you can fish it deep under the water surface. A good option is Rio’s Versileader.

An indicator leader has a brightly colored butt section, usually red or orange, making them easier to see and acting as a bite indicator. They are perfect if you have a hard time seeing your leader or don’t want to fish a bobbing indicator and perfect when nymphing. A good choice if you need one is Rio’s Indicator Leader.

Lead material

Leader Material

Most leaders are made from nylon monofilament material but you could also fluorocarbon if you wanted to. Monofilament has more abrasion resistance and better breaking strength whereas fluorocarbon is nearly invisible to the fish and is best used when fishing dry fly in gin clear water or for big spooky trout in New Zealand.

Leader Length

The length of your fly fishing leader should vary depending on where your fly fishing, what flies your fishing, and what species you’re fishing for.

Fly fishing leaders for trout are usually between the 8 and 12 feet range. You can make them shorter if you’re nymphing in shallow water for trout, or longer when fishing a dry fly in crystal clear water to educated big trout, like in New Zealand.

Anglers in New Zealand fish a 20 feet tapered leader because the water is so clear and the fish are wise and will see your fly line if the length of your leader is any shorter.

One thing to note is that the longer your fly fishing leader and tippet, the harder it will be to cast and turn over your fly nicely for a good presentation. But, if your leader is too short, the fish are going to see your fly line and not go anywhere near your fly.

My advice is to use the longest leader possible that your casting can turn over. This will give you the best chance if the fish not seeing your fly line and eating your fly.

Leader Weight

The end of the leader should be a higher pound test or diameter than the tippet you plan on using to keep the taper going.

If you plan on using a 6-pound test tippet, the end of the leader should finish with a 7 or 8-pound test monofilament line. The same goes for a 4x tippet, it should be tied on to a 3x diameter leader to keep the taper going for better fly presentation.

When fishing for trout you can move between a 6 and 3lb leader and tippet depending on the size and water you’re fishing. When targeting bonefish, a 16-10lb is what you’ll need.

what is a tippet

What is a tippet?

A tippet is the final piece of line you’ll tie on to the end of your leader and the other end attaches to the fly. Tippets are one of the most important things to get right for your fly fishing success and picking the right tippet can mean catching a trout or not.

Types Of Tippet Material

Nylon Tippet

Nylon is a good all-purpose material for leaders and tippets. As a tippet material, it has good knot strength but it’s more visible to fish in the water so it’s better used when the water is off-color. It also floats well and is a great choice when trout fishing dry flies as it’ll keep your dry flies floating for longer.

If you’re looking to buy some tippet material, Rio Powerflex and Powerflex Plus are my favorites. Powerflex Plus is more expensive but it’s also 20% stronger than normal Powerflex.

Fluorocarbon Tippet

Fluorocarbon tippet material is designed to be close to invisible underwater. Water has a refractive index of 1.33 and fluorocarbon has one of 1.42, making it disappear when light refracts through the water. For this reason, fluorocarbon is the perfect choice when fishing for trout or any other species in clear water as it’ll help you fool and hopefully catch more fish.

Check out our post here on Tippet Shootout.

You can also find double structure fluorocarbon tippets that have a higher breaking strain, softer coating, and tie better connections than normal fluorocarbon with the same tippet diameter. If you’re looking for the best fluorocarbon tippet around, check out Trout Hunter and Seaguar tippets.

which tippet to use

Fluorocarbon Vs Nylon – Which tippet to use?

Fluorocarbon tippet is the clear winner in my eyes. When compared to nylon tippet, fluorocarbon tippet is strong in the same tippet diameter, is more invisible in the water, stiffer, easier to untangle, tangles less, and is longer lasting.

Nylon tippet does float better than fluorocarbon and is far less expensive, but you can always add some fly floatant like Gink to the leader tippet to keep it floating.

Tippet Diameter Explained – The X scale

Most leaders and tippets these days are sold with an X rating system instead of the old pound-breaking strain system. It has confused many a fly fisher so if you’re a bit puzzled about it, there is nothing to be ashamed of, as a lot of fly fishing anglers have been in the same boat.

The X describes the diameter and strength of the leader tippet material. So you’ll see a spool with 4x, 5x, or 03x. 03X is the thickets and strongest leader and tippet while 8x is the thinnest and weakest leader and tippet.

So simply put, the X scale tells you how thick and strong the leader and tippet material is. Here is a handy guide to leader and tippet X-scale that also lets you know what size fly matches what size tippet.

Shopping For Tippet

When anglers go shopping for new fly gear, I’m guilty of this too, it’s hard not to want to buy it all. I’ll often come home with more than I ever needed, I won’t buy one nymph rig, I’ll buy 4. Well, when it comes to buying tippets, you can go wild, especially if you’re building your own tapered leader.

Whatever kind of fishing you love to do whether it’s trout fishing with dry flies, nymphing, or fly fishing for bonefish, you’re going to need a range of tippet sizes.

If you buy your leaders and are a trout fly fisherman, you’ll want to own tippet sizes 3x to 8x to match the size of fish you’re after, the size of the fly you are using, and the clarity of the water you plan to cast your fly rod on.

For anglers who make their own leaders, you’ll want one of every size tippet from 03X to 8x so you can build the perfect taper for any situation.

What Size Tippet To Use

How To Know What Size Tippet To Use

The tippet, as we know, attaches to the fly, and picking the right size tippet depends on the size of the fly you intend on fly fishing with.

Smaller flies should have a smaller tippet on the end of them, and large flies with a larger tippet. This is for stealth and better casting presentation so you can trick a wily trout.

You can use the rule of 3 to guide what tippet will match your fly choice. If you are fishing with a size 12 nymph or dry fly, divided the size by 3 which gives you 4, so you should use a 4x tippet. When fishing a size 22 fly, you’ll use a 7x tippet.

The size of your leader and tippet also comes down to the size of the fish you’re targeting. If you’re fly fishing in an area known for its 10lb trout, using an 8x 1.75lb tippet is quite foolish as 9 times out of 10 that fish will break the end section of your line.

You also need to think about the clarity of the water. Say you’re fly fishing in crystal clear streams with a size 2 streamer. Technically, using the rule of 3 guide, you should have a 0X or 1x tippet but that’s way too thick an end-section to fool a fish into eating your rig, and a 4x would be better.

As you can see, there is no 100% correct rule or guide to picking the right tippet for your rig. You’ll need to use some common sense when weighing up the fly size, fish size, and water clarity to find the perfect medium for your tippet section.

Getting it right will mean long-distance casting performance, plus fooling and landing the intended fish size you’re targeting.

connecting fly line leader tippet

Connecting Your Fly Line, Leader, and Tippet

No matter what rig you’re using, you are going to have to connect the fly line, leader, and tippet securely so you land any fish you hook and don’t bust it off, even if you use bought ready-made leaders.

Line To Line Connections

To connect your fly line to a leader, you want to use a loop-to-loop connection. Your fly line will have a loop ready-made on the end, and so will the leader if you haven’t made it yourself. Anglers who have made their own leader should tie a perfection loop at the butt end.

Then it’s just a matter of threading the welded loop of the fly line through the loop of the leader, putting the end of the leader through the fly line loop, and pulling it through.

The most secure connection for leaders and tippets comes from either a blood, improved blood, double or triple surgeons knot. Here is a video from RIO showing how to tie them and their breaking strain.

Making sure your leader and tippet connections are solid is more of the less the first and most important step to landing the fish you’re after.

Tippet Rings

Instead of using a line-to-line connection, you can use a tippet ring to bridge the connection between leaders and tippets.

Tippet rings are tiny little rings made of nickel alloy that you can tie between your leaders and tippets. They float so are great for both dries and nymphs, plus they have a breaking strain of 25-30lbs, so won’t weaken your leader and tippet connections.

They make adding length to leader easy, as you tie one on the end and then add your tippet from there. And they are great for using store-bought leaders again and again, as once the end is done, just chop it off, add a tippet ring, and tie on some fresh tippet with an improved clinch.

The first thing you might worry about is the fish seeing the tippet ring on the line, but they are so small and at a distance from the fly that this should never happen.

See our full guide on how to use tippet rings here.

Leader Line & Tippet Disposal

Leader, Line, & Tippet Disposal

When fly fishing on the beautiful rivers so many of us call a home away from home, please be responsible and take any cuttings of line, leader, and tippet home with you. Fluorocarbon has a half-life of 250-years, so it takes that long if not longer to degrade.

Also, birds and other animals will get tangled and die when caught up in balls of line. So please, first think of protecting the environment and holding on to all your line clippings before catching a fish.

Leading Out

Thanks a lot for reading my article, I hope you enjoyed it and now know everything you need to know about leaders and tippets. It comes down to understanding the materials and sizes first, then matching the length and size to your flies, the species, and the environment.

Once you have that down, use a taper, and practice all the connections to make sure they are rock solid so you never have that sinking feeling that you lost a 10lb trout because you didn’t tie your double surgeon correctly. I’ve been there, it ain’t fun. Tight lines until next time.

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