When you string a fly fishing rod, you are actually involving three pieces of line. The fly line is the long, relatively heavy line that allows you to cast and attaches to your reel. The thin, tapered leader attaches to the fly line, and the even thinner tippet attaches the leader to the fly. This allows for precise casting and presentation. There are various options for each type of line, and each of these options has different advantages and disadvantages.
This guide will walk you through each type of line and the options that are available, as well as what circumstances favor each option. If you already are familiar with the basics of fly fishing, you’ve probably used leader, tippet, and fly line. But there’s more to each of them than you might think! We’ll show you what they are, how to use them, and how to choose them.
The leader is a piece of line that’s about 9 feet long and attaches to the head of your fly line. Most leaders you can buy are tapered in thickness. The thick butt section attaches to the fly line, and it gives the top of the leader stiffness and strength. The thinner head end attaches to the tippet and allows a more delicate presentation of the fly.
The leader is thin, and nearly invisible in or on the water. This lets you present flies without spooking the fish with your heavier, thicker fly line. You need the weight of the fly line to cast correctly, as you would never be able to send a fly far without it, but without the leader, your presentation would never look natural.
The tippet is the “tip” of the leader. Tippets are tied directly to the fly, and they’re usually much shorter than the leader. If you don’t use tippet, you’ll lose length from your leader whenever you have to cut a fly loose. Tippet also allows for greater precision when presenting the fly.
Tippet is usually sold by the spool and is very thin. It is sized using the X scale (explained below). Tippet with a higher X number is thinner, just like with wire gauges. A 5X tippet is considered a solid standard for most trout-fishing situations, and most fly fishers carry multiple sizes with them. Tippet can even be used to build a leader in a pinch if you have multiple sizes that you can connect to form a taper, so it can be very useful to have multiple sizes, just in case.
Creating A Leader With Tippet
Anglers will often build a leader out of tippet by taking a heavier tippet, like 2x or 3x, and tying it to the fly line, a few feet later, tying a 3x or 4x tippet, and then tying on the end a 5x or 6x segment as the final tippet section. This will create a manual leader with a taper to help flies present appropriately.
Choosing A Tippet Size
You want to choose a tippet size that can support your fly. Most tippet sizes will support three or four fly sizes before they’re either too thin to straighten the fly or too heavy to properly present. The water conditions, target species, and fly size will tell you which size to choose.
- If the water is dirty or cloudy, if it’s windy, or if the fish are strong, use the heaviest size for your fly
- If the water is very clear, if the current is tricky, or if the fish startle easily, use the finest size for your fly
- If conditions are average, choose the middle size
If the current is fast and drag is an issue, you should also use a finer tippet. A thinner tippet will lessen the drag on your fly and improve the presentation in fast water. Picky fish may be hard to fool without smaller tippet size, but of course, the smaller you go, the easier the line can break.
|Approx. Breaking Strength (in lbs) – Note that this can vary by brand and material.
|22, 24, 26, 28
|18, 20, 22, 24
|16, 18, 20, 22
|14, 16, 18
|12, 14, 16
|6, 8, 10
|4, 6, 8
|2, 4, 6
|1/0, 2, 4
|5/0, 4/0, 3/0, 2/0
|5/0, 4/0, 3/0, 2/0
|5/0, 4/0, 3/0, 2/0
How Much To Use?
Purchased leaders can range anywhere from 6-15 feet, although 9 is the standard. The appropriate length depends a lot on the situation. If you’re after fish in rough, murky waters, or you’re fishing for a species that isn’t easily spooked, you may want a shorter leader. If you’re fishing in calm, clear waters for wary fish, you’ll often want a longer leader.
It’s also a matter of preference to decide how much tippet to add. You can add several feet to make a long leader and account for breakage that may occur throughout the day. As we’ll discuss in the next section, if you’re using a monofilament leader, this is a good option. Some people prefer a shorter length, about a foot or less, if the leader is already the length and thickness they’d like to use. There’s no one right answer to how much tippet you should add– it’s all up to you!
Leader and Tippet Materials
All leaders and tippets are made out of one of three types of materials: monofilament nylon (usually just referred to as monofilament), fluorocarbon, or braid. Braid is rarely ever used for tippets and leaders, but we did want to at least mention it. Nearly all tippets and leaders for fly fishing are made from monofilament or fluorocarbon. The two are quite different from each other in terms of performance, which means that it’s actually quite easy to choose which one you need for a given fishing situation. In general, you want monofilament if you’re using dry flies. You want fluorocarbon if you’re nymphing. As we go over the different types of line, you’ll see why that is.
Monofilament nylon is a strong, somewhat stretchy nylon. Its primary benefit as a tippet and leader is that it floats, letting you keep your flies on top of the water. It’s much easier to present a dry fly with a line that floats, after all! Monofilament is cheaper to produce than fluorocarbon, which means it costs less. The stretch means that knots are less likely to slip and the line is more forgiving when you’re hauling in bigger fish.
Monofilament does have disadvantages, particularly when you’re presenting wet flies. Monofilament is more visible in the water than fluorocarbon, which can spook fish. Nylon absorbs water, which means that it’s less resistant to abrasions- which means that contact with underwater debris, rocks, and logs can lead to your line snapping. Monofilament also breaks down with prolonged UV exposure, so you’ll need to change out your line every few years.
Fluorocarbon is usually more expensive than monofilament, but it’s more durable and its stiffness is better for difficult hook sets and is more sensitive to strikes. If you like nymphing, this is the line you want for your tippets and leaders. Fluorocarbon’s big advantage for wet flies and nymphs is that it’s essentially invisible underwater due to the way it refracts light. It also sinks, so if you’re casting nymphs, it’s easier to use than monofilament.
Fluorocarbon also is not stretchy like nylon is, so you need to pay attention to knot strength and security. Knots are more likely to slip; however, some fluorocarbon is treated with a coating that helps the knots stay in place. Fluorocarbon is more durable to the elements as well. It actually takes upwards of 4,000 years for it to break down, so make sure you always carry your line out! (Which you should be doing anyways, regardless of the type of line you’re using.)
Many anglers have both monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders and tippet in their tackle boxes. The circumstances in which each is most useful are just so different, it’s worth having both on hand and ready to go.
When you’re spin fishing using a heavy lure, the line you use is a nearly-weightless monofilament. That’s not true of fly line, which is heavier and provides the momentum to move the tiny, lightweight flies through the air and across the water. Fly lines consist of an inner core and an outer coating.
The inner core of the fly line gives the line its strength, determines its stretch, and determines its flexibility. When a fly line has a monofilament core, it is generally less stretchy and is stiffer than a line with a multifilament core. Stiff lines cast farther and tend to tangle less frequently; however, in cold weather and cold water, monofilament lines have too much memory. This means that they retain a coil shape that makes casting frustrating and difficult. If you’re fishing in warm weather or going after bonefish, monofilament cores work great. But if you’re angling for cold-water species like trout and salmon, multifilament cores are usually better.
The outer coating of the fly line determines whether it floats or sinks. Floating line typically has glass microspheres in the coating, helping the line stay on top of the water. Sinking line has tungsten flecks in the coating, which weighs the line down. Most fly fishers begin with a general purpose floating line, but if you’re fishing for trout in deeper waters or faster rivers, you may want something more specialized.
New technology has also changed the way some fly line outer coatings are produced. Textured line, most notably the Sharkskin series of fly lines by 3M/Scientific Angler, reduces friction and stays on the surface due to the way the ridged texture interacts with surface tension. Reduced friction means longer casts, increased durability, and lower line memory, so while these lines are more expensive than regular smooth fly lines, they are becoming increasingly popular with fly fishers.
One more aspect of fly line to consider is the taper. A fly line’s taper affects the way you cast, the way your fly moves, and the way the line shoots through the guides. The taper determines the distribution of mass along the length of the line. If you’re fishing a large fly, you might want to have most of your line weight as close to the head of the line as possible. But if you’re fishing small flies on smooth water, you might want a long, delicate taper.
There are two major groups of fly lines when sorted by taper: Weight-forward and double-taper. Double-taper lines are great for short to medium range casts, but if you’re making longer casts they’re not as effective. Weight-forward lines have a front taper at the head of the line, a middle section where most of the weight is concentrated, and a rear taper that joins the rear running line. If the box says “WF,” it’s a weight-forward line.
Weight-forward lines include nearly every specialty line designed to go after specific types of fish. These specialties aren’t a marketing gimmick; when a line is labeled as a trout line or a bass line or any other kind of line, it really will work best with the flies for that particular species.
Fly lines come in many colors, none of which matter to the fish. The color of the line might matter more to you for visibility purposes. If you’re fishing in extremely clear water, you might want to pick a drab line.
So, what are the important things to remember about leader, tippet, and fly line?
- Leader and tippet are thin, lightweight, and transparent
- Fly line is thicker, weighted, and comes in many different colors
- Leader and tippet connect the fly to the line
- The thick end of the tapered leader attaches directly to the head of the fly line
- The thin end of the leader attaches to the tippet
- The end of the tippet attaches to the fly
- Leader length runs between 6 and 15 feet but is usually about 9 feet
- Tippet length varies entirely by personal preference and can be less than a foot or several feet long
- Tippet size works like wire gauge size: the higher the “X” number, the smaller the tippet
Hopefully, you now have enough of a lead-on leader and enough tips about tippet that you know what kind of line you need for the fish you want to catch!
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about