I’ve had old timers tell me that leader and tippet technology is the biggest advancement in fly fishing over the last half-century. Within my own twenty-five years of fly fishing, I’ve seen fly shop wall space grow to include tippet spools of nylon and fluorocarbon in all X sizes (sometimes in half sizes too), with most manufacturers offering multiple options for stiffness and breaking strength in each diameter.
It’s all gotten a little complicated, I suppose. And my friends at TCO tell me that fielding confused questions about tippet is a daily chore. So let’s answer three important questions about tippet. What type? (Nylon vs Fluorocarbon.) What size? (How thick of a diameter is best?) And how long should your tippet section be?
Note: this article is not intended to be a comprehensive write-up for all things tippet. Google search will supply you with that. Instead, I’ll give you a real world, stream-level account of what works for me and the Troutbitten guys.
It’s all monofilament
Real quick, just for clarity, both fluorocarbon and nylon are monofilaments. So yes, fluorocarbon tippet material is monofilament, and so is the regular stuff we all used until about a fifteen years ago — that’s nylon. Using the term “monofilament” for nylon is a holdover from way back when single strand polymers were first introduced and took over for gut leaders. So yeah, we can move on from that now.
Nylon or fluorocarbon?
I’m a skeptic at best and a cynic at worst. So when the shiny ads for fluorocarbon monofilaments appeared in my fly fishing magazines, I paid no attention but to chuckle and turn the page. I was sure I had no use for them.
For nymphing …
A decade ago I learned about euro nymphing, and I started fishing and adapting the Mono Rig to my own style. All the euro-nymphing guys I learned from swore by fluorocarbon, yet I resisted. Nylon worked well for me. I was used to it. I had a stockpile of the stuff, and it was much cheaper. I’m a fisherman, after all, and inherent in that term for me is a do-it-yourself nature with an urge to cut corners.
But I’m also an open-minded realist. On one warm fall day the plastic clasp of my tippet stack broke. I lost every spool and was left with no terminal tackle. Two miles from the parking lot, I turned to Sawyer, a long-time fishing friend, with my hand out. “I’d like to try your fluorocarbon now please,” I said sheepishly.
Sawyer handed me his stack, with 3x-6X fluoro, and I nymphed with it for the rest of the day.
It took no time at all. Perhaps an hour later, and I was sold. I discovered that fluorocarbon has an uncanny ability to untangle, and that provided a significant advantage over nylon. I had slung around two-fly nymph rigs for years, and in a full-day of fishing, there are inevitable tangles that get the best of everyone. (Don’t let any jackass tell you differently.)
I’d come to believe that ninety percent of the time, the mess was best solved by cutting off the rig and starting over,. But I learned something that day. The same tangles in fluorocarbon seem to fall out of their vexing loops and twists with minimal effort. In short, using fluoro keeps me fishing more and frustrated less, and you gotta love that.
Since that day, I’ve tried many brands of nylon and fluorocarbon for nymphing, and I strongly prefer fluoro. It’s naturally stiffer than nylon, and for me, that’s the line I want for nymphing.
Some of the modern fluorocarbons aren’t stiff anymore. I prefer high quality fluoro that is slightly stiff, but still has the right amount of flexibility. Yes, I want it all (and I want it now).
I recently read in Jonathan White’s book, Nymphing the New Way, that he prefers Stroft, a supple nylon material. Because this is fishing, there are about a hundred different opinions and twice as many variations that work. I don’t want a soft material for nymphing. I like slightly stiff, flexible fluorocarbon.
Also, I don’t care about the fluorocarbon property of being nearly invisible to fish underwater. In my rivers, I’m not so sure that the refractive index of a monofilament matters. (Likewise, I don’t know that the diameter of tippet matters to the fish either).
I nymph with fluorocarbon because it tangles less and because it’s much more durable against things like rocks and split shot than nylon.
For dry flies …
I still prefer the flexibility of nylon for dries. To me the best dry fly tippet is as soft as I can find it — super supple. I want the tippet section to lay out in s-curves at the end of the cast, providing the dry with plenty of slack. Read: Dry flies need slack
That is exactly what I don’t want for nymphs.
This one might be easy.
Generally, I use the thickest tippet I can get away with but still have good movement to the fly.
Picture this: a #18 Blue Winged Olive tied to 3X tippet has no freedom of movement. It’s motion is limited by the stiffness of the 3X. But a #6 Beadhead Wooly Bugger tied to 3X has plenty of available motion,and looks natural in the water.
There are general formulas for matching tippet size to fly size, and that’s a good place to start. Just remember that the tippet needs to be thick enough to cast the fly, to defeat the wind resistance of a dry and manage the weight of a nymph, streamer or wet. But the tippet should also be thin enough to allow the fly to move at the knot.
Many competition anglers nymph with 6X or even 7X. That allows for plenty of motion on the fly, even with tiny nymphs. And when casting nymphs on a tight line, the weight of the nymphs or split shot does most of the casting work, so tippet turnover is not an issue.
More importantly, competition anglers choose thin diameter tippets like 6X or 7X because thinner lines slice through the water better — they incur less drag. It may seem quite a stretch to believe that 6X can be more drag-free than 4X. But when you try it, the difference is obvious. Since 6X has less surface area, it’s pushed around by the currents less (it cuts through the water better). It drags less and sinks quicker. That matters, especially to competition anglers.
All decisions have a trade off, though. I care more about landing the trout of a lifetime than I do about landing a few more fish in a day, so I still nymph with the largest and strongest diameters I can get away with. I like 4X and 5X fluorocarbon for most nymphing. When I tie on a #18 or #20 trailer, I often use 6X. Tippet breaking strengths are stronger than ever these days. You can go thin when you need to.
For dry flies I want soft, supple, flexible material, so I use nylon from 3X to 6X. For big Stimulators and PMX patterns, I like 3X, but I still want the soft flexibility of nylon.
Some guys use fluorocarbon for dries because it sinks into the surface a bit, causing less shadow. That’s the kind of thing my grandfather liked to call, “flying too low.” Thankfully, the trout I fish for aren’t usually that picky. If they are, I tip my cap and find the next hungry trout.
Personally, I don’t like the effect of a sunken leader. When picking up for the next cast, a sinking tippet tends to draw the fly down into the surface, sometimes creating a pop as it goes under and quickly comes back up, flying off toward the backcast.
Last point on tippet thickness. Some flies twist a tippet that’s too thin. It can happen with large dry flies. And I’ve encountered the unwanted twist while swinging Harvey Night Flies, so I use at least ten pound Maxima Chameleon for those flies at night. Some streamer designs can do the same thing. Trout that are attacking streamers and big night flies aren’t leader shy, but they may be the fish of a lifetime, so again, I use the heaviest diameter I can get away with.
Last question. How long should the tippet section be?
Again, I recommend going as long as you can get away with. I frequently use a tippet section that’s 4-5 feet long for the terminal section of my dry leader. All that extra-soft tippet gives me great s-curves and plenty of slack.
There’s a limit to what an angler can control, of course. And ten foot tippet sections are impossibly inaccurate. There’s a boundary for every situation. I go right up to it and use the longest tippet section I can still control with precision.
When fishing streamers or wet flies on a swing, there’s not much need for long tippets. Yes, long and thin tippets will get you a little deeper, but depths with swinging or stripped flies is more easily achieved with weight, casting angles and retrieve speeds.
However, dead drift nymph fishing or using old school streamer tactics can greatly benefit from longer tippet sections. Remember the principles mentioned above, that thinner tippets take on less drag from the currents? Likewise, multiple diameters of monofilament (tapered leaders) under the water create the unwelcome situation of a leader being pushed around by varying degrees.
So for dead drifting, I use tippets long enough that just one diameter is under the water (two, at the most). The currents then act evenly across the entirety of the tippet section under the water, improving the dead drift and lending more control over the rig.
— Nylon for dries. Fluoro for nymphs and streamers.
— How thick? As thick as you can get away with.
— How long? As long as you can get away with, for dries. And for nymphs, as long as necessary to keep one diameter of tippet under the water.
I know that tippet preferences are personal. So share your own discoveries or disagreements in the comments section below.
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N