troutbitten tippet spools

Let’s talk about tippet — Three questions about the end of the line in a fly fishing rig

by | Aug 9, 2017 | 31 comments

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.

READ: Troutbitten | You’re in too Far Now

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.

Rocks like that can really tear up nylon tippet. Photo by Pat Burke.

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.

How thick?

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.

#18 BWO Comparadun on 3X tippet. Just not enough chance for the fly to move. Use 5X or 6X instead.

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.

These Harvey Pushers can really twist a thin tippet, so I use at least ten pound Chameleon.

How long?

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.

Cliffs Notes

— 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.

Joey

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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31 Comments

  1. Another valuable article. Thanks.

    What brand fluoro do you use? For my nymphing, I generally run a 5ft. piece of 4lb. Seaguar Inizx to a tippet ring, and then 5x (and occasionally 6x) Varivas fluoro. When i I’m using a dropper, it’s a short length of tippet knotted around the Invizx above the tippet ring.

    Reply
    • Good setup.

      Yeah, I’m really not loyal to any brand of fluoro. I’ve probably bought and fished everything in the fly shop at some point. I buy a lot of Mirage, I guess. For years I’ve used P-Line, Abrazx and now Finesse for the thicker diameters, down to about 4X. Smaller than that and I think it’s worth it to by high quality tippet from a fly shop because you get a lot better breaking strength in their small diameters. Make sense?

      Reply
  2. Okay for all that you’ve written on this subject. It makes sense. But, what I don’t like is the price that’s being asked flourocarbon, and the fact that it does not degrade. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s what I’ve read. I tried using size 6x regular mono for nymphing and I lost too many flies to the rock Gods. My buddy and I tried 6x in skinny water one summer. We both decided we’d rather catch less fish (if that’s the case), then lose a dozen flies every trip. Do you think 6x flouro holds up better than 6x mono? Once again, interesting reading.

    Reply
    • Oh yeah, I definitely believe that 6x fluoro holds up to more abuse than 6x nylon. No doubt. As I wrote above, though, I don’t use 6x for nymphing unless the flies are really small. Just my own choice. I like 4x and 5x usually, even though, yes, 6x will give me a better sink rate on the flies. Like I said above, though, my goal is to land the biggest fish of my life and I don’t want to be under-gunned.

      Reply
  3. In Alex’s message above he mentions that he uses tippet rings. My favorite guides are divided on their use. I would enjoy hearing your opinion on them. Which also brings up the question of preferred knots for fluoro connections, which knots are the most reliable? Always appreciate your insight in the articles you post.

    Reply
    • Thanks, John.

      Here are the knots I prefer and why.
      https://troutbitten.com/2015/03/06/efficiency-part-1-knots/

      I like tippet rings a lot too. But I use the smallest ones. 1.5mm. I don’t like them larger. I also don’t use them in the middle of my tippet section the way Alex describes his setup above. I have used them there, but I just find it easier and quicker to tie knots at that point. I use tippet rings on the ends of my sighter, so I can change out tippet sections and sighters. I’ve used tippet rings on dry fly leaders as well. As long as the ring is very small, I don’t think they change anything.

      Make sense?

      Reply
  4. Domenick,
    Still enjoying your articles, keep up the good work. When I started fly fishing there were no knotless tapered leaders and all were knotted in various configurations. In 1966 I purchased an Orvis leader tying kit which I believe was made up of spools of Mason hard mono. In a few years as the spools went empty I started to replace the different sizes with Maxima and never turned back. I used knotless tapered leaders off and on but alway went back to my hand tied leaders. After five decades of tying up every type of leader possible with Maxima I’ve learned it’s properties inside and out. If you walked up to me and asked for a Harvey style slack line leader for a three wt rod, 4X tippet, 11′ long, I would hand you a tied leader within five minutes. Same with a heavy nymph leader 9′, 3X, for a six wt rod, and so on. Familiarity with the material allows me such and all that time has created a permanent leader computer in my head.
    I have been fishing three fly rigs for forty years and have learned to adjust the lengths of the droppers based on dropper size, fly size and weight. This insures that the dropper fly does not wrap around the leader, too long and the dropper hinges and will wrap around the leader. Too short and hooking can be an issue. After the switch to tippet rings six years ago the same principal holds.
    I know that newer, faster rods are always the rage but I’ve found that older, longer bamboo rods of a slower action open up the loop considerably, and work incredibly well euro nymphing for me. Here comes the “jackass” in me. I have found with this style of rod and leader that I rarely get tangles of any kind, even with straight mono rigs fished with the Belgian cast. With this system I have yet to get the dreaded ‘fly tick’ on any rod and cannot remember the last time I actually ticked my rod with a fly.
    My point. Learn the material you fish with inside and out. Soon all of the tippet materials properties will be in your memory and you will know exactly what length, what size, etc. you will need for any fly you carry, in any situation.
    One last thing that always comes up, people always respond that a knotted tapered leader collects more weeds and negatively effects fishing. A wise dry fly angler I knew in Casper, Wyoming in the 1980’s, and like myself a member of the Wyoming Fly Casters, John Fanto (God bless you John and rest in peace) made the comment to me, ” yeah, but the more knots you have the longer it takes the weeds to collect on the fly.
    Tight lines to you, always experiment, always learn, and please keep writing about it.

    Phil

    Reply
    • Nice, Phil. Thanks for sharing.

      Good point about familiarity. I’m a maxima user as well.

      Also, I don’t mean to say that the dropper lines tangle for me. Sometimes they do, but I just find in a full day of fishing , that something happens to make some tangles. It could be a quick snag in a tree, or a fish wrapping itself in the line during the fight.

      Good thoughts, Phil. Thanks for reading.

      Reply
  5. Domenick ,
    Thank you. So true.

    The five reasons that cause leader tangles in multifly rigs and their solutions to my way of thinking follow. The first four can be, as we said in heavy industry, engineered out.
    1) Improper leader construction. Any leader design must be done with the prevention of hinging or bending in any part of the leader. The leader is designed to operate in a continuous and clean transfer of energy from line to flies, whether slack or tight line casts depending on desired outcome. Yes, I fish multi dry fly rigs with a slack line presentation, and.. Yes I catch two fish at a time occasionally. Four doubles last season on multi dry fly rigs during fall hatches.
    2) Improper dropper length or size. Not talking about the dropper wrapping around the leader but as the cause of monumental tangles. Too long and too soft of a dropper section will cause extra air drag during the cast which can change the dynamic of the leader during the cast and cause the dreaded hinge during turnover. Too long and soft of a dropper with weighted flies causes micro movements in the individual dropper/fly group that will change the dynamic of entire sections of the leader during the cast. It’s just my theory and unprovable by me as I lack the scientific methods, high speed video and laboratory setting, to prove. Imagine a five to fifteen grain weight Czech nymph on a too long and too soft of a dropper and how it will move independently of the main leader during the cast, especially during turnover. Ever felt like your leader was doing the hurky-jerky during the cast? This is one of the reasons I am enamoured with tippet rings. I can change fly and dropper at the same time without reconstructing entire sections of leader. I also like the attachment knots for droppers that you have mentioned previously although I haven’t tried them yet.
    3) Too tight of loops. Multifly rigs require more open loops, period. There is just too much of a chance for all those flies going through the air to snag each other or the main leader body on forward or back cast turnover. The literature of old often describes fishing a ‘swim’ of up to nine flies per cast. That one terrifies even me. Slow down the cast and open up the loop.
    4)Trees (and other snags). I believe I mentioned to you awhile ago that I am disabled and can only manage one fishing trip per week on my own, and that I can only fish an hour or two in the best and easiest of conditions. It is no problem for me to be standing at the best looking hole in the river and, after analyzing the water, the environment, and the cast needed, to simply walk away. “What’s around the bend Captain Fink?” I’m not going to spend a half an hour pulling my flies out of a tree and reconstructing my leader if I can prevent it.

    And finally the one cause of a tangled leader with multifly rigging that can’t be engineered out…

    5)The Fish. At this time in my life I would rather lose a small fish in spectacular fashion and be left hog tied like a cartoon fisherman than have a ho hum fight and land just another trophy. Now, to lose a trophy fish in spectacular fashion, well that would print a smile on my face until I am at the water next. Either way, spending ten minutes to reconstruct a leader or just calling it a day is fine with me.

    Hope these words will help your readers. These tips will help but of course will not prevent myself or any angler from the occasional tangle. The unseen underwater snag, the sudden gust of wind, oops!

    Best fishing to you,
    Phil

    Reply
  6. The quality of you research is very good I appreciate all the time you put into you articles. Your published work is the most practical I have seen on the internet,

    Reply
    • That’s cool, man. Thanks a lot. It does take some time! lol.

      Reply
  7. Domenick,

    Great article! Thanks for putting this out there. Tippet material is something that I find myself thinking about a lot.

    One thing that I noticed you didn’t mention is the density of fluoro vs nylon. I take it that was intentional. The vast majority written on the subject of fluoro vs nylon for nymphing makes a big deal about the density of fluoro and the resulting sink rate. I’ve personally always been skeptical of the practical difference this really makes. Once you’ve tied a 3mm tungsten bead on, can a modest increase in line density really correlate to a a meaningful impact on sink rate? What’s your stance on the matter?

    The stiffness of fluoro and manageability in regards to tangles is something I’ve never personally considered. It’s a great point. It lead me to wonder about the affects of line stiffness on a fly’s drift. Hypothetically, do you believe that a more supple tippet would impart less drag on flies?

    Reply
  8. Excellent article. I fish far less than I would like and have found your writings to be enlightening. I typically purchase 4x-5x tapered leaders in 7.5 foot length and added 3-4 feet often next size smaller tippet to that. This and other articles have given me much to consider.

    Thank You!

    Reply
  9. Great article. Agree 110%. I use it here in Alaska for all submerged fishing. I do council friends to use flouro responsibly. It degrades very slowly … read that as it lasts practically … forever. It entraps/tangles/ensnares/kills wildlife longer than your lifetime when lost in snag or not rolled up and disposed properly. I see entangled alive and dead wildlife every season. I pick up and haul out line wherever/whenever I find it on the river. Don’t love your rivers to death.

    Reply
  10. I use Stroft GTM 0.12 for everything. One spool. Simple.

    Reply
    • Nigel,

      Wow. So you use 6X for everything? I can’t imagine how that could work for some of the large and bushy (or even medium sized) dries that I fish, especially if it’s windy. Even if I could get it out there, my accuracy would be extremely limited.

      Same with streamers. Do you actually fish streamers on 6X??

      Reply
      • Domenick,
        Stroft GTM 0.12 is about 4lb breaking strain. I fish traditionally with one small nymph or dry fly. No beads, streamers or large and bushy flies. I keep it simple 🙂

        Reply
  11. Great article! Just started experimenting with using a dry fly as my indicator, tying it off my leader. I was having difficulty with the fly sinking using fluorocarbon, and “dunking” the fly before making a new cast. Cliff notes answered a question about nylon vs floro for dries.
    Thank you for your helpful information on fly fishing. My knowledge base has grown tremendously because of your honest tips and tactics

    Reply
  12. Domenick, Your articles are always enlightening. Thank you for all the time you put into writing your columns and to your readers for joining the discussions.

    Reply
  13. I know the focus is not on Stillwater but when fishing any floating fly on a flat surface the tippet next to the fly must be degreased so it will sink and not create a distraction on the surface next to the fly.

    Reply
    • How much of the leader is s riding under the water? If a long length is under, does the fly not follow the leader under when picked up, followed by a “pop” and some significant surface disturbance. This happens to me in pools at times, but I never fish lakes.

      In some situations, I do degrease perhaps the first foot of the tippet next to the fly, but nothing more.

      Thoughts?

      Reply
      • The first foot of the leader is the least that’s needed on flat water. The more that can be degreased without sinking the fly the better. Lift with a roll cast, one false cast to dry it all off then lay the fly gently back down to do its thing. Never let the leader float next to the fly. Fish are spooked and they refuse.

        Reply
  14. No offense, but you still have not answered the question of the fact that Fluorocarbon lasts somewhere around 5000, to 100,000 years in our environment, (according to the information I have found online), whereas most Nylon lasts between 5 and 15 years. I’m not comfortable knowing I am contributing to the destruction of our waterways by using Fluorocarbon line. We, (fly anglers especially), should be stewards of our environment and should show the best practices for others to follow and emulate as much as possible. I am still not convinced the benefits of Fluorocarbon line outweigh the effects it has on our environment and until someone can show me a study or definitive work that point this out, I will continue my objections to it’s use. I own a Fly Shop and appreciate the sales, but I won’t sell the stuff in my Shop. I am very concerned about the dwindling amounts of water we have to fish, we need to protect it as much as possible and if this is one little thing we can do as anglers, then it should be done by all.

    Reply
    • Hey Bill,

      I know where you’re coming from. And I respect that decision.

      I struggled with my own use of fluoro for a while. Right or wrong, here were the factors in my decision to use fluoro:

      — Above, you said that nylon takes more than 5-15 years to bio-degrade. But that’s the shelf life, not when it’s actually gone. It takes more like 600 years for nylon fishing line to bio-degrade. While fluoro is much worse (taking thousands of years) nylon is still really bad, at 600 years.

      https://www.fishfloridatag.org/new-fishing-line-safer-for-environment/

      http://www.flyfishamerica.com/content/fluorocarbon-vs-nylon

      — I don’t actually lose much fluoro to the river. I go through spools of tippet, but often, it’s because I change out tippet sections, adding to or replacing certain portions. And I ball up old pieces into a pocket. I throw that out later in the trash. I also feel that I lose less tippet overall because fluoro is more abrasion resistant and stronger. When I used nylon for all those years. I left a lot more snags and flies on the river bottom. (And the nylon will still be there in 500 years).

      — Lastly, I feel that all the other things I buy and use and do around fishing probably has a greater impact on the streams. Simply burning the gasoline on the way there is contributing to a larger problem. The lead I use for wrapping around the shank of my flies isn’t a good thing. The polyethylene of the water bottle that I lost on the stream the other day will be in the environment for a very, very long time as well. And that’s way more synthetic material than a year’s worth of tippet. I’m not saying that burning that extra gasoline is okay — I’m saying that if I would choose to not use fluoro because of its environmental impact from my own fly fishing game, then I’d have a lot of other things to discontinue as well.

      That said, I DO tread lightly. I DO try to keep my impact on the environment minimal. Climate change is a real thing, and WE are to blame. That’s not a political issue. It’s science. And I think you and I are probably on the same page there.

      Incidentally, the first article I linked to talks about “bio-lines” that bio-degrade in just a few years. That’s interesting.

      Dom

      Reply
      • Interesting response, lots of “I’s”, one “We”, stewardship may not be not your strong suit. Everyone has their own opinions on how best to be stewards of our fishing heritage. If everyone took your advice, we will have tons of Fluorocarbon in our waterways one little piece at a time. I’ll continue my ban and perhaps my little gesture will inspire others and save my streams for a little longer than others.

        Reply
        • Sigh. Bill, I used “I” because you asked about MY use of fluorocarbon.

          I resent your comment about my stewardship, and I think it’s unfair.

          Cheers, anyway.

          Dom

          Reply
  15. Thank you!! I’ve just entered world of fly fishing, and really enjoy your comprehensive detailing/instruction.

    Reply

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