The single biggest advancement in fly fishing gear over the last few decades is the tippet. The breaking strength, per diameter, of both fluorocarbon and nylon tippets is far stronger than what all of us were using in the last century. The 5X tippet that we tie to the eye of an Adams or a Pheasant Tail today is now twice as strong. And damn, that’s nice.
The super-strength of modern tippet materials has given the angler a micro-thin option that can handle some of the largest trout in the river. Sometimes, choosing the smallest diameter in your pack is the best choice — but not always. It’s important to understand the limitations of extra-thin tippets, beyond the obvious factor of breaking strength. Because, while the thin stuff might help some aspects of your game, it may also be holding you back . . .
What’s the Problem?
Why not choose the thinnest tippet available for the strength we require? That seems to make sense, right? Because, other than the breaking strength, what’s the downside of using thinner tippets?
Bottom line: thin tippets can become a crutch. They’re so helpful in getting good drifts, that an angler may learn to rely on the tippet and forget about improving the tactics.
READ: Troutbitten | Let’s talk about tippet — Three questions about the end of the line in a fly fishing rig
What are we fighting for?
Set aside streamer techniques for a moment, and let’s focus on the smaller flies.
Up top, we want our dry fly to dead drift on the surface. And to achieve that, we lend the fly some slack in the form of s-curves. Our best method for dumping those s-curves on the water is the stop and drop.
Or . . . you can tie on some super skinny tippet and allow the undersized nylon to pile up — because it isn’t quite strong enough to turn over the fly.
That’s actually a viable option. And it’s exceedingly common these days, because it works. But the better tactic for creating the necessary slack on a dry fly is the stop and drop, the crash cast or a variety of aerial mends. These allow the angler more accuracy of presentation with extra options. And while these techniques are indeed more difficult, the result of hard work is more trout to the net.
Underneath the water, things are similar. We want our nymphs to dead drift. But, because we can’t see the flies, we need more contact in the system. We surely don’t want s-curves under the water. And good nymphing comes from managing a small amount of slack within a contact system. (Check out the Troutbitten article, Tight Line Nymphing — Not All That Tight.) One of the best ways to achieve all of this is with a tuck cast.
Or . . . you can rely on super thin tippets to slice through the water so the fly quickly reaches the strike zone.
Again, employing extra-thin tippets is a viable approach to nymphing. And it’s exceedingly common, because it works. But a better approach is to learn the tuck cast, utilize better angles of delivery, and execute a lift and lead technique after the cast.
In truth, micro-thin tippets are a wonderful resource for the angler, whether fishing on the surface or underneath. But they can also become a crutch. They are an easy way to solve a tough problem — getting a good dead drift.
Put them together and you have . . .
Take the time to learn tactics like the stop and drop for dry flies and the tuck cast for nymphs. Then, when you combine excellent technique with thin tippets, watch out trout!
I meet a lot of good anglers who want to refine tight line tactics, euro nymphing and Mono Rig styles. Many of them tie on 6X, 7X or even 8X as a go-to diameter, no matter what size nymphs they are using. And my first suggestion to them is to try 4X or 5X as a terminal tippet. The difference in sink rate is dramatic (thicker tippets don’t sink as easily.) And the angler is forced to use good tactics like the tuck cast and the lift and lead to quickly gain the strike zone for a great drift. By removing the crutch of light tippets, anglers are challenged to produce the same results with more refined tactics.
The same concept applies on the surface. Instead of reaching for 7X during a Blue Winged Olive hatch, I ask my guests to choose 5X nylon and then adapt their casting to achieve the s-curves — instead of relying on super thin tippet.
When the more advanced techniques have been refined, an angler may choose to go back to the thin stuff — nymphing with 6X, for example. Then, by combining a skillful tuck cast with the micro-thin tippet, an even more deadly presentation can develop.
When and Why
My personal choice is 5X for a standard terminal tippet size — fluoro underneath and nylon on the surface. That’s the base that I work from. And if I’m using large, bushy dry flies, for example, I switch to 4X or even 3X.
I treat every fishing situation as if I expect to catch the largest trout of my life. Meaning, I’m always prepared to hook (and land) something larger than I’ve ever seen at the end of my line. So I choose the toughest tippet that I believe I can get away with. Even though 7x and 8X are stronger than they’ve ever been, I don’t use them. And I choose to bump down to 6X only when I must.
What does that mean, exactly? For me, it’s never about tippet visibility. Because I don’t believe trout are leader shy. (They are drag shy.) Instead, it’s about the flexibility of tippet at the eye of the hook. A small, #18 fly, for example, has no wiggle when it’s hung from a chunk of 3X. So when I must fish tiny flies, I choose smaller tippets. And that’s the only reason I go smaller than 5X. For tiny dries and nymphs (about 18 and smaller) I give in to using 6X.
There’s nothing wrong with using extra-thin tippets. And if you have solid fish-fighting skills, some very large trout can be landed quickly, even on the lightest tackle.
READ: Troutbitten | Category | Fighting Fish
My argument against the full-time use of light tippets is based on what can be learned by fishing without them. Sometimes, the gear and the rig we use is so fine-tuned that success comes easily. Maybe your catch rate doubled when you switched to 6X. So you never looked back. But what if your catch rate could be tripled by going back to 4X or 5X? Because the dead drifts are tougher, and you’re forced to find new ways to achieve the same great drift.
I’m not suggesting that 6X and lighter tippets are always a crutch. But they certainly can be. Again, light tippets are an easy way to solve a tough problem — getting a good dead drift. But sometimes, choosing a harder path makes all the difference. You might learn more.
Fish hard, friends.
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Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N
I sure wish I could spend as much time on the river to try all the things that make it harder to catch fish. Fortunately, there are still enough imperfections in my setup, so I don‘t have to add extra ones in order to get feedback on improvement (I think?). Good for you, man! 😀
That is a beautiful piece of water in the background of Dell and trout. Color, depth, current.
As someone who practices catch and release, I advocate for using as heavy a leader as possible. You’ll break off fewer fish and land even large fish quicker, meaning better survival rates. I try to stick to 4x for my tippet, only going smaller if dictated by my ability to thread the tippet through the eye of the hook.
The river bottom steals too many nymphs tied to 6X. I usually win the tug-of-war when I have 5X or 4X attached to my fly.
It’s not just the bottom but also the over hanging trees and cover on tight streams. 4x-5x is about as small as I go. I didn’t think about the effect on drift. Great article Dom.
Good point. Yeah, I get tired of the break offs, over and over. But there are some guys who seem to take pride in the fact that they lost a dozen flies today. I’m not joking. I’ve heard guys say that, as if that means they were fishing hard or something.
Dominic, you think outside the box. I am an avid reader of your articles, and your advise is ALWAYS right on. I fish at a highly pressured tailwater near a big city where the parking lots can be full at every entry point even on weekdays. I used to use 6X and sometimes 7X even on nymphs. With the average size trout of 16″-20″, I didn’t land many fish.
Since I learned better technique and rigging 4 years ago, I was able to switch to inexpensive Seaguar Red Label 4 lb , ($12 for 250 yards of flouro) which has the thickness between 4X and 5X normal tippet. That’s pretty thick by tailwater standards. I even use Seaguar 6 lb for the main line (which is between 4X and 3X normal tippet diameter). Yet my catch rates increased dramatically due to better rigging and better technique, precisely proving your point that thin tippets are mostly a crutch. With this 4lb stuff (which, incidentally is way stronger than 4 lb, I land 90% of my hookups. This past spring , the runoff was 600% above normal, yet my landing rate was equally high, using cheap 4lb Seaguar. I attribute the high landing rate to knowledge of how tailwater fish behave and fight differently during high flows, and applying that knowledge to fighting technique.
Good stuff. I used the Red Label as well. But it was just too stiff for my preference. If you like the Red Label, you’ll probably love Finesse:
I totally agree with you. I believe in using heavy tippet, maybe not the heaviest I can get away with, but heavier than many guys I see on the river. The lightest tippet I carry is 5X and that’s reserved for dries, size 14 or smaller. Nymphs get tied on 4X -2X.
For what it’s worth, I do feel that 2x or even 3X is a significant handicap for presenting average sized nymphs properly. Just too thick and stiff, in my opinion.
This is what I mean about best info on the net. I carry 6x but rarely use it. Most of the time it’s 4x unless the water is gin clear like the East Branch Delaware. Then I’ll go to 5x.
Have you found a cheap alternative to tippet material for 6x (or close)? If not, what brand do you prefer when you have to use 6x tippet?
No. Not for 6X. I use Seaguar Finesse as my (almost) 5X, then 4X, 3X and 2X fluoro.
When I must go to 6X, I’m fine with Orvis, Rio or Cortland for fluoro. For the nylon, I love Rio Suppleflex.
One thing not mentioned here that i find that helps with drag free drifts using heavier tippet is simply lengthening the tippet a few feet. I feel you get a better drift with 4 feet of 5X than 2 feet of 6X (when dry fly fishing). Im very particular about keeping a long tippet.
I also agree on the RIO suppleflex tippet. I have used it since it was released awhile back and wont use anything else for dry fly fishing.
Another Suppleflex fan!
Also good point regarding longer terminal tippet section. I couldn’t the space to break that down in this article, but I did in this one about the Stop and Drop:
Another nice article, thanks. However I do wish you would stop posting the ‘grip and grin’ fish photos. The handling time might be short but it’s still indicative of rough handling. You have other more creative photos that are more artistic.
Hi Frank. I sincerely respect where you’re coming from.
But I won’t stop posting fish pics, either. Call them grip and grin or whatever you like, I’ll continue to show the beauty of the wild trout that we chase. I think a good fish photo showcases one of the main inspirations for being out there — the trout. And I believe there is a lot of art in a good fish pic.
I’ve often said that fish pics are the grand compromise of catch and release. You may not personally care to take pictures of your trout and share them, but most anglers do. And if we, as a community, are asking anglers to put their catch back, many of those anglers want a way to remember the fish or share the fish with their friends.
A lot more of those thoughts from me are here:
Lastly I disagree that these shots are indicative of rough handling, as you say. Quite the opposite is true. If an angler does choose to take a fish pic, then the way we do it is arguably the safest, and it’s easiest on the trout. Again, more of those thoughts in the link above and the further links from that article.
Truth is, I’ve spent a lot of time and effort trying to spread the word about good fish handling.
This reminds me of something written by George Harvey that I read decades ago. He said a good angler should be able to be successful using no smaller than 4x for a size 18 fly. He also wrote to match the tippet to the size of the fly, not the clarity of the water or the wariness of the trout. For example, his size 8 green drake dun does not cast well with a 5x tippet. I used to use 3x for those until I broke off several big trout on 3x. Now I start with 1X for green drakes, and go to 2X if I think it’s necessary.
I mostly fish size 12 to 16 flies, so 4X is my most often used tippet size. I don’t even carry 7x anymore. Oh, one time at a TU banquet Left Kreh said that he had to find size 22 hooks with an eye large enough to fit 2x tippet material so he could land the big trout in the Bow River.
I hear ya.
I do think there’s a point where there’s not enough wiggle given to a fly on a thick tippet. I mentioned that a bit in the article above.
For example, the 2X to a number 22 that you mentioned — I doubt I could ever get a satisfactory drift with that set up. You can build all the s-curves possible into that 2X piece, but it will still be really stiff where it attaches to the fly. For me, that’s really the only reason I go smaller. And that’s why I’d probably using 6X on that #22.
I agree that Lefty’s example of 22s on 2X is pretty extreme. I heard him say that back in the late ’70s or early ’80s, and I don’t believe the tippet material available then was as strong as it is now.
I have been using 5X this year with size 20 BWOs, and it’s been working. I also use the updated version of the Harvey dry fly leader, and I’ve been fishing for wild browns and rainbows in a highly pressured public river.
6X and Smaller
I work in a fly shop near one of Colorado’s top tailwater fisheries. Customers frequently ask 6x or 7x and I always say YES. After all I’m in the business of selling flies.
Good article Domenick — and, as always, a fun informative read. I’ve been using 4x nylon for dries and 4.5X trout hunter fluoro for nymphs. do you think tying on another foot or two of 5x to the 4x will result in better drifts?
There are just too many variables for me to accurately answer that. Fly size, casting stroke, how good your stop and drop technique is, wind, forehand or backhand curve, etc.
Some of that is here:
I will say, I do not choose ahead of time what my terminal tippet for dries will be. If I’m fishing a #12 Parachute, it might be 4X. But if I’m fishing a #20 Olive, it will likely be 6X. Of course, length varies as well.
i love to read your articles. They always make me think how i can do things better. i too use 5x as a starter tippet and just like you said, if things get tough i drop to 6x. there is a lot of truth in what you are saying in this article. thank you for what you do for fly fishing and helping Fly fishermen and Fly fisherwomen. i work at a local High school and started a Fly fishing Fly tying class a few years ago for the students. i alway pass along any information you have in your articles. Very useful stuff., Thank you and keep at it, you do a great job.
Sounds good. Thanks for the support, Charlie.
Once again 110% in agreement!! I fish not gin clear water,so 5X is as small as I go,but the part of fly flexibility is right on. I could probably get by with 4X,but the catch rate drops significantly,especially with 16 and smaller. And in my river there are huge fish,so have learned from past blunders,everything has to be perfect,or you will be left screaming at a fish,with your fly in its mouth!!