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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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