Tippet Protection and Nymphing Rods

by | Apr 1, 2024 | 20 comments

Don’t buy a fly rod based on the idea that it will protect fine tippets, because every decent rod will do that. Guarding against broken tippets while setting the hook is up to you. Protecting light tippets while fighting a large trout is also up to you, along with the drag setting of your reel.

I’ve never found a five, four or three weight rod that handicapped me while landing big trout on the lightest tippets. I’ve done this mostly with dry flies over the years — with Tricos and midges to 6X, 7X and even 8X nylon. Every fly rod I’ve used has done the job. So why would a rod that I nymph with be any different? It is not.

For the last three weeks I’ve spent a lot of time fishing with 7X tippets tied to very small nymphs. When I mentioned this to a friend, he asked if I was worried about the tip of my four weight fly rod not being forgiving enough for 7X.

Huh?

“Don’t you think a two-weight nymphing rod would protect those tippets better?”

No . . . No, I really don’t.

Why have I been fishing 7X anyway? Once the Olives came on, the caddis began to stir and the Hendricksons were on deck. Every year, when hatch season kicks off like this, I see the trout’s feeding focus shift upward. So instead of aiming for low and slow presentations, right in the trout’s face every day, I do better with a target zone a little higher (sometimes).

There are a few different ways to achieve similar results and keep the nymphs higher. I can suspend the flies at a fixed depth under a dry or an indy. Also, on my standard tight line setup I can lead nymphs more or use a flatter angle to prevent the fly from dropping too much or too fast.

However, another favorite way is what I call tracking the flies. And that’s what I’ve been doing the most.

READ: Troutbitten | Tight Line and Euro Nymphing — Tracking the Flies

Tracking is about having as little influence over the nymphs as possible. Instead of dictating the depth and speed of the flies, let the river make the decisions. The drift is essentially a long drop that keeps nymphs in a trout’s upward view for a long time. But tracking can only happen with light flies.

If having minimal influence is the goal, then matching small flies with extra light tippets makes sense. So as much as I prefer stronger tippets like 4X and 5X as my daily fluoro, these tippets are arguably better when I surrender to the concept of influencing the nymphs.

In truth, we’re always influencing nymphs that we’ve tied to the end of a line — there is no doubt. But there are advantages gained by dropping down a couple tippet sizes, essentially having less influence while trying to track the fly’s progress on a drag free dead drift.

READ: Troutbitten | Let’s Talk About Tippet — Three Questions About What’s at the End of the Line

I’m constantly trying to learn something new on the river. Prior to the last few weeks, I’d rarely spent much time nymphing with tippets less than 6X. But now I have. So I’ll tell you from experience, the rods I used in the last few weeks have had no problem with heavy trout, even in faster water.

What rods? I fished a Hardy Marksman 1004, the Orvis H4 1004, and a Sage R8 9005. I haven’t lost a trout from a break off. I’m sure I would, over time, if I remained committed to the 7X or thinner. But it hasn’t happened yet.

Here’s the bottom line: You do not need an extra-soft rod tip to protect delicate tippets while nymphing. Skip past that selling point in the marketing jargon, and make your fly rod decision on the other factors that matter.

Remember Dry Fly Rods?

Think about how long, for how many decades, anglers have fished tiny dry flies with weak tippets, doing so on standard flex and fast action rods.

Tippet has gotten much stronger through the years. I remember first fishing Tricos with 7X nylon rated at 1.5 lbs. I did this on a five weight, and I was not alone.

Dry fly anglers fishing over small bug hatches, especially on big waters, still routinely recommend rod weights of four, five or six. No one obsesses over the rod tip for protecting weak tippets because the rod tip also needs to help punch the fly line, leader and flies through the air and into the end zone.

General rods have been up to the task of protecting tippets from the beginning. That’s part of the job of a long rod. A fly rod can handle it. The rod tips are already light and flexible enough, so there’s no need to choose an extra flexible tip in a rod that you’ll nymph with.

Two things matter here . . .

Riverdog. A good, wet day.

Setting the Hook

It’s not up to the rod to flex so much on a hook set that it protects the tippet. Instead, it’s up to you to know the rod’s performance and don’t overset.

Regardless of my tactic, whether I’m fishing big surface patterns at night on 15 lb Maxima or I’m tied on to a #22 Zebra Midge with 6X fluoro while nymphing through the morning, I know what it takes to bury the hook. In most trout situations, a short and quick hook set suits the moment.

Set fast, but don’t set far. By fast, I mean the speed of that short set, not the timing of the set — that’s another topic altogether.

Again, you don’t need a specialized nymphing rod to protect light tippets on the hook set.

READ: Troutbitten | Set the Hook and Set Hard

During the Fight

You do need a rod to flex while fighting your next namer. Bigger water and bigger fish absolutely challenge the limits of your tackle and the intentions of the person who designed your fly rod.

Fishing rods flex for two reasons — to aid in casting, and to absorb the surges of a fish against the line. The shock absorber effect is necessary, but should not be overdone. There are consequences to a rod tip with extra flex (loss of power and slow rod tip recovery).

Every fly rod I’ve ever had my hands on had enough flex to protect whatever tippet that I matched to it. (I’m not fishing 7X on a 9 weight.)

It’s up to us, as skilled anglers, to manage the strain on the line, to control the surges of a fish. We do that with rod position and angles, and we do that with proper drag settings on the reel.

Soft rod tips are a compromise of power, so I would much rather achieve tippet protection during the fight with lighter drag settings instead.

Me and You

All of this is opinion, of course, And what I want in a fly rod might be different from you. I think these points about fly rod tips and protecting light tippets are hard to argue against. But maybe you can. If so, I welcome your opinions in the comments section below.

Some of this is style, some of it is preference, and some of it is fact. All of it is fun, and it’s all just fishing.

Fish hard, friends.

 

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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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20 Comments

  1. I’m wondering now if the very soft rod tips would slow the hook set as it will need to be moved further to achieve the same amount of power as a stiffer rod tip. Also are soft rod tips slower to recover?

    Reply
  2. While I don’t disagree that you can fish any diameter tippet with any rod, it is wild to generalize this because you haven’t broke any fish off with 7x and your rods… I find it hard to believe that, because we all break fish every once in a while with 7x and the “softest tipped” rod.
    Every angler doesn’t have the same hook-set as you, most I have seen aren’t awesome and way too aggressive (including my own), so to say that people can nymph 7x with a stiffer rod is a bit misleading.
    To say that softer tip is losing power is also misleading, because these modern nymphing rods are fast to recover but not stiff, there’s a big difference there.
    I just feel like the tone of this article could have been communicated differently to simply relay that you can successfully nymph thin diameter tippet with the rods you choose.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your thoughts, Nick. You’ve taken a few things out of context and misunderstood a couple of things.

      I’m not basing all of this on not braking off on 7X fluoro yet. Please also read the part about fishing with even weaker nylon for decades.

      “Every angler doesn’t have the same hook-set as you, most I have seen aren’t awesome and way too aggressive (including my own)”

      So change it. That’s my point. I’d rather change my hook set and be more disciplined than to base my rod selection around an inability to limit the aggressiveness of my hook sets.

      “To say that softer tip is losing power is also misleading, because these modern nymphing rods are fast to recover but not stiff, there’s a big difference there.”

      I disagree here. That’s what they tell you, yes. But the fact is simple. A rod that bends more will take longer to recover, regardless of the quality of recovery. No where did I offer an opinion that your favorite rod is of low quality. But it will take longer to un-flex, let’s say, than my favorite choice. However, that’s a different discussion and not the thrust of this article. It’s a minor point that I also would not base my rod selection on.

      “I just feel like the tone of this article could have been communicated differently to simply relay that you can successfully nymph thin diameter tippet with the rods you choose.”

      Okay, thanks. But that is not my message. It’s not that simple, so I wrote what I did.

      May I ask you, Nick, what about the point of anglers fishing, hooking and landing large trout on extra thin diameter tippets on 4,5 and 6 weight rods. What’s the difference there? Why don’t dry fly anglers need extra soft rod tips to protect their tippets?

      Thanks, Nick.
      Dom

      If you’d like my thoughts on rod tip recovery, find them in this article:
      https://troutbitten.com/2020/07/19/thoughts-on-rod-tip-recovery/

      Reply
  3. Dom, guys like George Daniel seem to be moving to lighter (e.g., 3 wt), longer rods with softer tips and use them for everything from tightline to indicator nymphing to dries. Do you see a convergence between your approach and his, or am I missing some key ingredient here?

    Best

    Gary

    Reply
    • Hi Gary,

      Absolutely, yes. There’s a ton of crossover in styles. There always is. The thing is, the tight line tactics are a WIDE set of possibilities in leaders, rigs and presentations.

      Yes, the bulk of information out there seems to be coming from the same perspective. It all stems from the competition scene and from the same publishing house. Honestly, one of my goals is to offer a different perspective, because there are a ton of anglers out there who enjoy the versatility and the experience of doing things a different (sometimes better) way.

      Everything works sometimes. But everything is a trade off. Choosing extra long rods, extra flexible rod tips, super thin tippets and very light flies is a highly specialized way of doing things. And it works! It’s fun. But the same presentations are easily made with a four weight rod that can also do many other things well. I don’t like to do one thing. I like to do everything.

      The trade off in going extra light is a loss of power. To me, that matters, because I enjoy the big benefit of being able to use the leader to push things around, much like a fly line. I don’t like relying on the weight of the fly only to make the cast. Loss of power in the rod means a loss of options. I would disagree with your assertion that you can effectively fish indy rigs, streamers, etc. on these specialized setups. Sure, you CAN tie on anything. But the options for presentation are limited when the whole system is light. While fishing streamers, for example, I CANNOT do great jerk strips or rod tip animations with an 11 foot 2 weight. The rod is too long and too soft for it. Likewise, you CAN attach a yarn indy to a micro mono rig and cast it out there with a #16 beadhead and that same 2 weight rod. But you won’t have the ability to line everything up in one lane during the cast, if you are casting across stream. That’s because the leader has no power, and the rod is also underpowered.

      There’s a LOT to all of this, and I’m leaving links to more resources below. I’ve written and talked about a good bit.

      Most rods can do a little of everything. So again, it’s not like you can’t fish those bigger streamers on a soft rod, but it’s not very comfortable, and it ends up not being very successful, so you don’t do it much.

      You asked if you are missing key ingredients. I’d say the number one thing people are missing about the ultra light setups is that a water haul cast often becomes the standard presentation. And this should be communicated more often. When using light flies and micro rigs, there is not enough weight in the system, so you’re relegated to a water haul in many situations. I don’t care for that approach all day long. I think most anglers don’t like it either. But they don’t understand that it’s often necessary with these rigs.

      Hope that helps. If it peaks your interest, here are those resources. Cheers.

      https://troutbitten.com/2023/03/15/mono-rigs-and-euro-leaders-micro-thin-or-standard-with-video/

      https://troutbitten.com/2023/11/26/podcast-different-mono-rigs-and-euro-rigs-what-works-when-and-why-s9-ep6/

      https://troutbitten.com/2023/11/12/podcast-tight-line-high-stick-euro-nymph-mono-rig-whats-the-difference-and-how-did-we-get-here-s9-ep5/

      https://troutbitten.com/2019/07/07/fly-fishing-the-mono-rig-its-casting-not-lobbing/

      https://troutbitten.com/2021/09/22/the-best-fly-rods-for-the-mono-rig-and-euro-nymphing-my-favorite-rods/

      https://troutbitten.com/2021/06/27/2-turnover-and-the-tuck-cast-nine-essential-skills-for-tight-line-and-euro-nymphing/

      Reply
  4. Though my experience is limited, I have 3 things important to me in buying a couple rods for nymphing ober the past 3 yrs: 1. accuracy; 2. cast a range of rigs from light single bugs to streamer jigs; 3. stability during the drift. I’d say the rods I have all have soft but quick tips and stiff mid and butt sections, at least compared to my older traditional rods, and they are good at placing simgle 2.3mm beaded flies with accuracy and will also jig 4.6mm streamers. Amazing I think.

    Reply
  5. Comment *Hi Dom,
    Very cool to write up such a timely article on your recent experience, especially since a lot of use are dealing with the same thing (ie moving to smaller, lighter bugs as we shift from winter to spring conditions). While we tend to focus a lot on the tips of rods, including euro rods (or rather, rods specifically designed to cast the weight of a nymph, not fly line), I find that the lower 2/3’rds of the rod are equally as important for getting a firm hook set and applying lots of pressure to a bigger fish to land it efficiently. I use a 10 ft 2 weight Diamondback Ideal Nymph rod, typically with a 4x microleader and 6x tippet, which I think you would categorize as a specialized (ie not versatile) setup. But I have been amazed by how this rod’s design allows me to not only feel (and therefor accurately cast) a very light rig, but also provide definitive hook sets and a lot of pressure to subdue even bigger wild trout (18-21 inch) in heavy water. Although the last 1/3 of the rod (ie the tip section) is softer (I think giving the rod it’s 2-weight rating), the bottom 2/3rd’s is actually quite stout, probably closer to a 4 or even 5 weight, and I think that is what helps this rod do so many things well (eg a “sensitive” tip, but with an overall fast recovery and good hooksets/fighting power). Since switching to this rod, I’ve actually found that it has made using a 4x microleader with 6X tippet much more versatile for me (I can sling heavier streamers with bigger hooks and still have good confidence in hooksets and fish fighting). To me, some of these newer rods, like the idea nymph 10ft 2-weight, defy conventional labels. The 2-weight label doesn’t come close to capturing the power and versatility this rod has to offer for tightline methods. While I can’t disagree with your overall argument that you don’t need a certain type of rod to protect fine tippet (angler skill and experience will ultimately win the day), I think perhaps you underestimate the advantages these rods offer (including providing additional fish fighting pressure with thinner tippets), or perhaps overestimate the tradeoffs (more tippet protection means significant tradeoffs in things like hooksetting/power/versatility). I’d be curious to get your thoughts on how you feel the lower 2/3rd’s a of rod play into these things. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Cool thoughts, Dustin.

      Totally agree that the rest of the rod matters. I specifically focused this article on just the rod tip and just the protection of tippet. And yes, there’s a lot more to consider in rod choice. I’ve walked through a lot of that here in this article:

      The Best Fly Rods for the Mono Rig and Euro Nymphing
      https://troutbitten.com/2021/09/22/the-best-fly-rods-for-the-mono-rig-and-euro-nymphing-my-favorite-rods/

      Also read through my reply to Gary, above, for a quick breakdown on what I really mean by versatility.

      Rods are a personal thing, and people get pretty defensive about their choices. That makes sense, as we all spend way too much money for a flexy stick of graphite. So I don’t try to push anyone into my preferences as much I try to highlight options and clear up what I believe are misunderstandings that are often just a result of some pretty heavy marketing campaigns.

      “I think perhaps you underestimate the advantages these rods offer (including providing additional fish fighting pressure with thinner tippets)”

      No, respectfully, I’m not underestimating the advantages. I have never made the argument that we are undergunned while fighting fish with specialized nymphing rods. I do understand the 1/3, 2/3 build. I just don’t think that softer tip actually provides me with enough significant advantages to balance out the shortcomings. In fairness, those shortcomings likely wouldn’t matter to you, because if you’re using a 4X micro leader, no rod would give you those advantages.

      “. . . or perhaps overestimate the tradeoffs (more tippet protection means significant tradeoffs in things like hooksetting/power/versatility). “

      The softer tip does limit the power. That’s just the way it is. However, most anglers with softer rods and micro leaders are not casting with much power (that’s what I see). It’s a different casting stroke, built to match the rod and the leader. Again, that kind of casting is indeed limiting. To me, versatility is about HOW and where the leader and tippet land (or how the indy lands) in relation to the fly. It’s not just about being able to swap out to different tactics, because all rods can handle most things. It’s about how well the rod can actually handle more weight, less weight, rod tip action to a big streamer, dry flies in the wind, etc.

      I know the tradeoffs well. Specialization comes with certain consequences. And sometimes, that’s acceptable.

      Thanks for the discussion.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Practically, isn’t there much more impact on versatility from leader build than rod weight anyway?

        Reply
        • I think that depends on how an angler casts. Soft, slow casting or lobbing doesn’t use the rod much anyway, so in that case, I’d probably agree. If the angler is using a fly line style cast with a more Standard Mono Rig approach, then I think the rod matters quite a bit.

          That said, I’ve always believed that the leader is the most consequential part of any fly fishing setup. So I’ll stick with that and agree with you.

          Cheers.

          Reply
      • Dom, I sometimes wonder if you prefer catching large, difficult, wild trout to smashing icons. I’ve not seen you do the former, but, from personal experience, you’re really good at the latter.

        Just to follow up on Dustin’s points and your comments on them, it is undoubtedly true that soft tips are not going to make landing large trout on 7x tippet a breeze, or even offer much of an advantage. But, I don’t think that’s what modern nymphing rod design is about. As Dustin said, the better Euro rods out there are designed to allow someone to cast very light nymphs (say with 2 to 2.5mm beads) on very light lines (lines described by the “m” word, a word I can’t say lest my throat seize up on me). One can cast almost anything with almost anything, but casting (not lobbing) really light stuff on a rod with a regular taper is much more difficult that with a rod with a flexible (but quickly recovering tip) and a rather stout torso.

        Reply
        • Thanks Alex. I always appreciate your contributions here.

          In fairness, your points (and Dustin’s points) are about casting, and how what you call modern nymphing rods provide certain advantages. This article specifically and on purpose does not address that. These 1200 words are about fly rod tips and tippet protection. As I’ve laid out, I believe there’s a true and false to all of that — a yes and no. That’s why I chose the narrow subject. Do you need an extra flexible tip section to protect light tippets? No. That’s a good topic, because I don’t think there’s much opinion to it.

          But as I’ve said in a couple other comments here, the choice of a rod in general is much more personal, and that’s for a different kind of article. Trying to flesh out the nuances of those decision in this comment section doesn’t do the topic justice. I’ve given my preferences for fly rods here:

          The Best Fly Rods for the Mono Rig and Euro Nymphing
          https://troutbitten.com/2021/09/22/the-best-fly-rods-for-the-mono-rig-and-euro-nymphing-my-favorite-rods/

          You said about tippet protection . . .

          But, I don’t think that’s what modern nymphing rod design is about.”

          You and I agree about that. And yet, you see it as much as I do — many anglers tell me they are choosing a certain rod to protect their light tippets while nymphing. It’s in the marketing as a selling point. So that message is out there, and I’m trying to think it through objectively, because I believe the extra flex holds anglers back from learning other things and being more versatile. To me, that’s why all of this matters a great deal.

          . . . casting (not lobbing) really light stuff on a rod with a regular taper is much more difficult that with a rod with a flexible (but quickly recovering tip) and a rather stout torso.

          Personally, I don’t find that to be true either. I use a LOT of different rods and leaders, and I have no problem casting the light stuff on a four weight. It seems quite natural. But that all starts with a good, crisp, speedy casting stroke.

          I’ve been thinking about it like this lately . . . You don’t need weight in the fly or the leader or even a fly line to flex a fly rod. Stand in the parking lot with nothing strung up and cast the rod. It flexes quite well with a good stroke, right? Having anglers do that has made a big difference in their understanding of the whole thing, lately. So every rod flexes that way. And that’s the beginning of good casting. Then the weight, be it in the fly, split shot, leader or fly line, loads that flex even more. Added weight pulls more, flexes the rod more, and even more weight keeps the rod flexing, often to the point of it being too much. We see and feel this when we overweight a rod by a couple line sizes. The same thing happens when we take a specialized nymphing rod, let’s say 11 foot, 2 weight, and ask it to cast heavy or even moderate weights of 75 cg or even a three inch streamer with a brass cone and the built in water weight. The rod then flexes too much to be efficient. Try moving a bulky streamer with that rod tip and that is even more apparent. Try casting a yarn indy on the same rod, without much weight to the flies, and it’s just as apparent. The rod tip lacks power because it flexes too much. And no amount of power built into the other two thirds of the rod will change that tip’s performance.

          There, you got me talking about casting and fly rods anyway. Ha.

          Thanks, Alex.

          Reply
  6. Hey Dom,

    Great article.

    “It’s up to us, as skilled anglers, to manage the strain on the line, to control the surges of a fish. We do that with rod position and angles, and we do that with proper drag settings on the reel.” To me, this is the heart of the issue. Especially the comment about “proper drag settings.” Good stuff.

    As i’m sure you know, you can put much more pressure on 6x or 7x than you think. But most people don’t remember what it actually feels like. Internal memorization of how much pressure you can put on a specific diameter is important for fighting bigger fish on light tippets. It’s all about feel–i.e. remembering how much pressure will break 6x/7x. For better or for worse, that internal memorization is only paid with practice. Maybe that’s why your friend made that initial comment which produced a “huh.” lol!

    p.s. I’ve found the Diamondback reel to have a larger range of drag than the ESN; especially at the lower settings.

    Reply
  7. There is nothing “new “. It’s all been done before in some shape or form.

    Reply
  8. Great article, well said

    Reply
  9. Keying off of what Miles said above, and after my own experiments with 7x tippet last year, I’ve found it very useful to test my knots and rod angles in the back yard. Main lesson: you can hang yourself with 7x tippet. Peridocally what I do, especially with new knots or new rod, is rig up all my gear in the back yard and snag the hook to a handy log. Then I pull the rod in as many different angles as I’m likely to encounter, including downstream shallow angles for big trout I can’t get back upstream, to high angles for netting fish. Use slow pulls, quick pulls, diffenent drag settings and everything in between. If you use click pawl reels like I do, then they are other complexities to work about like finger pressure and moisture levels. You’ll quickly figure out what’s possible. Another lesson I’ve learned is to be careful how I tie familiar knots. I’m always been intrigued how weak the knot sometimes is when I break down my rod at the end of the day and pull on the fly to break it off. Did I tie it poorly to begin with? Not likely because I always test them before fishing. Did it loosen up after fifteen minutes of fishing? Maybe. Did it break off or just slip lose? I’m not always sure, but thinking about it now, I’m going to start examining the end coils when I have a breakoff to figure this one out. And Never, Ever cast your leader with a wind knot you damn well know is in the leader. Well, OK, we’re all sometimes quility of that one aren’t we. But the next time I’m testing my gear in the back yard, I’m going to test the wind knot to see what I can get away with on stream. Cheers

    Reply

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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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