Fly Fishing Leaders and Tippets

Fly Fishing Leaders and Tippets
Photo by Steve Yocom Photography

The fly fishing leaders and tippets along with the flies are the three most  important parts in fly fishing.

Presentation of the fly on the water plays an important role in fly fishing. Fly fishing line come in a variety of colors, from plain black to a very striking hot pink.  The fish themselves don’t care about the color, because of the line set-up.   The fly line itself isn’t close to the fish, so they don’t even see it.   This is why color doesn’t matter.  The leader and tippet are closest to the fish, and are designed to not be seen at all on the water by the fish.

What is a fly fishing leader?

The definition of a leader is:

A tapered monofilament nylon line, that is designed to transition from the thick fly line, to the more narrow tippet.   The leader’s purpose is to keep the heavier fly line from “slapping” onto the water, and scaring the fish.  It also serves to as a nearly invisible transition to the tippet and fly.  This keeps the overall fly line from being seen by the fish.

The leader is attaches to the fly line using a loop to loop knot, and provides you a connection between the line and the tippet.   Commercial leaders come in a wide range of lengths, 7.5 to 10 feet being the most common lengths.   The right length really depends on your person preference and your fish in destination.   For smaller areas, you’ll want to use a shorter leader, for more open areas or in lakes, longer leaders are preferred.

What is a fly fishing tippet?

The definition of a tippet is:

A specific gauge monofilament line attached to the end of the leader and to which you tie the fly. The tippet is usually the smallest line of our rig and is basically invisible to the fish. It’s also very flexible and allows the fly to swim and float easier. Usually the tippet matches or is smaller than the length of the leader.

Many manufacturers include a chart inside the leader packaging to help determine what gauge leader and tippet you need to use with a particular fly size.

The leader and the tippet – working together

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet

The leader and the tippet together are very important because they are what provide you with a virtually invisible connection, at least to the eyes of the fish, between the line and the fly. This way you will be able to present your fly without scaring the fish.  This set-up also allows you to use a bright colored line, so you can see where you overall line is when casting and fishing.

The other main purpose of the leader and tippet is to allow your fly line to roll over and straighten itself in a straight line due to the transfer of energy built up in the line down to the fly during casting.   In a standard forward cast, the fly rod bests, and transfers a great deal of energy in to the fly line to gain distance during the cast.  The transition from thicker material on one end to very thin material at the fly itself transitions this energy, providing a very delicate fly presentation at the very end.

What is the difference in a leader and a tippet?

The leader is the main material connected to the end of the line and this material will be fairly heavy.   The tippet is the lightweight clear section attached to the end of the fly and to the end of the leader. Usually people keep the leader and change the tippet according to the type of fish and situation.   Also, while the tippet has a uniform diameter, the leader is thicker at the fly line end end and thinner at the tippet end.

Setting up a leader and tippet

When learning fly fishing, the usual leader length is of 9 – 10 feet.  Generally, the leader, at it’s thickest end, matches the size of the fly line.

Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet Set-up

One important aspect of overall fly line set-up is that they must all match up.  This includes the rod, the backing, the fly line, leader and tippet,  When you purchase your fly line, the manufacturer will provide a chart that shows the what type of rod the line is for, and what backing, leader and tippet sizes to match it against.

For example, if you have a 9 foot 7 weight rod, you’ll want:

  • 20lb backing
  • 7 Weight Fly Line
  • A 7X-0x Leader/Tippet

The main materials use on fly fishing leader and tippet are monofilament and fluorocarbon. The use of either of these two depends on the type of fishing you’re doing. Both materials are virtually invisible in the water.

  • Fluorocarbon is a relatively new material in fly fishing. It’s more transparent in the water compare to the monofilament and sinks faster. It has less stretch and, is more durable and due to its hardness and the materials it’s more abrasion resistant.
  • Mono-filament has been around for a long time and is less expensive than fluorocarbon; it also floats better in the water. It’s not advisable for deep water fishing because it can absorb water, loosening the knots. Also its sensitivity can decrease when it is wet. It is also prone to becoming weaker due to sunlight and heat exposition.  Mono-filament is very popular due to low price and long history in fly fishing.

As you can see there are pros and cons for both monofilament and fluorocarbon fishing lines. However, both can be used in fly fishing and do a great job depending on the various situations you use them.

The X System

As we previously mentioned, manufacturers have a chart to help you determine what size leader and tippet you should use. This chart is called “The X System”.  The rating system used by manufactures is denoted by an “X”, hence the name.

The X system can be confusing at first for beginners so we’ll explain it a little. The chart shown below ranges from 8X down to 03X, 8X being the lightest and thinnest and 03X being the strongest and thickest.  The system determines how strong or thick a leader and tippet is compared to others in the same chart.   This of course, helps you find the one you need to use depending on the type of fish you are after.

Remember though, you need to also match your leader and tippet to your fly line, and set-up too!

Tippet SizeTippet DiameterPound TestFish Size
8X.003″1.75 lb.Trout & Panfish / Small Flies
7X.004"2.5 lb.Trout & Panfish / Delicate Presentations
6X.005″3.5 lb.Trout – Easily Spooked Fish
5X.006″4.75 lb.Trout & Panfish
4X.007″6 lb.Trout
3X.008″8.5 lb.Bass & Large Trout
2X.009″11.5 lb.Large & Smallmouth Bass
1X.010″13.5 lb.Bonefish, Redfish, Permit
0X.011″15.5 lb.Salmon, Steelhead
01X.012″18.5 lb.Striped Bass
02X.013″20 lb.Large Salmon
03X.015″25 lb.Big Game Species

Wrapping Up

Not only do you know and understand the importance of a fly flushing leader and tippet, you also know how to set them up and how to match them, along with your fly rod and fly line.  The leader and tippet are often confusing areas for new fly fishers, but once you understand their purpose, an how they work together, they are really pretty simple and straightforward.

Did we miss anything?  Have some experienced tips to add?  Leave a comment!


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