Leader and Tippet
If you have fished nearly as long as I, you remember carrying all your equipment, except rod and reel, in the pockets of the clothes you wore daily. Now we walk into a fly shop and are overwhelmed by thousands of items on display. Remember every item is needed by someone, but no one needs every item. Your needs can be written on a three by five card. Helping you fill in that card, I will focus on the beginner end of the spectrum. This is the first of four short articles dealing with the equipment selection process, starting with leader and tippet followed by lines, rods, and reels.
The leader-tippet combination is the first connection to the fly and consumable. Along with the line, rod, and reel they have only one fishing purpose – present the fly to the fish such that it thinks it’s food. There are other aesthetic and ego gratifying values, but not for this discussion.
Leader material is available in fluorocarbon and monofilament. Mono has more stretch, floats better, and is less expensive. Fluorocarbon sinks quicker, is more abrasion resistant, and less visible to fish. This suggests that fluorocarbon is the choice when fishing below the surface with nymphs, pupas, and larva, while mono is more appropriate for dry flies on the surface.
Leaders are tapered because fly lines are designed to cast with a tapered leader attached. Now we begin to see an equipment system developing instead of a parts collection. There are manufactured, hand tied, and braided or furled leaders to chose from. I will leave the last two out of the discussion. They are more of a fishing style choice, but not to be avoided. Hand tied leaders are those that you can make, and have their place in personal gratification, expense, and customization. I use these in salt water fishing. Their downside is the knots collect moss in water where it is present. Manufactured leaders are available in many taper designs, weights, and lengths. Weight refers to the “X” designation, which sorta’ means diameter. 0X is 0.011 inches in diameter, and 5X is 0.006 inches. [ diameter = 0.011-X]. So, the bigger the X number, the smaller the diameter. The smallest leader the average fly fisher needs is 4X, and nine feet is the longest. Long leaders have their place in windless smooth water conditions, and small tippet sizes with picky fish. But, long leaders are harder to cast, and small tippets are more prone to tangles.
So, here are my suggestions.
Buy 7 and ½ foot 3X monofilament leaders. Immediately add 18 inches of tippet, making a 9 foot leader. Use mono tippet if fishing drys or a dry with a dropper, or fluoro if fishing subsurface. It should be 4X if flies are size 16 or larger, and 5X if size 18 or smaller.
Purchase spools of 4 and 5X mono tippet, and 5 and 6X fluoro tippet. 4X mono will serve in place of fluoro.
The 18 inch tippet gets eaten away with each fly change, and replaced when needed, saving your more expensive leader. Finally, you can simply use all monofilament leader and tippet to save cost. Your fly presentation is more important than the visibility of the tippet.
There are many brands, and without a preference, ask the folks at the shop what they use. I try to use the same leader and tippet brand with tippet spools that are easy to manage on the stream.
Knots are also a consideration. Blood and Surgeon’s knot serve well to tie tippet to leader or tippet to tippet. It does become hard to reliably tie materials differing by more than 2X (3X to 5X is OK, but 3X to 6X is problematic). Wet the knot before tightening, particularly with fluorocarbon.
One last tip, stretch your leader to remove the curls, and put floatant on the leader if fishing drys, otherwise fish may see the leader where it dips below the surface.