You have a tiny dry fly in one hand and a thick, brightly colored fly line in the other. How are these opposing objects supposed to come together to catch a fish?
To solve this riddle, this article introduces you to two of the most critical components in your fly fishing setup the leader and the tippet.
A Fly Fishing Leader Connects the Fly to the Fly Line
In simple terms, a fly fishing leader is a length of clear fishing line that is thick on one end and thin on the other with a taper in the middle.
The thick end is attached to your fly line; the thin end is attached to your fly.
This setup allows you to present a fly to a fish with minimal spook from the solid colored fly line.
A leader is tapered to enable energy from the cast to be transferred smoothly from the rod to fly line and through the leader to “turn over” the fly for a graceful landing. Without a taper, your fly will lag behind in the air and flop on the water.
Leaders Consist of Three Distinct Sections
The thickest end of the leader is called the butt section which is typically 4 to 8 feet long and roughly two-thirds the diameter of the fly line.
The midsection is where the majority of the leader’s taper is found, gradually decreasing in diameter over a length of 3 to 5 feet.
The thinnest section of the leader is called the tippet and can run anywhere from 1 to 5 feet in length. Unlike the midsection, the tippet is usually level without any taper.
While the tippet is technically part of the overall leader, it’s generally regarded as a separate component altogether. Anglers carry extra spools of tippet because as they change flies, the tippet becomes shorter and shorter at which point it needs to be replaced to maintain proper leader length.
There are 3 Common Varieties of Fly Fishing Leaders
Knotless tapered leaders are by far the most popular style and are readily available in fly shops around the world. Also known as extruded leaders, knotless tapered leaders are made by melting down plastics either nylon or fluorocarbon which are then extruded to produce a long strand of line with seamless transitions in diameter throughout the butt section, midsection, and tippet.
Hand-tied leaders, also known as knotted leaders, are made by tying monofilament lines together according to a specific taper formula. Since hand-tied leaders aren’t commercially available, anglers must tie their own.
Braided or furled leaders are made of many small strands of line that are either braided or twisted together. Most braided or furled leaders are made of opaque or solid colored materials and only consist of a butt and midsection requiring standard monofilament tippet to be tied to the end.
What’s the Difference Between Monofilament and Fluorocarbon Leaders and Tippet?
Monofilament, more specifically nylon monofilament, has been the standard leader and tippet material for decades. It has neutral buoyancy in water and tends to float which makes it ideal for fishing dry flies. However, nylon monofilament is water-permeable and absorbs water over time which weakens the material. Beyond its low price and wide availability, monofilament’s main attributes are its excellent knot strength and elasticity, acting as a shock absorber when setting the hook and playing fish.
Fluorocarbon is a (relatively) new leader and tippet material that has gained huge popularity among anglers for its low-visibility and high abrasion resistance. With a higher density than water, fluorocarbon slowly sinks which makes it perfect for fishing nymphs and streamers but not ideal for dry flies. While fluorocarbon is two to three times more expensive than monofilament, it is known to last much longer without breaking down or losing strength.
Fly Leaders and Tippets are Sized Using the “X” System
Although counterintuitive at first, the “X” system is simply a convenient way to identify tippet diameters. Ranging from 0X to 8X, as the X-number increases, the tippet diameter and subsequent breaking strength decreases.
Just remember: the higher the number the thinner the tippet.
Both fly leaders and spools of tippet material use the X-rating. And even though a tapered leader has many different diameters throughout its length, the X-rating on the package tells you the X-rating of only the tippet.
While breaking strength is a factor to consider, your choice of leader and tippet size should be made based on the size of fly used.
To make things a little easier, use this chart to help you choose the right leader and tippet size:
What’s the Best All-Around Fly Fishing Leader?
For general trout fishing, go with a 9-foot monofilament knotless tapered leader in 4X or 5X. Pick up some extra spools of 4X and 5X tippet to replace snipped off ends when changing flies and throw in a spool of 6X in case you need to switch to a smaller fly.
With this basic leader and tippet setup, you’ll be ready for a wide range of fishing scenarios. Then, as you gain experience, you can refine your leader and tippets rigs to a finer degree as the conditions demand.