What Are Leaders And Tippet?

An angler crouched on a large boulder casts into the river.

A leader is the tapered monofilament connected to your fly line. A tapered leader is integral to the transfer of power in your fly cast. The way that a fly cast works most effectively is that your tapered fly line allows a transfer of power and enables the fly to turn over and lay out flat on your forward fly casting stroke.

Tippet is the material connected to your fly. It’s also connected to your leader. Tippet is not tapered and it comes in small spools around two inches in size. In selecting tippet to add to the leader, you always start with the leader’s thickness and go down from there.

For instance: If you are using a 3x leader, you do not want to connect a tippet measuring 0x, 1x, 2x. Instead, you want to go smaller, so 4x or 5x. A tapered transition like this will allow your fly to turn over on the forward cast and lay out on the water more gently and with more precision.

An Experiment

To see why a tapered leader is important, especially when fishing dry flies and streamers:

  • From the end of the fly line loop, tie on a long 9’ piece of straight 3X tippet.
  • Make some casts.
  • While casting, watch the forward and backward loops of the fly line.
  • Notice your cast will seem to die out or pile up in one place when the cast lands. This makes accurate and efficient casting almost impossible.
  • Now try the same process with a tapered 3X leader. Notice the accuracy you’re able to achieve. Because the leader starts much thicker and tapers down to a fine end, you’ll be able to make easier and more graceful casts.

Is It Worth Making Your Own Leaders?

Technically speaking, you can create your own tapered leaders by tying sections of thicker monofilament to thinner ones and using blood knots. Many experienced fly fishermen do this because they’re able to create specific tapers that match their casting style and rod.

But there are a few issues with making your own leaders:

  • The periodic blood knots that pepper the leader may catch on themselves while casting, as most of our casts aren’t picture perfect. This results in more tangles while fishing.
  • The formula of leader construction is tough to figure. Unless you have access to help, the learning curve is steep. Frankly, it’s easier to purchase a pre-tapered leader.

Your Tippet

Sometimes, water conditions and fly selection will determine the tippets you select. This is why seasoned anglers and guides carry a large selection of tippet with them on the water. Small flies and selective trout in gin clear water almost always require the finest, smallest tippets. This is the only way to present flies as sneakily as possible and to accommodate the small hook eyes of tiny flies.

You can’t thread 2x tippet through a #18 Blue Wing Olive. Even if you could, you would still want a more delicate tippet to present the smaller fly. On waters that see a lot of fishing pressure, smaller tippets are required because fish are accustomed to seeing bigger ones.

On the other end, trying to fish larger flies with light tippets doesn’t work, either. Trying to turn over a large grasshopper pattern on 6x is fruitless; there’s simply not enough energy transfer in the cast to turn over the large fly.

You will know your tippet is too light when your fly falls out of the air and drops on the water (instead of turning over as a continuation of the cast). This is especially true in streamer fishing: You can’t cast a large weighted streamer with light tippet. There isn’t enough power transfer in the cast to move that fly and allow for easier and proper presentation.

Tips for Tippet Selection

  • For most basic fly fishing needs, carry a spool of 1x-4x. That will get you through most situations, from dry fly to streamer fishing.
  • Mono or fluorocarbon? It’s is a debate you should have with yourself. Is the extra expense of fluorocarbon tippet is worth it to you?
  • Stick with the same brand of tippet for ease of transportation. Most tippet spools interlock so you can snap them together into one bundle.
  • Dispose of old tippet spools after a year or two. Keep them out of direct sunlight as much as possible to make them last long as possible.

These small pieces of line are what allow us to make casts, hook fish, play fish and then do it all over again. Often overlooked, leader and tippet selection is as important as the rod and reel you eventually decide on.

And be sure to take care of you leaders and tippet. After indicator fishing, the leader will often be kinked where the indicator was placed. Take time to pull and re-stretch the leader to straighten it. If you take care of your leader, it can last a very long time and help you catch fish after fish.

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