Fly Fishing Essentials: Understanding The Role Of Leaders And Tippets

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When it comes to fishing, it can often get confusing with all of the different gear and terms. If you have ever walked into a fly shop, you most likely have seen rows of different rods, reels, and lines. Out of all of those, tippets and leaders are two things that are often confused with one another and how they play into your overall fishing setup.

So what exactly is a leader, and what is a tippet? What role do they play in your fishing gear, and how do they help you catch fish?

Let’s dive deeper into the world of leaders and tippets and how they come into the equation to help you catch that next big fish! 

What Is A Leader?

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Fly Fishing Tapered Leaders

Let’s start with the leader. Simply put, a leader is a single piece of fishing line designed to connect the thicker fly line to a fly. A fly line is colored and very heavy, and all of this weight helps you to complete the fly cast. Conversely, the leader is a thin, clear line connecting the fly line to the fly to avoid spooking any fish. 

A leader also helps your fly line unfurl, correcting at the end of each cast, making it an extremely important part of your overall fly fishing setup. Most leaders will also taper in thickness from one end to the other. The thicker end is generally connected to the fly line, giving the leader strength and stiffness. The thinner end will attach to a tippet, allowing a more precise presentation of flies and lures. 

Leaders are typically around eight or nine feet in overall length, but a wide variety of lengths can be used for different fishing situations.

The length is chosen based on minimizing your line visibility by a trout or the fish you are targeting. When the water is clearer, then you should choose a longer leader. 

Fishing with long leaders is more of a challenge when casting, so keep them as short as possible. Below is a general guideline for reference:

Longer Leaders – 12’ to 15’ feet

  • Clear and shallow water
  • When trout are spooky when fishing in both streams and lakes.
  • Fishing in shallow streams and the water is flat.
  • Lake fishing when using floating lines. 

Mid-range Leaders – 8’ to 9’ feet

  • Fishing in saltwater on sunny days and the water is shallow.
  • Wide streams where the water is riffled and the fish are less spooky.

Shorter Leaders – 5’ to 8’ feet

  • Most general conditions for all fish types
  • Tip lines that sink
  • Narrow streams and short casts
  • Fly lines that sink

Note: A very short leader can be used when fishing for bass. Bass are far less spooked by line

What Is A Tippet?

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Nylon tippets for trout fishing

Now, let’s take a look at the tippet. Another important piece of the equation, a tippet, is a critical connection between your fly and the fly line. Similar to a leader, a tippet is a clear line instead of colored like a fly line. They are connected to the thin end of a leader and are used to connect the leader to your fly. As its name implies, a “tippet” is the very tip of the fishing line. 

They are often extremely thin, even more so than the leader. However, spools are sold in different sizes, and a numbered X system is used to reference the line diameter. 

Those with a higher X number are thinner in diameter, while a lower number means a thicker tippet. A 5X tippet is a popular choice for fly fishermen targeting trout, although most anglers will carry a variety of sizes to cover various situations. 

The table below shows the tippet X size and the resulting tippet diameter.

Tippet Size Tippet diameter

  • 8X      0.003”
  • 7X      0.004”
  • 6X     0.005”
  • 5X     0.006”
  • 4X     0.007”
  • 3X     0.008”
  • 2X     0.009”
  • 1X     0.10″

Different ones can be connected together quickly and easily to create a rough leader. Tippets can also be easily changed out throughout the day as they become damaged or broken.

It is also important to note that once a tippet is connected to a leader, it is typically known by anglers as the “leader” and not two separate pieces. 

Why Do Anglers Use A Fishing Leader Line?

Fishing leaders have two functions: to prevent your main fishing line from breaking and to help provide a natural, enhanced bait presentation. There are three types of leader materials.

What Type Of Line Do You Use For Leaders?

A common question that many anglers have is what type of fishing line is best for a leader. The two main types of fishing lines that are used are monofilament leaders and fluorocarbon leaders.

But which one is better? And should you use one over the other in certain situations? 

Trout Stream with fly fishermen
Leaders connect to your main fly line; a good line
connections are critical for fishing.

Monofilament Leaders

The monofilament line is one of the simplest designs of fishing lines and is constructed of a single strand of line. However, when anglers refer to mono leaders, they often refer to monofilament nylon leaders. The main advantage to these leaders is that they are very inexpensive while still being very high quality. 

Another major advantage of monofilament leaders is their ability to float on top of the water. If you are fly fishing with dry flies, you can see how this can be a major benefit. A floating leader will help to keep your fly stay afloat, providing a better presentation. 

Lastly, it is important to know that monofilament nylon leaders have some stretchiness. Depending on your needs, this can be considered both a pro and a con. While a stretchy line can make it more difficult to feel strikes and get a good hook set, it can be useful when fighting larger fish as it is much more forgiving. 

Monofilament also comes with some downsides that should be considered. It is not as strong as fluorocarbon,  especially after some long use. After some time, the nylon will absorb the water and start to break down, causing it to become weaker and less resistant to breaks and abrasions. Obstructions in streams such as rocks, points, logs, and branches could lead to snapping a leader if it is not changed after lengthy use. 

It is also prone to break down in UV light, so any long periods left in the sun can cause the leader line to weaken eventually. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to keep your line out of the sun, it is a good practice to replace it periodically. My recommendation is to change your line every 6-12 months.

Another downside to being aware of – is its visibility to fish. Monofilament is much more visible in the water than fluorocarbon, so fish are more likely to see and tend to scare away. But, since monofilament is better suited for dry flies, this may not even be an issue unless you are fishing where there are spooky fish. 

Fluorocarbon Leaders

Now, let’s take a look at fluorocarbon leaders. Whereas the monofilament line is great for dry flies because it floats, the fluorocarbon line is much denser and sinks. This makes it the obvious choice for nymphing. It is also much stronger and more resistant to abrasion as it doesn’t absorb water like monofilament. This is especially important with nymphs, as they are more likely to drag along the bottom and hit rocks. 

This can be a great advantage as you do not have to worry as much about breaking or snapping a line while fishing. This peace of mind can be a great addition while out on the water or fighting with a big fish. Lastly, the fluorocarbon option is far less visible underwater, making it a great option for subsurface flies or lures. 

Of course, the fluoro does have a few downsides. First, it can be a little pricey. If you want all of the benefits of fluorocarbon, you will have to spend a little more. Second, it can be a bit difficult to tie solid knots. Because fluorocarbon is so stiff, it can be great for detecting smaller bites, but it allows knots to slip more easily. Always ensure you keep your knot-tying perfect, preferably using a quality knot-tying tool, and double-check them before you start to fish. 

One last detail about Fluoro that every angler should know is that it takes over 4,000 years to degrade and break down. While the mono takes a long time to decompose naturally, it is nowhere near as long as fluorocarbon. 

Braided Leaders

Braided line leaders offer excellent turnover and are very strong, meaning you can only need to replace the tippet when needed. However, when casting with a braid, it tends to “slap” on the water surface, creating a “spray” on the top of the water. Spooky trout can easily be wary of this and soon disappear. 

Braided leaders tend not to float after using them for some period of time. They do collect dirt and water scum, causing them to sink and not float. Therefore, braided leaders are seldom used when trout fishing in conjunction with tippets.

Braided leaders are far more common when saltwater fishing for bass and other fish, with fewer worries about scaring the fish. 

Tip: Always make sure to collect and take home any line that you use or discard, and this should include anyone else’s line that you happen to find.

Tippet And Leader Sizes And Lengths

Choosing the right leader and tippet is vital to catching fish in the most effective way possible. This means getting the right diameter and length. The type of fishing that you are doing, as well as where you are, will determine the length of your leader. When fishing with a floating line, aim for longer leaders of six to twelve feet long. When using sinking lines, use shorter lengths of two to five feet. 

The diameter should be chosen based on the size of the fly you are using and the species of fish you are after. This is not an exact science, so do not be afraid to experiment to determine what works best for you and your situation.

Again, remember that the tippet diameter is measured using the X system. The higher the X number, the thinner the diameter of the tippet. The lower the X number, the thicker it is. 

How Do You Tie Your Fly Line To The Leader?

Some fly lines have a loop already on the spool when you purchase it. However, if your fly line has no loops, you can whip a loop in the line tip or use a nail knot. This creates a strong and solid connection directly to the fly line. 

How Do You Tie Your Leader To The Tip?

The best knots are the blood knot or the surgeon’s knot. The surgeon’s knot is generally easier to tie. The blood knot is more streamlined and will not collect leaves and weeds whilst you are fishing. Alternatively, the Orvis tippet knot is one of the strongest for this very important knot. It’s easy to tie and very strong.

How Do You Tie Your Tippet To The Fly?

The most used knot for this final connection is the improved clinch knot. It’s a simple knot to tie, but not the best. However, If you lubricate the lines with saliva and ensure a good seated knot, this knot will work well.

Tip: Always use the best quality and sharpest scissors you can afford for all the line cutting and connections

Leading Out

Whether you are a beginner or a veteran angler, tippets and leaders can be tricky. There are always plenty of things to learn, and the art of using them continues to evolve.

Choosing the right combination of different sizes and various materials is essential to ensuring you catch more fish! Always choose the best quality line, leader, and tippet you can afford. 

I hope you found this article useful; you can find more information on multiple types of fishing lines, including single reviews and which ones stand out above the rest.

Steve Fitzjohn