What Are Tippets and Leaders?

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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 take a deeper dive 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. To put it simply, a leader is a single piece of fishing line that is 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. The leader, on the other hand, is a thin and clear line that connects the fly line to the fly in order to avoid spooking any fish. 

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

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

The length is chosen based on ensuring your line cannot be seen by 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: When fishing for bass, a very short leader can be used. 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. Tippets 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. 

Tippets are often extremely thin, even more so than the leader. They are sold by the spool in different sizes, however, and use a numbered X scale in order to reference the line diameter. 

Tippets that have 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 in order to cover a variety of different situations. 

Quickly and easily, a few different tippets can even be connected together in order 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 provide your main fishing line from breaking and help provide enhanced bait presentation. There are three types of leader materials.

What Type of Line to 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 to consider 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, all line connections are critical for fishing

Monofilament Leaders

The monofilament line is one of the most simple designs of fishing lines and is constructed of a single strand of line. When anglers refer to monofilament leaders, however, they are often referring 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 really help to keep your fly stay afloat, providing a better presentation. 

Lastly, it is important to know that monofilament nylon leaders have some stretchiness to them. This can be considered both a pro and a con, depending on your needs. While a stretchy line can make it more difficult to feel strikes and get a good hook set, it can come in handy 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 begin to 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 eventually weaken. 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 a lot 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, fluorocarbon line is much denser and sinks. This makes it the obvious choice for nymphing. It is also a lot 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 while fighting with a big fish. Lastly, fluorocarbon line is almost invisible while underwater, which again makes it a great option for subsurface flies or lures. 

Of course, the fluorocarbon line does have a few downsides. First, it can a little pricey. If you want all of the benefits of fluorocarbon, you are going to have to spend a little more. Second, it can be a bit difficult to tie knots with. Because fluorocarbon is so stiff, it can be great for detecting smaller bites but it does allow for knots to slip more easily. Be sure to keep your knot tying perfect and always double-check them before starting to fish in the water. 

One last detail about fluorocarbon that every angler should be aware of is that it takes over 4,000 years for it to degrade and break down. While the monofilament line takes a long time to naturally decompose as well, it is nowhere near as long as fluorocarbon. 

Braided Leaders

Braided line leaders offer excellent turnover and are very strong; you can just replace the tippet when needed. However, when casting the braid “slaps” on the water surface which creates a spray on the surface. Spooky trout can easily be wary of this and soon disappear. 

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

Braided leaders are far more common for use in saltwater fishing for bass and other fish where there are far fewer worries about the fish-spooking. 

Tip: Always make sure to always collect and take home any type of 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 things such as the size of the fly you are using and the species of fish that you are after. This is not an exact science, so do not be afraid of experimenting a little in order to figure out what works best for you and your situation.

Again, remember that the tippet diameter sizes are 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 to 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 for a strong and solid connection directly to the fly line. 

How to Tie Your Leader to the Tippet?

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 to use for this very important knot. It’s easy to tie and very strong.

How to 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

Final Thoughts

No matter if you are a beginner or a veteran angler, tippets and leaders can be a little tricky. There are always plenty of things to learn, and the art of using them continues to evolve.

From the different sizes to various materials, choosing the right tippets and leaders is essential to ensuring you catch more fish! Choose the best quality line, leader, and tippet that you can afford. 

I hope that you found this article useful, you can find more information on all the types of fishing lines here!

Steve Fitzjohn