Introduction to Leaders and Tippets

Posted by Phil Lilley on December 12th, 2011
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There is always discussion amongst fly fishermen regarding their leaders breaking and tippets not holding. So I thought I would bring some clarity to this situation. The most important first step is to gain an understanding of just how to set up your rig. I don’t want go into all the different lengths of leaders and tippets, but I do want to touch on what the “x” in tippet size means and how it relates to the fly fishing world.

The first thing we need to understand is why we fish with a leader and what its purpose is. I would say that ninety-nine percent of the time, you will want to fish some type of leader that has a taper. The reason for this is to get your line, or should I say “loop”, to lay out straight. With fly line being so thick at the butt section, it’s important to tie something to it with a similar type of diameter that gradually gets smaller the further down towards the end that it gets.

Note: Let’s think about this for a minute; what would happen if you tied some small tippet to the end of your fly line and tried to cast it? The fly line would lay out straight and then the monofilament would just fall down in a pile without lying out gradually – and it wouldn’t look pretty.

The most popular leaders on our tailwaters would be 7.5’, 9’ and 12’ varieties that taper to 5x (4 pound test) and 6x (3 pound test). Tippets usually come in twenty five yard spools, and the purpose of this material is to extend your leader so that you do not constantly have to change leaders after switching flies just a few times. Plus, if you were to tie to your fly right on to the leader, you would soon be tying your fly to line that is heavier than what you intend to fish with. It would not take long until you started wondering if the fish were wary of the fact you were using line too heavy for the situation at hand.

I have also found that knots tend to slip when you’re playing a fish if the fly is tied directly to the leader. There is also the issue of tippets and leaders breaking in areas other than at the knot. If this starts happening, there are a few ways to fix this that could help you experience fewer break-offs. One thing you can do is to cut the first foot or so off the leader and then apply your tippet. Always remember that you have to keep the leader and tippet in a taper so that you get the loop to roll over properly.

I like to use a leader that ends with a lower number “x” than the tippet I’m going to use to tie my fly to. So if I’m fishing 6x tippets, then I will use a leader that tapers down to 5x. I do not like to tie 6x tippet to a 6x leader because the leader will not fully turn over. There needs to be some give-and-take, kind of like a tug-a-war match.

If you tie a surgeon’s knot to connect the leader and tippet, make sure you go thru the loop three times and not just twice. The knot will hold a lot better this way. One more thing to keep in mind: if you break off from hook sets all the time, try not to hook set with a hard follow through. Try just popping the rod upward and the keep tension on the fish by holding the rod high as you strip in your line.

Don’t try to get a fish on the reel until you feel comfortable doing it unless the fish runs and does this for you. If the fish wants to get on the reel they will on their own. I have seen many people lose fish because they aren’t thinking about landing the fish, but instead trying to get it on the reel.

Finally, try using the same manufacture for both the leader and the tippet. I have found the knots hold together better if the materials are exactly the same.

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