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Tippet 101

5 mins read

Tippet is an indispensable part of any fly angler’s gear arsenal. But what exactly is tippet, and why do you need so much of it?

Today, we’ll break this topic down for those of you who are just getting into the sport of fly fishing, or anyone needing a good refresher.

What is tippet?

In the simplest terms, tippet is fishing line that’s used to either replace the thin, fine ends of tapered leaders, or to attach flies to each other for use in a tandem rig (like in nymphing).

Tippet comes is different sizes, denoted by a number and “x” system. The higher the number, the smaller the tippet. For example, 5x tippet is smaller than 3x tippet.

Most tippet used falls in that 3x – 5x range. These sizes are used so often because they offer the best combination of line diameter, strength, and invisibility when fishing.

Why do I need it?

As I mentioned above, tippet is used to replace the fine, thin end of a tapered leader. We use tapered leaders in fly fishing because a tapered line is the best way to present small flies.

As you cast a fly rod, you’re transferring energy up and down your fly line. By attaching a tapered leader to the end of your fly line, you’re harnessing that energy through the thick butt section of the leader on your forward cast. As your forward cast stops and your line continues moving, that energy pushes the tapered leader to unroll, ideally laying out softly on the water. Whether you’re fishing nymphs or dry flies, that soft roll of leader onto the water is critical for a good presentation.

As you switch flies, you’ll cut off sections of your tapered leader. If you bought a 9-foot 5x leader, you’ll eventually cut away all of the leader that’s a 5x size. You can replace that with 5x tippet and negate the need to buy an entirely new leader.

In addition, you can always use tippet to extend the length of your leader. When I’m fishing small dry flies, it’s not uncommon for me to tie together a 12 or 13-foot leader. The last 3 or 4 feet of that leader is all tippet, tied together with blood or surgeon’s knots.

Picking the right size

The sizing system for tippet is old and derived from when leaders were still made from silk gut. Thankfully, we don’t use that material anymore, but we’ve kept the sizing system.

Regardless, picking the right size tippet for your fishing isn’t that tough. For almost all trout fishing, 3, 4, or 5x tippet is the perfect size. For smaller flies – including dry flies – I’d go with 5x. For bigger nymphs or streamers, 3x is a great choice. Remember, the higher the number, the smaller the tippet size.

You can also pick a tippet size based on the flies you’re fishing. Flies sized 18 or smaller generally need some 5x tippet. Flies sized 14-16 are great choices for 4x, while 12 and larger are good for 3x tippet.

Another factor to keep in mind is the fish you’re targeting. If you’re going after larger fish, you’ll want line that has a higher breaking strength. 3x, or larger, is a safe bet in that instance.

Do I always need tippet?

You don’t always need tippet when you’re fly fishing. I often fish a level piece of 10-pound fluorocarbon when I’m throwing streamers all day. Level lines cast bigger flies better, I’ve found, and you don’t need long leaders when fishing streamers.

Additionally, I know plenty of guides who just keep a few spools of 6 and 8-pound Berkley Vanish in their bags at all times. This is the only line they’ll use to tie on nymphs or droppers off dry flies. For those guides, it works.

For the kind of fishing I most often do – small streams high in the Rocky Mountains – I like sizing down my tippet to match the smaller-than-average flies I cast to much-smaller-than-average trout.

Wrapping Up

Tippet is an important part of your tackle. You can’t leave home without it, regardless of the fish you’re chasing. Hopefully, this post helps clear up any misconceptions or questions you had about tippet.

9 Comments

  1. This was a great, well-explained blog post for those of us trying to figure out this wonderful sport!

  2. Thanks for the great tippet guidance. Short and very “on point”! This is the best type of advice for a novice anglers ‼️

  3. I have a 9 foot 5 wt rod. I have a 5/6 wt. reel, I also have 5 wt. fly line. I put a 3x leader on to my fly line. Question 1. what is the spread of leader i can put on my fly line at 5 wt…… also when we say it is a 3x leader is that the whole leader or just the tippet is 3x. Question 2. Can i put on a 6 wt. fly line on my reel and if i do can my 5 wt. rod handle the 6 wt since it is a 5 wt. rod. Question 3. If i have a 6 wt fly line on my reel what would be the spread of leader i can use with it. Thank you for your response. Danny Patton

    • Danny,

      Thanks for the questions!

      1. There is no set-in-stone spread of leader sizes you can attach based on a fly line. Leader size matters for the fly you’re fishing, not the fly line. For example – I use a 4x or 3x leader when I’m fishing bigger nymphs or streamers. I’ll use 5, 6, or even 7x leaders on dry flies. I choose my leader size based on the flies I’m fishing, not the size of my line. Fly line size won’t ever impact your leader choice.

      The last few feet of a 3x leader would be 3x sized line. Same goes for a 5x or 4x leader.

      2. Yep, you can fish a 6wt line on a 5wt rod, but I wouldn’t recommend it. The extra weight of a 6wt line will make your 5wt rod flex more, slowing the action down. It’s not a bad thing, but it changes how your rod casts. Also, a 5wt rod won’t be able to lay down a 6wt softly, either, so if you’re fishing dry flies you’ll see your bugs slap the water a lot, instead of landing softly like they would if you used a 5wt line and rod.

      3. Same deal as above – fly line doesn’t impact your leader size. It’s all about fly size.

      Lemme know if any of this needs more clarification. Thanks Danny!

  4. Spencer, thank you for responding to my comment. So the only time I would need to change my 5 wt fly line on my 9 ft. 5 wt rod is when the fly line is worn out, or want to change the color of fly line and lastly if I wanted to go with some type of sinking fly line. Other then that I could use any leader I want on my fly line as long as it works with the type of fish I am after and the fly that I want to use. Thank you , sorry to keep going with this but I just want to get this very clear to myself being that I am real novice. Danny patton

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