An In-Depth Guide to Fly Fishing Tippet
How many times have you stood in a fly shop staring at a wall of tippet spools trying to decide which ones you actually need? Or, how often have you been fly fishing and clipping your flies off the leader until you found yourself trying to jam a large piece of tippet through too small of a hook eye? Well read on for Part I of an in-depth look about tippet to help end the confusion.
The subject of tippet is glanced over by many fly fishers. However, just like a properly sized fly rod, fly line, and leader the tippet is an integral component to our gear. I mean, it is the final piece that connects everything to your fly. All of that casting practice, money spent on an upgraded fly rod, hope, dedication, and expectations come down to a single strand of plastic tied to a small hook eye. So yes, it has some importance.
*Note- This article will focus on freshwater applications with tippet, so this information is applicable whether you are fly fishing for species like bass, trout, panfish, carp or catfish. If you are fly fishing for toothy critters (musky, walleye, gar, etc.) you'll need to also research wire bite tippet.
(Read Part II here: Choosing the Right Tippet for Your Fly and How to Modify Tippet on Your Leader)
(And also check out: How to Fly Fish Pocket Water- Targeting Trout Around a Single Boulder)
What Exactly Is Tippet?
Tippet is a thin, translucent strand of plastic that is made out of synthetic polymers (i.e. large, chain-like molecules).
Most often, tippet material is nylon or fluorocarbon (both are types of polymers). However, to make things very confusing you may also see tippet spools labeled as copolymer/multi-polymer. If it is labeled copolymer or multi-polymer, then it is probably made of nylon along with other different polymers, and maybe additional secret sauce stuff. Still with me? I know, the fishing industry doesn't make this simple.
A chart that goes over the differences between nylon, fluorocarbon, and copolymer is provided at the end of this article.
*Note- You may hear anglers, and the fishing industry, use the term monofilament and nylon interchangeably. I have found that to be confusing because the definition of monofilament is a single strand of fiber (mono- single, filament- fiber). Therefore, to help keep things straight in my head, and in these articles, I'll only use the terms nylon, fluorocarbon, and copolymer/multi-polymer.
What Is the Difference Between the Leader and Tippet?
It is a common question to ask, where does the leader end and the tippet begin? The answer is that the tippet is part of the leader. The tippet is the terminal, level end of a fly fishing leader. It is typically the last 1.5-2.5 feet of the leader.
The leaders you buy at a fly shop are tapered, meaning the leader starts thick on one end and gradually gets thinner towards the other end. Many of these packaged tapered leaders may follow a formula where 60% is thicker diameter material (the butt section), 20% thinner material (the mid section), and finally the last 20% is level tippet. This generic 60/20/20 formula facilitates a smoother transfer of energy from the fly rod and fly line, into the leader, and finally to the fly.
On packaged leaders, the "X" size denotes the diameter of tippet at the end. A 9ft 4X leader will have a tippet section, the last ~2 feet, that is all 4X. Check out the diagram below and notice how the leader tapers (gets smaller) until it hits that last 20% segment. That final 20% (the tippet) is all the same diameter:
Check this out the next time you open a packaged leader, look at and feel the last 1.5-2.5 feet of it. You will notice that it is all one level diameter until it starts to increase in size the further up the leader you travel.
Tippet also comes in spools. One spool will be a single size of tippet (i.e. 2X, 3X, 4X and so on). These tippet spools are what we use as fly fishers to attach more tippet to our leaders to increase the lifespan of the leader (more on that in Part II). Again, this is where you'll see tippet spools labeled as nylon, fluorocarbon, or copolymer. If the material of the tippet is not printed on the spool it is most likely nylon.
Tippet Sizes Explained
Finally, tippet is described based off of diameter, not breaking strength. Manufacturers produce tippet that is the same diameter for each "X" size. For instance, 4X tippet is all .007 inches in diameter, and 0X tippet is all .011 inches in diameter. However, one manufacturer's 4X tippet might break at 6.4lb and another manufacturer's 4X tippet might break at 7lb. A manufacturer might even make higher break strength tippet for the same diameter, but these spools can also cost slightly more:
Differences in break strength have to do with how the tippet is made and what it is made of (nylon, fluorocarbon, or copolymer). Point being, when you see two spools of tippet (like 4X) you know that it will be the same diameter, but the break strength could be different.
What is also important to know is that as the "X" number increases, the diameter and strength decrease. For example, 7X has a smaller diameter, and lesser break strength, than 2X.
And here's a fun fact to help you look cool with all your fly fishing friends: The "X" tippet size refers to the scale of 11 in which the "X" size and the tippet diameter always add up to 11. For example, 4X tippet is .007" in diameter, 4+7=11. Another, 2X tippet is .009" in diameter, so 2+9=11. And in reverse: you have 6X tippet and don't know the diameter, well 11-6=5 so the diameter is .005". Nerd out my friends.
Nylon Vs Fluorocarbon Vs Copolymer/Multipolymer and a Guideline of What Tippet to Buy
Each angler has their preference for the brand and material of tippet that they use. Brands like Orvis, Rio, Umpqua, Scientific Anglers, Cortland, and Fulling Mill all produce exceptional tippet and you can't go wrong with these companies. The debate around which brand is better, which material is superb, really comes down to personal preference and application.
Each company tests their tippet and while their claims of improved knot strength, elasticity, suppleness, invisibility to fish, or sink rates have merit, there are few industry standards for us to go off of. So, as you read packaging, or hear people make certain claims (including this article), take it with a modest level of skepticism.
Now, rather than causing your head to spin about trying to decide what tippet to buy, here is a general guideline to help you figure out which tippet you need:
1. First thing is to have an idea of the differences in tippet material and to think about if there are any specific characteristics you are looking for. One material may have certain characteristics that are better suited for the application in which you intend to use it:
2. Next, figure how much you are actually going to be fly fishing. Just a couple days each month? Then a handful of spools will get you through the season. Fishing multiple times a week? You'll need a lot more.
3. Now, the last thing is choosing a high of a strength-to-diameter ratio depending on what your budget allows. Smaller diameter tippet with higher tensile strength will cost more. If you going to be fishing multiple days a week and can only afford some of the less expensive nylon tippet from the brands listed above, so be it. Nylon tippet from those brands will all work incredibly well, just look for the best strength-to-diameter ratio.
On the flip side, if you have some cash, will only be fishing a couple days each month, and will mainly be using the tippet for nymphing, then you can splurge and get the nice fluorocarbon.
Finally, if you think you have found a steal of a deal with other brands of fishing line that claim high breaking strength, check the diameter. I can guarantee the strength-to-diameter ratio is much less than the brands listed above. For example, you may find a large spool of fluorocarbon that is 200 yards of .007" diameter tippet at 4lb test for around $20. Compare that with the brands mentioned above and their .007" diameter fluorocarbon tippet comes in around 7-8lb test, essentially double the strength-to-diameter ratio. Yes, those brands cost more, but they very much will out perform any bargain lines.
(Be sure to also read: Does Fly Fishing Tippet Expire?)
Be sure to check out Part II: Choosing the Right Tippet for Your Fly and How to Modify Tippet on Your Leader. In Part II, I'll discuss how to select the right tippet based on the fly you want to fish with. I will also go over how to add tippet to your leader, and how to modify a leader such as turning a 9ft 5X leader into a 9ft 3X leader, or turning a 9ft 3X leader into a 10ft 6X leader.
(And also read: A Guide to Urban Fly Fishing)
Lastly, if you live in or are visiting Spokane, I provide guided fly fishing trips and instructional lessons around Spokane to include float trips on the Spokane River and stillwater trips across various Eastern Washington lakes. I guide with Fly Fish Spokane, and more information/trip rates can be found at the website: FlyFishSpokane.com