Choosing the Right Tippet Size for Your Fly and How to Modify Tippet on Your Leader
This is Part II of an in-depth look at fly fishing tippet. Click here for Part I where I explain what exactly tippet is, where it's located on a leader, what the "X" sizes mean, and the differences between nylon, fluorocarbon, and copolymer tippet.
Here in Part II, I will go over how to properly size tippet to your fly and why that is important. I will also look at how to modify the tippet on your leader so you can extend the life of the leader and how to change the tippet so it better fits your hook.
*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.
(Also, check out: Improve Your Skill at Reading Water for Fly Fishing: Riffles)
Why and How to Choose the Right Tippet Size for Your Fly
Why, as fly fishers, do we need to be concerned with choosing the right tippet size for our fly? Well, two important reasons are that you will achieve better drifts, and you will have improved knot strength. It is also simple to quickly and easily select the right tippet based on the hook size you are going to be casting.
Correctly sized tippet is important because it will help the fly to drift more naturally on or under the water. Larger tippet has more surface area for water to grab a hold of which pulls/drags it and the fly around. For example, 2X tippet has more surface area that 6X tippet and will induce more drag on to the fly hindering the presentation:
Additionally, when we use small flies, like a size 18 hook, we really want to use smaller diameter tippet in order to give the fly more freedom to move on/in the water. The stiffer 2X tippet will restrict movement more than the thinner and supple 6X tippet:
Properly sized tippet also means fewer break-offs. Try tying 6X tippet to a large size 2 hook. Pull the knot until it breaks off. Now, tie that 6X tippet to a size 18 hook and pull it. The knot will hold better. This is because the size 2 hook has a larger hook eye diameter than the smaller size 18 hook. This larger hook eye stresses the knot tied with 6X tippet more than the smaller hook eye. Therefore, if we want to use that size 2 hook then need to use larger diameter tippet which will maintain the knot's integrity.
Beyond memorizing that 6X pairs with a size 18 hook, how can you know which diameter tippet to use? The answer is dividing the hook size by three.
Selecting the Right Tippet Size: Divide By Three
As I touched on in Part I, as a tippet's "X" number increases, its diameter decreases (7X is thinner than 2X). The same is for hooks sizes, as the number increases the size of the hook decreases (a size 18 hook is smaller than a size 4 hook).
Now, selecting the right tippet for your fly is actually pretty simple. All you really need to do is divide the size of the fly by three and that is the tippet size you should use.
Here's an example, you have a size 18 fly, 18/3= 6, so you should use 6X tippet. Well, what about if the fly isn't easily divisible by three? Let's say you have a size 10 fly, so 10/3= 3.334, so you could use 3 or 4X.
Below is a chart that shows this method of pairing tippet to hooks:
With fly fishing, there are exceptions of course. You are generally okay going up or down an "X" size. For example, if you have a size 18 hook then 6X would pair best, but it would be fine using 5 or 7X.
Further, there are times when you may want to use smaller tippet on a larger hook. Euro nymphing is one example of this where anglers will use larger flies tied on with smaller tippet, such as a size 12 fly tied on to 6X tippet (this thinner tippet helps the fly to achieve greater depth and less drag in a river's current). If you do this, you will want to use a strong knot (like a 16/20 knot) to tie the tippet to the fly. You will also want tippet with a higher strength-to-diameter ratio (for example, 6X tippet that breaks at around 4lb, not 3lb), and that comes at a higher price point as well.
(Read: 7 Useful Knots to Know for Fly Fishing)
Why Add Or Modify Tippet On Your Leader
If you buy a leader, then why do you need to worry about buying spools of tippet? Can't you just pull out one of these leaders and tie a fly right to the end? Yes, absolutely. However, at a certain point after cutting off and changing flies you'll run out of tippet on your leader.
Remember from Part I, typically the last 1.5-2.5 feet of the leader is level tippet, and having enough tippet on our leader is important because it accomplishes a few things for us.
First, the long tippet allows us to cut our fly off and tie on a new one. We can do this several times before we chop too far back into our leader and get into thicker material. We may have a leader that ends at 4X, but after numerous fly changes we will eventually be trying to push 1X or 2X through a hook eye.
Second, as we make a cast with our fly rod, energy is transferred from the rod, to the fly line, to the leader, into the tippet, and finally to the fly. That long tippet section slowly dissipates the energy before it reaches the fly. This dissipation of energy helps to turn over our fly more softly and land with a little bit of slack on the water. Along with the fly line and leader, that slack assists in achieving a good fly presentation while minimizing drag.
Third, a longer tippet section also creates distance between the fly line and the fly. If you are casting to fish in calm, clear water this distance reduces the chance of spooking the fish as the fly lands on the water.
Fourth, leaders are expensive. We can save money by adding tippet to our leader thus extending its life. If you only fish a day or two a week, you can very well get through a season with just a couple leaders, if you tie tippet back on to them.
(Also, check out: A Guide to Urban Fly Fishing)
Lastly, there may be times where we want to modify what tippet size our leader terminates at. Here is what I mean: Let's say you arrive at the river with only a 9ft 5X leader and notice lots of grasshoppers falling into the water and fish are eating them. It would be a good idea then to tie on a grasshopper dry fly. However, that could be a size 8 hook which pairs better with 3X not 5X. So, with a couple spools of tippet we can modify our 9ft 5X leader and turn it into a 9ft 3X leader to better suit our size 8 hook.
How to Add Tippet Back on to a Leader
Adding tippet back on to a leader is a pretty simple process. All you need is a spool or two of tippet and knowledge of how to tie one knot. Let's look at an example-
We are fly fishing with a 9ft 4X leader and have clipped off and changed our fly multiple times. Our leader originally had about 2 feet of 4X tippet, now we are down to just a couple inches:
We want to get back to our original leader length with roughly 2ft of 4X tippet, so we will just tie ~1.5ft of 4X onto the end of the leader using a triple surgeon's knot (for info on how to tie this knot and other knots check out: 7 Useful Knots to Know for Fly Fishing):
Now, let's say instead of adding that 4X on to the leader we kept tying and clipping off flies until we were further back into our leader. At this point, we have eaten up all of that original 4X tippet and are now at a larger diameter of material. Before we can add 4X back on to our leader we should figure out what diameter of material we are at:
We need to figure out what diameter we are at because, as a general rule, we shouldn't skip over more than one "X" size when tying on tippet. Skipping over more than one "X" size reduces knot strength because there is too big of a change in diameters. It also creates a hinge point which inhibits proper turn over of the leader and fly.
Here's what I mean: let's say our leader now ends at 1X. We can add 2X or 3X, but if we skipped over two sizes and added 4X then that jump in diameter will create a hinge point and reduce the knot strength between the 1X and 4X. Instead, to get back to 4X will should add a few inches of 2X or 3X and then our 2ft of 4X:
So, how did you know you were at 1X? Well, it takes a little bit of guess work. The quickest, easiest way of determining tippet size on you leader is to just compare it to your spools of tippet. Does the end of the leader look like the same thickness as 3X? No, what about 2X? Maybe. 1X? Yes. So then we know we are at 1X.
If you struggle with eyeballing this, there is a tool you could use called a Mike-Rite Leader and Tippet Gage. I am all for keeping things simple on the river and reducing the number of tools that I carry. However, if you have limited eyesight then this tool can help to tell you the diameter that is at the end of your leader.
(Also, read: A Guide to Feathers Used in Fly Tying)
A Couple Tricks to Make Things Easier
To reduce the amount of time you spend having to add tippet back to your leader, work on your knots. Efficient knot tying eats up less tippet. Practice tying your tippet to your fly using less and less tippet material.
You can also really extend the life of your leader by using a tippet ring. Take your leader, like a 9ft 4X leader, out of the package and find where the tippet ends and the leader starts to grow in diameter. Chop off the tippet here and tie on a 2mm tippet ring and then tie the tippet back on. Here's an example with a 9ft 4X leader:
Now, when you change out flies and clip off all of your 4X tippet, just tie another ~2ft of 4X tippet. The tippet ring floats fairly well so this can work with dry fly fishing. You can also grease the tippet ring with something like Loon Payette Paste to help it float better.
I also prefer to tie the tippet to the tippet ring using a strong knot like a trilene knot in order to minimize the tippet breaking off at the tippet ring.
How to Modify Tippet on a Leader
As we talked about earlier in this article, there are situations where you may need to modify your leader so it terminates at a different tippet size, like turn a 9ft 3X leader in to a 10ft 6X leader, or turn a 9ft 5X leader in to a 9ft 3X leader. With a few spools of tippet we can accomplish this. Let's take a look at turning a 9ft 3X leader into a 10ft 6X leader first-
Our 9ft 3X leader, straight out of its packaging, has roughly ~2ft of 3X tippet. To maintain proper taper and avoid hinge points (like we discussed previously), we should:
Chop off about 1.5ft of the 3X tippet. That leaves us with a 7.5ft leader going to 3X.
Next, add 12 inches of 4 or 5X tippet using a triple surgeon's knot. Now we are at about 8.5ft.
Finally, add 1.5 feet of 6X (again, using a triple surgeon's knot) to be at a 10ft 6X leader.
For our second leader, we have a 9ft 5X leader and we want to turn it into a 9ft 3X leader. We can't just chop the leader back until we hit 3X because then it would only be about 6 feet long. You could chop it back to the 3X and then add ~3 more feet of 3X to turn it back into 9 feet, but again that would really affect how well it casts and turns over.
Rather, we need to maintain the gradual taper of the leader. To do this we will chop the leader back to 1X and add a few more inches of 1X. Then we will attach about 8-10 inches of 2X, and finally about 2 feet of 3X. Now we are back to 9ft with a better taper:
Abrasions and Wind Knots in the Leader
Another time you may have to modify (fix) your leader is if you feel/see abrasion or wind knots in it. Abrasions from rocks, logs, or stepping on it can greatly reduce the strength of your leader/tippet. The same is true for winds knots (those little overhand knots that appear due to poor casting). The best thing is to cut the abrasion or wind knot out and tie the leader back together with a triple surgeon's knot.
(Be sure to also read: Does Fly Fishing Tippet Expire?)
Knowing all of this information can seem like a lot. Thinking about which tippet you need to attach to your fly will come quickly, but it will take practice modifying the tippet on your leaders. However, with practice you will build the skills to adapt your leaders correctly while on the river.
Understanding how to add and modify tippet on your leader also lays the groundwork for learning the physics behind leaders and just how important they are to improving accuracy in your casting.
For more 'how-to' rigging articles check out:
Read: 3 Ways to Create a Dry-Dropper Rig
Read: How to Set Up a Drop Shot Rig
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