How big of a deal is it to use old tippet? How old is 'old' tippet anyways? And what can you do to care for and extend the life of tippet so you don't have to keep spending money on new spools? Lots of questions revolve around tippet, but it really does not need to be complicated at all. Below, I will discuss some basics about tippet and how to properly store, inspect, and maintain this fly fishing material.
Nylon vs Fluorocarbon Tippet
There are two main types of tippet that you will come across in a fly shop: nylon tippet and fluorocarbon tippet (a third is copolymer). Nylon tippet generally floats better than fluorocarbon, it is less expensive, but it is permeable to water so it will absorb water after fishing with it for a while. On the other hand, fluorocarbon is more abrasion-resistant, it is impervious to UV rays, it has a slightly higher tensile strength than nylon, but it is more expensive than nylon.
Either tippet can be used in place of the other for freshwater fishing, but some fly fishers prefer one type of tippet over the other depending on the application. In general, nylon tippet gets worn down quicker than fluorocarbon. Because of this, tightline nymphing anglers (euro-nymphing) like to use fluorocarbon since the tippet spends much of the time under the water scraping up against boulders and sunken logs. Nylon tippet is great for dry fly fishing, dry-dropper rigs, and I will even use it for wet flies and indicator fishing. While wet fly fishing or indicator fishing, the nylon tippet gets water logged but since I am fishing subsurface I am not concerned with that.
For more information on the differences between nylon and fluorocarbon (and copolymer/multipolymer) check out: An In-Depth Guide to Fly Fishing Tippet
When Does Tippet Expire?
Manufacturers used to label tippet spools with expiration dates, but what you might find now are spools that come with a blank space to write down the date of purchase. Use this blank space to write down the month and year of when you bought the tippet so you know just how old it is. A general rule of thumb is to replace nylon every one to two years because it breaks down more quickly due to UV exposure, heat, water, etc. At the start of each season, I buy new spools of tippet because it would be heartbreaking to lose a good fish due to worn down nylon tippet. If you do less fishing, then you should be fine storing the nylon tippet in a cool dry place and using it for 2-3 seasons.
Fluorocarbon lasts way longer than nylon, but it will begin to turn a milky white color after a few years, so I generally replace it once it starts to do that (I just think it becomes more visible to fish, but that's just my opinion). Fluorocarbon takes many centuries to break down, so it is best to pick up any tippet/leader material while out fishing (Fishpond makes a nifty container to store used tippet in order to pack it out from the river or lake: Fishpond Microtrash Container).
Tips on How to Look After Tippet
There are a few things you can do to look after your tippet in order to prolong its life. The following tips are applicable to both nylon and fluorocarbon, but they will definitely be more useful for nylon tippet:
1. Write down the date of purchase. This will help you to know the exact age of the tippet spool so when you pull it out of a drawer you can determine if it can be fished with or chucked.
2. Store tippet spools in a cool dry place when they are not being used. Tippet spools kept in vests or packs, that are stored in a garage or car, are exposed to heat and maybe even UV light. This speeds up how quickly the tippet degrades, particularly nylon tippet.
3. Check for wear and tear. Look at the end of your leader and inspect the tippet. If you can feel any rough, abrasive spots then trim that section off. Any major kinks or twists in the tippet that cannot be straightened out should also be trimmed off. Finally, any off-color looking tippet is also a sign of degradation.
4. Watch out for chemicals. When using sunscreen or bug spray (that contains DEET), these chemicals can wear down tippet. Rub your hands in the lake or river before handling tippet to minimize chemical exposure to the tippet.
If you have any further questions about tippet, be sure to check out: An In-Depth Guide to Fly Fishing Tippet and Choosing the Right Tippet Size for Your Fly and How to Modify Tippet on Your Leader
Be sure to check out some of my other articles as well:
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