Leaders & Tippet!
Your source for flyfishing and flycraft resources since 1975.
Why you need leaders
Since you can't tie a fly to the end of a fly line, at least without completely spooking the fish, you need a leader which attaches to the fly line at one end and the fly at the other. Leaders are tapered, fattest at the end which attaches to the fly line and thinnest at the end which attaches to the fly. Because it's bigger at one end (also called the butt) and smaller on the end, it has to be tapered down in order to make a gradual and natural transition. These are usually made up of materials that are relatively invisible to the fish, in contrast to the fly line which they can see.
This transition is important for a couple of reason. First, it aids in the casting of a fly and second, it makes the "presentation" of the fly to the fish more delicate. It's really that simple. You could just put a piece of monofiliment on the end of your line, but you'd soon learn that it is more difficult to cast and present the fly with the single piece of mono.
The most common length of leaders are 7 1/2', 9' and then longer ones for special situations. The shorter, 7 1/2' leaders, can be a bit easier to cast for the beginner, but once you get the hang of casting, you'll probably want to go to a 9' length in most situations. (You can also add length to a leader if you think it's too short by adding tippet material, but you can learn more about this later in this section.)
This is a good place to say a word or two about loops! For attaching the fly line to the leader, both sometimes have loops that make the connection easier and quicker. There are many ways to get around this and you can learn more about that in the knots section.
The "X" factor
Leaders not only come in lengths, but also in thickness (diameter), referred to as "X." This works backward, just like wire gage does, i.e. - the lower the number, the fatter the material. So 2X is larger than, say 5X which is larger than 8X. In terms of a leader, the X means smallest diameter where the leader is connected to the fly. So a 9' 5X leader gradually tapers down to 5X at its smallest diameter.
Which "X" do you choose? Well, since a bigger diameter means it'll be stronger, we want to use the lowest "X" or thickest diameter we can. The stronger the material means we'll have a lesser chance of breaking the leader and losing the fish. Makes sense, right? But . . . we always have to keep in mind that the leader might be visible to the fish and thus scare it away, so we can't just always use the heaviest stuff we want or the fish will never take the fly! Making the choice of which "X" to use is simply a compromise in strength and visibility. So my best advice is to start with a 3X to 4X leader if you're expecting to catch fish that may weigh up to a few pounds. In fact, the different "X" ratings have a weight rating, which means how many pounds it'll take to break it. Consider the chart below:
# Test lb.
Notice that the above chart says "nylon?" That's because you can also buy leaders made of stronger material, and that's fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon can be 20-30% stronger than nylon of the same diameter, which means you'll lose fewer fish due to break-offs. And since fluorocarbon is more 'invisible' to the fish, it may also make it that much easier to 'fool' the fish. Another way to look at it is where you might normally use 4X nylon, you could substitute 3X fluorocarbon, which will be just as visible to the fish, but stronger.
If all this is true, then it makes sense to always use fluorocarbon instead of nylon, right? Well, not necessarily. There are some trade-offs. First of all, "fluoro" is less friendly to the environment than nylon. You won't be using much, but if that makes a difference to you, stick with the nylon. Second, fluoro is more expensive so if you're on a budget, again you'll want to stay with the nylon. Lastly, fluorocarbon is a bit stiffer. This may not make a difference when you're just starting out, but may make a difference when you get a bit more fly fishing experience under your belt.
Remember that fluorocarbon is a more modern material in fishing and that millions and millions of fishing have been caught on gool old nylon!
No discussion about leaders can be complete without talking about tippet. The easiest way to think about tippet is to think of it simply as an "adjustment" to the leader, when and if you need it. In other words, if your leader is too short, you can just add a bit of tippet to give it more length. If your leader is to fat and you think it might spook the fish, you can add a thinner piece of tippet to make it less visible.
Here're some examples of when you will want to use tippet. Say you are using a 7 1/2' 4X leader and you think it's too short. You can add a couple of feet of 4X tippet to make it longer. Or maybe you're using a 7 1/2' 4X leader and you think it's too thick and is scaring the fish. Here, you can add a couple of feet of 5X to make it less visible.
Finally, say you're using a 7 1/2' leader, broke off a fly, put on a new fly, cut it off and change to another fly and so on. Well, sooner or later you won't have a 7 1/2' 4X leader anymore. It'll more like a 5' 2X leader which will be too short and stiff to use for fishing. Again, you can add a bit of tippet to make it effective for your situation. In the last case, you might even add a couple of feet of 3X and a couple more of 4X and you're back in business.
You could, of course, just keep throwing away leaders and using new ones when they get too short, but that can be both expensive and wasteful. Once you get a bit of time on the water, all of this will be much clearer to you.
Just like the leaders, tippet materials are rated with the same "X" factor as above. But remember, a spool of tippet material is the same "X" all through the spool. There is no taper like there is on a leader. I'll put the chart in again below:
# Test lb.
So if you're just starting out for most freshwater fishing, buying some 7 1/2' 3X or 4X leaders, and a spool each of 3X, 4X, 5X and maybe even some 6X will have you in pretty good shape on the water. If you're fishing in saltwater, you'll probably want to go longer and heavier.
I should also mention that you can just make your own leader by assembling lengths of tippet together in a graduated fashion. You can find my "recipes" for doing so here.
Brands of tippet & leader
The myriad of choices can be dizzying and the claims of strength can often be exaggerated or even misleading. So this is where I like to plug our Hook & Hackle tippet materials and leaders. Let me just say that you cannot buy better products, period. You might read that this or that is better or the best, but it's mostly just marketing mumbo jumbo. Ours is made in the finest factory of its type in the world so you can buy in confidence without wasting money on stuff with nice photos or catchy names.