This article is exclusively about tippets, the last and thinnest link connecting you to the fish. Think about that for a minute. Packed with information and diagrams, these best tippet tips and rigs will help you hook and land more fish, and bigger fish.
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Tippets take a lot of abuse. From abrasion on rocks to breakoffs from snags and striking fish, from knot slippage when poorly tied to anglers who use the wrong material in the wrong situation, it’s no wonder tippets may get more 4-letter expletives than any other gear.
However, when well selected and well deployed, the best tippets, and how you rig them, are a critical part of hooking and landing more fish.
There’s lots of great articles out there about leaders vs. tippets, how to choose each, length, purpose of a tippet, etc. This article covers tippets 201, not 101. These are guide-level tippet hacks. If you are looking for more about the basics of leaders and tippets 101, we won’t be offended if you look for it elsewhere (as long as you promise to come back!).
1. Know Your Fish & Water First!
This first tip will save you a bunch of headaches. If you know your fishing location and fish as the first priority, meaning what they’re likely to be enticed by, or scared away by, it’ll make the next 9 tips a lot easier – and some of them a mute point.
Here’s a few examples of what we mean.
Example #1 – Fast moving water, with more wild fish:
If you’re fishing for trout that are less leader sensitive, such as larger rivers in the west with a preponderance of wild trout (such as beautiful “Redsides” rainbows on the Deschutes River in Oregon, or hard hitting rainbows and browns in Montana come to mind), then don’t get too hung up on your tippet size, length, or even material.
These often wild and strong-for-their-size fish tend to feed and even hang out in the pockets and riffles. As a result, they have to make snap decisions about what they eat.
While tippet selection is still important, it becomes less of a factor than other streams. Just make sure it’s a reasonable size and strength for the fish you are after, fits your gear and fly selection, and go for it. In this case, fly selection is the dominant consideration. Which is a good thing, because these wild fish are strong and you’ll need the stronger tippet to land them.
Take it from someone who has broken off way too many fish after selecting too thin of a tippet.
Example #2 – Slower moving water, more-so hatchery fish, or clear alpine lakes:
By contrast, if you’re fishing on the famed Battenkill river in Vermont or New York, where trout are are notorious for inspecting your fly so closely it’s like “counting the legs on your fly” (as one guide counseled me), or other rivers with high fishing pressure such as the Delaware, it’s like the fish have a magnifying glass, and it’s an entirely different game.
In this case, successful anglers have learned that going long and thin – up to even 12 feet from line to fly – is necessary to entice all but the most junior and foolhardy trout at times.
This can be especially true for hatchery-born fish, that tend to hold in the mid or tail end of deeper pools, at water velocities that emulate the hatchery conditions they were raised in. This gives them ample time to spot, inspect, and reject your offering if it isn’t extremely realistic. Same thing for alpine lakes, where crystal clear water demands more careful tippet selection and presentation.
Example #3 – Combination of conditions on the same stream, including a variety of fish sizes:
Let’s make it more interesting, consider the Taylor River in Colorado, which has a Catch & Release (C&R) section that holds 8-12 lb, even 20+ pound rainbows have been caught, along with a high density of trout that thrive on the mysis shrimp, steady flows and temperatures. Downstream, the fish are still plentiful but not as large. What tippet should you use?
We checked a few fishing / guide reports that tend to just say something like “Best Tippet: 5X.” Really – is that going to hold your trophy trout long enough to land it? If you are going for the trophy and expect to catch fewer fish (at least part of the time, the other part of your outing going for more normal sized trout), then consider this approach:
Dry fly fishing, 5X-6X monofilament, typically late afternoon on a sunny day, with smaller medium sized trout rising, you need to entice them and can still land on a medium thickness tippet.
Nymphing, 3X-4X fluorocarbon, anytime, but in particular in the late fall and winter offseason, when the larger trophy trout are under less pressure and more likely to take your offering. At least you stand a chance to land the trophy.
Streamers, 1X-2X fluorocarbon, as your presentation is moving as you strip it, you’ll need a stronger break off strength for the larger fish and potential snags, and you can get away with thicker diameter than nymphing can relative to fly size.
Make sense? So now you see where this is going – tippet selection is a penultimate balance between enticing fish (tend towards longer and thinner), and withstanding abuse and actually landing fish (tend towards shorter and stronger).
Consider fishing reports for recommendations, but most of all use what makes sense for how and where you are fishing, and observe what works best for you over time.
2. Forget The Debate – Use Them Both
Alright, let’s just get this out of the way. There’s a place for both fluorocarbon and (nylon) monofilament in your vest. Especially if you are asking, “how do you tie a dropper rig?” or “How do you tie on two flies?”
If you’re tired of the back and forth debate, pros and cons, and endless discussion on this subject, so are we. In fact, for certain setups we recommend you use them together.
Here’s why, in a nutshell:
Monofilament– more buoyant (less dense), more flexible, more snug knots, less expensive; but more visible, less strength (for a given diameter), less expensive
Flourocarbon–much less visible, more strength, and more abrasion resistant; more dense (sinks in fact), more bulky knots, and considerably more expensive
You can thank us for distilling what is often an entire article into two bulletsand BassGrab for a nice summary chart, though we’d say visibility of mono is moderate). Put another way:
Monofilament– better for small-medium sized dry flies, and your wallet
Flourocarbon– better for wet flies, streamers, and droppers, OK for large buoyant dry flies
So, when should you use them together? Here’s an example, placing a dropper off a larger dry fly:
This diagram answers the question “what is a dry dropper rig?” However, if you are instead asking “how do you set up a nymph rig?” It’s exactly the same as shown above, just with two nymphs (one larger and one smaller), and using all fluorocarbon.
The “improved rig” prevents the tragedy that sometimes happens whenyou are playing a fish that took the upper fly. You cansnag the lower
fly or even get a 2nd hit, either of which can pull the first fly right out of the mouth of the first. Equals lost fish.So to recap, it follows that:
If you’re fishing with a dry fly exclusively, use monofilament tippet to support the float. Choose the minimum diameter you can get away with, err on the longer, thinner side (as long as it’ll carry the fly through to the end of your cast) and still strong enough to land (most) fish you’ll hook.
The exception is if it’s a big super-buoyant pattern such as a large foam grasshopper or beetle, or big October caddis with a foam body, or a deer-hair popper, then you can get away with fluorocarbon tippet for a dry, especially because it’s stronger at narrower diameters than mono is.
If you’re fishing underwater, with a nymph, wet fly, streamer, etc. then use almost exclusively fluorocarbon. You’ll hook more because they can’t see it, and you’ll land more because it’s stronger. And you can get away with a thicker tippet which also protects against abrasion, break-offs from snags, etc.
The most important thing is, just don’t get them backwards! You’ll sink your dry fly with fluorocarbon…and scare away fish looking at your nymphthat is tied on with mono.
You’d be surprised how many people walk out of the fly shop with the wrong material tippet in hand – I’ve observed it first hand – and wonder why they aren’t catching (or landing) fish!
3. Ignore Tippet Myths – Busted
Whoever invented these myths we’re not sure, but you can be sure of one thing, they are myths:
Myth #1 – You can’t mix different brands of tippet or leaders & tippets.
Hogwash. Just tie them together yourself, and closely observe the knot. If it looks and feels like a good knot, then it is. Just use what you have as long as it fits the situation.
Myth #2 – Stick to sizes and brands recommended by guides, fishing reports, or review articles.
Look, even scientific comparisons of tippets, such as breaking strength contests, are subject to limitations. Some things are much harder to measure such as memory, limpness, shock absorption, etc.
We suggest after listening to what others have to say, but try several brands yourself, observe how well they do under different situations, and cultivate your own favorite.
This is the kind of skill that will serve you well overall in fly fishing, observing conditions closely, and adapting.
Myth #3 – You can believe most of what you read about tippets on the internet.
Just be aware of one thing – tippet technology is still evolving very rapidly. There’s a lot of articles out there dated like 2-3 to even 10 years ago.These are ancient by now.
Make sure anything you read (like this article!) was authored or at least updated within the last year. That way you won’t be wondering why your experience in the field doesn’t match what you read! One way to make sure you have current content is to search on “best tippet 2019” or “best tippet 2020” to make sure the article is recently published.
Myth #4 –Tippets should be a specific length.
How long should your tippet be? Guidelines are helpful, but there’s not a perfect length. Here’s why. In general, you want your tippet to be long enough that the next knot up isn’t visible to the trout (24 inches away is good) and it’s also long enough you don’t have to frequently retie your tippet the leader or (next tippet section if you’ve built your own taper) after changing your fly a few times. But not so long that your fly won’t carry through the cast, especially if the tippet is thin such as 7X – 9X, as you don’t want rings of loose tippet that will also distract fish from your fly.
But tippet sections can range from as low as a few inches to several feet. For example, droppers are often 12-30 inches under your dry fly pattern to fish through pools and deeper water. By contrast we’ve caught beautiful browns in shallower water with as little as a 6” separating an emerger dropper under a dry terrestrial pattern in shallow water, such as the canyon stretch of Boulder Creek.
At the other end, you may have several feet of tippet separating an egg pattern and your micro-swivel or tippet ring, such as in the rig for salmon, steelhead, and large spawing brown trout that we’ve diagrammed out below.
4. All Brands Are Not Created Equal
Remember the old saying about retail stores – pick 2 out of 3 because you can’t have it all – quality, price, and speed? Same thing goes for tippet brands.
We suggest sticking to quality fly fishing tippet – that is best adapted to your situation.
Different brands have different characteristics, so be aware that not all brands perform the same or even similar. For example, one person might want a stiffer brand for casting distance and accuracy, while another might prefer the least visible for sight-sensitive fish such as Great Lakes run steelhead.
Not only that, but if you haven’t looked lately, brands are now evolving to have tippet specifically for different types of game fish, see below.
When we buy tippet, what are we looking for?
Buoyancy – ability to float (or lower rate of sinking)
(In)visibility– for stealth of presentation, something the best fluorocarbon tippets on the market today do in an amazing way
Strength– to land your lunker of a lifetime!
Thickness– smaller diameter better for a given strength
Flexibility– easier to tie, though prefer stiffer for carrying a fly farther and more accurate casts
Stretch– ability to absorb a shock such as a fish that turns away from you in strong current, while still firm enough to ensure firm hook-ups when you set the hook
Density – relative to water, relates to buoyancy above but also thickness and visibility
Abrasionresistance– ability to withstand scraping against rocks and structure without snapping
So what brands provide quality tippet that perform well against many of these criteria? Remember that every year tippet technology advances, rendering last year’s reviews already obsolete. So again, we recommend you try several and determine your own favorite. If you stick with the following brands, you will do well.
For fluorocarbon, the best fluorocarbon tippet brands that are proven and do particularly well with a combination of knot strength, abrasion resistance, and low visibility include (with live links to check price and purchase):
For the best monofilament tippet (nylon), mono tippet brands that are proven do particularly well with knot compaction & strength, buoyancy, and higher strength relative to diameter include (with live links to check price and purchase):
Other brands available, that you can check out include Bozeman Flyworks, MaxCatch, and Seaguar. Since we haven’t tried these brands ourselves, we haven’t highlighted them, but wanted to at least mention them in case you’d like to investigate further.
To help with selecting the best size tippet (for example, “What pound test is 5X tippet?”) here’s a standard reference chart, just know that some brands may vary slightly from these average figures:
5. Pre-Tie Your Tippet Rigs To Save Time
Want to spend more time fishing, less time futzing around, and also be able to more quickly change up your flies so you find what they want and catch more fish?
This isn’t just a guide thing, you can do it too. Most of the time you approach a river, you probably have a good idea what you’ll be using, at least from the start.
Whether from a hatch chart, your fishing buddy, or great advice from the fly shop you just visited, your first few hours on the water are probably accounted for Smith Creek Rig Keeperalready, working the flies you can predict in advance.
Of course matching the hatch well means being observant of what’s coming off the water when you are
there, and we even suggest turning over a few stones to see what’s hatching underwater – where fish are eating whether there’s hatch on the surface or not. That means changing up your fly.
Here’s how to do it. This method really pays off when you are fishing with a dropper 2nd fly, and is made easier by using a tippet ring (more below).
Use a long and narrow piece of packing styrofoam (the firm kind, not the crumbly kind, like used to protect the edges or corners of a new boxed up TV or appliance)
Use a piece of cardboard with slits or a V cut in both ends
In the field, you can even use a stick! Preserves some of your knots and tippet for use later in the day
Smith Creek Rig Keeper(shown above) well designed, rectangular rig system that holds smaller and larger fly rigs alike.
pre-tied fly rigs (instead of spinners) around the tube, and hook it into the soft rubber.
TOrvis dropper fly box– leave it to Orvis to come up with the ultimate quality version of this concept. With multiple rig ties in multiple compartments, you can take this idea to the max!
pre-tied fly rigs (instead of spinners) around the tube, and hook it into the soft rubber.
Lindy Spinner Wrap Kit– effectively combines the Tackle Buddy holder design with the Orvis “in a box” approach. Will equally hold spinners, snell rigs, and fly fishing rigs alike.
6. Speaking Of Tying…What’s The Best Knot?
For each tippet use, while there are several options, we recommend:
Leader-to-tippet– Surgeon’s Knot
Tippet to tippet ring(if used) – Improved Clinch Knot
Tippet-to-tippet(if 2 or more cascading diameters) – Surgeon’s Knot
If you like to pre-tie your rigs to save time, we bet you’ll like these ideas as well:
Keep Your Shot Above The Knot. That way when you break off, at least you still have your shot and don’t lose time replacing that too.
Practice Your Knots. The better you are, the quicker you’ll be. And the stronger and more compact your knots will be. Don’t argue, just do it.
Use Easily Adjustable Strike Indicators. This one might save you time, or it just might encourage you to adjust your strike indicator more often to different depths (like you should till you locate fish) because it’s
easier. Use an indicator that can easily slide to a new position,for example the Airlock Strike Indicators, and that doesn’t kink your leader. We also like the
The Surgeon’s Knot. Need to re-build your leader and tippet, but struggle with the blood knot? Use the surgeon’s knot! If not as compact as the blood knot, the surgeon’s knot is nearly as strong and far simpler to tie. Better in low light or otherwise low visibility. Plus, it is actually stronger than the blood knot when combining materials of different diameters.
Use Flies Designed For The Depth. If you plan on fishing deep, use flies with lead wire or tungsten bead heads to minimize time spent dealing with split shot. If you are fishing an emerger just under the surface, or dropper, then of course you don’t want the extra weight.
Tippet Rings & Micro Swivels. Either one is useful fortying stronger / heavier leader material to finer tippets with a simple (improved) clinch knot. That way, if you have to break off the tippet section, you can easily re-rig by tying on your new rig (that you just unwrapped from your pre-rig storage) with a simple clinch knot again. For a good deal on a bulk pack of tiny micro-swivels, check out these Eupheng Micro-Swivels 150 pieces in 3 tiny sizes at Amazon.at Amazon.
Loop-To-Loop Transitions. We’re not quite as enthusiasticabout this method as the others, but we’ll mention it because we know some angles like it. Just like connecting leaders to fly lines, you can also loop your tippet (especially if thicker) to the leader. After a break off, simply loop on another rig (you can also tie these into your pre-rigs) and you’re back in the water, no knots needed. You may lose some feel and control, but if it’s heavier tippet material, and at least 18-24 inches above the fly, it can work fine.
8. Tippet Rings Are Awesome – Most Of The Time
This is another one where you can find great material online, for tippet rings 101, so we won’t dwell on it. In a nutshell, a tippet ring:
Is tied between your leader and tippet
Preserves your leader length each time you tie on a new tippet section, you don’t need to trim the leader back a bit each time
Gives you more flexibility in rigging up, for example to tie on a dropper fly that’s not dependent on changing your upper fly (see diagram), or
Is sometimes used to tie on a split shot sinker on a short 3-4” section of thinner diameter, which protects both your main leader from getting crimped / compromised, and also your fly from breaking off if it’s the split shot that gets snagged
For a high quality pack of tippet rings, we recommend Rio brand tippet rings which you can easily obtain through Amazon here.
Sound great? It is. Still, many people ask us “are tippet rings good?” Which is a reasonable question. We just want you to be aware that despite all the positive press about tippet rings (we use them and love them too), there are a couple drawbacks.
Drawback #1 – Since tippet rings are made out of metal and therefore sink, they pretty much restrict you to fishing under the surface, with nymphs, wets, streamers, etc.
So, what do you do if you want to switch to dry flies? Doesn’t that just eat up your leader anyway, to tie new tippet on for your dry fly? Well yes, but your tying time and use of leader is still reduced overall, assuming you spend a reasonable amount of time fishing underwater (where fish feed much more of the time anyway). And see #8 below for another idea…
Drawback #2 –they extend the life of your leader….wait isn’t that a good thing, more mileage out of your gear? Yes, but leaders get more brittle or abraded with time and use too, so just make sure you change it after heavy use, after not fishing for a while, or if it’s been abraded.
9. OK We Must, Here’s A Bit About Leaders
We must stray a bit from tippets to leaders, because what does all this mean for leader selection?
[So a quick detour – what is the difference between a leader and a tippet? See picture below, the leader is connected to your fly line, and is usually tapered from a stiff thicker butt section that helps carry your fly and turn it over, to a thinner section to which you tie your tippet. Your tippet is the final section tied between your leader and the fly, chosen for exactly the strength and presentation you want to use for the type of fish you are after.]
So wait a minute now, you may be thinking. So if I go with mono for dry flies, and fluorocarbon for wet flies, then don’t I need to change my leader, or be restricted to dry vs. wet?
It would seem that way, but no, here are some options, you can breath a little easier now:
Try a mono leader with fluorocarbon tippet for wets, then change you tippet to mono for dries (as long as the tippet is long enough they don’t spot the leader), or
Stick to mono overall, without a tippet ring if you prefer dry flies overall and only go to wets/nymphs if you’re facing getting skunked…..or
Consider getting an extra spool, or even full extra reel, and keep one exclusively for dry fly fishing (all mono leader and mono tippet unless you use a fluorocarbon dropper), and one exclusively for wet fly fishing, all fluorocarbon. Then, when you want to go above or below the water’s surface, you have a very easy changeover without retying anything.
10. Don’t Be Married To Your Tippet
We must stray a bit from tippets to leaders, because what does all this mean for leader selection?
Talk about tying the knot! Many articles discuss changing your fly frequently, until you find out what they want. Which is true, even if there are 4-5 hatches going on sometimes trout hone in on a single bug they want, and that’s it. So don’t ignore that advice.
But consider that sometimes you maywant to change your tippet along with – or even instead of – your fly. Here’s why and when. As you know, choosing the right tippet is a balance between enticing more fish, and being able to actually land them. So what ifthe fish are finnicky enough today that they just won’t take it, because the tippet you have on is too thick, or too short, or both?
It is sometimes the case that it’s your tippet that’s scaring them away, and they’d be glad to take your fly with a longer, or thinner, better tied, or less visible tippet section.
When that happens, you are going crazy changing flies, when it’s actually the tippet at issue, and you may not even realize it.Don’t just believe us? Just try it when you get to the point of being puzzled because you’ve tried seemingly everything else.
11. Use This Rig For Egg Patterns
When you are fishing for larger fish using egg patterns (and other bump-along-the-bottom flies), such as the monster brown trout, steelhead, and salmon that enter streams to spawn, an entirely different rig is needed.
Note, all of the discussion above about size and length varying by conditions and size of fish, still applies (minus the dry fly discussion).
In this case, you don’t only need a stronger leader and tippet combo (as well as upsized rod, reel, and line) to handle the larger fish, but you also have more variety of rigs you can use (here’s our favorite):
Note you can get away with longer, same-diameter leader and tippet – you won’t need as much or even any taper as you do when pushing tiny dry flies out. This is because larger, heavier streamers and egg patterns carry themselves out.
Often you’ll need more weight to get down faster and bounce along in sometimes heavier current (gauge your weight to make the egg pattern roll along like it’s one with the current), recognizing some smaller streams and those with clear water require more finesse especially for steelhead.
12. Skip The Tippet Spool Lanyard
They certainly look cool, almost like you’re an expert or a guide or something. It’s a preference thing, and we won’t hold it against you if you use one, but seriously we’re wondering why.
Unless you are continually tying tippet for others, we see these as more of a way to snag yourself when walking through streamside brambles to your favorite hole, or clanking around and otherwise getting in the way.
Even if you changed tippet every 1-2 hours, which would be more frequent than we do on average (especially if you pre-tie or use some of the other strategies above such as an extra spool), do you really need every size hanging outside your vest?
If you do want one of these, instead of a full sized lanyard, we recommend something more compact to the vest such as the