Being Better

In the first of two parts, Peter offers his thoughts on leaders & tippets.

As a guide and a teacher of casting, I am regularly asked to explain leaders and tippets. I could write for days on when and where to use what. Even then, it’s often one of those ‘it depends’ things. Anyway, here we go on part one of some of the basics which I hope will help clear up confusion.

Types of leaders

Level leaders

As the name suggests, a level leader is constant thickness from the fly line to the fly.

One level leader example which comes to mind is when loch-style fishing from boats. On Tasmanian lakes, we often use a 5 metre level leader, with 2 droppers. Many anglers use 0.25mm a copolymer material like Maxima for this particular purpose. All casting is done downwind with a relatively wide casting loop.

Level leaders are a good option for downwind loch-style fishing with droppers.

Now for a little bit of sophistication. Half a lifetime ago, I fished in the World Fly Fishing Championships in England. The Bristol and Chew Valley lakes were heavily stocked for the event with thumping big, fat, strong rainbows which seemed like they were on steroids! Break-offs were very common, and at least once or twice a day, you would hook two fish on the one leader. When this happened, the trout would fight against each other until one of the knots failed. We only ever got one fish into the net, and we would then find one of the other two flies – or even worse an entire dropper – completely broken off.

Our English guide at the time, Martin Cottis, was used to this occurring and he taught us to use a 0.25 mm level leader of 15 feet. Then, two 30cm droppers of weaker 0.22mm were tied into the main leader using a Surgeons Knot. Now, if a fish took the point fly, it was held onto with 0.25 mm. Any other trout that broke off would only break at the fly knot, leaving the dropper ready for quickly tying on another fly so you could get fishing again.

We frequently use a level leader when fishing wet flies or nymphs, sometimes on floating lines (likely a longer leader) but more commonly on intermediate or sinking lines (often a shorter leader). In either case, it is best to use a length of whatever you think is the thinnest diameter leader you can get away with. Fluorocarbon material is often preferable because it will sink more quickly than copolymer. If you only have a floating line, you can still fish very effectively with a nymph slowly figure-eight retrieved if it’s tied onto a level leader of, say, 0.20 mm fluorocarbon.

Many saltwater fish aren’t fussy about the presentation, so it’s common to use a level piece of fluorocarbon. For example, to fish for Australian salmon, most of the time I’d be happy to have a level 8kg 1.5 metre fluorocarbon leader.

Australian salmon are good candidates for a strong level leader.

Tapered leaders: factory made

A factory-made tapered leader is what you would expect to be given if you walked into a fly shop and asked for a leader. Apart from the myriad of assorted flies, tapered leaders are bread & butter for fly shops.

In fact, I remember a story from a few decades ago involving fellow columnist Jim Allen, at the time the iconic owner of the Compleat Angler chain of stores. Jim was serving a customer one evening and he went to grab a 9 foot 6 pound leader off the wall and there weren’t any on the hook. They had run out. Jim gave the manager a hell of a balling out, finishing with, ‘We should never, ever, ever, run out of those leaders!’

Factory tapered leaders come from a variety of manufacturers, in a variety of lengths and tapers/thicknesses to suit given styles of fishing. Because most leaders are made for the large US market, they are often labelled by length first (in feet), followed by an ‘X’ number (more about this shortly) which designates the tippet end thickness; e.g. 9 feet 3X or 12 feet 4X, and so on.

The butt end will often have a factory-tied Perfection Loop which is meant to be loop to looped to your fly line – that is, as long as your fly line has a loop on the end of it.

I personally don’t like a loop to loop join because the Perfection Loop knot often snags or catches in the rod tip; or the leader loop ‘bells’ or ‘mushrooms’ the fly line loop and this can also snag or catch in the rod tip. This will risk you breaking the rod if it gets stuck and you get impatient. It might even help a fish get off when you are trying to net it. Maybe worse still, if you are inclined to throw the dreaded tailing loop, there will be many tangles snagging on this dodgy connection.

Not the time you want your fly line connection stuck in the top runner!

Instead, I advise my clients to cut the loop off and tie a simple 3 turn half blood knot to the fly line loop. It’s strong, easy, and a much more streamlined connection.

Incidentally, when tapered leaders are mostly intended for saltwater fishing, they can be made from fluorocarbon material. However, I see no use at all for a tapered fluorocarbon leader in a freshwater environment.


The tippet is the terminal piece of line which the fly is tied to. The other end is usually tied to your tapered leader*. Good anglers would likely have three or four different diameters of tippet material to choose from. These diameters are designated by that X system I mentioned earlier. These spools of tippet are usually made from one of two different materials: either fluorocarbon, or copolymer.

A piece of advice. When you’ve just bought a spool of tippet material, pull half metre or so off the spool in the shop and give it a steady pull with both hands. You are looking to make sure it isn’t rotten: weakened by UV light or just dying of old age. It’s happened to me and too many people I know. After breaking off several fish, you might stop doubting your knots and check the spool, only to find all the tippet is past its use-by date.

At the end of each season I chuck all my tippet out. Every spool of it. Shout yourself some new stuff at the start of the next season.

*Strictly speaking, factory tapered leaders have a level tippet built in at the thin end, but I hardly ever fish factory tapered leaders without adding my own tippet.   

I thought 4X was a Queensland beer!

Let me do my best to explain the American ‘X’ system so you understand what you are buying and what is best for your situation.

If we ‘back the truck up’, as the great Myrtleford fishing guide Matthew Howell says, I can tell you how Nylon, and therefore copolymer tippet material, came to be.

A long time ago, there was a collaboration between a company in New York (NY) and a company in London (LON). Together they invented a block of plastic they called NYLON. The companies wanted to turn their hard block of plastic into very fine string which could be used to make fishing line, or more importantly, stockings for women.

They found that if they heated up the solid block, they could push (extrude) it through a very small hole drilled in a steel die block. The hole they squish it through was a diameter of 11 thousandths of an inch (0.011”).  So, 0.011” became the base diameter and all the nylon was now spooled on a big spool at 0.011”.

If the nylon was again warmed up and it was extruded again through a 0.010” hole it has passed 1 time through a smaller die (1X) to result in 0.010” diameter line. If they reduced it again by passing it through a second (2X) die 0.001 smaller, it would be 0.009” diameter.

So, if a leader says 5X on the packet, you need to subtract 5 from the base diameter of 11 thousandths the leader will have a tippet of 0.006” of an inch (or converted to metric 0.152 mm diameter).

I must say it’s all very complicated and I would personally prefer to have the diameter in millimetres printed on the packet and spool. Having said that, I guess that when you buy enough leaders and spools of tippet with the X system written on them, you’ll eventually get the hang of it.

Diameter or X number vs strength

The X number has only a loose correlation with the breaking strain of the line. The X number can only tell us the diameter. Different brands – even different tippet types within a brand – can have the exact same diameter of line, yet feature significant differences in breaking strain.

So, when you buy a spool of, say, 4X tippet, be sure to also compare breaking strains of the different makes and models. Not all 4X or 3X is created equal. Personally, I would rather buy 3kg 4X than 2.5kg 4X.

Having said that, I often wonder about the accuracy of the breaking strains manufacturers quote. For example, a breaking strength without knots (which is how the manufacturers quote the strength) can be different to the strength with a couple of knots in the equation. Sometimes I think the truth is stretched, so to speak!

For me it’s a trial and error thing. What I do know after 28 years of guiding is that Maxima copolymer is the most bullet-proof tippet I’ve used. If you’re new to flyfishing, then simply go and buy yourself some 4 pound, 5 pound and 6 pound Maxima. Interestingly, I’m pretty sure I’m right in saying that Maxima don’t use the X system when they label their spools. Instead they quote a breaking strain and a diameter in millimetres. This is perfect common sense to me, and I wish all the other manufacturers did the same.

If anything, I think Maxima understate their breaking strains.

If you are fishing for harder-to-catch and smarter fish, then maybe you need to use one of the more high-tech stronger-for-diameter tippets. Shop around – there are heaps of them on the market with big claims and often big prices on their spools. Trial and error will eventually weed out the not so suitable ones and you will find one that works for you.

Tippet comes in quite a bewildering range of brands and types.

Just be aware that most of these tippets are ‘fragile’ if mistreated. Be sure to tie all knots carefully and wet them well before you slowly and smoothly synch them down. Check often for wind-knots if you think you’ve thrown a tailing loop or two, and get rid of them.

Leader and tippet material

I’ve already mentioned there are two types of material to choose from, fluorocarbon or nylon/ copolymer, but they’re worth explaining in a bit more detail.


Fluorocarbon is usually more expensive. Its density is greater than water so it will sink if it is below the surface film. This is ideal if you want to fish wet flies, or if you want to tie a nymph dropper from the bend of a dry fly.

Fluorocarbon is credited with having the same refractive index as water. This means light is supposed to pass through it exactly the same as water and therefore the material is invisible? Well I can see it in the water so I figure the fish can also see it. Yet I’m pretty sure it was developed originally for the commercial long line sea fisheries and when the professionals started using it, their catch rates increased dramatically. I guess you can’t argue with that.

Be careful when you tie knots in fluorocarbon. The knots are much more inclined to cut or break because of the tough casing on the material. This toughness or wear resistance makes it good around rocky reef bottom when saltwater fishing. Dispose of used fluorocarbon thoughtfully – it will NEVER break down in the natural environment like nylon/ copolymer eventually does. Not that you should ever throw out tippet of any kind in the field.

I personally don’t think it’s a good idea to use fluorocarbon as a material for dry fly fishing. It can sink dries, and it will sink deeply in the water if you leave your flies on the water for too long. This can result in missed strikes – especially if you use a short and soft action rod. In shallow water, you can be pulling your flies through weed on every pick-up cast.

Copolymer (Nylon)

This is your everyday run-of-the-mill material which most people use for dry fly fishing. Be sure to try several brands of material. Work out what works best for you. My advice is not to buy anything which doesn’t have a system for clipping the spools together, or a decent system for retaining the stuff on the spool. There is nothing worse than having a vest pocket full of all sorts of separate spools of tippet with loose ends clogging up your zips, etc.

Next issue, I’ll discuss how to make decisions about the right tippet diameter/ strength for given situations, tippet colour, tippet rings, and some different tapered leader types.