Being Better

Following on from last issue, Peter delves a bit further into leaders and tippets.

How to choose the right tippet diameter

When it comes to deciding on the diameter of your tippet, there are two issues you should consider.

The first is, what is the strongest (and therefore generally the thickest) tippet you think you can get away with?

  • If it’s overcast and the water has a fair wave on it, you might use a thicker tippet.
  • If the water is dirty, I wouldn’t hesitate to use a thicker tippet.
  • If I am fishing at night, I will use very thick tippet.
  • If I am going to tie on a large and possibly heavy fly, I will use heavy tippet.
  • If I am fishing on a bushy river or creek and I think my fly will often be stuck in trees on the back-cast, then I will use a heavy tippet.
  • If the fish are all very big and very powerful, then you virtually have to use a thicker tippet.

Fine tippet stands little chance with trout like this.

The biggest downside to using too large a tippet diameter, is it can severely affect the way the fly is presented and how it behaves on or through the water. The most beautiful fly and the most perfect imitation in the world will look like crap if tied onto tippet that’s too thick and stiff. You can kill the presentation before you even cast with the wrong tippet. Having said that, there are many times I’ve used tow rope and the fish have still been eager to eat my flies. It just depends.

Fine tippets are my choice if:

  • The fish are relatively small.
  • I want my flies to sink faster.
  • The day is bright, and the water is clear and calm.
  • I need better quality drag-free drifts for dry flies and nymphs.
  • I am using very small flies.
  • I am fishing heavily-fished waters like Penstock Lagoon in the middle of the season.
  • Fish are refusing my best presentations and my best flies.

The rule of 3s

On the subject of making tippet diameter a good match with the fly you are using, this simple rule is handy – though like most simple rules, not infallible. Think of it more as a guide.

It works like this. If you are using a fly on a size 6 hook, likely a big wet fly, if you divide the hook size by 3 then you are left with 2, so use 2X tippet for this job. If you tie on a size 12 dry fly, divided by 3 is 4, so use 4X tippet. And if you tie on a tiny size 18 fly then you would be wise to use a 6X tippet. Get it?

A guide’s perspective

When any client rigs up their rod ready for the day’s fishing, I want to see the leader and tippet set up – my way. If a new leader has been looped on by the client, I immediately cut the loop off and tie a 3 turn half blood knot. I then stretch the entire length of the leader by running it tightly through my hand and generating some heat from the friction. I’m also feeling for nicks, scratches and wind-knots. When the leader is absolutely dead straight, I then grab the thin end and start pulling at perhaps the end 30cm. If I can easily break it, I then go a further 30cm up the leader and try to break it in my hands again, and so on until I cannot easily break the line.

Now, if the client has a brand new, fresh-from-the-packet 9 foot 6X leader, I might break off 3 feet before I get to some line I’m confident might hold onto a wild 3 pound Tasmanian trout. In this case, I will now add maybe 3 feet of quality 2X as ‘bridging’ line, then a further 4 or 5 feet of 3X as the tippet. I will use either a Surgeons Knot or a Blood Knot to tie these sections together.

In my opinion, the original 9 foot 6X leader was most likely designed for small fish and small dry flies for use in North America, Japan or Europe. We would surely break off most of our Tassie lake trout, and many stream trout, if I left this leader unmodified.

A good ‘base’ leader for Australian conditions.

Do yourself a favour and next time you buy factory leaders, buy them almost as long as you can get them and with reasonable thickness/strength at the skinny end. In my opinion most fly fishers should start off with 12 foot 3X leaders from the packet.

Tippet rings

Tippet rings are like tiny little versions of a wedding ring, and they come in packets of a dozen or so. Next time you’re in a fly shop, be sure to buy some. You will never regret it.

The idea is that you tie one on the end of your 12 foot 3X leader using a carefully-tied half blood knot. You can then tie a tippet of 3X or 4X to the tippet ring using another half blood knot. The original leader length never gets messed with as you put more and more tippets on. If you wish to use a dropper fly, the tippet ring is large enough to tie a 30cm 3X or 4X dropper on. Be sure to retie the tippet ring to the leader every so often, say every five trips, as this knot will fatigue over time.

Stiffness of tippet

The stiffness of the tippet material can also vary with the brand. For example, Maxima is a relatively stiff material, and this is great when you are flogging wet flies. Some brands call their line ‘super soft’. I could argue this sort of tippet will be much better for longer drag-free drifts over spooky river fish – it’s actually a good thing that a long, supple tippet doesn’t turn over well.

Some anglers find they have great trouble if they use soft and fine tippet materials with heavily-hackled dry flies like big Wulffs, Stimulators, or even stiff-hackled wets. The problem is, such flies ‘propeller’ as you cast them, and the tippets get a hell of a twist in them. Stiffer, thicker copolymer tippet like heavier Maxima won’t do this. And fluorocarbon is usually a much stiffer material, so some anglers prefer to use this to solve the problem. Again, just be aware of this issue and try lots of different tippets. You will eventually develop your favourites.

Colour of tippet

When I started flyfishing 45 years ago, all the good flyfishers used to dye their tippets by soaking overnight in a very strong pot of tea. They thought, and rightly so, that the light brown colour absorbed some light instead of reflecting it. The fish were less inclined to be leader-shy faced with a darker and less shiny leader.

Nowadays, some tippets (and leaders for that matter) can be sourced in several colours. For more than a dozen years I would only use Maxima Chameleon tippet material. This line is a dark brown colour and I felt it was stealthier. I’ve recently tried an Australian-made brand, Platypus, which is a clear line. I’m still catching plenty of fish but when I have some spare time, I’m going to soak it in tea!

Maxima mostly sells their Ultragreen tippet in Australia and it is hard to find the Chameleon. In the UK, their best-selling line is a matt green tippet that has absolutely no shine to it. Unfortunately, I cannot find it here.

Flat Butt Leaders

Flat butt leaders are normal tapered leaders which have a thicker butt section stretched between a couple of rollers, so that section is more rectangular or maybe oval rather than round. I like them in many dry fly situations. These leaders seem to turn over easily and present the fly more gently (although as usual, it depends!). They can be bought from fly shops as flat butt leaders in a variety of lengths and tippet sizes. Give them a try – you might like them.

The only downside I can see is if the wider flat butt gets pulled underwater by currents, then the first back-cast can be troublesome if you don’t know what you’re doing. Another problem I often see on lakes, is if the butt of the leader is sinking, dry fly takes are often missed as too much of the rod power is used up in pulling the butt out of the water, rather than stinging the fish with the hook. However, keep a little floatant on the butt end of all your dry fly leaders, and this shouldn’t be an issue.

Hand-tied leaders

In the good old days we all hand-tied our leaders. I’m sure that if you look on the internet, you’ll still find dozens of recipes for different tapers you might like to use. The Ritz tapers are famous as just one example.

Maxima sell a leader-making kit of a dozen or so spools of tippet, varying in diameter from the 0.55mm down to 0.20mm, in 0.05mm increments. With this kit, and with some tidy blood knots, you could make any sort of leader you wanted. Long leaders, short leaders, leaders designed to turn over big, heavy wind-resistant flies, and leaders designed to collapse the last couple of metres, so that a small dry fly lands with plenty of slack for a long drag-free drift.

If you are really keen on flyfishing and you want to get better at it, then I suggest hand-tying some leaders is a useful part of your journey.

Extended butt leaders

There are many times when I like to use a leader of perhaps 20 feet. In this case, I will buy a tapered leader of at least 12 feet, then I will add 5 feet of 0.55mm nylon to the thick end. Next, I’ll tie a tippet ring to the skinny end and then add a further 4 or so feet of tippet.

Try it. If you’re a half-decent caster, you will be able to cast it… and never mind if the last 3 feet or so doesn’t turn over – this is a good thing. Your fly will drift more freely, and you will catch more fish.

Furled and twisted leaders

These are made up by twisting or braiding many thin pieces of line to make a thick section. One of the claims is that they are softer and more flexible, so they turn over better.

Well… I don’t like them. Forget about them. They hold water and spray it into the air on the false cast. They’re also very easy for me to see on the water and I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Poly Leaders

Poly leaders are bought in a packet from a fly shop. They look like a piece of coloured tapered fly line. They have a loop on the fat end and a piece of clear nylon hanging out the thin end for you to put a tippet ring on. Not all Poly leaders float the same. The different colours signify different sink rates. The greatest advantage of owning a few different poly leaders is the ability to convert your standard floating fly line instantly into a variety of sink tip lines. Especially early and late in the season, this will catch you fish that a floating line and regular leader would not.

If you have a loop on your fly line, then you should definitely go ahead and buy at least 2 different sink rate poly leaders.

Overall, leaders and tippets are a massively important part of your setup. Not only do they provide the weakest link between you and your fly, they also have a major impact on presentation. Leaders and tippets should be front of mind every time you hit the water.