Thoughts on tippet

Now that Melbournians will be rushing to the lakes and rivers again, the size of tippet to fish is probably not the most important question! Even so, I’ve been having some long and interesting discussions recently with angling friends about tippet.

The two seemingly opposing views on what tippet to fish on a river (let’s excluded lakes from our analysis for now), are either:

a/ You fish as light as you can (say 0.10mm ~7X) to hook as many fish as you can, or

b/ You fish as heavy as you can (say 0.20mm ~3X) to avoid breaking off that rare big one.

After a recent trip with Philip to north-east Victoria, and some fishing on my own afterwards, the average size trout caught was roughly in the 1 to 1.5lb range, with a number of smaller fish, and only a few bigger in the 2 to 2.5lb range. The biggest trout was 3.5lb from the Ovens, a true ‘outlier’ in statistical terms. So what tippet was needed, and what factors were involved?

Even relatively big nymphs will get down quicker on fine tippet.

Tippet size has to be decided in context with a few other important variables – in my view then, there is no clear-cut right and wrong. First, how delicate/ smooth is your reel drag and how soft is your rod? If you fish a fast-action 6 weight, for example, you want to go up in tippet size. One night on the river, I caught a 2.5lb brown, on a fast 6 weight rod with 3x tippet, slowly stripping a black Woolly Bugger. I fished that tippet strength/ thickness because both the fly and fishing after dark increased  the chances of hooking a big one. In the event, a 2.5 pounder was a good fish, but once I saw its size, I knew I could just reel it in – it wasn’t going to bust me off on 3X/ 9 pound.

Compare that with the 3.5lb rainbow which I caught the next day, using my Hanak 3 weight rod, and tippet which was just 0.14mm (about 5.5X) and 4 pound. When that fish took the nymph, it initially stayed in the pool and then started to fall back. I walked back with it and did not apply hard pressure; I wanted her to stay in the pool. When she fell back towards the tail of the pool, I decided to try and scare her back into the pool. The deep fast water behind me was not where I wanted to go! Yet she had other ideas. The fish made a wide arc, turned downstream and headed towards Wangaratta! Fortunately, the smooth drag on my Sage reel and soft 9’6″ 3 weight rod buffered this charge.

Enter the third factor required to land a big fish on fine tippet: your legs! I had to run as quickly as I could downstream along that fast-flowing edge. I slipped a few times and I still have some bruises on my shins. Once, the fish even wrapped around a blackberry under the bank and I thought I was done. But as luck had it, the top dropper did not grab and somehow, she came free. Another short run with the rod tip up high and a few more tumbles later, I had the rainbow on a shelf where I could net her. I was initially too exhausted to celebrate, but after I had a little moment to recover, and I looked at her side on, I thought I was on a New Zealand river for a second! Luckily my wife was just about to pick me up from the river, so she arrived in perfect time to take some photos. After carefully reviving I released the fish, so she’s still there, just a bit wiser!

The final word on tippet is, you have to assess the stream and the fish you expect to land. If the terrain is open and you can walk/run with a fish, I’d say go lighter. On the other hand, recently I fished a remote stream with Matthew Howell, and I lost probably half the trout I hooked. I was wondering why and he pointed out that when fish ended up downstream, I often could not follow due to deep pools in the way, and trying to beach a feisty fish in hard current often resulted in pulling the hook free. Interestingly though, not once did I break my tippet when I lost those fish.

If you are concerned about breaking off an unusually big fish, then yes, go up in tippet. But in my view, thicker tippet may cost you some hook-up opportunities in the first place. Additionally, if the majority of fish are under 1.5lb, the sport with finer tippet is an enjoyable added factor. But be prepared to run for it when that big fish takes off!

When a good one takes off downstream, can you follow?

So there you go, tippet decisions depend on a range of factors, such as ‘typical’ fish size, the entire rod and reel outfit, your fitness, and the physical constraints of the stream you are fishing.

Finally, I want to say happy fishing to our Melbourne friends. Now go catch that big one!