Pro Tips: Four Hot Tips on Tippets

One of the easiest ways to improve your presentation in your trout fishing is to pay more attention to your tippet.  It’s as important as the fly pattern you choose, and the size and length and taper of the terminal end of your leader can even determine how your casts look and feel.  By looking at downloads of my weekly podcasts I know that most anglers are still confused and sometimes wigged out by leaders, because every time I do a podcast on leaders or tippets,  the downloads go through the roof.  But it’s not rod designing (instead of rocket science I figured I’d use an analogy that is technical and tricky and can’t be done by most mortals).  Paying attention to your tippet requires just a few easy steps.

1. What does the transition to your tippet look like and how do you fix it? 

I don’t worry too much about the butt section of my leader—I use furled leader, standard solid nylon leaders, and braided leaders almost interchangeably and find that it’s far more important what goes on at the other end of my leader.  Watch the end of your leader when you cast.  Move into a place where you have sun on your leader and a dark background and watch how it lands.  If everything straightens above the water at about the same time and the leader floats to the water, you’re in good shape.  If you see an area of the leader just prior to the tippet that dives to the water before the butt section or the tippet you know it’s too heavy or too short.  (this is almost always bad).  If you see exaggerated curls just before the tippet your transition is too long (this is not necessarily bad because you can use this property to put slack in your leader and avoid drag.

2. How do you know what size of a transition piece to use?

Take the size tippet you plan on using and slide it up against the rest of your leader.  The terminal end of your leader, before the tippet, should be just a whisker heavier, about .001”, than the tippet.  And you don’t need a micrometer to eyeball what .001” looks like.  Just compare a piece of 5x and 4X to see what the difference looks like.  It’s not as hard as you think.  Besides making a smooth transition to improve presentation, you never want to go more than .002” of an inch (or two X sizes) in a trout leader.  Knots won’t hold.  (The same does not hold true for saltwater leaders, with their heavier diameters and less emphasis on delicacy).  I switch back and forth between a triple surgeon’s knot and a 5-turn blood knot depending on how impatient and hurried I am.  Surgeon’s for speed, blood knot for a slim connection and I suspect just a bit more strength.  And if there is a big difference between your new tippet and the butt of your leader, add two transitions, stepping down 1 or 2 thousandths between these.

3. How do you know how long your transition should be?

I like a minimum of 8 inches for a transition section just so I don’t have to tie on a new one anytime soon.  But if it’s not windy and I really want some delicacy I might make it a foot or even 14 inches long.  Again, make a cast and look at how your leader lands.  Your casting style and the conditions might vary from mine so experiment until you get it right.

4. How long a tippet do you use?  

I can’t tell you the number of times I have fished with a relatively experienced angler and looked at his or her tippet and am shocked to see their tippet at about 8 inches.  When I ask if they think their tippet is OK, they look at it and say “Yeah, I think it’s good enough”.   In my opinion nearly all tippet sections on knotless leaders are too short.  They’re designed to look good when you cast, but a 20” tippet leaves little room for changing flies and it does not help with delicacy and drag reduction.  I use a minimum of four feet for my tippet on leaders from 9 to 12 feet long, and I might go five feet on a 15-footer.  For furled and braided leaders you can even go longer—they’ll straighten a 6-foot tippet on a calm day.

Remember that the object of your tippet is to keep your fly line and the heavier part of your leader from landing too close to the fish.  It’s critical in trout fishing in clear water, and it’s almost as important in fishing for bonefish or snook or stripers on the flats.  And in trout fishing, the longer your tippet, the less likely drag will set in right away.  Plus in nymph fishing a longer tippet sinks a fly quicker because fine diameters have less resistance.  So watch the end of your leader, and play around with it until it looks right.

28 thoughts on “Pro Tips: Four Hot Tips on Tippets”

  1. Wowzers.. these numbers are WAY longer then what i have been using.. Might explain my difficulties.

    Gonna try increasing them Thanks.

  2. So Tom, you use a 5 foot tippet with a 15 foot leader, for a total of 20 feet from the end of your fly line to your fly? How do you ever land a fish that way, or make a short cast for that matter? Or do you mean use the 2 or 3 feet of tippet from the tapered leader, plus another 2 or 3 feet of your own? (In practice, I think you cut off the ‘tippet’ section of the 15′ leader, then tie on your own tippet to the remainder of the leader, so it isn’t really a full 20′, but it might still exceed 15′.)

    When I first got into fly fishing, one of the burning questions I had was whether I needed to tie a tippet to the end of my knotless tapered leader, or whether I could tie a fly directly. At that time I was really uneasy about tying barrel knots and didn’t do it unless necessary. It turns out the answer is YES. In other words, I can do it either way. Nymphs and streamers may not need much of a tippet if they are to be fished on a tight line, while dry flies in complicated currents may need a longer tippet to prevent drag. The leader straight out of the package may be OK for some situations, but be aware of how much shorter it gets after losing or changing a few flies (Tom’s Point 4 above).

  3. Interesting stuff . . . thanks Tom! I feel I’ve been fishing somewhat successfully for a while now I’ve never started the day with such a long tippet . . . I’m glad for this post so I can step up my game and keep learning. I’m excited to hit the water now and see if my fishing improves.

  4. Tom is out of the office, so let me try to clarify. I think when Tom says, “I use a minimum of four feet for my tippet on leaders from 9 to 12 feet long,” he means that, of the 9 to 12 feet, four of that is tippet. He isn’t saying ADD four feet to a 12-footer. Same goes for the 15-foot example: when he’s using a 15-foot leader, the last 5 feet is the tippet. Does that make sense?

  5. I believe the above picture of the blood knot is incorrect since both tag ends come through on the same side. I believe they should be opposite each other.

  6. Haha, Rick is right. That blood knot won’t hold very well. Great post though. Always learning from Orvis!

  7. Hahaha! Great blood knot blooper! Good info otherwise… Time to try the 4-6 foot tippet next time I fish in less windy conditions (which is rare).

  8. I agree that it will hold, but the illustration is incorrect. The one thing I have learned in fly fishing is trying to pay attention to the small details. Especially in knot tying.

  9. Thanks for the post Tom and the clarification Phil. Does this change when fishing with a sinking tip? I have a 12 ft sinking tip on a 7wt 9 foot rod. I’ve been using 10 ft leader (including tippet) but it seems long and usually drag the bottom (and loose too many flys). Any suggestions? Should I shorten my sinking tip and lengthen the leader/tippet?

    1. Mason,
      If you’re hanging up with a 12′ sink tip you may be fishing water that is too shallow or slow for that much sinking line. Consider shortening the tip to 9′, trying a line with a slower sink rate like the Access Class III, or use flies with less weight like beads instead of cones..

      Generally speaking when using a sink tip or full sinking line it’s actually counter productive to use a leader much longer than say 6′ or so. Longer leaders will allow the fly to ride back up into the water column so you want your fly close to the sinking line to keep everything nice and deep. I’ll often just run 3-4ft of straight 2x from the loop on the line if I’m fishing streamers. It doesn’t cast as pretty as a tapered leader but you’re not really looking for a delicate presentation here. You could probably put a foot of 20lb in there to help step down from the fly line to the fly and the rig might turn over a little nicer.

  10. I like the knot shown above. I feel like it keeps things nice and linear as apposed to some of the other knots I’ve seen. Great tips on leader and tippet. Thanks once again. Keep up the great work.

  11. Hey everyone,

    I’m on a serious budget when it comes to almost everything. I’m a college student so anywhere I can save a buck I will. I mention this because I use loop to loop connections between leader and tippet. The reason is when my tippet has gotten short over time, or I snap it off fighting a fish (or a tree), eventually I would have to cut the knot connecting the leader to the tippet, thus shortening the leader overtime, and messing up the transition. So I use loop to loop connections so that once I do need new tippet I can slide it out without having to cut the leader, which saves me some money.

    I hear a lot people say things about loop to loop connections reducing power transition and quality of presentation, but I haven’t had any real issues with it. Is there anything else that I should be aware of with loop to loop connections or am I alright saving a few bucks instead of using say a blood knot.



    1. Jack,

      If you’re fishing nymphs, you should look into purchasing a package of tippet rings. I find they’re a lot cleaner than loop to loop connections and they accomplish the same thing you’re getting here, without getting caught up on moss or weeds as badly as a loop to loop connection.

      I think the last time I checked, they were about $8 for a package of 10, but it’s been a while so I can’t guarantee that.

    2. You should look into Tippit rings. Your leader gets tied onto the Tippit ring and then you tie your tippit onto the ring so when you have to change out tippit material you never loose any leader length.

  12. I have been using Orvis leader material for years to construct my own leaders. I use the formulas that came with the kit. It would be a great addition to this posting on leaders to show readers how to construct knotted leaders based upon the tapered concept of strong thick base all the way down to the slim tippet.

  13. OK so to start just buy a 12′ leader and use no tippet! ( 9′ 5wt helios). When you’ve used about 12″ (by tying flies on…wastage) just add a bit of tippet material.

  14. I am a Registered Master Maine Guide living in the Western Maine mountains The Fish and Game Club I used to work for was Orvis Endorsed. Generally you guide fairly inexperienced anglers, so I want to keep it simple. I favor loop to loop connections for tippets. Quick to change, so anglers will try more flies if one isn’t working. It is interesting to note that so many people will travel many miles to get to a prime destination – the lodge and guides are not cheap – and do not want to change a $5 leader or a pennies worth of tippet. That also makes it easier to change a pre-tied dropper setup. I have not seen any refusal problems with this method – Maybe in warmer waters with Browns, although I have fished Spruce creek in PA. successfully. And those browns are fussy.

  15. I use tippet rings instead of loop to loop. Start out with the leader and snip off 2 feet of the end. Save the 2 foot piece. Add a ring to the end of the remaining leader then attach the 2 foot piece to the ring. After tying on a few flies, snip off what’s left of the 2 foot length and add a new piece of 2 foot tippet. Tie on a fly and start to fish. Works great for me. Tie on the ring and the 2 foot piece of tippet with clinch knots.

  16. You should look into Tippit rings. Your leader gets tied onto the Tippit ring and then you tie your tippit onto the ring so when you have to change out tippit material you never loose any leader length.

  17. I am thoroughly confused! I have looked at this Blood Knot pic over and over to find the mistake. It appears the tag lines enter and exit the properly. Has the pic been corrected? Do I misunderstand the knot? Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Please respond as I do KNOT want to loose a fish due to the fly coming untied.

    1. Hi Carl,

      What the commenter is referring to is the fact that the two tag ends should go through the loop in opposite directions. I think that the illustrator simply goofed on this one. The tag end on the left should enter the loop from BEHIND the top part of the loop, so it ends up parallel to the other tag end. Does that make sense?

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