Mike Pawlawski
February 6, 2023

What is Tippet for Fly Fishing?

Learn the basics and catch more fish!

There are a huge variety of leader and tippet materials to choose from.

You may own the best fly rod, fly reel, fly line, and flies in the world, but without a good leader and tippet material you'd never catch a fish.

Unless you live in Florida, bugs are small, for the most part. Since trout eat bugs, fly fishermen needed a way to beat them at their game. That's when a genius invented the fly rod and fly line.

To cast a fly, you transfer energy from the rod down the line to carry a little piece of fluff a pretty long way. But we still needed a way to present that fly like a natural insect or else it was all for nothing.

Let's be honest, If you cast and your fly and line lands on the surface like a ton of bricks you're not likely to get trout or most other fish to eat it.

In fly fishing, the leader and tippet are the transition between the fly line and the fly. By decreasing the size of the leader from very thick to very fine, an ingenious angler solved the problem of presentation.

Modern fly fishing leaders and tippet have come a long way since their invention. Nowadays they come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, materials, colors and even specialties (like euro nymphing or dry fly). 

Where the first leaders were opaque, modern leader and tippet materials are clear and create a nearly invisible transition that can fool even wary fish.

The other reason for having a leader and tippet is to transfer energy efficiently from the fly line to the fly. This will help your line roll over and straighten out and ideally, create the finish to a beautiful casting loop. Modern leaders help us develop more precise casting. But more on that later.

With those two main purposes in mind manufacturers have produced a wide assortment of products to meet the demands of modern fly fishermen and women. 

Before we go off on all the fun stuff let’s define the difference between the leader and the tippet.

Smaller flies, larger fish, monofilament lines or fluoro? Just a few of the variables in leader and tippet selection.

What is the difference between a leader and a tippet?

Line weight plays a part when selecting leaders.

Fly Fishing Leaders

I started fly fishing when I was 10 years old. When it came to rigging a fly rod I learned a lot of it from the owner at the Silver Lake Cabin Store in the Eastern Sierras.

My dad exposed me to all kinds of fishing. I tied all of my own knots for both fresh water and salt and I selected our baits and lures when we fished together. I studied every article I could find in Field and Stream and Sports Afield to learn more about fishing. For a 10 year old I felt pretty competent with gear and rigging. So it blew my mind when the shop owner told me I needed leader and tippet for fly fishing. "What is the difference between a fly fishing leader and tippet?" I asked, thinking with my 10 year old wallet as much as my brain. His explanation made total sense. 

The easiest explanation is that the leader is the thinner clear material that is attached to the end of your thick colored fly line. It is usually a heavier weight where it attaches to your fly line (the butt section) and will get thinner at the opposite end where the tippet attaches. If you're familiar with to spin fishing or bait casting, the leader serves a similar purpose to the fishing monofilament or fluorocarbon you would use as the last couple feet of your rig when you use braided line.

Old school fly fishers would marvel at today's leaders. Everything you need to fool picky fish.

Essentially the leader is the connection from your fly line to your fly. Leaders come in several configurations. Some are tapered, some are level. Modern leaders are one piece and tapered from butt to tip. Old school leaders were created by tying different lengths of varying line diameters together with blood knots or the like create the taper.

There are monofilament leaders and fluorocarbon leaders as well as other specialty materials. Solid leaders and braided leaders are also on the list.

The end goal of any well thought out fly fishing leader is to connect your fly to your fly line and help you catch fish.

The butt section of the leader (the end that attaches to your fly line) is generally made of a thicker diameter. It will have a heavier pound test rating. Many leaders will start with a 20 pound test butt section. From there they'll taper down to 4 or 6 lb. test. Fly fishing leader length varies by design from a short end of 3 feet to a long end of 15-20 depending on the application. Average length will be 7.5- 9 feet. If you're just getting started this is a good length. You may have seen materials in fly shops that say 4X, 5X, or more. I will explain the 'X' rating used in fly fishing in a little bit.

Fly Fishing Tippets

Strong, fine tippets means you can catch larger fish with a more delicate presentation.

The fly fishing tippet is the final length of line that attaches to the end of the leader. On most leaders the tippet is lighter than the leader. The exception is bite tippet for salt water and toothy critters. Regardless of the diameter, the tippet is where you tie your fly or flies if you're using a multi fly rig.

Ideally, you'll use the strongest tippet that doesn’t spook your target species. For Bass and salmon this may be 12-15 lb test ( 2X to 0X more on that in a minute). For trout it may be 4X-7X depending on how selective the fish are.  By using tippet as the final length of line on your overall leader you can maintain the same length of leader and retie the tippet section once it breaks off or gets too short for the technique or application that you are using, i.e. dry fly fishing drop shot nymphing etc.

“Tippet material,” or "tippet," generally comes on small spools that make it easy to carry and give you easy access to the line when it’s time to tie on. Anglers that want custom leaders generally tie their leaders from sections of line from these tippet material spools.

A convenient way to carry every size tippet you need.

The diameter of tippet material is measured in Xs, 0X, 2X, 4X, 5X, etc. This is known as the "tippet class". They can also be described in pounds breaking strength (also "tippet clas s" especially in salt water fishing), like normal fishing line.

Commercially available tapered leaders are generally designated by their length and the "class", the X in this case describes the diameter of the narrowest section of the leader. So a 9 foot leader that ends in 4X tippet would be described as a 9’ 4X.

Now let's dive into how you measure tippet breaking strength.

Tippet Thickness - the "X" Factor

As a little sidebar, I think it’s funny that tippet material is “X Rated”. I like to believe that was an inside joke. If you look at the names of modern flies you know fly fishermen have a twisted sense of humor… so it’s entirely possible.

The ‘X’ rating system for fly fishing leader and tippet can be confusing. Once you get a grasp of the basics you'll develop a tippet range for different applications in your fly fishing arsenal.

An important point to remember is that the X’s in the tipped designation represent the diameter of the line. It is not a measure of breaking strength. To give you an idea, industry standard for 3X tippet is .008 of an inch in diameter. 4X is .007” and 5X is .006”. As you probably noticed, the higher the number preceeding the X, the thinner the diameter of line. Generally speaking

Genearlly, the thicker the tippet is the higher the strength of the tippet material. That said, not all tippets are created equal. A 5X material from a Company 1 may be a 5lb. breaking strength while a 5x from Company 2 may break at 5.5 lbs. Different companies use different formulations and processes to manufacture their tippet materials. As a result the breaking strength can vary up to or even over 10% depending on the brand. Remember just because they’re the same diameter doesn’t mean two different companies tippet materials are the same tensile strength.

Luckily, most companies also include their lines breaking strength rating on the outside label as well. The tippet X rating runs from 03X at the strongest and thickest end to 8x at the thinnest. Here’s a table with X rating, diameter, application, approximate breaking strength and species. 


2X- 6X will cover most trout fishing situations. Choose the right size tippet for your species.

Making it Easy:

So how do you determine tippet size or "X" rating for your particular use? As a fly fisherman I try to avoid math but this one is easy. Take the size of the fly and divide by 3 or 4. If the fish don’t seem too wary divide by 4. In this case a size 16 PT would give you a 4X tippet. A size 20 PMD dry would yield a 5X. If the fish are acting spooky divide by 3. That same PT would be a 5X or 6X and the size 20 PMD would get either a 6X or 7X since they fall between X’s.

I always miss heavier to start for bigger flies. A size 2 streamer divided by 4 is .5 so I’d use 0X to start. Wary fish can get leader shy, but make sure your presentation, depth, bug selection fly size and everything else are right before switching from a 4X to a 5X or 5X to a 6X. 

Remember, a stronger tippet helps you play and land the fish faster and release it unharmed. The divide by 3 or 4 rule is just a guide. As you gain experience you’ll find your slot for tippet size and it will serve you well.

In saltwater use the heaviest tippet you can get away with. Same goes for fishing a sinking line.

For trout a general rule is, if you’re fishing dries on the surface or dead drifting nymphs below an indicator or floating line, you’ll use a reasonably long tapered leader and an appropriate amount of the right sized tippet to handle the job.

If you’re chasing bruisers, casting big flies or facing other challenging environments you’ll want to go heavy. If you’re casting size 20 spinners at sipping trout in smooth, flat water 6X or 7X might be the call.

Larger flies like streamers, big nymphs, and large dries like Salmonflies or Hoppers call for heavier tippet. If you’re fishing behind a sink-tip or a full sinking line then a shorter heavier leader is also the ticket. How short you ask? You can go as short as 3 feet for streamers depending on the clarity of the water and the amount of debris and current. It also depends on the size of the fly you’re trying to turn over and the size of the fish that you’re chasing. For bigger nymphs and dry flies I use shorter leaders that will help me turn the bugs over on the cast. Somewhere between 8-10 feet is usually a good rule.

If I’m fishing a smaller fly size for trout, I generally start with a 7.5’ leader that tapers to 4X. I tie another 18”-24” section of 4X to that with a tippet ring or blood knot to give me a starting point should I break off. I build out from there with blood knots. 

If I’m fishing drop shot nymphs, I can tie in 18”-24” of 4X or 5X for the second piece of tippet. I would tie the first bug (the dropper) to the tag of a blood knot at the second joint and run the point fly and split shot off the bottom. (see diagram)

A great Setup for nymph fishing.

When all is said and done, after the knots, this leader design gives me 10-10.5’ of tapered leader with a business end where my flies are tied that sinks quickly and rolls well on the bottom.

If I’m throwing dries, I can tie on 3’-4’ of 5X or 6X tippet after the first section of 4X (see diagram). That gives me about 12’ of leader with tippet designed for a delicate fly presentation on the smaller size fly. I talk more about fishing dry flies here.

As with all fishing advice, these are general guidelines. Any number of factors on the river can change the setup. Remember to choose a tippet setup that can support your fly. You don’t want your tippet fold and wilt under the weight of the fly or to act so stiff that presentation is poor. Most tippet sizes can handle a range of three or four fly sizes. 

These selection criteria can get you dialed in to the right tippet size.

  • Dirty or cloudy water, windy conditions, and big fish call for heavier tippets.
  • Clear water, tricky currents, selective or spooky fish, and delicate dry fly presentations call for finer tippets
  • Average or normal conditions, call for mid-range tippet diameter. (this is where you’ll live most of the time)


From 3x to 5x will be the most common diameters of tippet

Finally, smaller/lighter tippets create less drag and help with a more natural drift and presentation. That means you’ll probably get more fish to eat. But lighter tippets mean more break-offs, less fish landed, and more money spent on flies. This math equation comes down to your willingness to re-tie and your desire to keep flies.  

Leader and Tippet Materials

No discussion on leader and tippets is complete without talking about different leader materials. By that I mean chemical makeup. 

People may tell you there are various types of materials. Which is true. But unless you go down the esoteric rabbit hole of extreme specialty fly fishing there are functionally 2 different materials for 99% of the leaders and tippets commercially available to anglers today. Monofilament and fluorocarbon, or mono and fluoro, have different characteristics that make them better suited for different tasks.  I won’t get into all of the chemical engineering that gives each material it’s characteristics but these are the main differences between monofilament nylon and fluorocarbon.

Traditional nylon absorbs water which makes it less abrasion resistant which leads to more line snapping


The definition of monofilament is “a single strand of man made fiber”. For fishing monofilament is made of nylon. It’s main characteristics are that it is strong and somewhat flexible or stretchy, extremely clear, and it floats.


Flotation is a benefit when you’re casting dry flies but is less beneficial when you’re using nymphs or other subsurface flies.

Mono’s inherent flexibility allows you to present your bugs with a more natural drift, even in difficult currents. The stretch also means that knots tend to hold better leading to less knot failure. Mono is also more forgiving when you're playing fish because of its elasticity.

Finally, monofilament is cheaper to produce than fluorocarbon, which means it costs less for the angler.

Catch spookier fish and land large trout by using mono for your dry fly fishing.


Some of monofilament’s characteristics are disadvantages depending on the technique you’re using. The structure of mono means that it transmits light more effectively than fluoro. When you’re fishing subsurface flies that's a drawback. Mono becomes more visible by transmitting light from the surface down it's strand into the water. That makes it more visible than fluorocarbon, which can present a problem for leader-shy fish. Mono is softer than fluoro (hence the stretch), which means it’s less abrasions resistant. If you're fishing subsurface contact with rocks and other underwater structure will weaken the line, leading to more break-offs. Monofilament also breaks down under UV exposure. As a result, your line doesn't last as long as fluoro.



Fluoro is also more durable because it is abrasion resistant and stiffer. If you fish with nymphs, and you should, check this out, fluoro is better for your tippets and leaders.

People have claimed that fluorocarbon is virtually invisible underwater due to the way it refracts light. I have spent a good amount under water with a mask on watching how flies and fly line act. Fluoro is not invisible. It is, however, less obvious which is a good thing. It also sinks, so another bonus for nymphs and streamers. 


Fluoro's drawbacks include less stretch so knots need more attention. Knots are more likely to slip with fluoro.

I talked about fluorocarbon's durability. It takes thousands of years for it to break down. Make sure you're not leaving line streamside, a good practice no matter which material you choose. It will last a long time.

Fluorocarbon is more expensive than mono.

Some tippets can match different lighting conditions

My Kit-Be a Prepper

Many fly fishers carry both monofilament and fluorocarbon leaders and tippet in their packs. For trout I carry 7.5' 3X fluoro tapered leaders and 0X to 5X fluoro tippet in my pack at all times. I back that up with a couple 7.5' or 9' 3x mono tapered leaders and 2X-7X mono tippet spools. With this kit I'm prepared for almost any trout fishing situation. Just a snip here and a knot there and I can get to any length and taper of leader I want.

No braided leaders here.  I try to be a minimalist when it comes to Leaders and tippets.

For the Salty Crew

In saltwater, on a heavier fly line, I'm almost exclusively using fluoro except for a few specific applications where I use "hard mono" or a specific gauge monofilament line.

How long should a leader and tippet be?

Dry Flies call for longer leaders but a shorter leader is perfect for pulling streamers.

For trout, if you're throwing nymphs or wet flies, a good place to start is 7.5' of leader and 2-3' of added tippet. 10' overall is a manageable length. This setup will get you going. For dries, I like to go a little longer. Start with a 9' 4x mono tapered leader and add 2-4' of thinner tippet.

For streamer fishing a good starting point is 6 foot leader behind a sink tip fly line. It can be a flat leader or tapered but the tippet should be heavier based on fly size.

Setting up Your Leader and Tippet

The proper goal for any leader setup is to create an efficient taper from the butt section to the fly. A good leader transfers energy from the fly line to the leader and tippet in order to straighten out at the finish of the cast.

There are about as many opinions on leader length and design as there are trout streams in America. I recommend a simple solution. Start with a knotless tapered leader (like these) from a brand you like and choose a 7-9 footer that tapers down to 3X or 4X. You can tie your preferred tippet size to the end like the leader I showed you above.

One word of caution. You can only drop about 2 tippet sizes per junction or else the smaller tippet will “hinge and create awkward casts and presentations.

If you’re fishing streamers you can go a little heavier, like a 2X or 3X and tie straight to the leader itself. Fish this setup and if you break off or retie just keep the same leader until it feels too short for your liking. Then, build it back with added tippet and start all over.

Tying It All Together

Connecting leader and tippet together does matter, learn the knots that work for this combination

Here are the key points to remember about your leader, tippet, and fly line:

  • Leader and tippet are thinner, and transparent
  • Fly line is thicker and stiffer to transfer energy,
  • Fly lines come in a variety different colors and applications
  • Leader connects to the fly line and the tippet and tippet connects to the fly
  • The thick section of the fly fishing leader attaches directly to the end of the fly line
  • The thin end attaches to the tippet
  • Leaders range from 3'-15'
  • Average leader length is 7.5'- 9'
  • Tippet length is a personal choice and can be under 12" or several feet in length
  • X rating for tippet works like gauge rating. The higher the number preceeding the “X” the finer the tippet


Finishing Thoughts

Leader and tippet selection was a problem for many anglers in decades past. Today, like fly lines, there's an amazing variety and they’re user friendly. So much so, you can fish right off the rack with many of today's leaders.

One closing thought for you on pairing leader and tippet materials. Mono and fluoro don't always play well together because of their varying characteristics. so be mindful if you're using them together. Also, some manufacturers work well with others while some don't. I strongly recommend finding a brand you're comfortable with and learning the unique characteristics of their products. That way you know what to expect from your rig every time.

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