How To Choose Fly Fishing Leader and Tippet

The leader that connects your fly to your line can sometimes make or break a day fishing.

For the uninitiated, it seems like it should be as simple as matching the weight of your leader to the fish you want to catch. But with fly casting, balance and timing are also critical factors. Your leader can make all the difference between you expertly dropping your fly over a big trout, or you dropping it flat at your feet after your cast line bunches up in mid-air. Your fly fishing leader may be the most important piece of your entire setup. If it’s not right, nothing else will work like it’s supposed to—no matter how much you spent on your rod or reel.

Intimidated? The good news is that once you have a rod, reel, fly line, and have chosen your fly setup, the choice of what leader to use is pretty much made for you. The trick is in deciphering that code. 

What’s the Difference Between Leader and Tippet?

For starters: Leader is the piece of fishing line that connects your thick, colored fly line to your fly. If you’re used to fishing with a spinning reel, it looks like typical fishing line: clear plastic filament. 

But it’s more complicated than a simple fishing line. By definition a leader has two parts: a butt end and tippet. The butt section attaches and lives closest to your fly line, and then tapers to smaller diameters (we’ll get to that) as it extends for roughly two feet to the end of the leader: That’s the tippet. This is where you actually tie your fly. 

When you pick up a packet of leader, you get the whole shebang: Butt section tapering to tippet in one continuous piece of line. Tie that onto your fly line, attach a fly, and you’re good to go. But periodically, as you fish, snip off and replace a fly, snap a line in a tree, and just go about the business of fly fishing, you’re going to lose pieces of your tippet. So, rather than replacing your entire leader (the butt section is probably still good), you can also purchase separate spools of only leader that you can tie onto your butt section to complete your leader once again. 

A man holding a fishing bag, he is waring khaki shorts and a white hat, while sitting under a tree on a creekside.

Leader Length

The most obvious element of leader selection is length. The simplest way to go is to choose a leader that’s roughly as long as your fly rod. Typical 8-foot, 6-inch rods will take a 9-foot leader while shorter stream-fishing rods will need something shorter. Bonus: This makes it easy to see when you’ve trimmed a bunch of your tippet off and might want to add some more. 

Are there exceptions? In super-clear water where you might want to get the obvious fly line farther from your fish, opt for a longer-than-standard leader. You might also want a longer leader in lakes for longer casts or deeper-sinking flies. 

Leader Thickness

Any packet of leader will put a number with an X front and center. This refers to the diameter of the tippet end (the narrow end). Leaders range from 0X to 8X. The larger the number, the smaller the tippet diameter: 8X will be incredibly thin, 0X will be seriously beefy. (The same rule applies to fly hooks, where a bigger number means a smaller hook and a smaller number means a bigger hook.)

While a thicker tippet does have a higher “test” strength, the size tippet you need is primarily dependent on the size, weight, and wind resistance of the fly you’re trying to cast. Thin tippet can’t support a big fly, and a light fly can’t drive a thicker, heavy leader. In either case, you’re probably going to end up with a knotted mess. 

To pick the right size leader, take the size of the fly you’re hoping to cast and divide it by three or four to get your tippet diameter. Fishing with a size 16 fly? You need 5X or 4X tippet. That range gives you a little wiggle room. If your size 16 fly is a lightweight dry fly, you can err on the lighter end and use 5X tippet. But if the same size fly is a heavy nymph, you might opt for the 4X tippet. 

Starting with fly size to select your leader also makes it easy to match your target fish. Since bigger, heavier flies often yield bigger species of fish, having a thicker leader will also mean a stronger “test” weight. At the same time, the success of smaller dry flies often comes down to presentation—where having a smaller, lighter leader will present your fly much more delicately onto the surface of the water. 

Monofilament vs. Fluorocarbon

The actual material that makes up your leader is another important consideration based on your specific type of fishing. Monofilament will float, which makes it the obvious choice for dry flies. It’s also much cheaper than its counterpart. 

Fluorocarbon leaders are more clear, more expensive, and they sink. That makes them better suited for nymphing or fishing in super-clear water with spook-able fish. 

Other Things to Look For

If you plan on trying different sizes of flies during a day of fishing, you’ll have a much easier time swapping out leaders that have a loop pre-made in the butt end. That allows you to simply thread the tippet through the matching loop in your fly line to connect the two, rather than tying and cutting knots. 

Before you head out, consider having a selection of different leaders and tippet. That will make it easy for you to choose the right combination based on your particular situation. You can switch from long to short bases on the water you find, change diameters based on the flies you’re casting, and replenish the tippet you trim off—or move between monofilament or fluorocarbon depending on whether you’re fishing dry flies or nymphs (or both!). 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.