Choosing the right tippet is a crucial step in fly fishing for anglers targeting everything from trout to tarpon. Tippet is your final connection between you and the fish. With so many sizes and types of tippet available, it can be easy to make a mistake. For instance heavy fluorocarbon tippet and small dry flies aren’t a good combination. Nor is light monofilament tippet the best choice for anglers casting bulky streamers to hefty trout. It’s always helpful to be prepared with a thorough selection of tippet sizes and materials no matter the species you are after. Different fly fishing methods, different flies and different fish require specific tippets for the best performance and catch rates.
Tippet comes in two basic materials, monofilament and fluorocarbon.
Monofilament tippet is a nylon material that has been around a long time and is still a very effective tippet choice. This material tends to be more supple and less dense than fluorocarbon. It is a good choice for long leaders and realistic presentations with dry flies. Monofilament is well-suited for anglers who build their own leaders. It is also less expensive than fluorocarbon and covers basic fly fishing needs well. Durability is fairly good but monofilament tippet should be checked regularly for nicks and abrasions. Monofilament also has a certain amount of inherent stretch which may protect lighter tippets from breaking better than fluorocarbon.
Fluorocarbon tippet material is much different from nylon monofilament. This material is stiffer and much more abrasion resistant than mono. It also stands up to sun better which will break down and degrade monofilament over time. A key advantage to monofilament for anglers lies in the fact that it refracts much less light than mono making it nearly invisible to fish. Because it does not absorb water and is very dense, fluorocarbon sinks better than monofilament. This makes it a better choice for subsurface nymph and streamer presentations. It is also very abrasion resistant so anglers targeting bass in heavy cover, toothy critters like northern pike or bonefish and permit around sharp coral heads should make fluorocarbon their first choice in tippet material. Fluorocarbon is nearly three times as expensive as monofilament so use it wisely.
Choosing the right tippet size is also an important consideration for many anglers. Tippet size is generally categorized by diameter and pound test breaking strength. There are designations of 0x through 8X and the smaller the number the heavier the breaking strength. Most trout anglers should carry a selection of 2X through 6x which is the equivalent of 12lb through 2lb test. For general trout and freshwater fishing a simple formula is good place to start. Simply divide the size of your fly by three and you’ll be very close to the correct tippet size. For instance a size #12 Royal Wulff would require 4x tippet. This is a general formula that might require a little wiggle room. During high or off color water conditions, anglers should consider increasing tippet size and strength. While low, clear water and spooky fish might demand lighter, thinner tippet sizes.
For heavy duty freshwater fly fishing and most saltwater fly fishing, tippet is categorized by the pound test breaking strength. Anglers may need everything from 10 lb test to 60 lb but ultra-spooky bonefish in ankle-deep water, for instance might even require a long, light 8lb tippet while big toothy pike or massive billfish may require a length of 80lb test shock tippet at the end of their leader.
Some anglers who fish for predators like sharks, pike, barracuda or bluefish also carry knottable wire tippet or wire bite guards. Durability is such that this material is impervious to the sharpest teeth. However, the disadvantage may be a less lifelike fly action and the fish may shy away from the more visible wire. I fly fish for big northern pike quite a bit and prefer heavy fluorocarbon tippet over wire but when a huge wahoo or mako shark inhales your fly, wire might be the better choice.
With the right selection of tippet sizes and materials, anglers will be prepared for whatever fly fishing conditions they encounter and be able to adapt to changing conditions as needed. Be sure to check your tippet selection regularly and update as needed. It can be really frustrating problem to be faced with dozens of trout rising to a size 22 trico mayfly and find the lightest tippet you have is 4X fluoro that won’t even fit through the hook eye of your tiny parachute dry fly.
For more help on choosing the tippet stop by the Vail Valley Anglers fly shop or take a look online and check out our huge selection of tippet sizes and materials.
Brody Henderson, Guide and Content Writer