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Saltwater: “Tippet In Your Favor”

by Chico Fernández
photos by Chico Fernández
Make the most of your leader's weakest link with these basic principles of tippet selection.
Fly Fishing Tippets

Slicked-off conditions require a longer, softer-landing tippet than when fishing in choppy water. But when the wind picks up, try a shorter, heavier tippet to help turn over the fly.

ON A WINDY MORNING a couple years ago, a friend and I were chasing reds when a spring squall hit. There had been plenty of fish on the flats, and the tide was rising to the right stage, so we endured the weather. There was just one problem: The breeze prohibited my cast from turning over. I was fishing a 10-foot leader and had added three feet of 15-pound tippet. After some frustrating fishing, I shortened the tippet to 18 inches and soon managed to land a red.

An hour later, the rain was gone and so was the wind, and we fished over flat calm water. We also had some sun for great visibility.

The tide had continued to rise, and in order to fish near the bottom, I tied on a size 2 Spawning Shrimp with big lead eyes. Each cast broke the slick calm with a loud plop. After a few tries and a few spooked reds, I tied on the same pattern but with much smaller bead-chain eyes. The lighter fly didn’t spook the fish, but it didn’t sink well enough to reach their level, either.

All along, I knew that the short fat tippet drastically reduced the fly’s speed of descent, but I didn’t change it, because I was being lazy. Finally, tired of not catching fish, I added a three-foot piece of 10-pound tippet and tied on the heavy fly.

The tippet has to be supple enough to let the fly swim naturally, thin enough to be inconspicuous, but at the same time, strong enough to be able to land the fish in reasonable time.

Now my leader was about 13 feet long, including a thin three-foot tippet, and in the flat calm day turning it over was no problema. For the next hour, every soft quick-sinking presentation produced a hookup. So, don’t be lazy. Redesign your tippet’s length diameter according to conditions.

The tippet is the weakest, thinnest, and last section of your leader. One side attaches to the leader and, barring the need for a bite or shock tippet, the other end attaches to the fly. The tippet has to be supple enough to let the fly swim naturally, thin enough to be inconspicuous, but at the same time, strong enough to be able to land the fish in reasonable time. You need to consider all these factors in selecting a tippet to suit the circumstance.

Tippet Length

If you follow one of the many leader formulas, such as the popular 50/30/20 (5 0 percent butt section, 30 percent midsection, and 20 percent tippet) a 10-foot leader would give you about two feet of tippet-20 percent of 10 feet. However, as you saw in the anecdote above, the fishing conditions can dictate something altogether different.

On very calm days, where fish are very spooky and the fly turns over easily, I will often lengthen the tippet to three feet or more. A presentation made with a long tippet will land softer and sink much faster than a cast made with a short one. And a streamer such as a Sea-Ducer or Crystal Shrimp will swim behind an extra-long tippet as if it’s unattached, especially if it’s combined with a loop knot.

On windy days, when the fish may not be so spooky but turning over the fly is difficult, I may shorten the tippet to 18 inches or less. A leader that is mostly butt section with a small tippet will turn over easily in the wind. I’ll also shorten the tippet if I am casting a heavy fly or a wind-catching popper or muddler. Big flies or poppers usually don’t require so delicate a presentation as a size 6 bonefish fly.

If you’re fishing over a dark bottom to a redfish or big bonefish that’s busy tailing in heavy grass, you can get away with just a couple of feet of tippet. In these conditions, the fish do not have much visibility beyond a few inches. But on a bright white-sand flat with clear water, you may want to use a longer tippet, even if it is a bit windy. Under these conditions, tailing fish will have great visibility and cruising fish even greater.

Also, if you are chumming in deep water or having problems enticing a wise fish to take a fly, a long tippet may help a lot. I’ve managed to fool a few yellowtail snapper with long tippets when everything else failed.

Strength

The International Game Fish Association (IGFA) has world-record categories in salt water from 2-pound to 20-pound test tippet. The tippet you’ll use for the game fish mentioned here will be 10-, 12-, and 16-pound.

For most bonefishing in the Bahamas, Belize, and Mexico, where the hook size is mostly size 4, I find 10-pound tippet to suffice in most instances — more than strong enough to handle any bonefish there yet thin and supple enough to allow a small bonefish fly to swim naturally.

For Keys permit, use 12-pound tippet, which is thin enough to let a weighed crab fly sink quickly to the bottom and more than strong enough to land the biggest permit you can find.

If you are using a spoon fly for reds or black drum, a thicker mono or fluorocarbon will not allow the fly to dance so much as a thinner and suppler tippet. And on a very windy day, when casting is difficult, a thicker stiffer tippet will get less wind knots.

Often, I will go extra light. If I am fishing the flats for reds or bonefish with a 5-or 6-weight rod, I may go as light as 8-pound because the flies are small. The light tippet will help the patterns swim naturally. And, to help the light tippet stand up, I won’t pressure a hooked fish as much as I would with an 8-weight outfit.

On the other hand, if I’m fishing areas with big redfish, such as Louisiana, I may go as high as a 20-pound tippet. The really big reds can abrade the tippet during the fight. Still, I’d rather fish with 16-pound-test, because a big 2/0 fly swims better and sinks faster on the smaller tippet. You can take any large red in open water with a little time and good fighting technique. I caught an IGFA world-record redfish (42 pounds 5 ounces) on 12-pound tippet. I think the fight lasted around 20 minutes.

Intangibles

A lot has been written about matching the color of mono to the color of the water. In murky waters, matching the colors does produce plenty of strikes. But since I fish in a great variety of conditions and water colors, I have long settled on clear for my all-around color, and I feel I do pretty well. Frankly, it’s going to take a lot to make me change on this one. Still, I am open for debates over an adult beverage — color-mono advocates pay.

Today we have a great variety of fluorocarbon materials that show little glare, are nearly invisible, and are abrasion resistant. However, fluorocarbon is much stiffer than monofilament, a trait than can decrease the action of a fly. And to date, connecting knots in fluorocarbon are weaker than in mono.

One last thought on tippets: Tippet material is cheap, probably the cheapest item in fly fishing. So, don’t try to save money on the weakest link.

Fluorocarbon sinks faster than monofilament, for better or worse. I have tried a full fluoro leader in waters less than a foot deep, and fully dressed Sea-Ducers buried on the bottom among the sea grasses, no matter how fast I stripped. And these patterns usually do not sink very fast at all. On the other hand, in areas with more than two feet of water, or if you’re using a sulking line, the fast-sinking properties of a full fluorocarbon leader are great.

A good compromise employed by many anglers is to use fluoro only as tippet material and the rest of the leader in mono. This way, the fly does not sink too fast and you have the advantage of a line that’s less visible. Some of my fly-fishing friends swear by this combination. But since monofilament is more supple and lets the fly swim more freely, I am still a mono fan in shallow waters.

Connections

The weakest knot in most anglers’ leaders is generally the leader-to-tippet connection. So here is a place in need of a real strong connection. The simple blood knot, which works fine for the rest of the leader, does not hold up when pushed to the max with the weak tippet. To tie a stronger connection for big bones, big reds, or permit, use an improved blood knot. That is, double the tippet, and then tie a normal blood knot, making six turns with the thin double line and three turns with the thicker heavier line. This makes an excellent connection that maintains 90 percent of the line’s breaking strength.

If you want or need a 100 percent connection, either because you are using very light tippet or going for an IGFA world record, then tie a Bimini with the tippet, and take the double line created by the Bimini and use it to tie an improved blood knot to the leader. Again the six- to three- turn ratio works great. You should get a 100 percent connection; the tippet will break before the knot.

Another very strong connection is to connect the tippet to the leader with a couple of Duncan loops (often called Uni-Knot). Make a loop about an inch long on the tippet and on the last section of the leader, using six or seven turns. Now simply loop-to-loop both ends to create a very good and strong connection. However, I don’t use loop-to-loop connections very much because, compared with other knots, they are not very wind resistant, catch more grass in the flats, and are more visible.

Finally, you can also use two Duncan loops or Uni-Knots tied back-to-back and pulled to join tippet and leader. This is a very good connection for attaching fluorocarbon tippet to a mono leader. Some of my fluoro-tippet friends have used this connection with great results in the past few years.

Also, when using heavy or stiff tippets, straighten the tippet so that it has the least effect on the swimming action of the fly.

One last thought on tippets: Tippet material is cheap, probably the cheapest item in fly fishing. So, don’t try to save money on the weakest link, and above all, don’t be plain lazy. When in doubt, change to a fresh piece of tippet.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
 
Chico Fernández is a renowned fly fishing instructor, lecturer, and author who developed or helped develop many of the modern saltwater flyfishing techniques and fly patterns in use today. He is also on the editorial board of MidCurrent. Chico's most recent book is Fly-Fishing for Bonefish (Stackpole Press, 192 pages, August 2004). This article was first published in Saltwater Fly Fishing Magazine.
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  • rarf raider

    “… The weakest knot in most anglers’ leaders is generally the leader-to-tippet connection…”

    Blood knot – gotcha, Chico.

    I must say that I am a little surprised that the double surgeon’s knot didn’t make an appearance in this article. It works quite well as a leader/tippet connection, in both salt and freshwater.

  • Frank

    As mentioned by rarf raider, I use a normal double surgeons knot for a mono-mono connection, and a triple surgeons knot (one extra turn through the loop)
    to connect fluorocarbon to either a mono leader or a fluorocarbon leader. I noticed that all of the guides I fished with at Christmas Island were also using a triple surgeons knot. I like it because it is fast and strong.