Four Reasons for Tippets and Tapered Leaders
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Question: Why do we use tippet when we could just tie our flies to the points of our tapered leaders, or why not just skip leaders altogether and use tippet only?
— not really Rick
Answer: This question, heavily altered from the original submitted by a fellow named Rick (altering it allowed me to provide a better answer), reminds me of my first fish on a fly. By age 11 or 12, I’d already caught scads of fish on spinning gear but had yet to tie even one fly onto monofilament. I’d been tying flies for some time though, and I stood there ready to start my fly-fishing career with some bushy floater or another in hand. Clasped in my other hand was a bottom-end fiberglass fly rod mounted with a rickety stamped-metal fly reel. The fly line was strung through the rod’s guides. Now what?
I’d read about leaders and even about tippets, but most of it hadn’t added up in my pre-teenage brain. I did have mono fishing line, from a spinning reel, and so I worked out some clumsy knot to connect a few feet of it to the line and then tied the fly onto the other end of the mono with the knot I used for tying on spinners and spoons. I’d already practiced fly casting, so I tossed the fly up where the rush of the creek swept into the big dark pool.
It worked. The trout I caught (black-spotted wild coastal cutthroats, in case you were wondering) may have been dinks, but several of them came to my hand that day. The day I caught my first fish on a fly. A glorious day whose fate hung on a few feet of level, too-thick mono fishing line.
If you want to fish for dink trout in creeks, and you can find some as naïve as those cutthroats I caught back in the 60s, you can probably get away with just some standard tippet (as I got away with just mono fishing line) and you won’t even have to bother with tapered leaders. But if you’re going to fish almost anywhere else for trout I strongly recommend you purchase tippet and tapered leaders both. It’s the 2010s and trout are wiser now than in the 60s, thanks to the practice of catch-and-release. Leaders and tippets are critical elements in convincing trout these days.
And it’s not just about trout; most other fishes—largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, angler-educated bluegills, Pacific salmon, and on and on—are no fools. The odds of convincing many different fishes go up with the use of a proper leader and tippet.
Besides, a good rig (again, leader and tippet) helps make fishing easier—why fight to get the fly out where it belongs when it’s a fight you could avoid, or at least reduce?
None of this really answers your question—actually, questions—not-Rick. But it does provide a little background for the answers. You’ll find your answers under the four points that follow.
#1. Separating Line and Fly
Fly line, no matter how light, is thick and opaque and unnatural, and likely to alarm the fish you hope to catch. What to do about that troublesome line?—put some real distance between it and the fly. Tapered leader and tippet do exactly that. Still, why the tapered leader?
Imagine the energy of a fly cast running down your line in the narrow bend we call a “casting loop.” Now the loop hits the tapered leader. The butt of the leader is stout—it will accept that energy and continue it along. As the leader progressively thins, the energy diminishes until it passes lightly into the tippet. Smooth.
Now imagine that instead of a tapered leader you have a length of heavy level monofilament. Yes, the mono actually will push the tippet and fly out, but smoothly? Nope. The thick, stubby end of the mono will snap around hard. So now you’ve got some pretty rough casting going on, regardless of your casting skills.
Another problem: the end of that level mono is as thick, and it’ll land not far from your fly. Heavy monofilament certainly isn’t as apparent as even a very light fly line, but it’s still pretty easy to spot on the water. A translucent cable. But a tapered leader thinning to a point nearly as fine as your tippet? That’s going to be hard for a trout to spot.
So there are the two main drawbacks with replacing tapered leader with level mono: clumsy casts and alarmed fish.
But even though a tapered leader can help make casting graceful, there are fishing methods that…well, grace just doesn’t apply. Take nymph fishing.
There is no way to throw a pair of weighted nymphs and perhaps some split shot and a paintball-size strike indicator out into a river other than to give the whole goofy procession a brutish sling. Sure, nymph fishers get good at chucking their clumsy rigs, but it’s never pleasant to watch. Sometimes they duck their heads out of caution, or fear. With this sort of chaos, a tapered leader may help (I still use one for nymph fishing) but some nymph aficionados just abandon all hope and use heavy mono up to the strike indicator, or a bit past it, and then a long tippet after that.
Still, with most kinds of fly fishing other than nymph lobbing, a tapered leader is a fine aid in fly presentation and in fish fooling.
Okay, so tapered leader has real advantages over a length of heavy mono. Fine, but still, why use either one? Why not just tie the tippet directly to the end of the fly line? Fair questions, but think back to what I said about getting the fly far enough away from the line so that the line doesn’t put off the fish—will you accomplish that if your tippet just piles straight down on the water? Nope. Light, level tippet just isn’t going to straighten much on a cast; piling is what it tends to do. So even if that tippet is a dozen feet long, how far will it drop your fly from the tip of the line? Answer: not nearly far enough.
Yes, the fly’s slight weight and sheer momentum may carry it out a little beyond the line, but generally, only a little. So, put a tapered leader between the line and tippet: problem solved. The tapered line straightens (when cast well), sending its energy into the tapered leader that then straightens (when cast well), carrying that fly well out away from the line. Now the fly and line are separated by the entire leader and some of the tippet. A calm and unsuspecting fish can glide up and confidently take that isolated fly, a fly with nothing suspicious (such as fly line) anywhere near it.
That’s why you fish a tapered leader. Now, why do you fish a tippet?
#2. The Cost of Tapered Leaders
Have you purchased a tapered leader lately? If not, let me tell you: they’re spendy. If you were to tie your flies directly onto the point of a leader, every time you cut off a fly you’d cut further up the leader—up your tapered leader. Consequently, the leader would keep getting thicker. Very soon it would be too thick to suit your fishing. In even a single day’s fishing, if you’re changing flies often (as fish sometimes require us to), you might end up having to change out your leader, possibly change it out twice. One day is a pathetic life span for a tapered leader, and unnecessarily expensive. The solution? Tippet of course.
Instead of cutting into expensive tapered leader, you’re now cutting into a length of less-expensive tippet. And once that tippet’s too short, you can easily replace it with another length of tippet at little cost (unless it’s sticker-shock fluorocarbon tippet, but that’s a matter for another article).
Honestly, though, money isn’t the main point. There are better reasons to use tippet than extending the life of a tapered leader. Here’s one.
#3. Dead-Drift Insurance
Dry flies are typically fished “dead drift,” that is, freely and naturally on the current; that’s because free and natural is how most insects ride down a river. So floating flies that imitate those insects must do the same. If the fly moves unnaturally, fly fishers call that unfortunate action “drag,” and even a halfwit trout often won’t stand for it. Drag is created by the tangle of currents atop any river, currents from slow to quick, swirling off in different directions. That chaos pulls on line, leader, or tippet, or any two or all three, to haul the fly around and give trout the shivers.
The cure for fly drag is slack. The Lazy S cast and Reach cast and others drop the line (and perhaps some of the leader) on the water in waves or a curve—waves or a curve of slack. All the time the currents are busy pulling out the slack, the fly is free to drift like a real insect.
Great, but what if drag is also happening near the fly (which it often is)? What then? How do you get slack up within a foot or two of that dry fly? Easy: use tippet. Untapered tippet naturally drops on the water in a snaky pattern, providing slack. Problem solved. This is why fly fishers who pursue wary trout keep going longer in their tippets. Three feet of tippet for trout streams is becoming common, four feet is no longer really uncommon.
Fair enough: tippet for floating flies on trout streams makes sense then. But is dead-drift dry-fly fishing the only situation requiring tippet? No, definitely not. I already explained (point #2) that tippet saves expensive tapered leader, and that principal applies to about any kind of fly fishing: dry fly, nymph, streamer… But with streamers and nymphs there’s a special value to tippet: getting a sinking fly down.
#4. The Quick Sink
You’re trying to sink a streamer in a river or lake, maybe in salt water, or you’re trying to get a weighted nymph down to the bed of a river before the current sweeps it back up at the end of the fly’s drift. How do you suppose you could hurry that sinking process along? Well, you could tie that fly onto fine monofilament of one constant thickness that would easily cut through the water… Good idea. And what’s that fine untapered mono called? Tippet.
So a weighted nymph or streamer can drag down slim, level tippet more easily than heavier, thickening to much heavier, tapered leader. With streamers, tippet’s minimal resistance to water usually isn’t such a big deal since a sinking line does most of the work of drawing the fly down. But streamers are fished fairly often on floating lines, where the water’s not too deep, and then tippet really helps.
Nymphs in rivers? Absolutely. The river fly fisher is always working to get the nymph down to the trout, and so a long slender tippet becomes a great aid. (There’s a method of fishing a nymph, usually a nymph imitating a big midge pupa, below a strike indicator in a trout lake that can inspire tippets that are crazy long—specifically because, again, tippet is easy for the fly to drag down after it. I once watched a guy catch trout this way on a tippet of 27 feet.)
If there are more reasons to fish both tippet and tapered leaders than these, I’m either unaware of them or have forgotten them (probably the latter, considering my age). But these four should be enough for anyone.