Landing and Handling Trout

Smoky Mountain Rainbow
A lovely release

It all finally came together. You made a good cast to the right spot and your fly is drifting down the current for mere seconds before a trout intercepts it. You react quickly with a smooth lift of the rod and the fish is hooked. Maintaining steady pressure, you resist against the trout’s evasive maneuvers and inch him closer to you. Now what?

For many, this is when a panic party ensues in an attempt to wrangle the trout and remove the hook from his mouth. You end up dropping your rod in the water and filling the reel with sand all while tying yourself up in a web of fly line and leader. For others, this may be when they begin a long, slow process of torturing the fish in an attempt for that perfect photo.

Catching a fish should be a fun experience and it should be quick and painless for you and the fish! Here are a few tips to show you how:

Playing the Fish

The first rule here is you want to make the fight as quick as possible. Don’t try to keep the fish on longer than necessary in order to feel it more or hope he jumps. Put solid, steady pressure on the fish with the rod and get him in as soon as you can. This is a stressful experience for a fish. Trying to extend the fight only exhausts the fish and can reduce his chance of survival.

Playing Fish with Side Pressure
Good use of side pressure

This is especially true with bigger fish. Certainly it will take longer to bring in a large fish, but it shouldn’t be an all day affair. Don’t be afraid to use that flexible lever called a fly rod to put pressure on the fish. You always want to have a bend in that rod and try to do the opposite of what the fish does. If the fish runs to the left, drop your rod to the right and put side pressure on him. If he goes to the right, drop your rod to the left. If he runs straight away, hold the rod straight up.

Try to always have a bend in the rod and never point the rod tip toward the fish. If he pulls so hard that the rod tip is being pulled forward, let him take some line while still maintaining that steady pressure. If you find yourself at a standstill with the fish where he’s not really running or coming to, try to bring his head to the surface. This will usually accomplish one of two things. He’ll either submit and slide right to you, or he’ll make another run and hopefully burn off one last bit of energy so you can land him. Remember that you want to be the one in control – as much as possible! All of this will not only help ensure that the fish will stay on the line, but it will shorten the fight, which benefits you and the fish.

Landing the Fish

I see a lot of people, beginners mostly, bring in line to where the fish is just inches from the tip of the rod. This habit probably comes from fishing with a shorter spin or bait rod. But your average fly rod is 8-9′ long and if you reel or strip your fly line and leader all the way into the rod guides you’re going to encounter three problems.

First, if it’s a large fish that decides to make one last run, the knot connection between the leader and fly line can easily get hung in the guides resulting in a break off. Second, if you pull that much line in, it leaves the fish close to your rod tip and you can’t reach him without sticking your rod in the water or trying to set it on a bank. Not only does that increase risk of damage to your rod and reel, it’s just really awkward. Third, if and when you do get hold of the fish, you don’t have any slack line, which makes it extremely difficult to remove the hook.

Landing a Trout
A nice example of landing a fish

Always try to leave at least a little bit of fly line past the tip. To land the fish, reach your rod up and behind you and grab the fish or the end of the leader with your other hand. Once you have it, bring your rod back down and forward and you’ll have slack line for easier hook removal. A landing net makes this process easier, where you just scoop the fish in the net rather than grabbing it. I don’t usually fool with a net in the mountains because your average fish isn’t very big and can be easily managed by hand. I always try to have a net in places like tailwaters where I’m more apt to catch bigger average fish.

Handling the Fish

There’s a reason we don’t see fish walking around in our yard. They can’t live out of water. And the longer we keep them out of water when landing them, the more harm we are causing them. Try to make this process as quick as possible.

I will often not remove the fish from the water at all. I land them as described above but rather than grabbing the line or fish, I will simply clamp the fly with my hemostats. With a little twist of the wrist, the hook usually comes right out and the fish swims away happy and unharmed without ever coming out of the water. You can do the same with a fish that has been netted. Just put the hemostats on the fly while the fish is in the net. This works even better (as does any hook removal) with barbless hooks. I almost always crimp the barbs on my hooks and encourage you to do the same.

The only reason I can think of that you would need to remove the fish from the water is if you’re going to take a picture of it. Actually, you can get some pretty cool pictures of the fish in the water, but if you want to be in it too, than the fish will need to come out of the water – or you’ll need to go in!

Photographing Fish

If you are going to handle trout, it is important to first wet your hands. They have skin, rather than scales, that contains a “slimy” protective coating. Dry hands can remove or damage that coating making them more susceptible to disease. Now back to the obvious statement above, fish don’t live out of the water, so try to do this as quickly as possible.

Don’t hold the fish in one hand while you fumble around to pack or vest looking for your camera. And most definitely don’t walk downstream with the fish so your buddy can take a picture. Preparation is the key here.

For starters, keep your camera in a place that’s easy to get to, not tucked away in your backpack. Try to keep the fish in the water until the camera is out, on and ready. Then grab the fish gently (with wet hands), take your picture and get him right back in the water. Remember you’re not shooting the cover of Vogue. You don’t need ten different poses from the fish. Get one or two quick shots then get him back in the water.

I can’t resist a brief rant here. You don’t need a picture of every fish you catch! I definitely understand getting a couple of photographic memories from the day. I certainly do the same. Maybe get a shot of the two or three bigger ones, or maybe that one that was just a little more colorful. But your Instagram followers don’t need to see fifteen pictures of what looks like the exact same fish. I know. It’s the world in which we live.

Tips for Better Photos

Face cropped to protect the innocent

While we’re on the subject of photographing fish, there are a few things to keep in mind that will be better on the fish and will result in a better photo. The first thing is to show the fish to the camera, not your hands. Don’t grip the fish like it’s a baseball bat. The fish won’t love it and you’ll be disappointed in your picture. Instead, gently cup the fish from behind so that you can see as much of it as possible. I recommend one hand for smaller fish and two hands for bigger fish – assuming you have someone else to take the picture.

The guitar pose

Try to avoid putting pressure on his fins and certainly try to keep your fingers away from his gills. Hold him right-side up (yes, a lot of people hold them upside down) and try to extend him away from your body a little, rather than pinning him against your body like a guitar.

While I do recommend handling the fish as little as possible, I do suggest holding the fish for a good photo, even if it’s in the net. Many anglers try to hold the line with the fish suspended. This results in a rotating fish and a “Hail Mary” for the photographer, attempting to snap the shot at just the right time in the rotation.

The million dollar question is what to do with the rod. The trendy thing for a while was for anglers to put the rod in their teeth. More recently, folks have taken to resting the rod behind their head on their shoulders. Y’all are stuck with my opinion here, but my opinion is that both of these things look stupid. If you’re near the bank, you can set the rod down. If you’re not, just stick it under your shoulder. But it’s your picture and if you want to stick your rod in your mouth like a dog with a bone, have at it!

Releasing the Fish

Smaller fish tend to be a bit more resilient. Typically, you just set them back in the water and they dart away. Bigger fish, however, tend to need a little more time. They are often tired from the fight and will sometimes want to float on you if you just toss them back in the water. This doesn’t mean that you need to do some weird version of fish CPR that I’ve seen many anglers attempt.

Releasing Trout
A nice release

Just find a little slower patch of water out of the main current and set the fish in it. Before you let him go, simply keep a hand on him underwater, gently supporting him and keeping him upright. The fish will soon begin to wiggle his tail and eventually swim away on his own power.

Tying the Clinch Knot

The Clinch Knot is a common knot used throughout all types of fishing and was the first knot I ever learned to tie. It is used to attach the fly to the tippet. With a little practice, it is simple to tie and will serve you well in most trout fishing situations.

Finding Feeding Trout

You can have the best gear and be a great caster, but it won’t mean a thing if you don’t know where to find feeding fish. We’ve covered a lot of these things separately in other articles, but here is a quick breakdown of the four things you really want to look for before you make that first cast.

Water temperature

A wild trout’s water temperature range for feeding is typically between 50 – 67 degrees. Ideal temperature is upper 50’s to low 60’s. There are plenty of exceptions that you can read about in Understanding Water Temperature, but this is a pretty good rule of thumb and should be your first consideration when trying to locate feeding trout.

Check that water temperature

If you’re not already familiar with a particular stream’s seasonal variations and trends, a stream thermometer will be your most useful tool. Submerge it for a minute in water that’s about 1-2 feet deep. If, for instance, it’s July and you get a reading of 68-degrees, you should, at the very least, seek out shadier parts of the stream. Ideally, you should try to get to a higher elevation where it’s a little cooler. If it’s March and you get a reading of 47-degrees, seek out sunnier places and, if possible, move to a lower elevation.

Part of this may require a little research on your part as well. If you’re fishing in a low elevation stream where the water temperature stays above 70-degrees for much of the year, there likely won’t be trout in there at all, even during colder months. Again, this is for wild trout. Some streams that might be too warm to support wild trout year round, could be stocked with trout during the colder months.

Depth

Once you have located an area with a suitable water temperature, you need to look for deeper water. We’re not talking about water that has to be over your head, but something at least a foot or two deep. In times when food is incredibly abundant like a heavy hatch, trout will sometimes feed in shallower water. But in general, they will choose water with a little more depth for more protection from predators.

Current

Even if you have ideal water temperature and adequate depth, trout don’t do a lot of feeding in still pools. And even when they do, they can be very difficult to locate and catch because they’re often cruising and feeding sporadically. A defined current is essentially a conveyor belt of food. Most feeding trout will be near currents, watching and waiting for food to come to them.

Abrams Creek Smoky Mountains
Currents can vary significantly in a single run

In currents with a slow to medium speed, trout will likely hold right in the middle of the current and on the edges. Hard currents with a lot of speed are a little different.  A trout won’t hold in the middle of a hard current because it requires too much energy. Instead, the trout will be on the edges of these currents or between currents in seams and pockets.

Structure

A trout often has a few places in an area where he likes to hang out. He may have a favorite spot to feed and a spot under a rock where he likes to hide when he senses danger. Sometimes, you’ll find a place that looks perfect as far as depth and current speed go, but the stream bottom may be nothing but flat bedrock. These areas usually don’t hold many fish because there are few, if any, safe places. Try to look for a bottom with a lot of rocks where fish can hide.

Significant structure like fallen trees or large boulders often attracts the bigger fish, particularly if that spot meets all of the other criteria mentioned above. If you find any of the characteristics mentioned above, you’re apt to find a few feeding trout. When you locate a spot with ALL of these characteristics, you’ll likely find the most and/or the biggest trout.

Tying the Blood Knot

A while back I shared a video on how to tie the Double Surgeons Knot. The Blood Knot is used to accomplish the same task, to splice two pieces of tippet together. However, there are a few differences between these two knots.

Day in and day out on the stream, I’m going to use the Double Surgeons. It’s quick and easy to tie and it’s a little bit stronger. It also does a better job than the Blood Knot when it comes to connecting tippet that varies significantly in diameter.

The downside to the Surgeons Knot is that it sets a little cockeyed and it’s a little bulkier knot. Neither of these things matter much when you’re working with 5X tippet. You probably won’t even notice. But when you’re splicing thicker pieces of mono together, like butt and mid sections of leader, a more uniform and less bulky knot becomes extremely important. And that’s when the Blood Knot is at it’s best.

Additionally, I’ll sometimes use the Blood Knot with smaller tippet if I’m rigging a two fly rig where I want the top fly to swing independently, rather than fixed as with the in-line system. Fishing two wet flies is a perfect example of when I might do this. I can tie a Blood Knot and leave one of the tags long to attach the top fly. The tag ends on a Blood Knot come out at a perfect right angle and foul far less than the cockeyed tags on a Double Surgeons.

Balancing a Fly Rod

Every year, it seems every fly rod company comes out with a new rod that is not only supposed to cast itself, but is substantially lighter than its predecessor. As a matter of fact, the average graphite rod today is probably about 1/3 the weight of the average graphite rod of 30 years ago. And that difference is far more substantial when you start comparing the weight of today’s graphite rods to the bamboo and fiberglass rods that your father or grandfather may have used. But none of this matters if your rod is not properly balanced by your reel.

It’s a phenomenon called “levered weight.” If you carry two 20lb. buckets of water, one in each hand, it will feel more comfortable than carrying just one 20lb. bucket of water in one hand. One side balances out the other. The same concept applies if you have the lightest fly rod on the market but have a reel on it that is too heavy. It will feel heavier in your hand than a heavier rod that is properly balanced by its reel.

Pretty well balanced rod

When it comes to trout fishing and really, most freshwater in general, your reel does not play a very significant role. Unless, you just have to have “the best,” it is not necessary to sink a lot of money into a reel. However, just because it may not be the most important piece of equipment, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t put some consideration into things like its size. It needs to be big enough to comfortably hold the fly line and appropriate amount of backing, and it needs to balance the rod. In most cases, a rod and reel are balanced if it will self-balance when you set it on one finger positioned near the tip of the cork grip.

In the picture above, the reel is just a little too heavy for the rod. I prefer the balance point to be just a little closer to the tip of the cork. But it’s close enough to not feel uncomfortable.

Most companies will designate specific reel sizes for specific line and rod sizes. If a reel is for 4 – 6 weight lines, it not only means it has the capacity to store those line sizes, but it should balance most 4 – 6 weight rods. Of course, things like the material from which the rod is made and the length of the rod can determine if it actually falls in the “balance range” of that particular reel. If your rod is a short, super light 4-weight, you may want to bump down to the next smaller size. On the other hand, if your rod is a 6-weight bamboo, you may want to bump up to the next larger reel size.

The design of the reel seat on the rod will also be a factor. Almost all modern graphite rods have an uplocking reel seat, which positions the reel just behind the cork grip. Some bamboo rods may have a downlocking reel seat, which puts the reel almost right at the butt of the rod. The latter can help when trying to balance a heavier rod.

As reels become lighter and lighter, it has become far more difficult to find appropriate size reels to balance bamboo rods. However, one reel manufacturer, Ursus, has designed a reel that has removable brass plates on the interior. The weight of the brass plates help to balance heavier bamboo rods. When using the reel on a lighter graphite rod, the plates can be removed. Pretty cool.

In any case, no matter what rod you fish with, keep this in mind when selecting your reel. It will greatly reduce casting fatigue and result in much more enjoyable days on the water!

Understanding Rise Rings

When a trout feeds on or near the surface, it creates a ring in the water that can appear as a violent splash or a mere dimple. Recognizing certain characteristics of this rise ring can tell you a lot about where the fish is positioned, where his feeding lane is, his size and possibly what he’s feeding on.

Lengthy chapters of vast and detailed information on this topic can be found in a number of well known fly fishing books. I recommend reading them. This article will attempt to condense that information into a useful overview. As always, these are general rules to which there are always exceptions!

Rise Ring
Dimple Rise

Common or Simple Rise

A common rise is characterized by a quick view of the trout’s head, dorsal fin, and often “wagging” tail, followed by a boil of water. It indicates that the trout is positioned near the surface and feeding on insects on the surface or near the surface film. The insects are probably medium to large in size. Because of the increased exposure to predators, trout rarely position themselves near the surface unless there is a lot of food available. So, if you see this kind of rise, keep watching. Chances are you will see the same fish repeatedly feeding.

Surface Swirl

The surface swirl is similar to the common rise but without the appearance of the head, fin or tail. You only see the water boil. In this case, the fish is probably positioned within a foot or two of the surface and is feeding on insects at least two inches below the surface. You can spend hours casting dry flies to these kind of rises without a take, but an unweighted nymph or wet fly fished just below the surface can be deadly.

Poking or Dimple Rise

As the name implies, this rise form appears as just a dimple on the surface and if you look carefully, you can often see just the nose of the trout penetrate the surface. This rise form also suggests the trout is positioned near the surface but likely feeding on small insects on or just below the surface. This type of rise is most often seen in slower pools and runs, slow edges of currents and eddies.

Splashy Rise

When a rise ring is more of a splash, it can mean a few things. Usually, it just indicates that the trout is positioned deeper in the water. By traveling farther up the column for food, the trout’s momentum often results in more of a splash on the surface. If the trout is positioned deeper, this was likely an opportunistic rise from a fish not necessarily focused on the surface. You may never see him come up again.

Similarly, trout feeding on insects that emerge and get off the water quickly can display a splashier rise. Caddis flies fit this description, so many anglers assume (sometimes incorrectly) that a splashy rise means trout are feeding on caddis. And sometimes a splashy rise can simply be the result of a smaller, eager trout rising recklessly.

Gulping Rise

A gulping rise is like a greatly exaggerated common rise. The trout’s mouth is wide open and his entire backside breaks the surface, followed by an often audible “gulp.” You’re likely to see this type of rise during very heavy hatches when there are frequently multiple bugs very close together on the surface. The trout may eat as many as six bugs in one rise. If you’re seeing this, you’re at the right place at the right time. Try to match what you see on the water and don’t get your leader in a big tangle!

Jumping Rise

A jumping rise is when the trout completely clears the water, sometimes by a few feet! This could mean the fish is feeding on bugs in the air just above the surface, or possibly something large like a mouse or even baitfish. In any case, a jumping rise suggests a brief moment of opportunity and not a steadily feeding trout. I don’t recall ever standing in a pool and seeing dozens of trout routinely jumping out of the water. Most experienced anglers recognize the jumping rise as fool’s gold, shake their heads and move on.

Where is the trout?

As mentioned above, certain types of rise rings can suggest how deep the trout may be. However, there are other things to consider when determining where in the stream that trout is positioned.

Trout Rise
Trout Position vs. Rise Location – Illustration by Jason Borger

First and foremost, when a trout rises in a stream, he is going to drift back during the process, then return to his original position. So the trout is actually positioned upstream of where you saw him rise. If he is holding near the surface, his position may only be a few inches upstream of the rise. If he’s holding in deeper water, his position may be several feet upstream of the rise.

When a trout rises, you’re also going to see a “push” of water, like a little wave. That wave usually pushes upstream. But if the wave pushes to one side or another, it indicates that the trout came over to feed. So, he may be holding in one lane and feeding in another.

There’s a lot to this, I know. The best advice I can offer is when you see a trout rise, don’t immediately cast a dry fly to that spot. Think about what the rise looked like and stop and look for others. Identifying rise rings may not give you all the answers, but it will give you a great place to start!

Preventing Broken Rods

Broken Rods
Broken Rods

Over approximately 30 years of fly fishing, I have broken one rod. And that was kind of a fluke. About 25 years ago, I was floating extremely high water on the Cumberland River in Kentucky when I hung a streamer on some submerged wood. While trying to dislodge it, the river began pushing the boat toward a “sweeper” that likely would have capsized the boat. Since I was in charge of steering the vessel, I had to act quickly and the rod was an unfortunate casualty in my evasive maneuver.

Some might say I’m lucky to have such a long streak without breaking a rod. And the fact that I’m putting this in writing all but guarantees I’ll break one the next time I go fishing! It is certainly possible as accidents do happen. But in the span of approximately 25 years of guiding, I’ve seen dozens of rods broken by clients. Dozens… and that’s being conservative! With that kind of disparity, I can’t help but think there may be a little more than luck at play.

Yes, accidents are going to happen, but there are a number of things I see anglers repeatedly do with their fly rods that lead to breakage. And there are plenty of other things that may not instantly break the rod but will stress it, leading to a seemingly inexplicable break at a later time. So here we go… Here are the top 10 ways to prevent breaking your fly rod.

1) Store your rod in a tube.

Rod and Tube
Rod and Tube

Many rods get broken or weakened in transit. Folks toss them in the back of a truck or the trunk of a car and then set something on them, a cooler shifts, etc. I’ve never seen a rod break while it was in its tube!

2) Be gentle.

This one should be obvious, but it’s not for many. Set you rod down. Don’t toss it. Few things make me cringe more!  

3) Keep the tip up.

When walking with your rod, be mindful to keep the tip pointing up. I can’t tell you how many times I see people jab the tip into the ground when walking on a trail. Even if it doesn’t break, you’re potentially damaging the rod every time that happens.

4) Keep the rod ahead of you when walking through the brush.

There are many who disagree with this and argue that the rod should be pointing behind you when traveling through the brush. I’m sure I’ll hear from you! Fly line, leaders or rod guides can easily get caught on branches when carrying the rod pointing behind you. Because you don’t see it happen, you continue moving full speed ahead and pull hard against the branch. I’ve seen guides get completely ripped off and I’ve seen rod tips snap. I like to see where the rod is going so I can steer it around obstacles in the woods.

5) Don’t hold the rod by its tip section.

I sometimes see this happen when people are stringing up the rod at the beginning of the day. However, it mostly occurs on the stream when the line gets tangled near the tip. To reach the tangle, the fisherman will hold the rod somewhere between the tip and mid section of the rod while the heavier butt end causes the rod to bend. Your rod is not designed to do this and it stresses the graphite tremendously. You don’t want to hold the rod like this in any circumstance, but it’s even worse in the stream when the reel is attached. To reach a tangle at the tip of the rod, set the butt end of the rod on the bank or a rock to support the weight.

6) Don’t pull against the limb with the rod when trying to pull a fly out of a tree.

If the line is wrapped in the limb, you may end up with a broken rod tip. Instead, point the rod straight at the limb and pull straight back. Or grab the line and pull it with your hand. You’ll not only protect your rod tip, but you’ll be more likely to break the line near the fly.

7) Don’t set the rod flat on the ground (or boat bottom).

When taking a break, lean the rod upward somewhere, like against a tree. Setting the rod flat on the ground is an invitation for you or a buddy to step on it.

8) When fighting a big fish, use the whole rod.

Broken Rod
Don’t Do This!

Many fishermen are taught to put their hand or finger midway up the rod to apply more pressure on a large fish. Instead, you are applying more pressure on your rod. Your fly rod is a precision tool designed to bend in a very specific way. Holding the rod by the handle and not applying pressure farther up the rod will ensure that your rod is bending where it should, protecting your tippet and your rod tip from breakage on a big fish.

9) Use the recommended fly line to match your rod.

If you have a 5-weight rod, use a 5-weight line. Sure it’s okay to fudge up one size if you deem it necessary, but routinely overloading a rod with a significantly heavier line can stress the rod over time.

10) Learn how to fall.

I know, I know. This one sounds harsh, but respect the rod! I learned very early on in my fly fishing career to break my fall with my non rod hand. As a matter of fact, when I stumble in the stream, my rod hand immediately goes up! 

Also see related article: Fly Fishing Gear Maintenance

Pond Fishing

People are telling me all the time that they don’t fly fish very often because they don’t have anyplace to go. I know as well as anyone that there are an endless number of things that keep us from fishing as often as we’d like, but not having a place to go should never be one. While you may not have a world-class trout stream in your backyard, or even in your state, there are plenty of other alternatives. You may just have to get a little creative.

bluegill
Bluegill

For instance, almost every city has some sort of park or green space with a pond. These can be productive little fisheries, typically containing bass, carp, catfish and some sort of variation(s) of sunfish. They are a lot of fun to fish and at the very least, they will keep your casting skills and fishing instincts sharp between fly fishing vacations.

If you’re really lucky, you’ll find a friend who has a farm pond. These provide all of the same benefits as those city ponds but without all of the people. I had access to one when I lived in Kentucky that I fished three or four times a week. Sunfish like bluegill will readily take a fly and fight as hard as any fish I know. And a big bass boiling on your surface bug at dusk is a tough thing to beat.

sneaky pete
Sneaky Pete

It helps to know what fish are in the pond when deciding what gear to use. You can effectively fish for bluegill with the same outfit you use for trout. A number of small to medium topwater terrestrials will work well. Small popping bugs are a good choice, too. They’ll eat trout flies but they’ll tear them up in a hurry. Therefore, I’d recommend more durable foam or hard-body flies.

As exciting as it is to catch those bluegill up top, I often catch the biggest ones below the surface. Wooly Buggers are productive, as are a large variety of rubber-leg nymphs. However, if you want to get a little more specific about imitating their food source, try crayfish patterns and damsel and dragonfly nymphs. They tend to be attracted to brighter colors. An old fashion Green Weenie has been one of my favorite subsurface flies for bluegill. As a matter of fact, fishing a Green Weenie as a dropper off a popping bug can be very productive.

whitlocks fruit cocktail
Whitlock’s Fruit Cocktail

Bass will eat many of the same flies as mentioned above, but big bass are often looking for a little more of a mouthful. A variety of streamer patterns can take bass in ponds and are always a good choice. But I love getting them on the surface when I can. Large hard-body poppers and sliders and spun deer hair bugs are a blast to fish with. However, these larger flies are very difficult to cast with a light trout outfit. If you do much of this type of fly fishing, I’d recommend picking up an 8-weight.

When fishing ponds, look for structure like rock piles and tree stumps. Also, these fish like the edges of things. Cast to shadow edges and the edges of shallow and deep water. In addition, during summer months, expect better fishing early and late in the day.

Follow the Leader

Orvis Leader Package
Leader Package

For beginners, the leader and tippet represent one of the most misunderstood, or unrealized, components of critical fly fishing gear.  Many don’t understand the relationship between the tippet and leader or tippet and fly, while others simply don’t understand what the difference is between the leader and tippet.  And while intermediate anglers may have a working knowledge of how the tippet relates to the fly, few take the time to contemplate how the right overall leader design can contribute to their success on the water. 

To better understand leader design, let’s start from the beginning and define what the leader is.  In simple terms, the leader is the monofilament connection between the heavier plastic fly line and the fly.  While it varies in length, the leader typically measures between 7 1/2′ and 9’ and has two primary purposes: To allow for a less visible connection from fly to line and to transfer energy during the fly cast.  It tapers from a thick butt section that attaches to the fly line, down to a very fine section that attaches to the fly.  The finest section that attaches to the fly is referred to as the tippet. 

So, the tippet is the piece attached to the fly and its appropriate size is determined by what size fly you’re fishing and how you’re fishing that fly.  At least those are the primary reasons.  Other factors such as water level, water speed, and clarity can also contribute to that decision.  Smaller tippet sizes are not only less visible to the fish, they offer less resistance in the water, allowing for such benefits as less drag and/or faster sink rates.  Of course, smaller tippets are not as strong, but when dead-drifting dry flies or nymphs, the fish is typically “sipping” the passing fly, not ambushing it, so it is not often an aggressive strike that will snap the line.  Rather, you are lifting the rod and tightening the line somewhat smoothly, and then all of the shock absorbing properties of your rod come into play to, when used properly, help protect that fine tippet and keep it from breaking. 

However, when fishing a streamer fly, you are usually stripping the fly to suggest the movement of a wounded or fleeing baitfish, crayfish, etc.  This will most often provoke a more violent strike from the fish, and too light a tippet will often snap under such a jolt.  Since you are imparting movement on these flies anyway and a dead drift is not desired, a heavier tippet will better move the fly and better withstand the more aggressive strike. 

Tippet Sizing Chart
Tippet Sizing Chart

In essence, you want the tippet to balance with the fly for a more efficient cast and drift.  For this reason, tippets are sized primarily by their diameter, but also have pound test ratings like spin fishermen may be more accustomed.  Those details are all given in the fine print on a tippet spool or leader package but the most obvious marking is a single number followed by an “x” – 4x, 1x, 6x, etc. 

It’s a strange system that can be confusing at first, but it relates directly to the diameter of the tippet, so 6x does not mean 6 pound test.  Rather it all corresponds to the base measurement of 0x tippet, which is .011”.  If I subtract the diameter of my tippet from this base of .011” I get the appropriate “x” designation and vice versa.  In other words, if I have tippet that is .005”, 11 – 5 = 6, or 6x.  On the other hand if I subtract the “x” number from .011”, it gives me the actual diameter.  For 3x, 11 – 3 = 7, or .007”.  I know.  Wouldn’t you think there’d be a simpler system?

What you should notice is that the bigger the number, the smaller the tippet.  So, 6x is smaller than 3x.  Fly (hook) sizes work the same way.  A size #18 fly is considerably smaller than a #4 fly.  But if you know the size of your fly, there is a pretty simple formula to determine the perfect tippet size to match it.  Take the size of the fly and divide by 3.  As example, for a size #12 fly, the perfect tippet size is a 4x.  Who knew there would be so much math in fly fishing? 

Tippet to Fly Sizing Chart
Tippet to Fly Sizing Chart

It doesn’t need to be this scientific, but using this formula will give you a good baseline in determining a tippet size that will balance with your fly size.  You can always fudge up and down as needed.  Just keep in mind that when using the above formula, the more you stray to the small side of ideal, the more difficult it will be to turn the fly over with a cast and there’s a better chance of snapping the fly off.  The more you stray to big the big side of ideal, the more visible your tippet will be and the more it will negatively impact natural drift. 

Without trying to complicate matters too much, the length of the tippet will also impact things like how freely the fly drifts.  For example, if you’re trying to dead-drift a size #14 dry fly, you will likely be able to better achieve a drag-free drift with a 5x tippet that is 20” long than with a 6x tippet that is 10” long.  Conversely, if you are trying to impart movement on a streamer, a 4x tippet that is 10” long will provide much more control and immediate movement than a 3x tippet that is 20” long. 

All of this is a piece to a bigger part which is the leader, and a lot of people don’t understand the difference in the two.  Tippet is just a part of what makes up a leader just like tires are part of what makes up a car.  If you merely tied 9’ of straight tippet to the fly line, you would certainly be able to execute good drifts but you would have an extremely difficult time casting the fly where you wanted to and would regularly experience the fly and tippet landing in a pile, just inches from the fly line. 

Therefore, the leader is tapered and consists of three parts: The butt, the taper, and the tippet.  We already know what the tippet does.  The thicker butt section turns the leader over with the rest of the cast, which helps eliminate piling.  The taper section essentially dampens the energy of the fly cast, allowing the fly and tippet to land softly on the water. 

When you buy a tapered leader at a fly shop, it is usually knotless.  They achieve the taper by running the nylon material through a machine.  On the package, it will indicate the leader’s overall length and its tippet size.  So it might indicate that it is a 9’ 5x leader.  In fine print, you can also see the exact diameters of the butt and tippet as well as the pound test.  It has tippet built in and is ready to go right out of the package.  So what’s with the spools of tippet?

Orvis Tippet Spool
Spool of Tippet

Tippet material can also be purchased on a spool with a number designation as described earlier – 3x, 4x, 5x, etc.  This is purely straight tippet with no taper and its primary purpose is to rebuild or alter your leader.  When you wear out the tires on your car, you can replace them without having to replace the entire car, and it’s the same with a leader and tippet.  Through the course of a day, the tippet on your leader will get gradually shorter as you change flies.  Or it may quickly get dramatically shorter if you hang up in a tree or two.  What started out as a 9’ 5x leader is no longer 9’ and no longer 5x. 

Rather than going to the trouble and expense of changing the entire leader when this happens, you can simply pull an appropriate length of 5x tippet off the spool, tie it to the leader, and you’re back in business.  Over time, you’ll cut back so far into the taper that you eventually have to change the leader, but by rebuilding with tippet, you can significantly extend the life of your leader.

As mentioned, you can also use tippet material to alter your leader.  You may be using a 9’ 6x leader and want to add an additional few feet of 6x for a better drift, making it a 12’ 6x leader.  Or you may be changing flies that vary dramatically in size and style.  For example, you might be stripping a #6 Wooly Bugger on a 7 ½’ 3x leader when a hatch of #16 Sulfurs starts to come off.  Instead of changing your entire leader, you can simply add a couple of feet of 6x tippet and you have a 9 ½’ 6x leader.  Just be sure you’re adding the same size or smaller.  Adding a bigger piece to a smaller piece will not only create a weak link above the final section of tippet, it will also create an undesired hinging effect in the leader. 

I sometimes tie my leaders rather than buy them from a fly shop.  This is done by knotting together different diameters of monofilament to achieve a taper.  There are established formulas you can use for this, but through the experience of trial and error, I developed my own formulas that best suit my needs.  While I have a lot of specialty leaders, my go-to, everyday trout leaders are all tied ahead of time in a length of 7 ½’ to a tippet size of 3x.  Since I’m rarely fishing a tippet size bigger than 3x for trout, this allows me the flexibility to add the final piece of tippet on the stream to match the fly and situation.  If I’m going to fish a #14 Parachute Adams, for example, I’ll add a 2’ section of 5x and I’m ready to go. 

I first started tying my own leaders when I was on the limited budget of a college student because I realized I could pay $3.50 for a leader or I could make them for about 30 cents each.  Over the years, I continued making my own because I prefer them and like being able to design them for my needs.  For instance, I find the commercial trout leaders to have too big of a butt section and I don’t like the way they turn over or straighten out.  By using a thinner diameter butt and a different type of monofilament for the butt and taper sections, I get a leader that turns over and lays out beautifully.  I also like having a few knots throughout the leader as locations to place split shot and strike indicators without them sliding down the line. 

I have a variety of other specialized leaders for specific situations.  My bass leaders have thicker butt sections to turn over large flies.  I have hatch leaders that are long and thin, designed to achieve perfect drifts over wary trout.  And I have shorter, small stream leaders for punching flies under tree limbs in extra tight conditions.  I also make short leaders designed to fish on sink tip lines when streamer fishing big water. 

These are all things to take into consideration when making your own leaders or even when you buy them at the fly shop.  Understanding the basics like length and tippet size will inevitably make a difference in your success on the stream.  Better understanding how the butt and taper figure into the equation will give you vital tools to begin catching fish that other anglers can’t!