Fly fishing gets a bad reputation for being complicated, hard to learn and expensive. I beg to differ. However, there are some key concepts you must master in order to have the best chance at success.
One of those difficult things to learn is what lines go on a fly fishing reel. When I first started, getting the fly rod and reel setup properly seemed daunting. One of the things that confused the heck out of me was the purpose of tippet. It seemed unnecessary and I asked myself, do you really need tippet?
Well, do you need tippet for fly fishing? Yes, tippet is an essential component that needs to be included when tying fishing flies onto the tapered leader attached to the main fly line. Without tippet, accurately casting flies with proper form and precision, is very difficult.
Now that we have that question answered, let’s dive into everything you need to know about tippet and how to fully setup your fly reel the right way.
What goes onto a fly fishing reel
There are several components to a correctly spooled fly reel. The key to getting a perfect cast every time is putting on the right amount of each line. Get this part right and you will start catching more fish.
As the name implies, backing is there as a “back up”. This is the first line put on a fly reel and its only purpose is to ensure that when you hook a large fish, you have enough line to fight an aggressive run. Tie on backing to the reel spool with an arbor knot.
You generally only have around 90 feet of actual casting fly line on a reel. Commonly, experienced anglers put about 100 to 125 yards of backing on. This is an approximation and will work for most reel sizes. The best thing to do is look up the manufacturer’s recommended line amounts for your specific model.
There are actually a couple additional benefits to putting backing on a reel. First, it increases the effective arbor diameter which speeds up the retrieval speed when you reel. Second, the increased arbor size reduces fly line memory and makes for a line that lays flat on the water instead of coiling.
When you think of fly fishing line, this is the line that does the work. This is the second line on the reel and is tied to the backing using an albright knot. The actual casting of the fly is possible because of the thicker, weighted line. Fly lines are also weighted forward which means they are tapered to have more weight or thickness in the first 10 yards.
Lines that are weighted forward are abbreviated as WF on the box. This taper gives anglers more control and distance when casting. The added weight also improves casting in windy situations. Approximately 90 feet of fly line is spooled on a fly reel.
Next on the spool is tapered leader. Most leaders are 7.5 to 9 feet long and gradually get thinner in diameter along their length. The thinnest portion attaches to the tippet. The thickest part of the leader is tied to the fly line using a nail knot.
Tapered leader is critical to getting the fly to turn over when the fly line lands smooth and flat on the water. If you could slow down the typical cast and analyze the line movement, you would see the line unfolding from a loop.
This unfolding continues to role down the fly line to the tapered leader. The taper allows for smoother dissipation of energy right until it reaches the tippet and fly, which then turns over to gracefully settle on the water.
The last component of your fly line setup is the tippet. The length of the tippet is usually around 2 to 4 feet in length. Tippet is tied to the leader using a surgeons knot.
Tippet is a nearly invisible piece of monofilament or fluorocarbon that your fly is attached to and it is not tapered. A good knot to tie on a fly is the improved clinch knot.
What is the purpose of tippet
Okay. We now understand what lines go on a fly reel and the last line on is tippet. But why do we need it and what does it do that the tapered leader can’t?
Tippet serves two primary functions that have long been known by early fly fishermen.
The first benefit of tippet is the super thin diameter. It is nearly invisible and does not make any ripples in the water that could spook fish. Stealth is priority number one when fishing for easily spooked trout in crystal clear streams.
Keeping your fly 2 to 4 feet further from the thicker, more conspicuous, portions of the line adds just enough stealth to fool even the most wary and lure-wise fish.
The second function of tippet is to allow for the constant changing of flies. Sometimes it takes several attempts with different fly patterns to learn what the fish are feeding on. You may go through 6 of 7 patterns before striking gold with the right fly for the day.
Changing flies that often use up line. If you only tied flies to the tapered leader, eventually you would reach a portion of the leader that is too thick. Once you use up the leader, it needs to be changed and that would cost more than tying on a new piece of tippet.
What size tippet do I need
The size and strength of your tippet is going to depend on the overall weight of your fly fishing setup and the type of fish you intend to target. For example, most anglers targeting trout in small to medium sized streams opt for a 5 weight rod with 5 weight fly line.
Another factor for determining tippet size is the size of your fly pattern. Most typical fly sizes like,12 to 18, call for size 4x or 5x tippet. If you use tiny fly patterns like the Griffith’s gnat, then 6x or 7x tippet is better since it has a smaller diameter.
Keep several sizes on hand for a variety of situations you may encounter. I like to carry 4x to 7x when I am fly fishing in trout streams.
When matching a tippet size to the leader, compare the tippet diameter to the terminal end of the leader. Your tippet should be slightly smaller that the leader. Picking the tippet size this way gives a smooth transition to the fly for delicate presentations.
How long does the tippet need to be
The length of your tippet is actually more important than most fly fishermen realize. Getting the length right for the fly you’re using and the conditions present on that day, is tricky. However, as a rule of thumb, 2 feet is the minimum and I actually prefer 3 to 4 feet.
Anything less than 2 feet doesn’t give you much room to work with when changing flies or adjusting lengths. 4 feet of tippet on a 9 foot tapered leader provides good casting with line to spare for changing flies.
Tippet length impacts your fly presentation as well. When your tippet and fly are not laying out straight with the cast, try removing a few inches of tippet. If instead it looks as though your fly is being yanked back by the tippet, the tippet is too short.
Finding the right balance takes some trial and error to match it to your casting style. Work on paying close attention to how your fly settles with the cast and your presentations will improve.
Is tippet expensive
For me, the revolutionary part of tippet was not the added stealth or improved presentation with my casts. No, it was the money I saved once I stopped constantly cutting my leader shorter when changing flies.
Tippet typically costs between $4 and $10 for 30 yard spools. That is plenty to last the average angler many outings. For less than $20 you can buy enough to last several seasons.
When you are beginning to fly fish, it is hard enough learning the terminology, let alone the technical details of all the gear and techniques to master the cast.
Don’t let that deter you. Now that you know what tippet is and how it works in conjunction with the rest of the line, you are ready to move on in your journey to becoming a fly angler.
If you are hesitating to take the plunge into fly fishing because you think it is too expensive, I have more to say on that subject. Take a look at our article about the cost of fly fishing. There you will learn what it really takes to start fly fishing on a budget.