Understanding Tippet and Leader Basics
From time to time, I get questions from beginners or non fly fishers about leaders and tippets. Some wonder what a tippet is exactly, and others get confused about the numbering system on tippets. Most anglers who have not fly fished are more acquainted with fishing lines being rated in "pound test," the breaking strength of the line. This is not the case with tippet material, although manufacturers will usually include the breaking strength of their tippet material. And then there is the confusion about what exactly a "fly line" is.
When fly casting, it is the weight of the fly line that loads the rod and and allows you to cast the fly. Fly lines are too thick to attach a hook to, and therefore a "leader" is attached to the fly line. Leaders may be made of some type of monofilament similar to other fishing lines. Sometimes they are tapered, while other fly anglers just use what the call a "level" leader with no taper. Leader lengths vary depending upon the circumstances and casting skill of the fly angler but are usually at least 7 1/2 to 10 feet long with the final 12 to 15 inches being the tippet. I wrote "usually." Like so many things, there are some exceptions: Some fly anglers prefer the tippet to be longer. Also, when stillwater fishing using a clear fly line that sinks, many anglers shorten up their leader considerably so they can better control the depth of their fly.
But generally speaking, the leader is 7 1/2 feet long or more. If you've seen some very small dry flies, you might understand why tippet is used by tying a length onto the end of the leader. One of the reasons is so that you can tie on the fly. Often, a leader will be used that is too thick to go through the eye of a small hook. And here is where understanding the sizing system of tippet material is very helpful.
Before we had our modern monofilament, fly anglers used a material called "gut" to make leaders and tippet. Gut came from the larvae of an asian moth, and each one could provide fifteen inches of a single strand of silk. A strand could then be "drawn" through holes to obtain smaller diameters. One draw therefore was referred to as "1X," 2 draws as 2X and so on. The more draws, the smaller the diameter, but the larger the number to describe the diameter. An 8X tippet has a much smaller diameter than a 1X tippet, and you won't be able to get a 1X tippet through a size 20 hook eye. An 8X tippet should always be 0.003 inches in diameter, while a 1X tippet should always be 0.010 inches in diameter no matter what manufacturer made it. Tippet material might have different breaking strengths depending on the manufacturer and their own proprietary methods and chemistry in their production.
There is an easy system that will provide a guideline for the size of tippet to use depending on the size of the fly you are using. Divide the fly size by 4, and then add 1. If you are using a size 16, 16 divided by 4 plus one equals 5. Therefore 5X tippet material suits a size 16 hook. Some suggest just dividing the hook size by 3 and you'll get a similar number. 16 divided by 3 is close enough to 5.
So do you need to carry every a spool of every size tippet available? No, because in reality, each hook can accomodate three different sizes of tippet. For our size 16 example, you could use 5X, or the size below and above. For this reason, depending on the circumstances of an angler, they may only carry three different sizes of tippet. Sizes 2X, 4X and 6X will cover a wide range of hook sizes. Here's a chart that will help show this:
|X Rating||Diameter (.in)||Hook Sizes|
|X3||.015||5/0 - 2/0|
|X2||.014||3/0 - 2|
|X1||.013||1/0, 2, 4|
|0x||.011||1/0 - 4|
|1x||.010.||4 - 8|
|2x||.009||6 - 10|
|3x||.008||10 - 14|
|4x||,007||12 - 16|
|5x||.006||14 - 18|
|6x||.005||16 - 22|
|7x||.004||18 - 24|
|8x||.003||22 - 28|