How to Choose the Right Size Fly Fishing Leader & Tippet

How to Choose the Right Size Fly Fishing Leader & Tippet | Jackson Hole Fly Company

When the fish aren't striking, chances are it's not your fly or your casting - it's your leader.

Choosing the appropriate fly fishing line, leader, and tippet - and knowing when and how to use it - is possibly the most intimidating component of fly fishing for novice anglers. When selecting a fly fishing leader, there are three crucial factors to consider: the length of the leader, the diameter of the butt section, and the diameter of the tippet (or level portion at the end of the leader).

What is a leader?

Fly fishing leaders are a tapered section of line that is immediately joined to your thick, colorful fly line by a loop-to-loop connection or knot. Fly leaders are always tapered, with one end thicker than the other. This taper is present on leaders for a reason: to transfer energy and momentum from the rod to the fly during casting. Usually, you’ll find leaders in lengths of 7.5ft, 9ft, or 12ft.

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What is tippet?

Tippet is a type of fly fishing line that has the same weight, poundage, and diameter throughout the length of the line, and is designed to be used in shorter snippets on the end of your leader. You lose more length on your line every time you change (or lose) a fly and snip the extra off. Your line can become fairly short after a long day of snagging trees, catching fish, and changing flies. Attaching a portion of tippet is a simple technique to extend the length of your line.
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How to use tippet

When changing flies, the thinnest end of the line is clipped shorter and shorter. Because leaders are tapered, you move closer and closer to the thickest area of the leader with each clip and at some point will become inefficient, becoming short, thick, and stubby. Most of the time, your leader will be too thick to tie a secure knot with.  

If your leader becomes too short it may be faster to cut a segment of thinner tippet from a spool and tie it onto your existing leader rather than unpacking a new leader and spending the time to replace the old one. You can tie on a few feet of tippet and manually create your own tapered leader in just a few minutes.

Different types of leader & tippet

There are 2 main types of tippet that are categorized by the material used in each. The first is monofilament, which is generalized by lower poundage, lower prices, and a diverse range of uses for most species. The second is fluorocarbon, which is typically stronger, more expensive, and is reserved for occasions that require a more durable line.

What size leader and tippet should I use?

Anglers of all skill levels struggle to know when to use 6X tippet instead of 4X or a 7.5 ft leader instead of a 9 ft leader, and regrettably, some of our catching problems can be due to the line we're using. Here are a few things to consider when deciding what size tippet and leader you should be using.

Leader Length

Leader length is determined by three factors: the water temperature, the type of fly line being used, and the species of fish you are trying to catch. Sinking lines are most often fished with short (3-5 foot) leaders in order for the line to sink the fly faster and stay lower in the water column for longer. Leaders of 7-12 feet are generally always used with floating lines. When the water is muddy and visibility is poor, or when water speed or turbulence requires fish to be more opportunistic, shorter leaders can be used. When the water is shallow, exceptionally clear, or moving slowly or even stationary, longer leaders are required.

Butt Section Size

For a smooth transition from fly line to leader, it is important that the butt section is the right size.  Leaders with butt sections that are too small or too large in diameter will tend to hinge, jerk, or fail to layout smoothly. In general, leader butt diameter should be approximately two-thirds of the diameter of the tip of the fly line.  For normal trout fishing, leader butts should be .019-.023”.

Tippet and Leader Weight/ Size

Tippet and leader weights/ sizes are usually described in X's. The X size of a line describes the diameter of the line as it relates to a scale of "11". This inverted scale is much like a wire gauge scale. As the size of the tippet or leader gets larger, the X rating gets smaller. For example, a 0X tippet is .011" in diameter. A 5X tippet is .006" in diameter. The X and the size in thousandths of inches always add up to 11.

To work correctly, small flies require small diameter tippets/ leaders, whereas larger flies require larger tippets/ leaders. In general, dividing the size of the fly by three offers a decent approximation of the line's "X" rating. A size 12 fly, for example, is usually fished with a 4X tippet/ leader, whereas a size 18 fly is usually tied to a 6X tippet/ leader. Use one size smaller for extremely clear water and skittish fish. Use a size larger for muddy water or night fishing. When fishing for larger species, this "Rule of Three" does not apply. A 20-pound salmon, for example, may eat a size #12 nymph pattern that you can easily cast with a 6-weight rod and 4X, 6-pound tippet. So species size is also a condition.

Tippet Size

Tippet Diameter

Pound Test

Fish Size



25 lb.

Big Game Species



20 lb.

Large Salmon



18.5 lb.

Striped Bass



15.5 lb.

Salmon, Steelhead



13.5 lb.

Bonefish, Redfish, Permit



11.5 lb.

Large & Smallmouth Bass



8.5 lb.

Bass & Large Trout



6 lb.




4.75 lb.

Trout & Panfish



3.5 lb.

Trout – Easily Spooked Fish



2.5 lb.

Trout & Panfish / Delicate Presentations



1.75 lb.

Trout & Panfish / Small Flies


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