Written by: Tom Rosenbauer
One of the easiest ways to improve your presentation in your trout fishing is to pay more attention to your tippet. It’s as important as the fly pattern you choose, and the size and length and taper of the terminal end of your leader can even determine how your casts look and feel. By looking at downloads of my weekly podcasts I know that most anglers are still confused and sometimes wigged out by leaders, because every time I do a podcast on leaders or tippets, the downloads go through the roof. But it’s not rod designing (instead of rocket science I figured I’d use an analogy that is technical and tricky and can’t be done by most mortals). Paying attention to your tippet requires just a few easy steps.
What does the transition to your tippet look like and how do you fix it? I don’t worry too much about the butt section of my leader—I use furled leader, standard solid nylon leaders, and braided leaders almost interchangeably and find that it’s far more important what goes on at the other end of my leader. Watch the end of your leader when you cast. Move into a place where you have sun on your leader and a dark background and watch how it lands. If everything straightens above the water at about the same time and the leader floats to the water, you’re in good shape. If you see an area of the leader just prior to the tippet that dives to the water before the butt section or the tippet you know it’s too heavy or too short. (this is almost always bad). If you see exaggerated curls just before the tippet your transition is too long (this is not necessarily bad because you can use this property to put slack in your leader and avoid drag.
How do you know what size of a transition piece to use? Take the size tippet you plan on using and slide it up against the rest of your leader. The terminal end of your leader, before the tippet, should be just a whisker heavier, about .001”, than the tippet. And you don’t need a micrometer to eyeball what .001” looks like. Just compare a piece of 5x and 4X to see what the difference looks like. It’s not as hard as you think. Besides making a smooth transition to improve presentation, you never want to go more than .002” of an inch (or two X sizes) in a trout leader. Knots won’t hold. (The same does not hold true for saltwater leaders, with their heavier diameters and less emphasis on delicacy). I switch back and forth between a triple surgeon’s knot and a 5-turn blood knot depending on how impatient and hurried I am. Surgeon’s for speed, blood knot for a slim connection and I suspect just a bit more strength. And if there is a big difference between your new tippet and the butt of your leader, add two transitions, stepping down 1 or 2 thousandths between these.
How do you know how long your transition should be? I like a minimum of 8 inches for a transition section just so I don’t have to tie on a new one anytime soon. But if it’s not windy and I really want some delicacy I might make it a foot or even 14 inches long. Again, make a cast and look at how your leader lands. Your casting style and the conditions might vary from mine so experiment until you get it right.
How long a tippet do you use? I can’t tell you the number of times I have fished with a relatively experienced angler and looked at his or her tippet and am shocked to see their tippet at about 8 inches. When I ask if they think their tippet is OK, they look at it and say “Yeah, I think it’s good enough”. In my opinion nearly all tippet sections on knotless leaders are too short. They’re designed to look good when you cast, but a 20” tippet leaves little room for changing flies and it does not help with delicacy and drag reduction. I use a minimum of four feet for my tippet on leaders from 9 to 12 feet long, and I might go five feet on a 15-footer. For furled and braided leaders you can even go longer—they’ll straighten a 6-foot tippet on a calm day.
Remember that the object of your tippet is to keep your fly line and the heavier part of your leader from landing too close to the fish. It’s critical in trout fishing in clear water, and it’s almost as important in fishing for bonefish or snook or stripers on the flats. And in trout fishing, the longer your tippet, the less likely drag will set in right away. Plus in nymph fishing a longer tippet sinks a fly quicker because fine diameters have less resistance. So watch the end of your leader, and play around with it until it looks right.