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Fly Fishing 101: How to Tie Tippet to Leader

Published on 05/27/2023 · 7 min readTippet is essential for your fly fishing success. Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk teaches you how to tie it to your leader, so you're able to add tippet with ease.
By Fly Fishing Expert Andy Sparhawk

Photo by Tim Foster

“Paging Doctor Andy. Paging Doctor Andy. You're needed in surgery.”

“I'm not a real surgeon. I just play one on Curated.”

Surgeons are masters of their craft. Steady hands and encyclopedic memories are necessary to operate at a tremendous skill level, despite intense pressure. Fly fishing—thank goodness—is nowhere near as crucial. Still, similarities exist. Surgeons have a deep understanding of the tools they use and the techniques at their disposal to achieve such a level of performance and success.

Fly fishermen and women pursue the same objectives. Understanding the components that make up a fly rod outfit allows an angler to utilize a system in various situations. As in the operating room, every tool needs to be in tip-top shape on the water. This includes your line, and specifically, the length of line that is the catalyst to success, your tippet.

Without tippet, the other tools are useless; casting suffers, and your odds of catching a fish diminish. To make matters worse, for such an essential component, your tippet is lost, little by little, every time you change flies.

The solution is simple, but it involves surgery.

What Is Tippet?

Tippet is the smallest diameter of line in fly fishing. It resides at the end of the line system and attaches to the hook eye of a fly. The tippet tag end is the end of a tapered leader. Leaders are composed of a tapered butt section, with the thinnest diameter of the leader being the tippet. This butt section connects to the fly line, often in a loop-to-loop connection. The tippet is the second component of the leader, opposite the leader butt, which attaches to the end of the fly line. The taper allows the leader to extend from the fly line, unfurling and delicately presenting a fly. Without the taper, a cast would not be able to turn over, and accuracy would suffer. Instead, the line would drop in a heap on the water.

Check out Curated’s Tippet and Leader Selection

Leaders are purchased individually or in packs. In contrast, fly shops sell spools of tippet. The length of a leader should be the length of your rod, initially. For instance, a 9ft fly rod should have a 9ft leader. Over time portions of the tippet will get nipped off the leader from replacing flies. Each time a fly is removed, and another added, a bit of tippet is lost. The lost tippet eventually will affect casting, as well as presenting flies. Fly anglers come equipped with various strengths of spooled tippet material to tie directly to the shortened leader.

How Do You Attach Tippet to Leader?

Answer: Like a Surgeon

As one immerses themselves in the sport of fly fishing, one thing will become clear. There are a lot of different tippet knots. From an arbor knot, nail knot, blood knot, or improved clinch knot, each of the most popular fly fishing knots offers its own set of pros and cons, but there needs only one to connect tippet to leader line, and that knot is the surgeon's knot.

A great fishing knot should offer superior strength and be easy to tie, especially when fly fishing conditions can turn wet and cold quickly. The surgeon's knot or double surgeon's knot offers both, attaching similar diameters of line securely. The surgeon's knot is one of the easiest, fastest, and best knots to tie, even as a beginner.

How to Tie a Surgeon's Knot

  1. Hold the ends of the leader and section of tippet parallel to each other to overlap in opposite directions. With the excess tippet line on the right side if you're right-handed.
  2. With the overlapping lines in your left hand, make a loop with your right hand. Pinch the loop with your left thumb and forefinger.
  3. Insert the excess tippet and tag end of the leader (on the right side of the loop) into the loop three times. You're making three overhand knot wraps.
  4. Pull the opposite sides until tight.
  5. Cut off the tag ends.

Watch this video that shows how to tie a Surgeon’s Knot

Employing the surgeon's knot to connect the tippet to the leader tag end ensures that the length of your leader is maintained to aid in proper casting. The added line can help hide your presence when fishing a dry fly to picky tailwater trout. The knot also can be situated as a useful spot to add split shots when nymphing by acting as a stop to keep the weight from sliding down towards the fly.

Some anglers utilize the tag ends, usually nipped off and discarded, as a way to present small nymphs to trout in a way they aren't used to seeing. Tying a midge pattern onto the top tag end of the tippet allows the dropper fly to drift out to the side or above the point fly. This tactic can also be used with a streamer or as a static rig under an indicator on still water. Switching up presentations, especially with fish that see flies 365 days a year, can be just what you need to turn some heads.

What are Tippet Rings?

Earlier I described how the end of your leader is shortened every time you change a fly. This fact makes adding additional tippet necessary, especially when you are dry fly fishing and rely on the taper of a fly fishing leader to deliver a small fly. The drawback of this is that leaders are expensive. I'd much rather use more tippet than ruin a leader. That's where a tippet ring comes in handy.

Tippet rings are metal rings that attach to the end of a leader. They are small enough that you can use them with a dry fly. Attach the ring to the end of your leader and then add a section of tippet. This way, your leader never gets cut.

What's With the Xs?

Leader and tippet material strength is ranked from 0X to 7X. What's with the “X”? Does it pertain to the line's strength?

Sort of.

For the most part, the number and X is an arbitrary marking that helps anglers choose the correct leader and tippet for their application, but it is worth noting that lines go through a laboratory test to confirm their ratings are accurate. When it comes to tippet, what anglers care about is diameter, stiffness, and strength. Since the diameter is in millimeters and the test strength can be abstract, line companies have adopted a numeral X to communicate information about the material. It is important to remember, 0X is the strongest, while 7X is the least strong.

If your leader material is 5X, it is recommended that you have the same X tippet material. Depending on the situation, you might choose a light tippet like 6X, but adding a stronger tippet, like 4X, is not recommended.

Does Tippet Go Bad?

Leader and tippet material can become brittle. Moisture and sun can accelerate this, shortening the life of the leader or tippet, which is why it's essential to store your tippet material in a cool, dry, and dark place. An excellent way to test tippet is by tying a standard overhand knot and seeing if it will snap if you pull hard on the knot. If you feel like the line breaks too easily, it might be a good idea to replace it with a new spool.

Photo by Morgan McDonald

It's Not Rocket Surgery

Quickly replacing tippet material on your leader isn't rocket surgery. Still, an understanding of anatomy comes in handy. Understanding your tools and having the skill to use and maintain them is quite similar to that of a medical surgeon. With practice, adding tippet becomes second nature. Mastering a knot like that of a surgeon's knot will allow you to adapt to fishing conditions and overcome challenges. Soon, others on the water will see how you adjust to circumstances and use your tools and know-how to catch more fish. And the only word that will come to mind will be: surgical.

Now I think you'll concur that you should get out and get trout fishing, stat!

And if you have any questions about finding the right fly fishing gear for your needs, chat with me, or one of my fellow Fly Fishing Experts here on Curated for free advice and recommendations.

Andy Sparhawk, Fly Fishing Expert
Andy Sparhawk
Fly Fishing Expert
I'm a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, I've fished it all. The only thing I love more than fly fishing is exposing others to fly fishing. Let me help you find the right gear for a memorable experience on the water.
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Written by:
Andy Sparhawk, Fly Fishing Expert
Andy Sparhawk
Fly Fishing Expert
I'm a Colorado kid and lifelong angler. From bluegills in area ponds to high alpine lakes of the Rocky Mountains, I've fished it all. The only thing I love more than fly fishing is exposing others to fly fishing. Let me help you find the right gear for a memorable experience on the water.

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