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Leaders and Tippet


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Ronan's report

Thursday 2nd October, 2008

For reasons which will soon become clear, I should have covered this topic last week. This, however, is Sexyloops and we like to do things differently here.

Flies aren't tied directly to the end of the fly line. Instead we use a leader and tippet. They are usually made out of a clear material like nylon or fluorocarbon. The leader and tippet have three or so jobs. The most fundamental one is to connect the fly to the fly line. The second job is to allow us to present the fly to the fish without it seeing the fly line. If the fish sees the thick fly line it's much more likely to spook. The clear and much thinner leader and tippet are less obtrusive. The last job for the leader is to help turn over the flies. "Turn over" means to help project the flies out beyond the end of the fly line.

At its simplest a leader can just be a length of nylon, also called a "level leader", connecting the fly to the fly line. Sometimes this is all we need. For example when fishing a streamer on a sinking line literally all we need to do is connect the fly to the line, for which 3 or 4 feet of nylon is just the trick. You can also make up a leader using 2 or 3 sections of increasingly thinner level leader, incorporating droppers so you can fish several flies at once.

In more demanding situations we need something a bit better. With really spooky trout a leader of 18' or 20' might be needed and we need it to turn over well. We might want to delicately present a tiny dry fly, or present a big bushy fly to a sighted fish. In these situations we need to transfer the energy the cast puts into the fly line in as smoothly as possible. This is a bit tricky with a level leader, because the change in diameter from the fly line to the leader is abrupt. This can cause what is known as "hinging", where you get a sharp angle change at the join of leader and line, as opposed to the nice smooth curve of a loop.

To transfer the energy smoothly we use a tapered leader. A tapered leader is thick at the butt, where it joins the fly line, and then tapers down to a much finer diameter along it's length. Factory made tapered leaders are usually around 7.5' to 15' long, and generally made in one piece without knots. Some people tie their own tapered leaders, starting with thick material and stepping down in size with each new section knotted on. When starting out I'd suggest you use factory made tapered knotless leaders.

To join the leader to the fly line you can either knot it on or use a loop to loop connection. Factory made leaders usually have a loop tied on the end for this. As I suggested when talking about choosing a fly line, I think you should either use the welded loop which came on your line or have a braided loop fitted. It makes it much easier to change leaders, and if you have as many tangles as I did when I started you'll appreciate that.

So where does tippet come in? Tippet is like normal fishing line, but appropriately sized for the fishing we do. There's several reasons to use tippet. As I mentioned above, leaders only come in a certain range of lengths. If we want to have the fly further from the end of the fly line than the leader allows, you tie tippet to the end of leader and then the fly to the end of the tippet. Using tippet also saves us cutting back the leader every time we tie on a new fly. By tying on a length of tippet with just one knot we can attach a number of different flies without shortening the leader. Yet another reason for using tippet is to aid presentation. We might use a very fine length of tippet which is even harder for fish to see, or maybe a soft tippet material which collapses in waves and helps delay drag.

Tippet is rated in several ways. The most common is the X rating. Tippet might be rated 3X or 7X. The higher the number, the thinner the tippet. Another rating is breaking strain. This is the amount of weight or pull it takes before the tippet breaks. Most tippet will break at a point greater than the breaking strain and with care it's perfectly possibly to land 10 lb fish on 5lb tippet. Leaders are also rated the same ways as tippet, but the rating applies to the thin tip section.

Leaders and tippet are made from several materials. The cheapest is usually plain old nylon monofilament, often called mono. Next up is copolymer. The advantage of this is that it's finer for the same strength than nylon, and can be supple. Fluorocarbon, known as "fluoro" to its friends, is the generally the most expensive material. Fluoro has good abrasion resistance, it's strong for its diameter, it will sink well and has an index of refraction similar to water so it's hard to see underwater. It can be quite stiff, which is good or bad depending on the situation.

Which one should you use? When I started I bought some spools of fluoro and some of copolymer. The fluoro was very expensive, about $28 NZD, and the copolymer was around $8 NZD. I thought the fluoro was essential for our spooky NZ fish. The trouble was that it was so expensive, about $1 a metre, that I didn't like to cut it off. This lead me to me not wanting to change flies, not apapting rigs to suit the conditions and losing fish when the fluoro snapped because it was battered and I hadn't replaced it. Fluoro seemed to be another big flyfishing expense.

All that changed when I went out with a guide who used Maxima Ultragreen mono. We got plenty of fish on it. Maxima is pretty thick for its breaking strain, compared to other tippet, but that doesn't seem to bother the fish. Maxima is about $5 a spool here, and using it revolutionised my fishing, just because I wasn't worried about the cost. I felt free to change my rigs as needed, change flies more often and replace lengths of tippet when they got suspect.

Maxima apparently isn't as cheap in some countries, but it shows it's worth experimenting with lower cost tippet and seeing if it still works. You'll use a lot of tippet and it can be pricey. When you're a beginner and you're not catching any fish it can be hard to figure out just what isn't working, so either ask people catching fish near you what they're using or I'd suggest copolymer as a good place to start. I use Maxima for most of my fishing. I tend to use copolymer when conditions get a bit tricky, for example in low water conditions when fish are taking dries and are a bit wary. I reserve fluoro for very special occasions, usually flat calm days on stillwaters, when I want the tippet to sink so it doesn't distort the surface film.

You should check your leader and tippet regularly when you're fishing. Look for nicks and abrasion. If in doubt, replace it. I lost my biggest fish to date at the net because the knocked about leader I was using broke. Leaders don't often break in the thick butt section, but that's where mine snapped. Another thing to watch for is wind knots. These are granny knots that get tied in the leader when you're casting. Despite the name they aren't caused by the wind, but rather by a casting fault known as a tailing loop. A wind knot can reduce the strength of the leader or tippet by 50% or more, and fish will break you off. If you find one you either need to unpick it or, even better, replace the line.

There are a few handy leader accessories. I wouldn't be without tippet rings, otherwise known as sheepgirl rings. They're little metal rings. You tie the thin end of the leader to the ring and then tie the tippet to the ring. This is great because you can replace the tippet multiple times without shortening the leader, so they last a lot longer. I retie the leader to the tippet ring every other trip. The rings are light enough to float, and won't sink dry flies. I use Hends microrings, I haven't had one break yet and they last a long time.

A leader straightener is useful. This is basically a couple of rubber pads attached to some leather flaps. Mono leaders have memory, that is they'll tend to stay a bit coiled if you store them coiled up. By drawing the leader between the rubber pads while applying pressure you can straighten the leader out.

Degreasing the tippet and leader helps them sink below the water surface. This is especially useful on still days. If the tippet floats in the surface film it can create a distortion which will be very visible to fish. On sunny days it can cause blobby shadows on the bottom. A sunk leader will cause less surface disturbance when you're retrieving it. You can degrease the leader by rubbing it with a handful of mud or sand, or make your own degreaser from fuller's earth, dishwashing detergent and glycerine. Alternatively you can buy various preparations. I use a block of degreaser, which I find convenient. You will have to degrease your leader and tippet every so often to make sure it keeps sinking.

Finally something to hold used tippet can be very useful. It isn't very cool to leave it by the water. If you take it to the water, make sure you take it away again. You can stick old tippet in a pocket, but it has an amazing ability to spring back out again and I find it a real nuisance. There was a thread on the Board about this recently, with a number of suggestions. My favourite is the Ross Line Tidy, which is small and light but holds a lot of line.

The NZ 2008/2009 Summer season opened yesterday, and I'm looking forward to getting out on some rivers again, after mainly fishing lakes over the Winter. High winds and high rivers from snow melt are to be expected, and hopefully a few more fish than last year. For me the season doesn't really get started until November when the High Country lakes and remaining rivers open.


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