How to Choose the Right Leader and Tippets

Tare most often used with floating lines, or any time a smooth delivery of the fly is required. An important job of the tapered leader is to carry the forward momentum of the fly line smoothly to the fly. They start from a thick section called the butt, and taper down to a very thin diameter near the tip. As you make your forward cast, the leader starts to unroll, the diameter gets thinner and thinner until eventually the very tip of the leader delicately unfurls and allows the fly to gently land on the water.

You can imagine what would happen if we cast a fly attached to a length of rope that is one diameter. It would land on the water with a big splash and scare away the fish. On the other hand, if we attached a fly to a piece of dental floss, it would fitter down to the water in a tangle. Instead, a leader is created with the fishing line equivalent of a length of rope that tapers down to a thin section of dental floss. It's good to have several tapered leaders with you. It's very common when you're new to fly fishing to damage, tangle, or cut your leader. Eventually, you'll learn to mend your leader with tippet, making it last many outings.

Things to Consider

Leader Length

You'll need to decide on a length and diameter to choose the right leader. Tapered leaders are available in various lengths and many diameters. Typically, the most common length for tapered leaders is 9 feet. This is a good all-purpose length for a variety of types of fishing. In general, anglers may use shorter leaders for tight spaces. A longer leader is a good choice if a delicate presentation is desired, or if you're finding that fish are seeing your fly line and you therefore need a longer space between it and your fly. If you're just getting started, a 9 foot tapered leader is a good choice.

The X Factor

Other than the length of the leader, you'll also need to decide on the proper diameter or X factor. This is where life can get a little tricky. It's helpful to understand the X factor system to extend the life of your tapered leaders, and determine the proper leader for the size of the flies you're using, and the fish you're targeting.

When you buy a tapered leader, it will look something like this. You'll see at the bottom of the package some numbers that say 9 ft. 4X. This means that this tapered leader is 9 feet long, and the diameter of the tip (tippet) of the leader is 4X. The X rating specifically correlates to the diameter of the tippet in inches (see the chart below). Instead of talking about the diameter of the leader as .008" around, we simply say 4X. All tapered leaders are built with a blended, or integrated section of tippet at the end. This is the portion of the leader that it is nearest to where you would tie the fly on. The tippet is a uniform diameter instead of a tapered diameter, and it's typically around 2 feet long. In this case, the integrated section of tippet on this tapered leader is a 4X diameter.

X Factor

Tippet Diameter

* Breaking Strength

Fly Size


.011 inches

12 lb

1/0 , 2 , 4


.010 inches

10 lb

2 , 4 , 6


.009 inches

8 lb

6 , 8 , 10


.008 inches

6 lb

10 , 12 , 14


.007 inches

5 lb

12 , 14 , 16


.006 inches

4 lb

14 , 16 , 18


.005 inches

3 lb

16 , 18 , 20 , 22


.006-.004 inches

2 lb

20 , 22 , 24

Why is this important?

We want to know that the tippet diameter of this leader is 4x because in general, we don't want to add a larger size tippet onto the leader than the tippet that's built in. Otherwise, our leader will fail to unroll smoothly and create a poor presentation to the fish. Instead, we would need to add either more of the same diameter which would be 4X, or one size smaller, which would be 5X.

You'll notice that the above tapered leader has a breaking strength of 6.3 lbs. If you were trout fishing and unless you are targeting some pretty big ones, this would be the perfect choice for most average sized fish that weigh anywhere between .1 lb. ­ 3 lb. You'll also notice that the length and X factor are more prominent than the lb. test rating. This is because we are more concerned with tracking the diameter of the tippet to ensure a proper presentation, rather than the breaking strength. The breaking strength will greatly vary between manufactures, but if you are particularly interested in the stats, it will usually be listed on the back or bottom portion of the leader package.

Choosing the right X factor

To choose the right tippet diameter you'll need to have some idea of what species of fish you are going to target. This will also give you an idea of the size of fly you will be fishing. As a very general rule of thumb, to choose the right x factor, you can divide the size of your fly by three to arrive at the proper X factor. For example, if you are planning to fish a size 12 fly, you could divide by three and find out that 4X will get you in the ball game. This does not mean that if you switch to a size 16 fly you need to switch to a 5X leader. Refer to the chart to get you started.Part two of this rule of thumb is to bump up the X factor by one size if the fish you are targeting are particularly large or strong, or one size smaller if they are spooky or small. It's common to fish 3X - 5X for trout species all around the United States. And fly fishing seemed like so much fun before you read this!

Tippet Spools

You'll want to buy a few spools of extra tippet material in the key diameters to properly manage your leader system. Unlike tapered leaders, extra tippet materials is wound on small plastic spools and is all one diameter, similar to normal fishing line. Having extra tippet along will allow you to mend your leader so that you can always keep it the proper length. Tippet will also allow you to greatly extend the life of your leader as you begin to use it up by loosing or tying on new flies. You'll be able to knot an extra length or two of tippet to your existing leader and get yourself back in the game quickly. It is also used to attach multiple flies onto one leader by assembling a dropper rig. In this setup you would tie a 2 ­ 3 foot length of tippet to the bend of your hook and attach another fly onto the other end. Double your chances, double the fun! The proper sizes will again depend on the species you're fishing for. For most trout fishing situations you'll want to carry at least three spools of extra tippet from 3X ­ 5X.

Just remember a few of the following points.

  • The bigger the X factor number, the smaller the diameter. The smaller the X factor number the bigger the diameter.
  • When adding tippet to a tapered leader, always add the same X factor or 1 size smaller than the original. Example: Tie 4X to 4X, or 4X to 5X.
  • Avoid tying two sections of tippet together that are bigger than two X factors. i.e. do not add 6X tippet onto 3X tippet. You're knots will not hold, and you'll create a weak link.
  • Choose the X factor that best matches the size of the flies you will use and the fish you're after. Salmon will require a bigger X factor (2X) than trout (4X).

The Real World

Now that you have a general idea of how the X factor works, and that it simply refers to the diameter of your leader and tippet, let's put that knowledge to practical use. For this example, let's say you are headed to a local river for some trout fishing.

To head out, you'll need a 9ft long, 4X tapered leader attached to your fly line. With this leader, you'll simply need to loop it onto your line, and tie your fly on the end. No need to alter the leader, just tie it on, and go fishing right out of the package. If you are new, you will at some point tangle your leader, snag it on the bottom, or snap your fly off on a tree. At the very least, you'll be changing out your fly at some point during the day. Every time you change a fly, have to cut out a tangle, or snap a bit of it off, you'll sacrifice a little chunk of your tippet each time. Eventually, you'll use up the 2 feet of integrated tippet on your leader. You could simply grab another tapered leader, take off the old one, and loop another one, but it's far more efficient and economical to tie on a new length of tippet onto your existing leader.

Some anglers think they can take a short cut by having to learn to manage their leader by buying a bunch of tapered leaders, but at some point you need to learn to tie on different sections of tippet, and manage the length of your overall leader system accordingly.

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