Basically, fly fishing is all about presentation—inconspicuously putting a fly in front of a fish and making it look good enough to eat. That’s where the appropriate combination of the leader, tippet and fly is so important.
As you will notice, fly line typically comes in a variety of colors ranging from plain white to hot pink. The color of the line is for the fisherman’s benefit and allows good visual recognition in most light conditions.
The fish don’t care what color your line is, it just looks black to them. However, something black attached to breakfast would not be appealing. That’s where the leader comes into play.
The leader is attached to the end of the colorful fly line and gives the fisherman a virtually transparent connection between the line and the fly. Commercially bought leaders come in a variety of lengths with 7.5 to 9 feet being most common.
Most leaders are tapered monofilament nylon, meaning they are a larger diameter at the butt end, which attaches to the fly line, and a smaller diameter at the tip, where the tippet or fly is tied.
During the cast, the taper allows the leader to shoot through the air more efficiently and rest more softly on the surface of the water. Leaders come in different weights and strengths. The correct leader weight is primarily determined by the size of the fly.
So what is tippet? Tippet is a specific gauge monofilament line that is attached to the end of the leader, to which you tie the fly. The tippet is usually the smallest gauge line on your rig and is virtually invisible to the fish. Tippet is also very flexible and allows your fly to float or swim more naturally.
Normally the tippet is 2 to 4 feet in length and matches, or is smaller than, the diameter of the leader’s tip. The biggest advantage to using tippet is that it extends the life of the leader. Leaders can be expensive and if you change flies often, little by little the taper of the leader is cut away. By tying on tippet, you can avoid losing taper.
The fly is tied to the end of the tippet. What type of fish you are angling for determines the type and size of the fly. Flies come in all different shapes and sizes that range from very small #28 to large #2. There are still larger flies, but they are categorized on a different scale.
To help determine what gauge leader and tippet to use with a particular size fly, many leader manufacturers insert a small chart inside their packaging.
Did you know: According to Guinness World Records, “Maria Dolores Montesinos Fernández (Spain) cast a weighted fly into a fish bowl with a neck diameter of 17.5 cm (6.8 in) without touching the sides from a distance of 7 m (22.96 ft) at the studios of El Show de los Récords, Madrid, Spain on 11 December 2001.” It didn’t say if she caught anything.