As a fly angler, you’ve already learned what tippet is. You know, it’s the stuff that breaks when you have a beautiful fish on. Thankfully, once you learn the ins and outs of matching the right type and size to your conditions, you will lose fewer fish. To understand how to select the perfect tippet, trace the value chain. Many people start the value chain at the wrong end and focus on the rod and reel. Instead, start at the fish and move backward a few steps.
The species of fish, and where it lives, dictates the fly. The fly drives the tippet. The wrong combination of fly and tippet will create drag and produce in unnatural, fish-repelling drift. The quest for the perfect drift might lead you to extremes where you put exceptionally light tippet on a very heavy fly – that is a recipe for break off when casting. Fly and tippet must be compatible! Your starting point in matching fly to tippet should be the Orvis table for their Superstrong Plus brand. It matches tippet to the fly size to achieve a good drift. Even though the pound test ratings are specific to the Superstrong Plus, the tippet sizes/diameters are industry standard and show the right diameter for the fly size.
As you can see, very light tippet goes with tiny flies. However, judgment comes into play at the edge of the stream. If the water is gin clear with spooky fish, drop down a size. With cloudy or dirty water, you can move up a notch on the scale since the dirt mutes an unnatural drift and you can take advantage of the higher pound test to reduce the chance of a break-off. If you expect to run into stronger fish on very light flies, it’s better to reset the drag on your reel and be very gentle when fighting the fish before dropping two sizes to a riskier, more lightweight tippet. The chart shows these situationally driven variations by reflecting the same size fly against different tippet diameters. It is best not to go outside those windows, i.e., do not put 4X tippet on a size 22 fly.
You do not need much tippet – 2 to 4 feet at most. Remember, it attaches to the end of your leader, and the leader provides the standoff from the thick, fish-spooking fly line. Since leaders are expensive, always tie a surgeon’s loop at the end of the leader and attach the tippet using another surgeon’s loop for a loop to loop connection. Caveat – purists demand you tie the tippet firmly to the leader’s surgeon’s loop to achieve a better turnover of the fly. However, as a new fly angler, the difference in your presentation will be negligible, and it is better to be able to leverage the loop to loop connection to quickly change tippet as the length erodes with each fly change.
One point that always comes up is the expense of tippet. I know, it seems like everything associated with fly fishing has a cost premium. Some folks try and cut costs by using 100-yard spools of monofilament or fluorocarbon. However, while cheaper, it will not perform the same. All you need to do is compare the diameter of the bulk line to the width of equivalent pound test tippet. For example, a $5.99/110 yard spool of 2 lb test Berkeley Vanish fluorocarbon has a diameter of 0.006 inches which is equal to 5X tippet. Sounds like a bargain at 5 cents per yard! The same diameter Orvis Superstrong Plus breaks at 4.75 lbs ($5/32.8 yards or $0.15 per yard) and Rio’s Powerflex Plus breaks at 6 lbs ($10/50 yards or $0.20 per yard). So, it’s a case of buyer beware; don’t be lulled into deciding based on false economy. Go with the strongest tippet you can afford.
So… monofilament or fluorocarbon? First, disregard the idea that fluorocarbon is totally transparent under water. Yes, the refractive index is more closely matched to water than mono, but fish, as well as humans, can still see it according to tests done by many experts. The good news is that, just like the big, nasty hook hanging from the bottom of the fly, fish do not know what tippet is and will hit anything they believe matches real food as they make split-second decisions when the current pushes the fly into their field of view. Mono and flouro both stretch and mono recovers better, allowing it to retain more of its strength. On the other hand, flouro turns a fly over a little better. What’s the bottom line to you as a new angler? Feel free to go with the less expensive mono since the casting performance improvements of flouro will be lost until your cast improves.