Choosing the Right Tippet Size

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Sometimes it pays to go against the textbook when choosing tippet size. Photo Louis Cahill

I’ve talked quite a bit about how important it is to correctly select the proper tippet size when your fly fishing for trout.

Most fly fisherman have no problem grasping this, after all, small fly patterns generally call for using smaller tippet and big fly patterns call for larger tippet, right? Well, that’s a general guideline most anglers fish by on the water, but it’s not the only factor fly fishermen should use when choosing what size tippet to fish with. Equally important in tippet choice by anglers is how clear or stained the water is that’s going to be fished, and also what level of fishing pressure the water sees (how educated the trout are).

Choosing the Right Tippet Size Guide

(This is your typical text book guide you would find for a beginner wanting to learn to match the appropriate tippet size with fly pattern size. For the most part it’s spot on, but I think it’s important to point out and understand you don’t always have to follow it exactly) 

Tippet Size          Hook Size
0X                               2, 1/0
1X                               4, 6, 8
2X                              6, 8, 10
3X                             8, 10, 12, 
4X                            10, 12, 14, 
5X                            12, 14, 16, 
6X                           16, 18, 20, 22
7X                           18, 20, 22, 24
8X                          20, 22, 24, 26, 28

Take for instance hopper fishing. Most anglers would say that 3X tippet is the appropriate size tippet to use if we’re talking about fishing with a good size foam hopper imitation. I would agree this is correct and it’s probably what I use most of the time for this type of fly fishing, however, I’ll never forget floating out west a few years back where my buddy opted instead to use 4X tippet and he dominated us and was the hot stick that morning. The point being, we as anglers shouldn’t always stick to the book when it comes to how we rig up and fish. That morning we were both fishing hoppers. I was in the bow of the boat with 3X and my buddy was in the stern with 4X. I had several refusals at the last second from trout, and on multiple occasions my buddy in the back of the boat caught those fish. It just goes to show, it might be worth putting up with a few line twists if you’re going to catch twice as many fish. It’s not all about presentation always, sometimes tippet size is the deciding factor on whether or not a trout eats your fly.

Have you ever been on the water where you were certain your tippet was the correct size? So certain in fact, that you ruled it out completely for you not catching fish, and just kept on fishing and changing fly patterns? It happens to all of us, particularly on water that is super clear or when we’re fishing to trout that have been super pressured. The one important point that I didn’t mention in the previous story where my buddy showed me up with 4X tippet hopper fishing, was that it was during the tail-end of the season. Many of those trout had already been caught a few times on hoppers during the season and many of them had also obviously smartened up and had become wise to tippet size. Don’t get caught in a routine and think you know everything. If you’re not catching fish and you’re covering plenty of water, most of the time it’s because something in your rig is wrong.

We’d also like to provide a very humorous post from a very active Gink & Gasoline follower Mike Sepalak. He posted it on his blog back in September 2010. It’s a very good read that describes the unpleasantries of using fine tippet in fly fishing. Check it out.

Mike Sepelak’s Tippet Tantrum 

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Choosing the Right Tippet Size

  1. Thanks for an informative article. However, it fails to mention the impact of rod power on light tippets. This is particularly important for FF beginners who hear the message it is better to fish light tippets, but often they are fishing with #6 & #7 rods. Unfortunately such mismatches lead to disappointment due to break offs on the strike.

    • Good comment. And, to elaborate a bit;
      I’m a firm believer in letting the fish and/or current set the hook. I have seen many miss an opportunity by thinking they have to break their jaw. Finesse is the key to good hookups. My favorite trout rod for big streams is my 10′, 4 wt. Just slowly lifting that rod tip sets the hook just fine.

  2. Trout see every tippet ever presented to them. They even see fluorocarbon! Fortunately for us they are not smart enough to understand the implications of their observation. According to Gary Borger, trout have an IQ of about 6; no smarter than a frog or salamander. Feeding, trout look for positive triggers and they ignore neutrals like foam, debris, and your visible tippet, unless it is creating unnatural drag. The real benefit of light/supple tippets has nothing to do with visibility and everything to do with aiding a natural drag free float.

  3. Well written, excellent knowledge displayed there.–Thank you.
    Friends, closest to being “expert” whom I know, never use any tippet smaller than 5X., for trout. I’ve become an aficionado of that philosophy. Disregarding that advise and using 6-8X, cost me several large fish. If the fish really cared about the tippet, why would it eat something with a hook hanging out of its butt?

  4. Right on, Rick. I believe drag is the reason thicker diameter tippets create refusals. Another consideration is…shadow from larger tippets floating on the surface. I once was using a green hi-vis line fishing on Lake Fork where you could see the insignia on a dime in 10 feet of water and bass were taking my lure without hesitation. So much for the visibility factor

  5. Well I think you guys are failing to “see” an important factor here. Shouldn’t the fly be the first thing the fish see’s? That’s how I try to do it. You could be using the wrong tippet size all the time and I wouldn’t think it would matter. Just sayin

  6. How much should sink rates play into your decision? I have heard that smaller diameter line sinks faster improving the length of your drift when nimphing.

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