Fly Fishing: Why Tippet Size Can Be More Important With Nymphs

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(Left to Right Tippet Size in Picture) 2X, 4X, 6X – Photo by: Louis Cahill

Many of us like to think it’s all about fly pattern choice when it comes to catching trout.

Sometimes it is, but there’s many times when the key to getting the tough bites, lies not in what fly pattern you’re fishing, but rather in what size tippet you’ve chosen to attach your fly to. If you asked me what fly type (streamer, dry or nymph) is most important when it comes to tippet choice, I’d quickly respond that tippet size is most critical when an angler is trout fishing with nymphs. You’re probably thinking, “Thanks for your opinion Kent, but what’s the theory behind your reasoning?” For starters, trout don’t tend to be very tippet shy with streamers—in most moving water situations. A trout generally will see your big meaty streamer coming through its kitchen, and it will either pounce on it for territorial reasons or because it provides an opportunity for a large meal that it can’t afford to pass up. I’ve got buddies that regularly fish 15 pound tippet when they’re streamer fishing, hell, sometimes even 20 pound, and they have great success. And a good portion of them, aren’t pounding the banks on the river from a drift boat, but instead wade-fishing on small to mid-size trout streams. In many cases, anglers tend to fish tippet too light when streamer fishing. Fishing beefy tippet will aid in efficient leader turnover, decrease the amount of false casting needed between presentations, and lastly, it will help anglers make accurate casts more consistently at varying distances.

Dry fly fishing, makes for a much closer call, but I still stand by my belief, that tippet size is more important with nymphs. Largely because the two most important factors in dry fly fishing success, are an accurate presentation and a drag free drift. In certain situations, timing can be critical as well, for instance, when an angler is fishing to a trout actively feeding on the surface during a hatch. That being said, I wouldn’t go so far as to say tippet has no bearing in dry fly fishing. It’s just more common that the problem lies with a presentation off target (out of the target zone), a dry fly looking unnatural because of drag, or the dry fly was drifted over the trout when it wasn’t ready (repositioning after a recent feeding). If you’re certain you have all of the above correct, you’ve tried a few different patterns, and you’re still not getting bites, there’s a good chance your tippet is too large and needs to be downsized.

Nymphs, on the other hand, tend to provide a greater number of challenges to the fly angler, because they often are happening all at the same time. Not only do anglers need to worry about trout being tippet shy, they also have to worry about managing conflicting underwater currents (differing speeds and directions), and it’s critical that they have the nymph/nymphs drifting at the correct depth. With streamers and dry flies, you usually don’t have to worry about dealing with all of these challenges all at once, and that’s why I feel tippet size with nymphs is most important. Downsizing tippet will combat tippet shy trout, provide a higher level of suppleness or flexibility, which will make it easier to maintain a natural drag free drift, and help wet flies sink quicker into the desired water column.

In conclusion, I’d like to state that there’s times on the water when the choice of tippet size can be just as critical from one type of fly pattern to the next, and that goes for a fly on or below the surface. The main purpose for me writing this post was to help anglers from misdiagnosing the real problem at hand for why they aren’t catching fish. Catching trout is always about identifying the key variables and prioritizing them correctly in the eyes of the trout.

Keep it Reel,

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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8 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: Why Tippet Size Can Be More Important With Nymphs

  1. As a relative newcomer to fly fishing I’ve appreciated your informative writing style and topic choice, and you nailed it again.

    There is so darn much to think about! Stiff or subtle leaders, fluorocarbon vs mono and why is tippet different than line off of a spool. And toss in fly line options it can get overwhelming. Or fun in trying different combinations and paying attention the what works! Hanging at my local fly shop and reading a LOT helps too.

    To add a few things – flourocarbon has become my go-to for the dropper. Without weight on small nymphs it just seems to “hang” better.

    Fishing primarily streamers I have to agree that heavier tippet and leaders are the way to go for a bulky streamer. Either tying directly to the leader or forgoing the leader entirely and using 10-15 lb maxima. 40-20 lb on my 12wght. But here again it becomes trial and learning that the leader and tippet that turns over for a 3″ zoo cougar is significantly different than one for a 3″ grey ghost. And that you want a line or tippet that allows that grey ghost to flutter a bit…the cougar not so important.

    Thanks again

  2. I can’t agree more. On a trip last week to the White R in AR the trout actually seemed to be sensitive to tippet color. I was successfully fishing a generic 5X nylon tippet, broke off and had to re-tie. I switched to a Climax brand 5x that had a blue hue. It was like a switch, not a single hit in 25 minutes. I dug out another generic clear 5x and things turned back on.

    Keep up the great post coming!

  3. The harder fished the water, the more sophisticated the trout usually are. Nymphs are generally much more effective when fished with a Duncan–or other–loop. With dry flies, the lighter the tippet, the more natural the drift–hence more effective.

  4. Guides and their clients in my neck of the woods catch a lot of fish on nymphs using heavy tippet material. They do not down size tippet, instead they rely on this old adage: If you’re not catching fish on nymphs, just add another split shot (or two). It’s called “force feeding” the trout.

  5. Agree more with the fact a thinner tippet with nymphs works better, and more natural in the currents. I often use a thicker tippet than most with dries even small dries as big fish do put in an appearance now and again, I just will not take a risk as they are hard to come by.

    By fine I mean 4lb with nymphs, but 5lb 6lb with dries. In wind the larger thicker tippet turns over better. Never really worried about tippet size as I feel getting close and being stealthy the bigger advantage.

  6. Trout fisherman could use some help with flourocarbon. They think it is only for saltwater fishing. But it is 1/3 the diameter of mono and 3x the strength. I use ten pound flouro at the smallest for trout. Which is equal to 3 lb mono and much stronger. It also is a closer density to water therefore clearer in the water as well.

  7. Pingback: Tippets: Tying the Jigawockie, Choosing Tippet Size, Spring Flies for Montana | MidCurrent

  8. I think this adds a little to the article you posted a few days ago about Presentation being more important than fly Selection.

    I agree, whatever you can do to put the flies in the right lane, at the right depth and look natural is more important than which fly and lighter tippet helps small nymphs move more naturally.

    I am interested in testing all these different theories of rigging and knots for nymphing to see which is more effective vs problematic and time consuming.

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