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,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

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

  1. Agreed! I fish nothing less than 12lb test when I’m chucking streamers, regardless of whether it’s a small stream, or big water. Now nymphing and dries is when I get picky with my tippet. I’ve seen trout part like the red sea when a rig comes floating by, and I’ll swear to you it’s the tippet they’re reacting to, not the flies. I typically don’t start the day with anything bigger than 5x, depending on water clarity. And, often, I’ll end up fishing 7x if I’m finding the trout are being stubborn. If you’re not getting takes, or if you notice you’re getting last second refusals when dry fly fishing, DOWNSIZE YOUR TIPPET! Great topic for discussion!

  2. Great article as always. I started using 3x based on a tip from a buddy when streamer fishing and I will agree that the fish don’t mind that thick line one bit. I’ve fished down to about 7x (horse hair) before and don’t care for it much, but it does make a huge difference in the fish’s willingness to strike compared to the same rig tied on with 5x.

    I don’t typically like to go much less than 6x (I really prefer 5x for durability and strength) when fishing, but was curious as to what tippet size you prefer the most for super clear conditions on a small stream?


    • Matt,

      That’s a great question. Very glad you asked. When I’m dealing with clear technical trout conditions with tandem nymph rigs, I will usually lengthen my leader a couple feet to give me a little more buffer between the trout and my highly visible fly line and I’ll tie my lead fly with 5x and my dropper with 6x. If that doesn’t work, or if I need both my flies to be 20 or smaller, I will got 6X to lead fly and 7x to my dropper. All fluorocarbon tippet to fly and dropper. Only on extremely rare occasions will I go smaller than 7X and 8X is max. I don’t even know why they make anything smaller than that. It coils up casting and after every fish because it’s so thin. That’s what I do anyway. Maybe someone else will chime in as well.


  3. I agree completely. The most technical water I fish is the lower Nantahala with no generation and 7x will out fish 5x two to one on most days. I believe it is due to the way 7x cuts through the water more efficiently. There’s less drag on your flies so they sink faster an drift more naturally. Great post.

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  5. Tippet selection is a lot more important than I used to realize. Fishing Colorado with my son last fall, my son was railing fish and I just was gettting one now and then. I was your typical 5X is good enough/ too lazy to change guy. Then he reminded me 6 and 7 x sinks a lot faster- it made a huge difference.

    • Rob,

      I’ve fished many waters in Colorado when correct tippet size was the sole variable in catching trout. Thanks for sharing the story and pass on some props to your son for teaching Dad a lesson on the water. That’s great stuff. I look forward to having my own kids showing me a thing or two in the future.


  6. Tippet size is critical in the nymphing game for sure. I use floro always when nymphing because it has better sinking properties, less visable , and it has better abrasion resistance. The size of the tippet will aid in getting down quicker depending on the water speed (6x will help the get down faster that 5x). I should add not to be afraid of breaking off by going lighter with the tippet size. I’ve had more fish come unbuttoned from the hook than break the line. Back to a recent post, don’t forget to check your tippet and flies often and change it for a fresh piece if needed! Great post!

  7. Kent,

    I think tippet size is not just about visibility and dropping faster in the water column, it is about natural movement of the fly. So if you are fishing a size 18 or 20 nymph, using 6x or 7x will provide a more lifelike drift than 5x. However, the stiffness issue can be offset by using a loop knot rather than a direct connection to the eye of the hook. This is true when using bigger flies as well (4x for size 14 or 12). As an old saltwater guy, I like loop knots on my streamers for more action, so why not on fresh water for streamers and for nymphs?

      • Great point indeed Ralph! You definitely get more movement with lighter tippet. Cool you mentioned using a loop knot as well. I use the no-slip loop knot for ALL of my streamer fishing. It makes a huge difference in the action of streamers, both single hook and articulated.

      • JSA,

        Good point and I’d suggest you try using a loop knot for dry flies as well. It’s so great to have the G&G community add the details that I sometimes forget to mention in my posts. I really appreciate it everyone.

        Keep it Reel,


    • Ralph,

      I agree with you fully and I believe I dropped hint of that in the 2nd to last paragraph. I like how you point out how important it is to use lighter tippet when you’re using tiny fly patterns, and that a loop knot helps to improve overall natural action in the water. Thanks for you insight, it always holds value for the angler.


  8. Tippet size is important in “balancing” the whole leader. Whilst I don’t fish streamers much I can see the logic that using a chunky tippet doesn’t really downgrade the catch rate, although matching the diameter of the tippet to the size of the fly does I feel provide a better balance of the leader and the presentation, even with streamers. However, as you say it does become important with nymphs. The action of nymphs, especially in stillwater and lakes, has a more natural motion when the tippet size is matched to the size of the flye. It’s certainly possible to have too small a tippet diameter for a given nymph. The action will not be good, nor will casting it. Balance of the leader to fly has a big part in better presentation and hopefully as a consequence better catch rate!

  9. I always do 5x on the lead and 6x on the dropper. The thinner diameter helps getting the flies down quickly when performing a tuck cast as well. At least from my experience.
    Besides, my fingers resemble the Johnsonville brats you put on the grill in the summer… I don’t think they would get along with 7x or smaller.

  10. Great article Kent,
    I think we often overlook the importance of tippet when nymphing. Of course we always think of lite tippet when throwing drys but we need to think the same why when nymphing. I usually go 5X from the leader to the first fly and 6X to the dropper but I will go even lighter if the situation call for it.

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