Explore The Essentials Of Fly Fishing – What is tippet and how to use it

Explore The Essentials Of Fly Fishing – What is tippet and how to use it

Mono. Fluoro. Nylon. Line. Fishing line. Fishing string. There are a lot of names for that clear-ish material that stands between us and that trophy trout. In fly fishing, we call it tippet. You’ve probably seen those tiny spools of “fishing line” at your local fly fishing shop with lettering on it like 3x or “fluorocarbon.” Well, tippet is a necessity in fly fishing and the better you understand it, the more successful you’ll be on the water.

What is tippet? Tippet is essentially “fishing line” that you attach to the end of your leader with either a surgeons knot or a tippet ring (see our Minturn Anglers article about tippet rings). We then tie on our first fly to the end of that tippet. Sometimes we’ll tie a second or third fly using tippet as well. More to come on this.


What is this weird “x” sizing system? To know that, we have to go back to the 1970s when the X system was developed. But before we can talk about that, we have to go back to Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. In the 18th and 19th centuries, tippet was used, but the material was different. Silk was the primary tippet material up until the early 1900s. Horsehair was a thing, too, but that doesn’t help us understand the X system.

Tippet isn’t measured in break strength (pound test) like normal fishing line. Rather, tippet for fly fishing is measured in diameter. Women who created tippet from silk during the times of the Industrial Revolution would run the silk through the different gaps in their teeth and that would give them approximate diameters. Gross, but effective. Now fast forward, with the invention of machinery that became more precise and we were able to start to use other synthetic materials.

In the 1970s, or so I’m told, the “x” system was developed to somewhat standardize the tippet sizes. The higher the number, the thinner the diameter. For example, a 0x is thicker (and stronger) than a 4x. Tippet ranges from 0x all the way down to 10x. I don’t know how you’d even fish with tippet that small.

To give you some reference, 0x might be .285mm in diameter. 8x might be .090mm in Diameter. .06mm to .08mm is the average diameter of a human hair. Ox is generally around 10 pound test and 8x will be around 1 pound test. The thing about tippet diameter and pound test is that they all vary a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer. There are some, I won’t name them here, who claim high break strength, but the tippet is also thicker. So, it’s not always apples to apples.


Well, now you know that we used to use silk that was essentially floss for those who made it as well as horsehair. We’ve come a long way in technology and I’m sure there is more to come. Nylon tippet has been around the longest of the newer materials and has its origins during World War II. Nylon is a synthetic material made from crude oil; it’s basically plastic. You’ll hear people call nylon tippet “mono” or “monofilament.” This is a misnomer because monofilament can be either nylon or fluorocarbon.

Fluorocarbon is the other most common type of tippet material. Fluorocarbon is also a synthetic polymer derived from carbon-fluorine bonds. Annnnnd, that’s as far as we’re going to dive into the chemical makeup. Fluorocarbon is a newer line material that was first used by saltwater fishermen and fly fishing anglers in Japan. There are advantages and disadvantages to each tippet material. Let’s discuss.



To throw it out there first, fluoro is simply more expensive than nylon. Sometimes, it can be twice the cost. Don’t stop reading here. There’s more than just your wallet to consider.



Fluoro is more abrasion-resistant. So, if you’re fishing some really rocky rivers with sharp-edged bottoms, you may want to lean towards fluorocarbon tippet for your fly fishing adventures.



This goes to nylon. Nylon has greater stretch. Some people believe that this will, in turn, allow for more protection when fighting a fish.



Fluorocarbon is more sensitive, simply, because it has lower stretch. This is one of the reasons that most Euro nymphing fly fishing anglers choose fluoro.



Nylon is less dense than fluorocarbon and is better for dry fly fishing. Fluoro is technically denser than water, so it will sink. If you’re running a nymph rig, you may want to lean towards fluoro. If you’re throwing dries, use your nylon.



Generally speaking, nylon is slightly more visible than fluoro although a lot of advancements have been made since I started fishing that make nylon relatively clear in the water. Regardless, fluoro is darn near invisible in the water, so if you’re fishing to highly pressured fish (cough, cough . . . Deckers), fluoro is a good way to go. In my experience, though, I don’t know that I see much of a difference on this one.



This is beat to death on all the fly fishing forums, but nylon is supposed to be a bit stronger than fluorocarbon when it comes to knots. I can only assume that this is because nylon has more stretch and give.



Fluorocarbon is generally more supple than nylon. This translates into less memory and potentially better casts and drifts if you’re good enough to tell the difference which almost none of us are. I say “generally more supple” because technology has gotten so much better over the last several years that we don’t see the slinkies in tippet and fishing line that I used to see as a kid.



This is a simple answer. Both. If you’re throwing dries, run nylon. If you’re just getting started and on a budget, run nylon. If you’re packed out with all the gear and you like to be fully outfitted, run fluorocarbon. If you’re Euro nymphing, run fluorocarbon. If you’re fishing to really spooky trout, run fluorocarbon.

I run fluoro essentially all the time unless I’m throwing dries. I like the suppleness and abrasion resistance here in Colorado with our cold winters and rocky river bottoms.


Explore The Essentials Of Fly Fishing - What is tippet and how to use it, man holding a fish that he caught with fly fishing in natural river


• Don’t feel like you have to run fluorocarbon leaders. They are expensive and you’ll see little advantage when it comes to the purposes of a leader over nylon.

• Step down or “taper” your rig. What I mean by this is that if you have a 2x leader, tie your first bug in with 3x, your second bug with 4x, and your last bug with 5x. This will help you keep more of your rig more often when you snag them. If you hook your last fly, it’s likely to break the 5x and you keep the rest of your rig. Otherwise, if everything was 5x, the rig will break at its weakest point which is probably the oldest tippet material and knot and likely at the beginning of your rig.

• Generally, don’t tie your first fly directly to your leader. That’s the whole point of tippet material. With every fly change, we cut into our tippet instead of cutting into our leader.

• Use tippet rings. I wrote a whole article just on tippet rings. They help you save your leader. I’ve had many leaders last me an entire season because I stepped them down and I never had to cut into them.

• Don’t tie tippet or leaders together that are more than two sizes apart. Yes, it can be done, but it will weaken the knot. So, you can tie a 3x to a 5x, but not a 3x to a 6x. I even prefer to keep them within one size of each other.

• Tippet gets old. This is a real thing. I had a spool of tippet that I used a while ago that literally started falling apart in my hand. This made for a rough morning, but I should have known better. The tippet was old. I like to replace my tippet every season if I haven’t gone through the spool already. I usually tear through my 3x-5x, but not my 1x, 2x, and 6x. At the beginning of each season, go buy new tippet and use your old stuff for practice tying knots, or give them to a friend who always outfishes you.

• Buy good quality tippet. Just like anything, in the fly fishing world, you do get what you pay for. Good brands like Rio, Trout Hunter, Orvis, Scientific Angler, and Cortland will always serve you well. The bargain basement stuff from the big box stores have given me too many negative experiences and I think a big part of that is that they often sit on the shelves for years.


Your tippet, whether it’s nylon or fluorocarbon, is arguably one of the most important fly fishing components. It is quite literally “make or break” when it comes to getting that trophy trout to your net (yeah, we have a Minturn Anglers blog article on nets too). Bad tippet can make for a bad day as there isn’t much worse than losing that fish that you’ve worked so hard for because your tippet was low quality or older than your first-born child.

We’ve come a long way. We aren’t fishing with silk floss anymore. You’re night having to find a horse to shave. Rather, technology has made it so we can focus more on the fight and less on what we’re fighting with.

PLEASE, always put your tippet remnants in your pocket and throw them away appropriately. Fishpond makes a sweet PioPod for this, too. I’ve heard horror stories of balls of fishing line the size of Volkswagen Beetles swirling around the mouth of the Mississippi. It all goes downstream. Tippet may degrade fast enough that we don’t want to use it to catch fish, but it takes centuries to degrade in nature. It’s estimated it takes about 600 years for monofilament line to fully break down.

Swing by either of our Minturn Anglers shops or shop online to get the best tippet for your next trip!

It’s time to nail down your 2024 fly fishing trip with Minturn Anglers.

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