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Catch-22x: Tippet Sizes and When to Use Them

If your tippet is thin enough to fool large fish, is it strong enough to hold them?

Catch-22x: Tippet Sizes and When to Use Them
The better your presentation technique, the heavier tippet you can use. Without strong tippet, you’ll have a tough time landing large trout—such as those found on Alberta’s Red Deer River—quickly without playing them to death. Photo: Dave Jensen/

Five years ago, just after I caught and released the largest brown trout of my life, I also received the latest and greatest manifestation of what I call fly fishing's Catch-22: The widespread misconception among fly fishers that if the tippet is strong enough to hold the trout it will be too thick to fool him in the first place.

A friend, who had been fishing downstream when I arrived, stopped by after dark as I was having a celebratory beer on the tailgate of my rig. He commented on the prolonged reel music coming from up my way. The musician was a 30-inch brown trout, I told him.

"Get any pictures?" he asked.

"Maybe, hard to tell by myself in the pitch dark."

"You should have hollered."

"Wasn't sure it was you," I said. "Besides, soon as you holler you lose the fish."

"Isn't that the truth," he said. "Maybe even before you holler. I hooked three big ones and broke them all off on the strike."

"What leader were you using?"

"Six X," he answered.

"Why didn't you go lighter?" I wanted to ask. But I feared the answer would be "couldn't get anything smaller."

Well, now I see that 9X tippet material (.94-pound test) is available, and I keep hearing ugly rumors of 10X. We now have the mixed blessing of fluorocarbon, so wispy, hard, and slick that no normal knot will hold. These developments will be nothing but trouble for a friend of mine who operates a tackle shop on the banks of a famous stream full of big trout. He has joked for years that he would not sell any tippet material or leader finer than 5X to anyone who "did not bring a note either from his mommy or his shrink."

If and when modern technology does produce 22X tippet material with a breaking strength of, say, half an ounce, modern fly fishers will line up, notes from mommy and money in hand, to be the first to pop off more big fish.


Over the 40-plus years I have been fly fishing it has been my good fortune and challenge to fish some of the legendary and difficult waters of the world. There is no occasion on which I can honestly say I have ever encountered a leader-shy fish. Seldom have I ever lengthened a leader to more than ten feet and I never use tippet material smaller than 5X. When I go to those extremes, it is generally to make a tiny dry fly float properly.

Years ago, on my first trip to the Henry's Fork, then regaded as one of the more difficult trout streams in the world, we waited impatiently, shifting from boot-foot to boot-foot, while two of our companions, very famous fly fishers, applied a micrometer to every foot of their leaders. Meanwhile, Koke Winter, a trout bum before his time, strolled down to the river with whatever he had on from last time out and took our only trout of the day, a 22-inch rainbow.

Sometimes I think all this modern fussing with leaders is revived memory syndrome of piscatorial abuse suffered back in what we all like to think of as the good old days. But the good old days are here and now for those of us who can never forget those were also the days of knotted Japanese gut leaders. When dry, they were as brittle and fragile as rice noodles; soaked, as they had to be between the felt pads of aluminum leader boxes, they were as thick as hawsers and as strong and limp as those same rice noodles when overcooked.

Before most of us were in a positionafter the warto afford silkworm gut, we were saved by a miracle. Arguably, the discovery of monofilament nylon is the most important modern technological advance in fly fishing and has contributed more to its growing popularity than A River Runs Through It. But modern masochistic fly fishers seem to feel guilty that things could be so simple and yearn for those good old days of which they may only have heard: of chronic busted gut and routine 30-foot releases. Maybe that's a good thing if the release is quick, but an ethical question arises when your leader is so fragile you can play a fish to death.

Several years ago, before Alberta's lower Bow River became famous, I was privileged to accompany Lefty Kreh and the late Charlie Brooks of West Yellowstone on three days of float fishing on the Bow. Charlie had a heavy hand, evolved over years of fishing his heavy stonefly nymphs on short, stout leaders in his beloved Madison. Lefty and I winced each time Charlie popped the leader on a strike and left yet another Grey Fox Variant in a big Bow trout. They were heirloom flies, Charlie gleefully assured us, tied by Art Flick himself.

Lefty, always observant, ingenious, and curious, noticed that I was landing many big fish despite heavy floating weed and asked me for the secret.

"My eye of the needle rule," I said. "If the tippet will just go through the eye of my fly, then I am in heaven."

I explained that Bow trout took no account of flies that are too small or leaders that are too strong.

"So, what fly, what tippet?" Lefty persisted.

"Size 14 Adams, 2X tippet."

"Damn," Lefty said, "Why didn't I think of that."

What he did think of before the end of the trip was what a great idea it would be for someone to make tiny fly hooks with extra-large eyes. Someone does now, of course.

On another rotten day, the Henry's Fork was aboil with big rising trout that nobody could take. On that high, dry desert air you could hear cursing in every language.

"You take the rod," I said. "Let's see the guide earn his money."

"There's days a guide can't earn his money," West Yellowstone guide Jim Danskin told me.

No, Jim advised, ever-finer tippets and longer and longer leaders would not even be a question, let alone the answer. But I spent the downtime with a lesson from the best teaching guide I have ever known on the ways and means of presentation so that the trout sees the fly first and very little of the leader. Some of the tricks seemed heretical in those days of doctrinaire dry-fly, upstream-only presentations. Recently, I have been musing that a majority of my casts with dry flies are slack-line and downstream.

If you can't land a fish on your tackle, should you be using it? Photo: Barry & Cathy Beck

In fact, on the night of my triumph, toeing a narrow gravel bar out in the middle of the Red Deer River, I had made such a cast and just released the result, a 20-inch brown. Suddenly it was dark and I was cold. As I turned toward shore, I saw against the waning light in a small patch of lighted water just upstream and between me and the bank, two big fish rising steadily. Old-style, upstream and across, I cast what I had on. The silhouette of a big neb rose to meet the fly. Then the symphony of reel music sounded and resounded before I landed the brown trout of my angling lifetime.

For the record, the fly was a #14 Elk-hair Caddis, and the leader that was slender enough to fool, yet strong enough to hold a strong, heavy, wild fish in water too deep, dark, and fast for me to follow, was nine feet long, and tapered to 3X.

Were it not for the ultimate Catch-22X, I might have considered this my one lifetime wall fish. But in the developing tailwater on the Red Deer River below Dickson Dam, the limit on brown trout was, and still is, zero.

I have since found out how lucky I was that 30-incher was a hard runner and high jumper. On a remarkable float trip on the Red Deer River tailwater last season, I "encountered" only a dozen browns, but not one was less than 20 inches. I say "encountered," because I just could not land two of those trout.

The first trout, at least 28 inches, just swam slow circles under my rod tip as I hooped my rod, trying to apply enough pressure to make him move. After 20 minutes the tippet snapped. The other tore to the middle of the river, stopped and parked, wallowing and showing tail, dorsal, and head often enough that my guide estimated him at better than 30 inches. That tippet, too, snapped after 20 minutes of trying to pressure the big brown into moving. In both cases the tippet was 2X monofilament nylon, alleged to test at 11 pounds. I suppose another Catch-22X is that a finer tippet, especially fluorocarbon, would have enabled those browns and me to release each other faster.

Bob Scammell is the author of The Phenological Fly and Good Old Guys, Alibis and Outright Lies, an award-winning collection of his outdoors humor. He lives in Red Deer, Alberta.

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