In the fly fishing fraternity there persist certain time-honored myths. Among these myths is the notion that the lighter the leader tippet used, the more effective and sporting fly fishing becomes.
One can scarcely read a fly fishing article without the author saying that unless the angler uses 5X or 6X or even 7X tippets, success is unlikely or even impossible. It's unfortunate for both the fish and the fishers that many anglers seem to believe it.
One summer on the Madison I watched a fly fisher hook and play a respectable 18-inch rainbow to death. He had the trout on for at least 20 minutes, much of the time just standing there with the fish struggling in the swift current below him. After finally landing the fish, he was unable to resuscitate it.
The angler was skilled enough, but he sacrificed his intended catch-and-release quarry on the false altar of "sportsmanship." He was using a 6x tippet and just couldn't bring in the 2.5 lb. fish for fear of breaking it off.
If the intent of the fly fisher is to catch-and-keep, it probably doesn't make much difference what size leader is employed. However, if the angler wants to release fish alive, strong leaders are usually needed. There really is nothing "sporting" about playing fish so long that they are dead or dying upon release. Fish should be hooked, played for as reasonably short a time as possible, landed while still vigorous, and carefully released when able to swim away on their own.
Anglers who float fish the upper Beaverhead River near Dillon, Mont., regularly use 20 lb. tippets. It has less to do with the size of the trout than the impenetrable tangle of willows lining the banks. Many flies hung up in the willows can be ripped free with the heavy-duty leaders.
Surprisingly to some, the trout readily come to flies tiped to the stout tippets. In most of my nymphing I use 2X tippets. Once I employed 4X, but being somewhat heavy-handed on the strike, I lost a lot of flies and fish hitting too hard. I thought there would be a reduction of takes, but there wasn't. I'm now convinced that trout pay little or no attention to a naturally drifting leader.
"Over the years I've become convinced that leader visibility has little to do with whether a fish will take or refuse a fly." Charlie Brooks
In addition to "more sporting", there is the untrue idea that smaller, lighter leaders are necessary to fool fish, especially in dry fly fishing. I'll rest my case by quoting three notable fly fishing authorities.
In the book The Masters on the Dry Fly, Ed Zem of Field and Stream fame, comments on his friend George Harvey's ideas on leaders. "It's George's theory, which I'm convinced is correct, that the leader tippet, no matter how heavy, doesn't deter trout from taking a fly, and that the term 'gut-shy' in reference to superwary trout, should in fact be 'drag-shy.'
Admittedly, a heavy leader is more likely to cause drag than a lighter leader, but George, who adjusts the length of his leader and tippet each time he changes flies, has learned to present the dry fly with the leader in coils or curves that ensure at least a few feet of dragfree drift an easier cast to write about than to make, but one that takes gut-shy trout on a 3X or even a 2X tippet if properly done."
The late fly fishing great from West Yellowstone, Mont., Charlie Brooks, stated that trout are not spooked by heavy lines and leaders underwater and advocated using hefty leaders, up to 0X, while nymphing in heavy runs in his beloved Madison. In The Trout and the Stream, Charlie wrote: "Over the years I've become convinced that leader visibility has little to do with whether a fish will take or refuse a fly. I believe that when a fish refuses a fly on 3X but takes the same fly on 5X, it is the greater flexibility of the finer tippet that makes the difference."
Mike Lawson, owner of Henry's Fork Anglers, Inc., at Last Chance in Island Park, Idaho, on an audio-tape says the best fly fisher he ever knew on the Last Chance/Ranch section of Henry's Fork was an unorthodox angler who used an automatic reel and rather heavy, short leaders. He fished only dry flies and attributed success to sneaking up behind the trout and making perfect, short, dragfree floats of the fly.
Although different leader tippet materials test at vaying breaking strengths, the following table is a general guide to the X designations in strength and width:
X Diameter Pounds test
7X .004 1.5
6X .005 2.6
5X .006 4
4X .007 5
3X .008 7
2X .009 9
1X .010 12
0X .011 15