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Fly Fishing: Backing, Leaders And Tippets – All You Need to Know

Fly lines are generally around 25 to 30 yards long. That might seem like a pretty good distance, but believe me, it’s not very far when a fish wants to run away from you when it’s hooked. In addition, because the tip of the fly line is far too thick to tie a fly to, there needs to be another option. So, what to do? That’s why fishermen use backing, leaders and tippets.

Backing

A mistake many self-taught fly anglers initially make is tying the butt end of the fly line onto their reel arbor. That’s a bad idea. The line is not nearly long enough to deal with a running fish—especially if you’re fishing for species like salmon. Trout can take off quickly and rapidly, too. To alleviate the problem of short line, try the technique called backing. That’s where you tie a length of thinner line between the reel arbor and the butt end of the fly line. It’s called this because it backs up your fly line with a lot of strong, thin line, which comes into use once you run out of fly line as your catch is pulling out line while running. Without backing, you could end up getting “spooled”—a term for running out of line.

Backing line is thinner in diameter than the fly line. This allows you to put a lot more backing on the reel than the space you have for fly line (assuming you bought the right reel for your fly line weight, so have adequate space for both on the spool).

components

Backing is stronger than the tippet. Using it ensures that if you do end up spooled, even with backing in place, you won’t lose your fly line. (That’s assuming you tied strong knots along the length of your fly line system.) Instead, the tippet will break before your backing will. (More on tippets later in this article).

Backing should be made of the right material. Don’t go cheap and assume you can go out and buy monofilament fishing line and use it for backing. Monofilament has several issues that make it a very poor backing material. It has bad memory, stiffens and weakens with age and it stretches.

Line memory is best described as the line’s ability to retain its shape when pulled off the spool. Monofilament that has been on a spool for any length of time looks like a Slinky when pulled off the spool. That situation can cause all kinds of tangling problems. You want to have backing that comes off the spool limp regardless of how long it has been wrapped on there.

The second point about monofilament as backing should be obvious. If your backing ages and weakens, then the idea that backing is stronger than your tippet no longer applies. Indeed, your backing could very easily break, and then you’d lose your fly line.

spool
Spool of Backing.

The third point is less obvious but it may be even more of an issue. Since monofilament stretches, reeling in the monofilament under tension (pretty much any time a fish is on when you are reeling) wraps the line around the spool while it is trying to return to its neutral condition. That puts the spool spindle under pressure. Try wrapping stretched mono around your finger and you will feel it squeeze your finger. The more you wind, the more pressure gets put on the reel arbor. As wraps of monofilament build up, pressure increases to the point where the spool can get distorted, warped or even bent. That’s not good. Don’t risk wrecking your expensive reel spool for the sake of saving a couple of dollars on backing. Buy proper backing. Proper backing is made of braided Dacron. Braided Dacron does not rot with time. It does not stretch under pressure. It is very strong for its diameter, so you can wrap lots of it on the reel without taking up too much space. It has no memory, so remains limp when pulled off the spool.

I mentioned earlier the importance of buying the proper reel for the line weight you want to fish. All manufacturers design their reels to accommodate a fly line of the designated weight as well as about 50 yards or more of backing. If you are fishing line weights four to eight, then use 20-pound Dacron backing. If you are fishing nine-weight or heavier, use 30-pound backing. Be sure to pay attention to the spool capacity before you buy your reel. Remember that when fishing for trout, you need at least 50 yards of backing; for salmon, 150 to 200 yards and for blue-water species, 300 yards or more. I usually end up buying a reel designed for one line size larger than what I will be fishing. This ensures that I can get lots of backing onto the reel. In the past, I’ve had coho spool me, so now I make sure that never happens again.

Here’s a question: how much backing do you wind on to have enough, but not overfill the spool to the point that the fly line does not fit on it as well? I suggest tying the backing onto your fly line first, then winding the whole thing onto the reel backward so the fly line is first, and second is the backing. When you have wound on enough backing line to fill the reel spool to within about one- quarter of an inch (one-half of a centimeter), of the spool rim, cut off the backing. Then, pull all the backing and line off again, then tie the backing to the spool using an arbor knot) and wind it back on with the backing coming first.

Be warned: When pulling all the backing and line off the spool prior to rewinding it all back on in the correct direction, take care not to pile the line up at your feet. That can create the worst bird’s nest you’ve ever seen. Instead, as you pull the line off the spool, walk slowly around your house—or find a tree outside, tie the end of the line to it, and walk as far away as necessary to get all the line off. Go back to the tree, untie the line from the tree and tie the backing to the reel. Then, start walking towards the other end as you wind the line onto the reel in the proper direction.

packages
Packages of Tapered Leaders.

Leaders

Since the tip of your fly line is too thick to tie on a fly, there needs to be a way to reduce the diameter down to the size where you can do that. It’s accomplished by using tapered leaders and tippets. Now, if this part gets a little tricky to follow, just go slow and reread this a few times until you understand.

Tapered leaders have a fat butt end and a thin tip end. They can be tied from short lengths of monofilament end to end, with each length being thinner than the previous one. Or, they can be all one piece, chemically tapered from butt to tip during the manufacturing process. The vast majority of fly fishers use the chemically tapered leaders because hand-tied leaders can pick up too much weed and algae.

Tapered leaders come in various lengths. Trout anglers usually use lengths of six, eight, nine or 10 feet, depending upon the fish you’re going for, the water clarity and the fly line being used. The rule here is that the spookier the fish are, the longer the leader you’ll need. Generally speaking, longer leaders are used for dry fly fishing and shorter ones are used for wet fly/sinking line situations.

In my article in the last issue, (click on my Writers Bio to find it) I noted that standard sinking lines will belly as they sink. Shorter leaders keep the fly a bit closer to the bottom. Longer leaders will exacerbate the belly and you may not be able to get your fly right down to the bottom at all if the water is deep. Long leaders are used when dry fly fishing to give good separation between the tip of the floating fly line and the fly. This helps the fish see the fly without seeing the fly line.

fishing

When looking for leaders, you need to know the hook sizes of the flies you will be fishing. It’s a bit like selecting your line weight. Once you know your hook sizes, apply the “rule of thirds.” Take your hook size and divide it by three; take this number and round it up or down to the nearest whole number. The whole number is what’s called the “X-designation.” All leaders come labeled with the X-designation written on the package.

Since fly-line systems depend on evenly tapered systems to cast properly, relative diameter in inches and not pounds of test strength is what is important. Fly tackle manufacturers have developed a consistent way of matching the hook size to a line diameter that allows the fly to move naturally in or on the water, while not being too stiff or too thin and weak. Leader strength by diameter varies from company to company but diameter and X-designation remain consistent. (Later, I’ll provide a table to help you figure this out.) For now, just know that trout flies have an average range from size 18 through size 8. So, you will be looking for leaders designated 6X (#18 hook divided by thirds) to 3X (#8 hook divided by thirds). The X-designation refers to the thin tip of the leader. (You tie the thick butt of the leader to your fly line.)

Another quick rule to memorize is the “rule of 11.” The actual leader tip diameter in decimals of an inch plus the X-designation will always equal 11. For example: 6X tippet is 0.005 inches in diameter; 6+5=11. It’s simple.

spools
Spools of Tippet Material.

Tippet

There is an innate problem with tapered leaders: as you change flies you have to cut a bit of the tip of the leader off. As you cut it off a few times to change flies, the diameter starts to increase because it is tapered. Sooner or later, the diameter gets too thick for the flies you want to use, or the length gets too short to work for the type of fishing you are doing. Then, you’re left with two choices: throw away the expensive leader and tie on a new one or figure out how to attach a length of line the right diameter to the tip of the leader so you can continue to use the same leader. The latter is what tippet is for.

Tippet is just level monofilament fishing line. If you remember the rule of 11, then you can use off-the-shelf monofilament (as long as the diameter is written in inches on the spool). Or, you can buy spools of fly-fishing tippet that are marked with the X-designation. You simply tie on about three feet of tippet to the end of your leader. Then, you have enough tippet for many fly changes before you need to cut your leader again to change the tippet. Tippet is cheap; leaders, not so much.

Importantly, never tie on a tippet that has a diameter thicker than the tip of your leader. For example: never tie 3X tippet onto a 5X leader tip. That’s because the thinner 5X diameter is not as stiff as the thicker 3X line, and that can drastically affect your cast. The place where they meet will collapse during the cast rather than rolling over, and you’ll end up with tangles and knots.

Here’s a handy chart that explains all that I’ve mentioned:
   Tippet   Diameter in Inches       Tippet   Size       Pounds   Test *       Fly   Size   
0.003 8X 1.2 24, 26, 28
0.004 7X 2 20, 22, 24,   26
0.005 6X 3 16, 18, 20,   22
0.006 5X 4 14, 16, 18
0.007 4X 5 12, 14, 16
0.008 3X 6 10, 12, 14
0.009 2X 7 6, 8, 10
0.010 1X 8.5 2, 4, 6
0.011 0X 10 1/0, 2, 4
0.012 X1 12 2/0, 1/0, 2
0.013 X2 14 3/0, 2/0, 1/0,   2
0.014 X3 16 5/0, 4/0, 3/0,   2/0
0.015 X4 18 6/0, 5/0, 4/0, 3/0
* Tippets of the same diameter may vary in strength depending upon the brand of monofilament.

Summary

I know there’s a lot of information to remember here. To simplify it, remember these simple truths:

  • You need at least 50 yards of backing on a trout reel and at least 150 – 200 on a salmon reel.
  • Your system needs to taper evenly from thick to thin as it goes from fly line to fly.
  • Use the rule of thirds to determine your X-designation based upon your fly size.
  • Monofilament diameter plus X-designation always equals 11.

There you have it.

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