Fly fishermen, particularly ones new to the sport, seem to ask; “Does tippet matter? Fluoro or mono? When, where and why? Test and diameter?” I have been involved in arguments, for and against, that have gone on well past the bottle being empty. Stated simply, both have their time and place of use. Sometimes they should be used together. Here are some things to remember about each material, times to use them, and specific techniques.
The characteristics of each material are incredibly different because of density, diameter, and molecular bonding. Fluoro is stronger, stiffer, and denser than mono. This means that the same strength of mono has a larger diameter than its cousin. It also means that that fluorocarbon material has no stretch and tends
to be more abrasion-resistant. Light refraction, which seems to be the in thing right now, is also much lower for fluorocarbon-based leaders and tippets. In reality, the fish probably don’t care about covalent bonds on the atomic level. What they do care about is the thing they about to be eaten doesn’t look as if it has a piece of rope attached to it.
Imagine you are headed to the river and you stop at the drive-through to get a cheeseburger. The guy at the window hands you a bag that has a string coming out of the top that leads back through his burger portal. Curiously, you open the bag. Just past the fries is your cheeseburger and it has the end of the string tied around it. Two things happen immediately, first you giggle, and secondly, you tell the guy at the window to go pound sand as you hand your food back to him. Fish will also tell you to go pound sand too if your tippet or leader is too visible, causes a poor drift, or makes the fly difficult to present a fly delicately.
Hey, My Fly is Sinking!!
Selecting between the mono and fluoro can be confusing and sometimes counterintuitive. Here are some things to keep in mind when determining which material or combination of materials you want to use on the stream, lake, or flats.
- Dry or Wet? – The tight molecular bonds of fluoro make it denser than water. Guess what happens? It sinks, particularly after the water’s surface tension is broken. Small dry flies or dries with sparse hackles will be pulled under the surface by fluorocarbon-based tippet and leaders. If you are fishing in chop or a riffle your fly will be pulled under even faster because the surface tension on the line is broken relatively quickly.
Conversely, monofilament floats like a cork; it is nylon after all. Great for the dry fly (exceptions to follow for the dry fly), not so great for the nymph or streamer (exceptions to follow for the streamer). Fly fishing has its rules for sure, but all rules are meant to be broken that is why there are exceptions for the use of each material that are bound to confuse even more. This will be found in the techniques and uses further down.
Stream, Salt, or Stillwater?
Conservatively, I bet I have 50 different spools of tippet and scores of leaders in my gear. If I took them all with me I would have no room for other important things like my flask and sunscreen. Typically I take three leaders and four to six spools of tippet with me when I am trout fishing on the stream or lake. For Steelhead and salmon, I carry an extra leader and one spool of tippet. When I hit the salt I make sure that I have at least three leaders and two large spools of tippet. Obviously, steelhead fishing allows room for two flasks.
Where and when should you use what material? This is what I tend to do with a few exceptions.
- Saltwater – Seaguar Fluoro Premier or a comparable material is my choice on the flats. Not only do these materials resist abrasion on coral and rocks but they also have no stretch that makes strip setting on hard-mouthed fish much easier. Having the leader sink rapidly in tandem with lower light refraction improves chances for takes by skittish bonefish and wary tarpon.
- Streams – 95% of the time a mono leader or tippet is preferential for dry fly fishing on moving water. The buoyancy and suppleness of the nylon allow the fly to float longer with more drag resistance than the stiffer fluoro. Even with the increased light refraction, in most cases, mono is just fine because of riffles, water speed, cloud cover, and water clarity.
When nymphing I use fluorocarbon almost exclusively anymore. Primarily this is because of its density and abrasion resistance. I have found that I can use
thicker diameter line that sinks faster and is less likely to succumb to abrasive rocks than mono. Casting weighted flies also seems to be easier on the stiffer tippet and leader. An added bonus is the lack of stretch makes setting the hook much more effective for slackline nymphing techniques.
When fishing a dry-and-dropper rig. I use mono to the dry and fluoro to the dropper 100% of the time. No exceptions ever. The mono keeps the dry floating under the strain of the rapidly sinking fluorocarbon that gets the dropper down quickly. This is particularly nice for fishing pocket water and swift, short riffles. The nylon-fluoro mix allows for enough stretch that even an overzealous hookset won’t snap the flies off. Now the exceptions.
Stream Exception #1
Spring creeks, exceptionally clear water, or very slow water may require that a short piece of fluorocarbon material be used from the leader to the fly. This helps with light refraction since it will sink just under the surface usually. Its smaller diameter than its mono counterpart of equal strength also helps with making it a tad more stealthy. The downside is that the fluoro doesn’t present as softly and that it will sink small dry flies eventually. Make sure to wet and test your knots. Knots in these two materials have a tendency to come apart. If you are just learning the Blood Knot then I suggest that you use a Surgeon’s Knot. It is a surer knot for materials of different sizes and compositions.
Stream Exception #2
When fishing streamer for steelhead, salmon, or trout in moving water my preference is to use mono. This sounds counter-intuitive. The reason is simple – line elasticity. Mono stretches enough to allow for hard strikes, for steelhead particularly, to be hooked without breaking the line. Since visibility when fishing streamers tends to not be a huge factor, light refraction and thicker diameter line don’t really come into play.
- Stillwater – The rules for dry fly fishing in stillwater are almost the same as the ones for streams. Monofilament leaders and tippets are the norms. However calm, flat lakes on sunny days might dictate the use of fluorocarbon tippets. I don’t like having to use it because of the lack of stretch on the hookset and a heavier presentation. But finicky fish can be fooled when the conditions demand super stealth by using a little fluorocarbon with your dry fly.
Fishing chironomids and nymphs under a strike indicator is where fluorocarbon shines. It sinks rapidly and is much less visible to trout. I have done tests and the hookups for fluoro tippet over mono of the same test are almost 4 to 1 in my boat. I don’t know if this is due to the thinner diameter or less light refraction from the fluoro, but the results are much better.
Hint: Remember to color the bottom of your indicator black for added stealth.
Stripping streamers or nymphs in a lake or reservoir is made easier with fluoro because of its lack of stretch and density. The fluorocarbon material gives a streamer or nymph a more solid anchor point that makes hooking short striking fish more likely. Often there is no need for a hookset at all because of the lack of stretch. If an angler is unaccustomed to fluorocarbon tippet and leader materials, he or she might break off a fish or two before figuring out the right amount of force to apply when setting the hook.
In the past, there was only one option for material to manufacture fly fishing tippets and leaders. Technology has provided anglers with new materials and designs that have made catching fish less difficult but also a bit confusing. The difference between monofilament and fluorocarbon tippets and leaders and their uses are a little less confusing after reading this article.