There’s nothing worse than fishing gin-clear water and watching fish shy away from your drift as it approaches their feeding line. 

While sometimes it’s the fly itself that’s causing the damage, more often than not it’s the tippet that’s spooking fish.  Trout, especially on pressured waterways, get accustomed to seeing a ton of angling pressure that educates them to avoid the perceived danger.  Using a tippet size that’s too heavy will result in a day of blown spots and skittish fish.  On the flip side is having constant break-offs when a fish is hooked, and this can be a sign that the tippet you’re using is too light!   There’s a fine line to navigate in knowing what size tippet to use and when, but how do anglers figure that out?

When To Use Heavier Tippet

It’s critical to understand the water you’re fishing and what size of fish are in that water.  For example, steelhead require heavier tippet than most trout just for the sheer difference in sizing and fighting ability.  Most steelhead anglers won’t use anything lighter than 4X due to the prolonged fight time and increased lost fish, but trout can require thinner varieties down to 6X and 7X.  One way to tell if you need heavier tippet is by anecdotally understanding what’s happening that given day.  If the first two or three fish all snap off, odds are you need to go with something heavier. Mid-summer is also a time to “rope up” with heavier tippet once water temperatures warm on a favorite trout stream.  In these situations when trout are stressed, decreasing the fight time is crucial for their safety so using a stronger line can help muscle them in quicker and limit the damage done. 

When To Use Lighter Tippet

Usually low and clear water creates skittish fish that shy away from anything they deem unnatural.  If you’re watching trout or steelhead move away from your flies as they drift, odds are it’s because the tippet is too heavy.  Instead of changing flies, the first thing to do is downsize tippet.  If 4X was spooking fish, drop down to 5X and so on until you find that sweet spot.  This is especially true of summertime trout fishing when flows drop and fish have been pounded on for several months. 

Water Conditions

One of the most impactful factors of selecting tippet size, and knowing what to have in your arsenal before the day starts, is what water conditions you’re dealing with.  Streams that are off-color give anglers the chance to use heavier tippet than usual, which is good because we should always use the heaviest line possible.  When the conditions give you the chance to use that heavier tippet, take full advantage!  On the flip side, when streams are low and clear the conditions call for using the lightest tippet possible.  If a trout stream holds fish in the 10-14 inch range, muddy water might allow you to get away with 3X or 4X even though that’s heavier than you’d need for the size fish present.  That same waterway might call for 5X or 6X tippet if conditions are low and clear.  So much of the tippet choice is dependent on the fish, but the water on that specific day is equally important. 

Looking at a wall full of tippet sizes at your local fly shop can seem overwhelming.  YouTube videos might mention using 2X or 6X, but how are you to know which is most applicable to the stuff you’re fishing?  It’s not always an exact science, but knowing what water conditions you’ll encounter and what fish you’re targeting is the best starting point for understanding the tippet needed.  It’s best to have a variety of options on hand just in case, but use fish encounters to give you the intel and make the best decision to successfully land more and spook less fish!

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