Intro to Leaders and Tippet for Montana

There’s no point in having a good rod and line for Montana if the leader and spooled tippet material you’re using are unsuitable. The following guide is designed to help you pack the right leaders and tippet for Montana and Yellowstone fishing, or letting you know what you should expect to buy for your unguided fishing in the area. Our guides and most others supply the leaders and tippet for Montana you’ll need.

Right off the bat, note that on most of our waters, leaders and tippet for Montana are VERY different than those used elsewhere. In particular, we often use shorter and heavier leaders than most visitors show up expecting.

The following info basically covers packaged leaders, rather than hand-tied ones. We sometimes use some oddball knotted leaders or heavily-modified knotless leaders we’ve butchered. Talking about these special purpose leaders and tippet for Montana would make this page 10X as long as it is. Keep an eye on our blog for tips on constructing these leaders.

Leaders (Normal and Poly) for Montana

Most anglers fishing Yellowstone or Montana for the first time make the following mistakes: they don’t bring a wide enough variety of leaders, and they tend to use leaders that are too light and often too long for the water conditions and flies they are using. If you’ve never fished freestone waters in the west, big or small, the following information will therefore prove very useful.

Polyleaders and Leaders and Tippet for Montana Sinking and Sink-Tip Lines

Sinking polyleaders and leaders for sink-tip or full-sink lines are easy, so I’ll cover them first.

If you lack a sink-tip line, make sure to have a polyleader or two. Choose five to seven-foot polyleaders. The fastest and second-fastest sink rates in the “trout” size are most appropriate. To the exposed monofilament tip of these, add a split ring or tiny swivel. Then add 18″ to two feet of tippet material to complete a basic streamer leader.

If you’re using a sink-tip or full-sink line, attach 18″ of 20lb Maxima Ultragreen to the leader, then add a swivel or tippet ring. To the opposite end of this attachment point, add 18″ to two feet of whatever tippet is required.

Details on choosing the correct tippet size are provided below.

Floating Line Leaders for Montana

The following list goes over different water types and what lengths and diameters of leaders you should expect to fish, if you’re using a floating line.

The general rule is that the lower, clearer, and slower the water, and the smaller the flies and spookier the fish, the longer and thinner the leader you should use. The more obstructions or snags, the dirtier the water, and the larger and more wind-resistant the flies, the more likely you will need to slant towards a heavier and shorter leader.

Streamers and big nymphs require heavier and usually shorter leaders than smaller nymphs and all but the largest and most wind-resistant dry flies. Fish size does not much factor into this equation, unless you’re continuously breaking off big fish.

  • Rough, Shallow Rivers and Streams: Except when nymphing the deepest holes (as for fall-run browns), use 7.5-foot 2X to 4X leaders depending on fly size and water clarity. For nymphing for browns, use 9-foot 2X or 3X leaders regardless of fly size or clarity.
  • Meadow/Gentle Streams with Smaller, Dumber Fish: 7.5-foot 3X or 4X leaders are generally all you need.
  • Meadow Streams with Larger, Spookier Fish, and Spring Creeks: 9-foot to 15-foot leaders are required, with late summer and early fall generally seeing the spookiest fish and smallest dry flies and therefore the longest leaders. Tippet diamaters should run from 3X to 7X with 4X and 5X most important on meadow streams like the Lamar and its tributaries and 6X most important on spring creeks. The Paradise Valley spring creeks generally require the longest leaders of all, commonly 12+ feet.
  • Large, Deep Freestone Rivers (i.e. Yellowstone, portions of the Madison, Gallatin): Leaders should run 7.5 to 9 feet and 1X to 5X, with the heaviest leaders most important immediately after runoff (when fishing both dries and nymphs) and the lightest leaders most important from early fall through early spring.
  • Tailwater Rivers: Leaders should generally be 9 to 12 feet long and relatively light, with 3X to 5X most important. Fly size is generally the determining factor in which diameter to use.
  • Lakes: Most lakes require 9′ 3X to 5X leaders throughout the season, with fly size and the amount of weed growth the key determining factors.

Choosing the Correct Diameter Leader and Tippet for Montana

In determining which diameter leader to start with, a good rule of thumb is to divide the fly size you’re using by four, then use the “X rating” this equation produces when the fish are not spooky and/or the flies are large. For example, when fish aren’t spooky and you’re using a #12 Trude dry fly, 3X is a reasonable tippet size.

When the equation does not produce a whole number, go down to the next-smaller size. Using the above example but switching the Trude to a #14 means that the correct leader and tippet for Montana would be 4X.

Slide down a size or even two sizes for spooky fish in clear water, but go no smaller, since using a too-slender tippet can hurt your casting efficiency. For example when fishing a #16 PMD dry fly in the Lamar River, I would probably fish 5X except early in July when the fish are less spooky.

Choosing Streamer Tippet Diameter

With large and/or articulated and/or heavy flies, the above procedure breaks down a bit. In general, you can get away with a heavier tippet when fishing streamers than you can when fishing dry flies or nymphs, since a trout chasing a baitfish is seldom leader-shy.

For practical purposes, you should never use tippet lighter than 4X when fishing streamers. Even 4X is too light most of the time.

In general, 1X to 3X is much better. Normal 1X to 3X works well with most single-hook streamers including Woolly Buggers, sculpins, and other such “bread and butter” streamer patterns.

For articulated flies, Maxima Ultragreen tippet is a better choice than most standard leader materials. Maxima is stiffer than most standard materials, which aids when casting bulky and heavy articulated flies. It is sold by the supposed breaking strength rather than diameter, though in my experience the breaking strength of Maxima is routinely 20% to 50% stronger than the listed strength.

12lb is a good go-to size, but you may need to drop down to 8lb in clear water with some of the smaller articulated flies now on the market.

Mono or Fluoro?

Your basic leaders should always be standard monofilament leaders, rather than fluorocarbon. There is no reason to purchase fluorocarbon leaders! If fishing conditions require fluoro tippets, simply cut the standard mono tippet off and replace it with fluorocarbon from one of your spare tippet spools (see next section). Doing this will save you $$$ and works just as well as a leader made entirely from fluoro.

Spare Spooled Tippet for Montana

Plan to carry several spools of tippet when fishing the region. Besides replacing tippet you snip off after changing flies, spare tippet material is useful in repairing leaders damaged by tangles or snags and in modifying leaders.

Both standard monofilament and fluorocarbon tippet make sense when fly fishing the Yellowstone area, though monofilament is far more important overall and can serve as your only material, if you’re on a budget.

If you do bring both mono and fluoro, plan to use the fluoro only when you use nymphs, streamers, and other subsurface flies. Never use fluoro with dry flies as this material sinks a bit and will sink small dries. The conditions under which you may want to use fluoro are:

  • Spooky fish
  • Big fish
  • Many snags, weeds, or other obstructions on the bottom
  • Small nymphs, when you wish to maximize your tippet size

The above conditions are more common on spring creeks, tailwaters, weedy lakes, and when you’re targeting fall-run browns or spring-run rainbows. For practical purposes, these are the only conditions under which our guides use or even carry fluoro, so if none of the above apply, use mono.

Depending on the point in the season, you may need to carrry anywhere from 0X on down to 7X in mono and 2X through 7X in fluoro to cover all your bases. In general, the fewest tippet sizes need be carried on freestone streams immediately following runoff, and the most need to be carried when water conditions are crystal clear. Except immediately after runoff, expect to use 0X and 1X only for repairing damaged leaders, while 6X and 7X are useful only on flat water where big, spooky fish are the quarry.

3X through 5X will see far more use than other tippet sizes, so make sure your spools in these sizes are fresh.

If you like fishing big, articulated streamers, also plan to bring 8lb to 12lb Maxima Ultragreen or similar stiff mono leader material for use as tippet with these heavy, oversized flies. When you’re using “normal” streamers up to and including weighted Woolly Buggers and sculpins to size-2, standard 2X mono or fluoro will work fine.

Do not generally add tippet to new packaged tapered leaders until you’ve tied on a few flies, had a few tangles, etc. and have thus chewed back at least a foot into the leader. The only exception is when fish are eating tiny dry flies in flat water and are exceptionally spooky, in which case additional tippet may be required to achieve a good drift.