Once an angler actually fools the fish into taking the fly, the hookset and landing of the fish becomes the focus. I refer to this process as the “nab”. Any aspect of the line (leader or tippet) that was used to fool the fish can be treated separately from the aspects one needs to drive the hook in and then land the fish. The supple, small-diameter fly fishing tippet you used to make the fly look alive may now be your biggest obstacle to landing the fish. It doesn’t matter who you are, long time guide or novice. The attributes that help set the hook properly and land the fish are extremely important and should always be reevaluated. Leaders are always important, but fly fishing tippet is a bit more important at this stage.
THE “NAB” (SETTING THE HOOK)
The most important part of setting the hook is technique, not your fly fishing tippet or leader. Once you’ve got the hookset down, more or less, you can fine tune the aspects of your gear to make your technique more effective. But if you don’t fool the fish in the first place, none of this matters. In other words, the “grab” trumps the “nab”. In most cases, we all make concessions to have the best of both worlds. However, hook-setting technique can often overcome line that is a poor choice for setting the hook. When you want to lessen the force or delay its effect, a soft rod tip, extra fine wire hook for penetration, a loop of line for shock absorption, or even a spring in the reel (see Einarsson’s Invictus) can aid in properly sinking the hook into the fish. When you want to set the hook with more force, a strip strike ranging from just an even pull of the line to a Mike-Tyson-like thunderous and explosive yank will do the job. Technique aside, your fly fishing tippet and leader need to have certain qualities to maximize, or minimize, the hookset.
Sensitivity and control is important before we set the hook, and certain leaders and tippets may be able to help the fly fisher. However, fly fishing, unlike general tackle, does not put as much emphasis in the sensitivity and control of the leader, since the fly line is usually the first and direct connection between the angler and what the fish is doing. This, along with the rod, acts as the primary means to control the fly and feel the strike during presentation. With this in mind, it seems as though our fly fishing tippet and leader selection is neutralized somewhat by our fly lines. Although higher memory lines must be stretched in order for them to have a more direct connection to the fly. Line management to provide a direct connection to our flies is the most important aspect of sensitivity and control.
Setting the hook falls between 1) wanting to lessen the force of the hookset because of a delicate fly fishing tippet and small flies and 2) needing to get as much power behind the hookset as possible to penetrate bony mouths and overcome powerful jaw pressure. Three properties of your line will aid in setting the hook properly: stretch, tensile strength (breaking strength), and knot strength.
Stretch is directly related to power transfer, i.e., the power that you generate through moving the line, and thus the fly, through lifting the rod or pulling the line. A low stretch line is what you want for maximum hookset power, while a high stretch line is what you want for softer hooksets. Once again, diameter affects how stretchable your line is; more or less, the higher the diameter your line is the less ductile your line is in comparison to a given force on the line. Out of the three main line types (braid, fluoro, and nylon), the least stretchable is braid, followed by fluoro, and lastly nylon. There is some debate on the last two, however, since elasticity and plasticity play a role in choosing lines. In addition to this fact, there also exists variance within these respective lines, e.g., not all nylon monofilaments stretch the same. Stretch is very much related to suppleness, i.e., the suppler the line is, the more likely it is to have stretch. Therefore, think about what you are trying to do on the hookset and choose your line accordingly. See part 3 for some specific examples.
Both breaking strength and knot strength are extremely easy to generalize: you want the strongest line with the best knot strength around. In fact in most cases, if you could have an incredibly strong line, including knot strength, this would bypass the need for having a line with stretch to compensate for the power generated on the hookset, which might break the line otherwise. However, with this type of line (low stretch and high breaking threshold) you might bend hooks or pull the fly out of the fish’s mouth because of so much pressure. Despite this, we almost always want the highest breaking strength possible unless “sport” is an issue, or there is a concern for breaking the fly line. Notice this is the first time we have considered line breaking strength. Once again, we must balance out all of our needs to arrive at the most appropriate line choice. The “grab” takes priority, so we must make do with what features our line provides us for the hookset in order to fool the fish. Hookset technique can overcome some of the limitations of our line, optimized for the “grab”. In a lot of cases, we can get the best of both worlds.
THE “NAB” (LANDING THE FISH)
A good hookset is the best was to land a fish, particularly in open water. After this, anglers should land the fish as quickly as possible. As experienced anglers know, we must exert as much pressure on the fish as our bodies and equipment will allow—think Stu Apte or Andy Mill. Except in those similar situations where we risk pulling the fly out (in this case stretch lines come into play), we need the ability to put real pressure on the fish. Three factors really determine our success in playing a fish when considering our fly fishing tippet and leaders: abrasion resistance, breaking strength, and knot strength.
Abrasion resistance actually can come into play on the hookset since toothy critters can bite right through our lines. I remember a fishing buddy setting the hook on a nice sized Jack Crevalle with 16 lb. test he was using for permit. The line snapped instantly! even though a Jack’s mouth is nowhere near what a musky’s is. Small to medium sized barracuda can become a real nuisance on the flats, since they can cut through 20 lb. fluorocarbon as if it were not even there. For this reason, straight wire and knottable nylon coated wires are critical with certain species such as bluefish, barracuda, and northern pike. This introduces the first way of increasing the abrasion resistance of your leaders/tippets, choose a material that is nearly impervious to toothy critters. The other way is to increase the diameter of your “standard” fly fishing tippet and leader. Many musky fisherman use straight 100 lb. fluorocarbon for their entire leader, while others use heavy nylon monofilament. Thick leaders are also mandatory for tarpon, snook, trevally etc. In some instances, the long powerful fight plays a part in choosing this heavier leader, but the abrasive mouths and gill plates of these fish are more of the reason for these thicker diameter lines, particularly when pursuing the smaller versions of these fish, since you don’t need a high pound test to land them normally, but you do need the abrasion resistance. You can also boost your abrasion resistance by choosing fluorocarbon or a particularly abrasion resistant nylon, which is a part of the process of making and extruding the nylon. Abrasion resistance is not only important for the fish’s mouth but for coral, trees, sharp rocks etc. There is no magic wand for choosing which one to use; you have to listen to what the leading experts say on a given species. Like in all things, these experts will disagree, and looking back at the issue of “invisibility”, I find it interesting that people insist on using 16 pound test for permit, but will turn right around and throw a highly abrasion resistant 80 lb test with a 2½” fly to an 80 year old tarpon. Is the line ever “invisible” to a giant Florida tarpon? The point is that even incredibly savvy fish will take flies attached to huge diameter lines that are highly abrasion resistant.
Hopefully by now, it has become apparent that choosing fly fishing tippet and leaders should require some thought and heavy experimenting to fine tune. For most species, there are a host of flies that will work, but match these flies with the right fly fishing tippet and leader (and knot), and it can make all the difference in the world. There remains the last factor(s) for landing fish: breaking strength and knot strength. Once again, this is simple: the higher the breaking strength and knot strength, the better. I personally do not believe in using small pound test in order to be more “sporting” and have little desire to go after line class records. To those who do, this will not apply. Everyone would acknowledge that landing a fish as fast as possible is better for all involved. The shorter the fight, the fewer the variables for losing a fish during the fight. Barracuda, sharks, brush piles, acrobatic jumps etc. all pose real threats while fighting a fish. In addition, a shorter fight is way better for the fish’s survival. For these reasons, I will buy expensive leaders and tippets that have the best features of presentation but allow me to go as high as possible on breaking strength. Thus, no good fisherman or guide should make a decision on what fly fishing tippet or leader to use based off of some predetermined number like 12 lb. test for bonefish. If the leader has the proper characteristics for great presentation but happens to be 18 lb. test, then we should take advantage of these technological advances. Thus, we should choose our tippets and leaders 1) by meeting the demands for presentation, 2) with proper stretch qualities, 3) with at least the minimum requirements for abrasion, and 4) with the highest breaking and knot strength available. 40 lb. is never just 40 lb., 10 lb. is never just 10 lb., and 3x is never just 3x for that matter.