Choosing the Right Fly Rod Size for Steelhead Fishing: A Comprehensive Guide

Steelhead fish provide a unique challenge to fly fishers because of their individual life cycle, their strength, and their ability to fight for a long time after landing one.

However, you can make this experience a little easier by choosing the right size fly rod for the job. In this article, you’ll learn more about how to properly size your fly rod and get various tips and advice on fly lines, baits, and much more.

The best fly rod for steelhead is 15 feet long. This rod length gives you the strength and flexibility that you need to fish in a variety of different environments. First, it gives you plenty of casting strength and precision for smaller rivers and tributaries.

You can easily adjust the length of your line to meet the needs of your cast. For instance, if you need a 12-foot line, just pull in a little to get the length you need.

Salmon River Steelhead with fly

What Size Fly Rod for Steelhead?

Fly rods come in many sizes, usually well over 10-15 feet and even longer. Do you need the longest possible rod for steelhead?

Not necessarily. Your choice will vary based on the river where you fish and the size of the fish you plan on catching. Let’s break these factors down below to give you a better idea of which size fly rod makes sense for steelhead:

Small Rivers or Tributaries

If you prefer fly fishing in smaller rivers with less of a current might, you can probably do just fine with an 11-12 foot fly rod.

You won’t have the kind of room that you would on larger rivers and probably won’t need as much casting spread, either. Try to spread out your cast a little, focusing on areas where steelhead fish are likely to linger in a lake or tributary.

Medium Rivers or Tributaries

You need to upgrade your fly rod if you plan on hitting larger or faster rivers. There’s no hard and fast rule to what constitutes a medium-sized river, though anything over 50 feet is getting there. Try to use a rod between about 13-14 feet in these areas to get the best result. Adjust your size based on the specific river, with faster spots getting a longer rod.

Larger Rivers or Tributaries

Once you move on to rivers over 50 feet wide or with a reasonably quick current, you’ll need to upgrade to 14-15 feet or so. Any shorter and your cast is going to be less controlled and inefficient. Some people may have a more challenging time handling a 15-foot rod, though, so you could potentially get by with a 13-foot option, depending on the river and your strength.

Don’t neglect your personal taste and preferences when choosing fly rods for steelhead. Some anglers simply enjoy longer rods even on smaller rivers or have better luck with them.

Typically, you want a rod that is minimally 11 feet and no shorter when you’re fishing for steelhead. Shorter rods may not have the power and stability of longer ones and may make landing a steelhead more difficult.

Remember: steelhead typically weigh between 4-6 pounds over a 23-inch body. That said, you may find steelhead up to eight pounds and over three feet in length, depending on where you fish (source). If you’re planning on going for monster steelhead, you’ll want a longer fly rod. That will help pull out of the water more effectively.

What Fly Rod Type is Best for Steelhead?

Fly rods come in very different types, each of which provides additional advantages and disadvantages.

So which of these options works best for steelhead? Honestly, you can choose any of the three rods below and get good results when fly fishing. First, however, it is crucial to understand what benefits they provide and what overall length is right for each. They include:

Single-Handed Rods

Single-Handed fishing Rods

If you want to go with the single-hand rod, you should shoot for a 10-12 foot rod. That length should give you the reach that you need without stressing out your casting arm.

Try to aim for a 7wt rod to provide yourself with the strength and durability you need to land a steelhead. Upgrade to an 8wt if you’re going for those record-breaking steelhead.

Switch Rods

A fly-caught carp caught using a switch rod

An 11-foot, 8wt option may be the best bet for you when upgrading to a switch rod. It should provide both the strength and length that you need for each cast. Switch rods also make precision fishing a little easier, which is often vital for catching steelheads. We’ll break down a few of the most common casting spots that lead to fly fishing success with the steelhead.

Spey Rods

A spey casting fly fisherman swings flies for steelhead
A spey casting fly fisherman swings flies for steelhead 

Most steelhead anglers prefer the Spey rod over other types. Its unique casting method makes it easier to use over an extended period by avoiding wearing out a single arm.

Beyond that, it provides the kind of quick cast and return that you need to catch a steelhead. The size will vary based on the river, so use the guide in the first section to choose a Spey rod that makes sense for you.

Our advice is to start with a Spey rod and move on to other types if you don’t feel comfortable with a Spey.

As most fly fishers typically use the Spey (particularly for steelhead), you should find it easier to find the fly fishing lines, flies, and shops that can help set you up. They may even advise you on the steelhead size in your area, as they likely enjoy fly fishing in these areas as well.

That said, you may also prefer the action of a single-hand rod and feel more comfortable with that than a Spey.

Remember: your fishing experience is adaptable to your needs. Identify a few different rods you like, try them out on the river, and see which feels the best for you. Then, you can move on to adding a line onto your rod, choosing flies, and picking the most successful spots and times to fly fish for steelhead.

Which is the Line Size for Steelhead?

Fly line weight is critical when trying to land any fish. For steelhead, you can use anywhere from #6 up to #8. #6 is good enough for most steelhead, as they typically weigh between 4-6 pounds – which is the sweet spot for this line weight.

However, #8 has an even higher maximum weight and should provide you with the strength you need to land that surprise monster steelhead.

If you’re uncertain, we suggest a #7 as an excellent middle ground. It should fit easily on a medium-fast fly rod of many lengths, doing particularly well on 13-foot rods.

When in doubt, we always suggest going the middle road with your fly fishing. In this way, you can be prepared for a broader range of possibilities and avoid under and over-preparing for your fly fishing experience.

What is the Best Fly Bait for Steelheads?

The best flies for steelhead will vary based on a few different situations. Usually, the best types mimic eggs, as steelhead love this food and will hit a fly that mimics it almost any time they see it. Here are just a few of the most valuable options you can consider:

  • Pink Nuke Egg – This option is surprisingly great for snagging steelhead because it looks a bit like a loose egg sac floating through the water after spawning.
  • Death Roe – Here’s another egg-style bait that will work well for steelhead. They look as much like a natural salmon egg as possible, and steelhead can rarely resist them.
  • Milking Egg Fly – This is another realistic egg-style fly, this bait produces a unique milky look that mimics a fertilized egg when adequately cast.
  • Egg-Sucking Leech – Steelhead will snag up any leach that they see floating in the water, so this fly should be a good option for most anglers.
  • Sucker Spawn – Works well for Great Lakes steelhead, particularly later in the season, when suckers are starting to spawn and spread.

Don’t be afraid to experiment with different options to see which works the best for your needs.

For example, people often find that eggs work best in the early spring and summer months before they move on to leaches or sucker spawns. As always, adapt your fishing style according to your tastes and do what you can to focus on familiar, popular areas for steelhead, including:

  • Holding or resting water of 3-15 feet deep where steelhead love to rest
  • Spots with plenty of surrounding vegetation
  • Areas where the riverbed is grave and Stoney
  • Greenish or blue water that can hide the steelhead

Typically, steelhead fish don’t stay in one spot for very long, as they like to move. They may only sit in resting or holding water areas for a day or even a few hours before moving to a new spot. Patience and persistence are key here! Focus on the areas mentioned above, and you should improve your chances of fishing success.

Don’t Be Afraid to Get Out There

We know that this is a lot of information to take in all at once. You might need some time to process it and figure out which approach is right for you.

Our advice is to go with your gut and to try out a few different rod options. You’d be surprised at how simple it is to find a great pick if you just experiment and get your hands on one.

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