Fly Fishing Rods for Steelhead – Rod Weight, Reel and Line Choices

This post was last updated on December 3rd, 2022 at 07:42 pm

Steve Cornetet a guide a baldwin creek lodge with a nice early spring steelhead
Steve Cornetet a guide a baldwin creek lodge in Michigan, with a nice early spring steelhead

Choosing a Fly rod For Steelhead

You might be able to convert an existing trout rod you already own into your steelhead rod. Lets go over what size rod is appropriate and what you should consider. Generally I would opt for a crisp 7 weight rod for these strong fish, but a lot of people prefer an 8 weight for a little extra beef. I go lighter, because it can be a long day swinging around an 8 weight, and chances are most or all of the steelhead will be 10# and under. I actually use one of my trout fishing streamer rods more often than not. That rod is a heavy 10 foot 6 weight and it is a pure dream to cast all day. Now I wouldn’t go out and buy a 10′ 6# if I only fished for steelhead. Long term you would be better off opting for a 7-8 weight that you can use for big steelhead and salmon exclusively.

In summary: The perfect rod for steelhead in my opinion would be a fast action 10′ 7 weight. Something like a Sage ONE 10′ 7 Weight 4 Piece 7100-4 Use it as a streamer trout rod and it still has enough hair on it’s chest to tangle with most great lakes salmon. However a great starter 8 wt. setup is available at this link for a really good price: Redington Torrent Fly Rod & Surge Reel Outfit With Case 8 Weight, Handle C, 9ft

Both of the mentioned rods above have a fighting butt on base. These “butts” don’t seem like much, but when you go to war with a spastic fish, this little extra piece of cork to rest against your body will certainly help. They will prevent bruises and wear and tear on the area where you rest your rod during battle.

Choosing a Reel For Steelhead

Unlike most trout fishing situations, the reel you choose for these silver bullets will NEED to have a good drag. For trout, most of the time the reel exists only to hold the line and the drag is not usually used by most people. Frankly in my experience many trout fly fishermen don’t even know drag exists. Steelhead on the other hand will test your drag. If it is not smooth, you will likely break fish off and profanities are likely to come out of your mouth (not that you care about that).

What reel options are there?

Sorry if I go deeper into this subject than seems necessary, but I want to explain why I am recommending these specific items as good choices.

There are a few sized arbors of reels. You should opt for a large arbor for a couple reasons:

  • Large arbor will pick up line faster 

Imagine a huge fish eats your fly and goes on a blistering run downstream. Soon after, it decides that upstream seems like a better place to be. With 70 feet of line out he turns and starts swimming right back towards you at mach five. You have a couple options, you can strip line and potentially cause it to tangle/knot up (ruining any chance of landing the fish if it runs again) or you can reel the line neatly into your reel. With a large arbor reel you will possibly be taking line up 2x faster than with a smaller arbor version. If that fish gets slack during it’s run back towards you, it could easily shake free. Buy a large arbor and you will be glad you did!

  • Large arbor reels cause less kinks/line memory and are lighter weight

Often times a small arbor reel will be tightly packed and coils in the small spool can cause issues. Imagine a big fish going on a 40 yard run and your line is bound up inside your reel at the 40 yard mark. You will break that fish off unless you go running after it. Large arbors are less likely to have major line coils, because your line is not stacked 2 inches deep on the reel.

The lighter weight large arbor is also a major bonus when you are casting a heavy nymph rig all day long.

Sage 4600 Series Reel

This sage is a tremendous choice for steelhead fishing. Large arbor design and a low key black finish. I have had great success with sage reels throughout the years and highly recommend them.



Lamson/Waterworks Velocity Reels

These Lamson’s have a great smooth drag, large arbor and have stood the test of time in my arsenal. They are reasonably priced and will withstand years of hardcore abuse.

The reel options are nearly endless, but these are just a couple I have used that seem to work well for me.

Choosing the Proper Fly Line For Steelhead

90% of the time I will opt for a good weight forward fly line for these fish. (If you don’t know the difference between fly lines go here) This extra weight on the front end will help to turn over your potentially very heavy rig in the event of a roll cast. As always you should usually match your rod weight with the line weight. However if your rod is an extremely stiff version of a 7 weight for instance, it would often be advisable to move up an 8 weight line. This will ensure easy casting and loading of your rod.

Rio Gold
Rio gold has been a standard line for me for years for trout, salmon and steelhead. There are a lot of good brands and styles out there, so I won’t bore you with a bunch of my personal favorites. I will leave the shopping up to you. Scientific Anglers also makes a great fly fishing line.

I hope all of your questions have been answered about choosing the proper fly rod and reel for steelhead. If not, please leave a comment and I will help you as soon possible.