How to Choose the Best Fly Rod for Steelhead
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Steelhead fishing is as rewarding as it is frustrating. Anglers often spend days on the water battling weather and fatigue without bringing a single fish to hand. There’s a reason these fish are aptly nicknamed ‘the fish of a thousand casts’. That nickname can be quite literal at times.
Why do anglers welcome inclement weather, long days on the water, and insanely difficult fishing to target Steelhead? Just as Steelhead are revered for the challenge they present to anglers, they’re also known for their thick shoulders, acrobatic behavior, and reel-screaming runs. A single dime-bright Steelhead will quickly make fatigue fade and unpleasantries wither.
Fly fishing for Steelhead tests patience and perseverance. Maximizing your chance of landing a hooked fish is important when you finally get a Steelhead to eat your fly. Choosing the right fly rod helps. (Wondering about fly reels for Steelhead? We've covered that here and flies for Steelhead here and fly lines for Steelhead here).
Traditional thinking tells us a 10’ 7wt is the best one-handed tool for the job. Increased rod length allows farther reach and the ability to easily mend line during long days on the water. A 7wt rod model has enough backbone to move larger fish without the added overall rod weight of an 8wt. Click here for more reviews and information on single-handed rods. If you want to shop single-handed rods, click here.
Some anglers prefer the more versatile 11’ 8wt switch rod. Switch rods allow anglers to access more fishing styles and techniques. If you find yourself fishing nymphs under an indicator most often, the switch rod makes mending easy and one-handed casting a breeze. If you’d rather swing streamers, a switch rod can do that too. If you want to shop Switch rods, click here.
Finally, many hardcore Steelhead anglers are moving toward longer Spey-specific rods. Spey rods have many benefits: they make casting much easier, anglers need little-to-no backcasting room, and you can cover a lot more water in a shorter period of time. Click here if you want to see the review on our favorite Spey rod. If you want to shop Spey rods, click here.
But when to use each rod and why is a difficult question. Choosing a Steelhead rod depends on geography, fishing style, and fly choice. We’re here to flesh it out.
But first... There’s no one with more experience choosing Steelhead rods than the pros who are on the water every day, so we asked their opinion. Here’s what they had to say.
The Guides' Take
"When it comes to finding the right Spey rod... the best length really depends on how far you need to cast. If you plan on fishing large Steelhead rivers where 90' to 120' casts are the norm, a 14' to 15' rod is the weapon of choice. Conversely, an 11' to 12' rod feels right at home on smaller coastal rivers in the west, and the majority of Great Lakes tributaries...
Once you've decided the correct length, the line size should be dictated by two factors. One, how big are the fish you're chasing? A #6 weight can easily handle 4 to 7-pound summer fish on western rivers like the Deschutes, Grande Ronde and John Day... A #7 weight would get the job done on a winter Steelhead river with fish averaging 10 lbs.
The second consideration in choosing a line size is tackle requirements. The general topography of some rivers simply require long, heavy sink-tips... and fishing an #8 weight will be more effective.
If you're new to the sport and are looking to get one rod to cover a wide range of fishing situations, a medium-fast action 13'-13'6" #7 weight Spey rod is ideal."
Tom Larimer, G. Loomis Rods
Where you live and which rivers you fish plays into rod choice. Steelhead rivers are diverse in size, depth, and makeup. If you’re targeting Steelhead on a large river in the western US, a 6wt or 7wt single-handed rod probably isn’t the best choice. An 8wt is a step up in power and has the ability to increase casting distance to help cover more water. You wouldn’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and similarly, you shouldn’t bring a rod that limits your casting ability to a large river. Choose a larger Switch rod (like the Sage X Switch) if you know you’re going to spend time nymphing or a 13’ 7-8wt Spey rod if you’re a streamer junkie like we are.
Recently, Great Lakes Steelhead have become increasingly popular. Great Lakes tributaries (the Salmon River in Pulaski comes to mind) are smaller and lend themselves more to nymphing and small water swing techniques. A one-handed rod is often the best option. If you’re an Easterner but you still love to swing flies and Spey cast, an 11’ 7wt Switch rod makes the most sense in a small water setting (see the picture above). Geography matters. Anglers who match river and rod often have more success on the water.
Angling style was partially covered in Geography, but it’s worth mentioning again. If you prefer swinging flies, a single-handed rod is counterintuitive. That’s not to say you can’t swing flies with a one-handed rod… you can. But two-handed rods make swinging easier and allow you to cover bigger water more quickly (the name of the game in Steelhead fishing). If you know you’re only going to be swinging streamers, learning to cast a Spey rod is a worthwhile endeavor.
If you're crazy about streamers and wondering how to choose the best fly rod for streamer fishing, we've covered that here.
Spey casting also helps lift heavy lines to the surface. If you find yourself navigating deep rivers with heavy sinking lines or stout sink tips, upgrading to a 13 or 14 foot 8 or 9 weight Spey rod will make casting these lines much easier.
Finally, if you’re throwing large, wind-resistant flies into a stiff breeze, a rod with a fast action and a strong butt section goes a long way. In these conditions, choose a rod like the Sage Igniter (single-hand, Spey, and Switch models available). On the other end of the spectrum, if you typically skate dry flies with a floating line or fish small nymphs under an indicator, a lightning-fast action rod is overkill.
Similar to choosing a fly rod for other species, a good rule of thumb is: the larger the fly, the larger the rod. An optimal Steelhead rod is powerful, strong, and lightweight with increased reach, so start there then consider fly choice. Find flies here.
Winter Vs. Summer Steelhead
Choosing a rod also differs by season. If you're targeting Steelhead in the Summer season, the fish are generally smaller than Winter Steelhead. Summer fish are smaller because they enter the rivers sexually immature. They spend more time in the rivers until they reach sexual maturity to spawn the following spring. Because they're immature, Summer fish are usually smaller than winter fish. A lighter rod like a 6wt or 7wt works best.
Winter fish are sexually mature when they enter the river so they're physically larger. Wrangling these fish requires gear that's a little more stout. The Winter season necessitates an upgrade to a 7wt or 8wt setup to play these bigger fish.
Ok, I know what I'm looking for. Now, which rod should I go with?
Many rods work well for targeting Steelhead. For single-handed rods, rods that come in a 10-foot rod model are optimal including the Scott Radian, Sage X, and the Orvis Recon. For switch rods, the Thomas & Thomas DNA Switch, G. Loomis NRX Switch, Sage X Switch, Douglas Sky Switch, and the Douglas DXF Switch are great options. Some of our favorite Spey rods are the Gaelforce Equalizer, G. Loomis Asquith Spey, the Sage X Spey, Redington Claymore, and the Redington Dually Spey.
Still can't decide?
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