What weight fly rod to use for steelhead?

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“The fish of a thousand casts.”

Get used to hearing that phrase if you’re targeting steelhead with a fly rod.

It is a fish that is as elusive as it is desired; as difficult to catch as it is beautiful; as frustrating as it is worthy.

Steelhead trout are truly the fish of a lifetime earning them a well-deserved spot on the fly fishing Mount Rushmore. And catching them requires lottery-winning levels of luck or hours of diligent research, scouting, and the right type of gear.

One of the most important parts of your steelhead fishing gear is the fly rod. But what weight fly rod should you use for steelhead?

I’m going to answer that question, but the biology nerd in me has to first give you some more information on this fascinating species.

The Steelhead

Steelhead trout are an anadromous form of rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). Anadromous is just fancy talk for oceangoing, which means that steelhead, like salmon, spend part of their life in the ocean and part of their life in rivers or streams.

Steelhead juvenile.  What weight fly rod to use for steelhead?
Oncorhynchus mykiss juvenile

Their life cycle starts in hatching grounds in freshwater rivers and streams. The fish remains in the freshwater for 1 to 3 years, before undergoing a process known as smoltification that allows them to survive in saltwater.

Smoltification may as well be called bad-ass-ification because when these fish undergo these changes it makes the fish larger, more powerful, and beyond beautiful.

There are two types of Steelhead; winter-run and summer-run, and they are divided by the time of year that the fish leaves the ocean and returns to freshwater to spawn.

Winter-run steelhead leave the ocean ready to spawn, sometime between November and April. The majority of these fish lives in short coastal rivers and streams in the Pacific Northwest, but also include Great Lakes populations.

Summer-run steelhead spawn in longer, more inland rivers such as the Columbia, Snake, and Salmon. Some of these populations go as far inland as Idaho.

Rainbow trout typically feed on various aquatic insects, but sometimes eat small fish. Steelhead trout, on the other hand, are strictly piscivorous in the ocean, and tend towards a fish based diet when returning to freshwater.

What kind of fly rod do you use to target Steelhead?

Steelhead trout migrate into various freshwater environments. Some will be found in large, open rivers, while others will be found in small, close quarter streams. This creates a variety of fishing situations requiring different approaches.

Steelhead trout are targeted with spey rods, traditional one-handed fly rods, and switch rods.

Spey rods

Spey rods are currently the most in-vouge tools used to target Steelhead.

They are a two handed rod that uses a complicated casting technique to launch large flies long distances. I won’t even try to explain the mechanics of this cast, and will instead point you towards Ian Gordon who will dsiplay the technique in the video below.

What I will explain to you is one simple fact: When considering the weight of a spey rod, you basically want to add +2 to understand how it will behave compared to the weight of a normal fly rod.

For example, a 5-weight spey rod will behave more like a 7-weight one-handed rod.

So, why use these complicated tools?

Spey rods allow fly fishermen to cover large amounts of water near to shore while casting big flies and heavy sinking lines. 80-foot casts are common, and when drifting flies, this allows your fly to go by as many of these unicorns as possible.

Also, due to the mostly forward motion of a spey cast, you don’t have to have much room behind you when you cast. Whereas a shoreline of trees 20 feet behind you would end in disaster for a one-handed rod, a spey rod handles that situation with ease.

What weight spey rod should you use for steelhead?

So, if you’ve decided that a spey rod is what you’re going to hold for hours while you can’t find steelhead, what weight should you get?

The most versatile spey rod for steelhead will be a 13.5-foot 7-weight rod.

These rods will have the strength and power to cast big flies with heavy lines, and can handle fighting even 20 pound fish (if you somehow manage to catch one). Also, the 13.5 feet of length allows for longer casting distances and better line control.

If you’re fighting larger fish, or if King Salmon (otherwise known as chinook, or spring salmon) (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) happen to be swimming around, consider going up to an 8-weight. And if you’re fishing larger rivers, consider going up to a longer rod for extra casting difference.

No matter the situation though, a 13.5-foot 7-weight will probably be able enough rod for you.

If you choose to target steelhead with a spey rod, we recommend you purchase a Scott T3h. Scott is one of the top rod manufacturers in the world, and their spey model is of top quality. 

The T3h utilizes X-Core technology to enable high stability, fast recovery, and superior feel. Even with long amounts of line out, you’ll be able to feel subtle takes from steelhead.

Also, the advanced reinforced carbon core in the T3h reduces torque and provides the strength necessary for fighting these powerful fish. The rod features titanium stripping guides and hardcoat reel seats.

One-handed fly rods

While most fly fishermen continue to use spey and switch rods to target steelhead, recently traditional one-handed rods have been seen on the river as well.

One-handed fly rods offer distinct advantages over their counterparts, and these advantages make them an effective weapon for fighting steelhead.

Because the casting motion for a one-handed fly rod is simpler, the resulting cast tends to be more accurate compared to casts from spey and switch rods.

Spey and switch rods are like hammers. They use force and power to propel flies long distances, but lack in accuracy. When 80 feet of line comes out, it’s almost impossible to put it exactly where you want it.

But one-handed fly rods are like screw drivers. They use precision and tempo to place flies in specific spots, while sacrificing the force necessary to cast longer distances.

This may seem like a huge disadvantage, especially when fishing larger bodies of water, but it’s important to realize that the majority of steelhead will be closer to the shore, and those longer casts are therefore unnecessary.

Because one-handed fly rods are casting out shorter amounts of line, fishing with them also allows you to have more line control. More control means you’ll be able to feel more subtle bites, and you’ll be able to keep your fly at certain depths.

With long amounts of line out, your fly is forced to maintain a standard depth throughout your drift.

Adjusting your positioning and proper mending may be able to diminish this effect, but fishing with a shorter amount of line out allows you to drop the fly into the holes and drop offs that steelhead like to hangout in.

The last big advantage of using a one-handed rod is that you’ll be able to make more casts, and more drifts with your fly. Because the casting motion of a one-handed rod is more simple than spey and switch rods, fishing with a one-handed rod allows you to arguably spend more time with your fly in the water.

When you’re fishing for the Fish of a Thousand Casts, having your fly spend more time in the water is the most helpful thing you can do, and you’ll need all the help you can get.

So, what weight one-handed fly rod should you use?

When using a one-handed fly fishing rod to target steelhead, we recommend using an 8 weight rod of 10 feet in length. This is the perfect size if you’re fishing in different situations throughout a day, or if you’re looking for a one-size-fits-all one-handed fly rod for steelhead.

The 8-weight rod will have the strength to be able to cast the heavy flies to where you need them to be, while having the sensitivity to feel subtle bites. Also, using an 8 weight won’t be “too much rod” which can cause your line to break if you’re lucky enough to actually hook one of these fish.

We opt for 10-foot rods to help with casting longer distances and also because the extra length will help make proper line mends.

A 7 or 9 weight would be better in certain circumstances, depending on the size of the water and the size of the fish, but an 8 weight will work in almost all situations.

If you’re looking for a one-handed 8 weight fly rod to target steelhead, we recommend the 10 foot Orvis Helios 3F.

Switch rods

If you’re caught between using a traditional one-handed rod and a massive spey rods, a switch rod is the perfect tool for you to target steelhead.

Switch rods allow fly fishermen to cast long distances similar to spey rods, but also allow one-handed casts for shorter distances. This is helpful when you’re chasing steelhead around different rivers and streams, and fishing in different environments that require different tactics.

Basically, a switch rod will allow you to roll with the punches that steelhead throw at you.

If you need to cast 70 feet into a deep pool on the opposite shore when you’re standing 20 feet in front of trees, you can use your switch rod to do a two-handed spey cast.

And if you need to drop your fly just 30 feet away into a slow riffle, you can also use a switch rod to accurately do a one-handed cast.

Now, a switch rod won’t be able to cast as far as a spey rod, or as accurately as a traditional-one handed rod, but it’s a happy medium between the two. Think of it as a hybrid club if you’re a golfer, or a Swiss army knife if you’re a boy scout. 

What weight switch rod should I get to target steelhead?

Like spey rods, switch rods play bigger than their single-handed counterparts. To determine what weight switch rod you need in a certain situation, take the one handed counterpart and go down 2 weights.

For example, if you’re targeting steelhead, you’ll probably be using an 8 or 9 weight one-handed rod, so you should use a 6 or 7-weight switch rod.

We recommend using an 11-foot 7-weight switch rod to target steelhead, as it will be strong enough to make long casts with heavy lines and flies and will have the backbone to fight stronger fish. However, 7-weight shouldn’t be too much rod for average sized steelhead and you shouldn’t be breaking too many fish off.

If you choose to purchase a switch rod to target steelhead, we recommend purchasing the Sage Dart or, if you’re on a budget, the Orvis Clearwater.

What weight fly rod to use for steelhead?

So, what weight fly rod should you use to target steelhead? That depends on the type of rod you’re going to be using.

If you’re using a one handed rod to have more accuracy and better line control, we recommend a 10 foot 8 weight.

If you’re using a spey rod to be able to really launch your flies across the river and cover more water, we recommend using a 13.5-foot 7 weight.

And if you’re looking for something versatile that can handle spey casts and one handed casts, we recommend an 11-foot 7-weight switch rod.

Let us know if you get the chance to use one of these rods to target steelhead. They are a fish that have been at the top of my bucket list since I began fly-fishing, so if you manage to catch one, don’t hesitate to rub it in.

Also, if you found this article helpful in your steel head fly-rod purchasing decision, share it with your friends and let us know in the comments below!

Good luck with your thousand casts!

Featured Image used under Creative Commons License: MrOmykiss [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

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1 thought on “What weight fly rod to use for steelhead?”

  1. official_ralphplug@gmail.com'

    There are two main runs of steelhead in Oregon, known as “summer” and “winter” runs. The type of steelhead run is determined by the season of the year the fish enter freshwater. Some river systems have both types of runs while other streams may have one or the other. Both winter and summer run fish spawn in the spring, but they each enter the river at different times and at different stages of reproductive maturity.

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