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Is There Such Thing as a “Steelhead Rod?”

by Philip Monahan

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Question: Is there really a steelhead fly rod or is that a sales hype? I fish the Great Lakes Tributaries and would like to know what rod characteristics would do best for this type of steelheading?

Dave Sabol, Louisville, KY

Answer: I can see how the vast array of rods available to steelheaders could be confusing: single-hand or double hand? Traditional Spey or Skagit? 9-foot or 16-foot? And on and on. Here’s some advice from three hardcore great lakes steelhead anglers.

Greg Senyo, owner of Steelhead Alley Outfitters: No, it is not a sales hype. There are definitely preferred fly rods for fishing Great Lakes steelhead. If you primarily fish with an indicator, the best rod choice would be a 10-foot 7-weight single-hand rod. The added length gives you an advantage in mending your fly line and maintaining drag-free drifts. The extra length also aids the angler because you won’t have to hold your arm out all day long, causing shoulder pain or fatigue, while high-sticking. The 7-weight also has all the necessary power in the butt section of the rod to handle and effectively land large fish.

The new craze on the Great lakes in recent years has to be the use of the multitasking 11-foot 8-weight switch rod. A switch rod allows the angler to choose between a variety of casting styles and fishing methods. Many companies now offering switch rods have created “switch lines” that allow an angler to rig the rod for with methods you already like to fish. If you run indicators and nymphing is your primary method, you maintain all the benefits of the longer rod. If you like to Spey cast and swing large streamers, you can simply remove the standard leader and add a sinking poly leader, a short section of heavy tippet, and your streamer. In short, the switch rod will allow you to evolve and fish a multitude of methods without having to purchase two or more rods.

The best advice I can offer you is to visit a local fly shop and cast the rods listed above! Get a feel for what will benefit you most while fly fishing the Great Lakes tributaries.

Matt Supinski, owner of Gray Drake Outfitters: Yes, there is such thing as a Great Lakes steelhead rod! In this sport, the rod is the single most crucial element of the sport. 10, 11, and 12 foot rods are needed (the new lightweight switch rods embodies all of this). Light-tip steelhead rods were designed from the long “noodle rods” that bait chuckers use to throw spawn bags on very light tippets. The very light tip protects the tippet from the shock of a powerful strike and run by  very aggressive and strong fighting steelhead, and the rod butt is strong enough to put a serious bend in the rod to land these fish. Also, the rod must be strong enough to throw big flies, heavy sinking-tips (Skagit lines/heads), or chuck-and-duck systems with tiny nymphs/eggs on light tippets. Also the extra length allows for greater mending and strike detection when you’re high-stick nymphing.

Overall, think long, light, yet powerful when selecting a steelhead rod.

Shawn Brillon, Orvis product developer and steelhead fanatic: In my eyes, there isn’t just one steelhead-specific rod. Spey and Switch models are specialty rods, so I’ll focus on 9½- to 10-footer in line weights 6, 7 or 8 for indicator fishing and tight-line nymphing.

That said, I define a steelhead rod as:

  1. Longer than 9 feet to aid in casting/mending.
  2. Action on the softer side to absorb the shock of the hook set, jumping fish, or fast runs.

What one needs is a rod that has ample length to make of casting and mending a pleasure for the day. Length equates to longer mends, longer drifts, and often aids in casting as well—especially when a roll cast is needed due to lack of back casting room.

Since the question was posed about fishing on Great Lakes tributaries, it’s also important to consider the size of the trib or river that you’re fishing on. The size of water should determine the length, and (along with the size of fish) the line weight that you should select. I often just fish a 7- or a 8-weight on larger rivers and a 6- or 7-weight on smaller tribs such as the Pennsylvania or Ohio rivers.

MidCurrent Fly Fishing
Phil Monahan is a former Alaskan guide and was the long-time editor of American Angler magazine. He's now a columnist for MidCurrent and writes and edits the fly-fishing blog at You can email your fly fishing questions to us at
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  • Hboldt44

    Between 35 and 40 years ago, my preferred steelhead rod was a 9 wt., nine foot fiberglass rod for casting fast sink lines on medium sized rivers like the Klamath, Eel and Trinity rivers of Northern California.

    Fast forward to present day, my preference Is now a graphite 6 wt., 9 1/2 foot fast action rod on the same waters. I also use a floating or sink tip line on most days. With the newer, lighter rod and gear, I cast further with more accuracy and higher catch rates. My fishing partners also prefer the graphite or composite 6 wt., 9 to 10 ft. rods for fall steelhead. I rarely see a steelheader using anything larger than a 7 wt. In our streams.

    • Milton Roe

      Any rod will be just fine, it all depends on how much “sport” ya want, how much “time” ya got, or how much ya wanna impress the other fishermans.

  • BH206L3

    Well for thirty years, my Steelhead rod has been a 9′ Sage RP II 8 wt. Plenty rod for the waters I regularly fish, I have other rods my low water favorite is a Scot 9′ for a 7 wt. I have found over the years of fishing the Great Lakes Area and other places is that in order to catch Steel head constantly is to fish were they are, not where you think they are, you have to cover water, and you have to be able to adapt to the conditions of the movement. but when you find the fish and they are on the bite, you can really have some memorable days that out weight the frustration and fish less and cold days! My best day was 24 hook ups and landed 17 fish in a small Wisconsin Stream about 2 miles up from the lake! on a cold Mid march snow flurry day! Most of the time I consider I am doing well with four hook ups and one landed fish!

  • Dan

    Really? No mention of a spey rod? That’s what most people use here on Huron tribs in Ontario, big water requires a big rod. A 13′ seven weight is just about perfect. Helps control the swing by line control much better than an 11′ switch also…

  • Chris Garner

    You wouldn’t ever need a 12 wt on a Great Lakes tributary, maybe on the Clearwater that’s fine, but a 6,7, or 8 wt is plenty of stick. I personally think a 11′-12′, 7 wt switch is perfect on a lot of Great Lakes Tribs., but obviously there is a few of a smaller Tribs where a 10 footer is the way to go. All personal preference I guess, but I personally enjoying swinging flies on a switch rod.

  • Ron

    So many choices of rods for Steelhead, I have found my 11′ 7 WT rod does just fine for me. Enough length for mending line and heavy enough for landing good size fish.

    • disqus_ZHzMIHAJsp

      I agree with you and the author. A 10 to 11 foot #7 is a fine choice for the vast majority of great lakes tributaries. It’s the versatility. It flings most of the flies I flick, small or large, pretty well. even into a light to medium breeze. Turns it over ok with a couple BB splits, too. It’s alright for dead sticking, swinging, and mending. They do real well at protecting light tippets and not tearing out 10 and 12 hook sizes when it’s low and clear, you can still roll cast them, something that gets iffy, at least for me, if I go much longer. Most have enough back to deal with the occasional late run King if you get into one. It doesn’t wear me out like my 9 wt does. Yeah, sure there are times on a small, brushy trib where I wish for shorter, or on big water where I wish I had more, But 8 out of 10 times afield, It’s exactly what I want. If I only could have one, my 10-6 #7 would be it.