Are Steelhead Line Shy? What Guides Say

A steelhead caught on the right size leader.
The authors client holding one of many caught using the right leader size.

In my experience, in certain water conditions, steelhead can be very line shy.

I also believe that many anglers miss fish simply because their leaders are so thick that the steelhead sees it and refuses to bite.

I have been steelhead fishing for 37 years and guiding for over 22 years. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss this topic with other guides to find out what leader sizes they use and why.

What really taught me how leader shy steelhead could be was a trip out with a buddy over 20 years ago.

We walked into the first pool, which was a slow pool that my clients hooked over ten fish the day before. This pool is usually stacked with steelhead so I told my buddy to cast first and that he should get one on his first drift.

I was really surprised when he didn’t hook anything after three good drifts.

I wasn’t ready to give up. I really wanted him to hook the first fish, and I was sure there was fish in this spot. I told him to change his spawn to one of my spawn bags, which were hot the day before.

After a few drifts and still no fish even on my spawn bags, I had him change his hook because it was too big.

He made a few drifts with the new spawn bag and the new hook, the same hook I always use, and still nothing. Something was wrong. I knew there was fish there because one popped out of the water.

I asked him what pound test his leader was, and he said, “It’s 6 pounds.”

My response when someone tells me what pound test is always the same. “What brand?” He said, “It’s Drennan.”

I knew that Drennan is a good leader brand, and I use it, but I also know that Drennan’s 6-pound leader is as thick as most other brands’ 12-pound test.

So, I pulled out my 4-pound Drennan leader and rigged it up with the hook I gave him before, and a new spawn bag, and on his first drift, and on his next eight drifts in a row, he hooked a steelhead. Nine drifts, nine steelhead.

Before changing his leader, he made about ten drifts with not a single bite, but as soon as I changed his leader, he hooked nine in a row. Why?

This clearly showed us both that in the slow green water, which wasn’t even that clear, the steelhead was line-shy.

This is not my only experience with leaders and line-shy steelhead.

One of my clients came out to learn how to catch steelhead. He struggled for a couple years with only catching a few steelhead.

I watched him fish, and he was good. He had a good grasp of proper presentation, fished well, and knew where to fish. He also fished the same river I guided, and it was not uncommon for me to land 300 steelhead just in the fall.

I was stumped at why he’d only hooked a few steelheads in the last two years until he told me he was using 8-pound leader. After he told me what brand he used and showed me the spool, I told him it was too thick and that most steelhead would see it and refuse to bite.

His response was that he was told that 8 pounds was what he needed to catch steelhead.

I explained that not all eight-pound leaders were the same, and many were incorrectly rated, and that he should always buy his leader by the diameter size, not the pound rating.

We proceeded to fish with 4-pound Drennan (0.20mm diameter), and he landed eight steelhead that day and learned a valuable lesson about buying and using the right leaders.

I discuss this and show comparison charts on leaders for steelhead on my page

Steelhead are not line shy in faster water, or in dirtier water, but they are line shy in slower water and in very clear water, so be sure you use the correct leader if you want to catch the maximum amount of steelhead.

Tight Lines


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