As a full-time river guide, I have over twenty rods that I use for river fishing and guiding. I always see my clients looking at my river rods to see what I’m using. But, I use different rods for different methods, as well as for different species, such as trout, steelhead, and salmon.
River fishing rods should be light, flexible, and durable. I prefer seven to 9-foot rods when fishing lures and nine to 13-foot rods for float fishing, drift fishing, or bottom bouncing methods.
When it comes to the best rods for river fishing, there are two different types of rods to choose from, and they are spinning rods and baitacting rods.
Quick Pick: Best River Rod For Trout
Best General Purpose Trout Rod – Spinning Rod
The best trout rod for fishing in small to mid-sized rivers that is good for multiple methods is the 8-foot Okuma Guide Select Pro Trout Spinning Rod.
The ultralight is great for most trout and the 8 foot lenght can be used for lures or float fishing.
This rod is available in most locations for under $120.00
Quick Pick: Best River Rod For Steelhead
Best Steelhead Rod
Okuma SST New Generation Spinning Rod
The 9’6 medium-light, model # SST-S-962ML might be one of the best general-purpose steelhead rods that I have used for Great Lakes steelhead fishing.
You can cast lures or float fishing with this rod.
The other great thing about the Okuma SST New Generation rod is that there are lots of options and models for trout, steelhead, and salmon.
- The 7’6 Ultralight SST is a great choice for smaller rivers and trout.
- The 9’6″ light makes a good trout and a good light steelhead rod suitable for float fishing and casting lures.
- The 10’6 medium-light is a good small to mid-sized river rod for trout and steelhead.
There are more rods to consider. You can jump to the rods or read about rod action, power, and length.
River Fishing Rod Ratings For Action and Power
Trout rods are rated by action and by power. The action refers to where the rod starts to bend easily, and it matters most when casting. The power rating refers to how much weight is needed to bend the rod, which matters most when fighting the fish.
Often, the river rods in the Ultralight to Medium range are good, but the species of fish must be taken into consideration.
Fast Action Trout Rods: A fast action trout rod will be stiffer on the bottom 2/3rds of the rod and will be softer and bend more at the top 1/3rd of the rod. A fast-action trout rod will still bend down closer to the handle, but it will take a lot more weight to get it to bend there.
Fast-action trout rods are great for long casts and are better for hook sets. Most ultralight small trout rods will be fast action rods.
Slow Action Trout Rods: A slow action trout rod will be softer all the way through the whole rod blank, and it will start bending closer to the handle all the way to the tip in a more even bend. Softer slow-action trout rods might be better for casting baits like worms where you need a softer lob type of cast. You will see more of the bigger longer steelhead float rods being closer to a slow-medium action.
Medium Action Trout Rods: Medium action trout rods will bend somewhere between a fast and slow action trout rod.
Extra-Fast Action Trout Rods: There is also such a thing as extra fast rods which are generally very stiff rods almost right to the tip of the rod. I’m not a huge fan of these rods for trout, so stick with a fast or medium-fast river fishing rod.
When it comes to the power of a rod, it generally means the strength or power of a rod.
Heavy Power Rods: A fishing rod that is rated as heavy, extra-heavy, or medium-heavy will not bend as easily as a light power trout rod will.
It will take a lot of pressure on a big fish to bend a heavy or extra-heavy rod fully. Many of my old musky rods were heavy or extra-heavy rods because I was casting lures over 10 inches and I was fishing fish over 30 pounds.
Heavy and extra-heavy rods are ones you might use in a river for really large fish like king salmon or very large ocean-run steelhead. Heavy rods will usually have a line rating of 16 pounds and higher.
A heavy power rod would be a good choice for West Coast salmon.
Medium Power Rod: This will be a softer rod that will bend more easily and would be used on medium-sized fish like West Coast steelhead or Great Lakes salmon.
I would use a medium power rod for bigger trout and on great lakes steelhead on very large and faster-flowing rivers like the Niagara River.
Medium Light Rod: This would be the river fishing rod that I would use for most trout in rivers that are 20 to 80 feet wide. It’s a good-sized trout rod because it will be light enough to fish all day, and will provide a good hook set, and still have enough backbone power to control most inland trout and steelhead.
Light Power Rods: Light power and ultralight power rods are the best rods for small trout in small rivers of 10 feet wide or less. These light trout rods make fishing for little trout easy and fun, and they can handle even some larger trout up to 5 pounds.
Note: Many float rods designed for steelheads are rated a bit differently, and on some brands, a 13-foot light or medium-light rod will be fine for Great Lakes steelhead.
Rod Length For River Fishing
Small River Fishing For Trout: If you fish a lot of small creeks under 10 feet wide or you fish rivers where most of the trout are under 10 inches, then a 5 to 6-foot light or ultra-light trout rod like the 5-foot ultralight St.Croix Premier trout rod is a great idea.
These small trout rods are easier to cast and to play a fish when there is a lot of bushes, trees, or tall grass around. Fighting small fish on these small trout rods can be a lot of fun.
I fish some creaks that are so small that I can jump across them, they might average 3 feet wide and are perfect for a short ultra-light rod.
Small To Medium Sized Trout Creeks/Rivers: I personally use long ten foot trout rods for float fishing or drift fishing rivers like the one you see in the picture. If the river is open and not choked with trees hanging off the bank, I prefer a light action 8′ or 10-foot trout rod like the 8.5″ St.Croix Premier Trout Rod.
I like these longer rods because they are fun to use, and they allow me to float fish or bottom bounce or throw lures if I want to.
Some anglers find casting lures with a 10-foot rod difficult, so for just casting lures in a river that is 15 feet wide or bigger, you could use a good 7 to 9-foot light action trout rod.
On rivers of 20 feet to 50 feet, I prefer a 9 to 10-foot trout rod for casting lures and for float fishing. However, a rod between 7 and 9 feet can be used.
A longer trout rod also acts like a big shock absorber when fighting fish on very light leaders. Light leaders are sometimes required when fishing very clear trout rivers.
Spinning Rods For River Fishing
Here is a table that will help you determine what the best river fishing rod is for your type of fishing.
5 to 6 foot - UltraLight Action
Small creeks that are 3 to 10 feet wide
Best for trout Under 10"
Small floats, small baits, small lures, little weight
6 to 7.6 foot Light power - medium to fast action -
Best in Small creeks and rivers from 8 to 20 feet wide
Suitable for 6" to 20" Trout
Small lures up to 4 inches, small to medium floats, most sized baits with light weights
7 to 9 foot Med-Light to medium power with medium to fast action.
Best for larger creeks and rivers- 16 to 60 feet wide
Suitable for trout from 10" to 30 inches
Medium to large lures, medium to large floats, any sized bait with a fair amount of weight
9 to 11 foot Med-Light to medium power with medium to fast action.
Best all around rod - good for rivers that are 16 to 80+ feet wide
Good for trout of all sizes up to 20 pounds - Med-lihGood for great lakes steelhead
Medium To large floats, any sized bait with a fair amount of weight
11 to 14 foot Med-Light to medium power with medium action.
Best rod for bigger rivers of 30 to 100+ feet wide
This is a big trout rod. It's best for bigger trout and steelhead over 16"
Best rods for float fishing with floats and weights of any size.
9 to 11 foot Medium to medium heavy with medium to meduim fast action
Best rod for bigger rivers of 30 to 100+ feet wide
This is a rod for west coast steelhead and great lakes salmon
Best for lure fishing
11 to 14 foot Medium to medium heavy with medium action
Best rod for bigger rivers of 30 to 100+ feet wide
This is a rod for big west coast steelhead and salmon
Best for float fishing rivers on the West Coast
Best Economy River Rods
I consider an economy trout rod one that sells for under $80.00 dollars.
Let me just tell you that I have three trout rods under $50.00, and they have been good so far.
Remember that you get what you pay for because there are some crappy rods under $50.00 too.
Okuma Celilo: Best Economy Trout Rod Under $50.00
The Okuma Celilo Spinning Rod is a great choice for trout anglers on a serious budget.
It sells for under $45.00 at most locations and it gets great reviews.
The ultra-small 4’6″ to 5’6″ rods are good for tiny creeks or the 8-foot ultralight trout rod which I really like on bigger trout rivers and when float fishing.
- SST Ultralight: MY CHOICE – Okuma SST Spinning Trout Rod is the river fishing rod that I use the most when guiding with spinning reels on very small creeks. The 5’6″ Ultralight is fun to use on those very small trout creeks that have a lot of bush and overhanging trees. The 7-foot ultralight is good on bigger creeks. This rod ranges from about $59 up to $100. See below for more on this great rod.
- Daiwa Spinmatic D: Best Under $40.00 – Check out the Daiwa Spinmatic D Spinning Rod at FishUSA.com – HERE – The 5’6″ ultralight Spinmatic trout rod is great for tiny streams under ten wide with lots of bush and where tight casting is required. I have a few clients and friend let me try this rod. The 7’6″ or 8-foot rod is good for bigger trout rivers where longer casts are required.
- Okuma SST: Best For Steelhead – I could not find a rod under $70 that I felt comfortable recommending, but I have been using the 10’6″ Okuma SST Cork Grip Spinning Rod for years when guiding for steelhead, and I found it for only $75.00 at CHECK PRICE.
Mid-Priced River Fishing Rods
I guided for ten years with the St.Croix Premier Spinning Rods and own six of them. I also sold a lot of them when I owned my tackle store, and they got great reviews then, and they still do today.
The St.Croix company was always great to deal with if there was ever a problem. The best part is that I think that most of their rods are still made in the USA.
The St.Croix Premier trout rods were great to fish with and are very strong and durable, which is great for dealing with all the river fishing abuse that can happen.
If I needed a new trout rod for guiding, this would be my first choice.
St Croix Premier: Best Mid Priced Rod
The St.Croix Premier 5-foot and 6-foot ultralight rods are great for small streams, but the 8’6″ light trout rod is the best mid-priced trout rod for float fishing and for casting lures on bigger trout rivers over 20 feet wide. $129.00 – $229.00
St. Croix Triumph: Best Float Rod For Trout Fishing
It’s hard to find a good long float rod light enough for trout, but this one is a good option.
The St. Croix Triumph Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod has a 10’6 ultra light rod that good for small to mid-sized trout rivers.
St Croix Avid: Another great option if you want a step up from the Triumph rod is the St. Croix Avid Trout rod, which is made from a better composite graphite.
The five or 6-foot ultralight Avid trout rod is great for small creeks, and the eight-foot light rod makes a great bigger trout river fishing rod for casting lures and floats. You can check out the price at FishUSA.com – HERE or at Amazon – HERE
G. Loomis E6X: For a good mid-high priced steelhead or big trout rod that is suitable for multiple methods, check out the 10-foot med-light G. Loomis E6X Steelhead Spinning Rod model number E6X 1203-2S STFR at FishUSA.com – HERE.
Raven Helix: Another good option for a steelhead spinning rod if all you want to do is float fishing is the 12’6″ Med-Light Raven Helix Float Rod from FishUSA.com, which you can pick up for under $180.00. You could also drift fish or bottom bounce with this rod.
Float Rods For River Fishing
If you are mostly into float fishing for trout and steelhead or even salmon, you can use a spinning reel on a Centerpin rod.
If this is your thing, you can also check out my 5 Float Rods page.
If you have a question, comment or a recommendation for a great river fishing rod let me and the readers know in the comment section below.