Best River Fishing Rods Of 2021: Trout And Steelhead Rods

River Fishing Rods For Trout And Steelhead

River Fishing Rods For Trout And Steelhead

As a full-time river guide, I’m always being asked what the best river fishing rods are, so I put this page together for my clients and my friends, and my readers.

River fishing rods should be light, flexible, and durable. Anglers use different river fishing rods for different types of fishing methods and for different fish. I prefer a 7 to 9 foot river fishing rod for lures and a 9 to 13 foot river fishing rod for float fishing or bottom bouncing methods.

When it comes to river fishing rods there are 4 different types to choose from. There are spinning rods which are the most common rods for trout and steelhead fishing and this is what this article is all about.

Then there are baitcasting rods which are also known as just casting rods, and there are fly fishing rods, and then there are Centerpin fishing rods which can also be called float rods. If Centerpin and float rods is what you are interested in, you can check out my page 5 Best Centerpin Rods Of 2021.

River Fishing Rod Ratings For Action and Power

River fishing rod sizing

Trout rods come 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 and that matters most when fighting the fish.

Often the best river fishing rods will fit in the Ultralight to Medium range.

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 1/3 rd 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 fast 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 mediumm actions. In the old days (about 30 years ago) we used to call these rod “noodle rods” because they were so whippy and soft.

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 is comes to the power of a rod it generally means the strength or power of a rod.

Heavy Power River Fishing Rods: A river 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 but not for your regular trout or great lakes steelhead.

Small Trout Require small river fishing rods
Small trout require smaller ultra light and light rods.

A small 6 to 10 inch trout won’t even bend a heavy rod and you won’t feel much of the fight.

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 of 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 steelhead are rated a bit different and on some brands, a 13 foot light or medium-light rod will be fine for great lakes steelhead.

Rod Length For River Fishing Rods.

Small Creeks require smaller rods
When fishing very small creeks under 8 feet wide with lots of brush around a river fishing rods of 5 to 6 feet are best.

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. These little hidden gems can be full of trout and even some big ones too, and most anglers will ignore them. For these super tiny creeks, a 4 or 5-foot ultralight trout rod is a good river fishing rod.

Small to medium sixed river require bigger trout rods.
Rivers like this one can be fished well with river fishing rods from 6 to 9 feet.

Small To Medium Sized Trout Creeks/Rivers: I personally like long trout rods up to 10 feet for fishing rivers like the one you see in the picture. If the river is open and not chocked with trees hanging off the bank I prefer a light action 8.5′ or 10-foot trout rods 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, bottom bounce and 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 especially if most of the fish are under 14 inches. FYI, longer trout rods will generally cast farther but they get caught in overhanging trees more often and require a longer casting stroke.

Medium sized rivers fishing rods
On medium to large sized rivers I prefer a rod between 9 and 11 feet as an all-purpose river fishing rod.

On rivers of 20 feet to 50 feet, I prefer a 9 to 11-foot trout rod for casting lures and for float fishing, however, a rod between 7 and 9 feet is still better for lure fishing.

The longer trout rod gives me more reach and is better for float fishing in bigger pools.

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.

If I’m fishing trout I will stay with a light action rod but if I’m fishing Great Lake’s steelhead I will go with a medium-light or a medium rod.

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.

Rod Type

River Type

Fish Size

Float 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

These Are The Best River Fishing Rods

If I was to go buy a rod right now or if I was to recommend a rod for one of my clients this is what I would tell them.

Best Economy River Fishing Rods

The Okuma SST Rod is a great trout rod
The Okuma SST Rod is a great trout rod. I use this rod for small stream trout and the larger size for steelhead.

I consider an economy trout rod one that sells for under $70.00 dollars.

Let me just tell you that I have 3 trout rods under $50.00 and they have been good so far, so I would say that you can get a decent trout rod under $50.00, but remember that you get what you pay for.

I would not recommend rod under $50 for steelhead or salmon. These big fish are just too big and too strong for a cheap rod and you will likely be disappointed.

  • MY CHOICE – Okuma SST Spinning Trout Rod is the river fishing rod that I use the most when guiding with spinning reels. I use 5’6″ Ultralight for all the very small trout creeks that I guide on. The 7-foot Ultralight is good on bigger rivers. You can check out this rod at
  • Best Under $40.00 – Check out the Daiwa Spinmatic D Spinning Rod at – HERE – The 5’6″ ultralight Spinmatic trout rod is great for streams under 10 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.
  • BEST UNDER $30.00 – Check out the Okuma Celilo Spinning Rod at – It gets a great rating for a rod under 30 bucks and I have used it a bunch of times. The 5’6″ or 6′ ultra-light makes a good small stream trout rod.
  • 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 Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod for years when guiding for steelhead and I found it for only $75.00 at -HERE and for $85.00 at Bass Pro Shops.

Mid-Priced River Fishing Rods

Guiding with trout rods
Guiding and fishing with the right trout rods can help you catch more fish.

I guided for 10 years with the St.Croix Premier Spinning Rods and owned 5 or 6 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.

The St.Croix Premier 5-foot and 6-foot ultralight rods are great for small streams, and the 8’6″ – light trout rod is a great choice for bigger trout rivers over 20 feet wide. You can check pricing at or at Bass Pro Shops-HERE or at Amazon-HERE

Another great option if you want a step up from is the St. Croix Avid Trout rod. The 5 or 6-foot ultralight Avid trout rod is great for small creeks and the 8 foot light rod makes a great bigger trout river fishing rod for casting lures and floats. You can check out the price at – HERE or at Amazon – HERE

For a good mid-high priced steelhead or big trout rod, check out the 10-foot med-light G. Loomis E6X Steelhead Spinning Rod at – HERE.

Another good option for a steelhead spinning rod is the 12’6″ Med-Light Raven Helix Float Rod from – HERE which you can pick up for under $180.00

Float Rods For River Fishing

If you are into mostly float fishing for trout and steelhead you can use a spinning reel on a Centerpin rod with the sliding rings. If this is your thing you can also check out my 5 Best Centerpin Float Rods page.

Spinning Reels For Trout Rods

Make sure you put the right size reel on your rod and that it’s balanced out properly. You want a reel that is suitable for the size of the rod, the size of the river, and the size of the fish. Check out my page on the Best Spinning Reels For River Fishing for what I recommend.

For bottom bouncing methods including my advanced bottom bouncing technique check my page on Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish

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Got A Question About River Fishing Rods

I’ve had the opportunity to fish with a lot of trout rods and steelhead rods over the last 20 years of guiding but I’m sure there are some I haven’t used yet. 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.

Tight Lines,


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