Steelhead Leader Setup For Nymphing: The 3 Best Leaders

Steelhead Leader Setup For nymphing

There are many steelhead leader setups that I have tried over the last 37 years, and there are many that my guides and other guides use. I will show you the three most effective leader setups for steelhead and the ones most steelhead guides use.

The steelhead leader setup includes everything from the tip of the fly line to the bottom fly. Anglers that have a good leader setup and that know how to fish it properly will catch more steelhead.

Steelhead Leader Setup – What You Need

For the leader setups that I use for nymphing steelhead, you will need the following items.

  • Tapered leader – 0X to 3X
  • Indicator – See my Best Indicators Page
  • Tippets – 1X, 2X and 3X
  • Weights – AA, AB, or BB Split Shots in lead or tin. See the Best Split Shots page
  • Tippet Rings or Micro Swivels are optional. I mostly use Tripel Surgeon’s Knot
  • Flies – See my page on the Best Steelhead Flies

Tippet Size For Steelhead

Use 3X Tippet For your steelhead leader
This is my client nymphing a steelhead river. On most rivers around this size, I will use 3X tippets to tie my fly on.

For most steelhead fishing on small to medium-sized rivers around the Great Lakes region. the best tippet size for steelhead is a 3x tippet. For larger, faster rivers, the best tippet size for steelhead is 2 x or even 1x if the water is not super clear.

For big West Coast rivers, 0x tippets might be required. With all of these nymph leader setups, adjust your tippet size for your area.

Best Fluorocarbon Leader For Steelhead

As many anglers and guides will tell you, fluorocarbon leaders and fluorocarbon tippets are the best for steelhead fishing.

However, I also use Mono or Nymon tapered leaders for steelhead, but I almost always use fluorocarbon for my tippet section.

Best Leader For Steelhead – For Spots Of 3 to 9 Feet Deep

This is my best steelhead leader for nymphing with indicators. I start this off with a two or 3x standard tapered leader of 7 to 9 feet. I can actually use almost any 9-foot leader bigger than 5x.

I take my tapered leader and cut it off slightly thicker than the 1x or 2x portion of my tippet. I then add my indicator to the main part of the leader, and then I connect the 1x / 2x tippet and start building the rest of the leader from there.

The Dropper Fly in the diagram is optional and may not be legal in some areas, so check the fishing rules for the river that you want to fish.

Steelhead Nymph Leader Formula
My Steelhead Nymph Leader Formula that I use the most when I am guiding and fishing with indicators.

If I fish deeper than 9 feet, I will extend the 1X/2X tippet section that is directly connected to the tapered leader. I will extend it only as long as I need to go to get my fly 6 inches off the bottom.

Steelhead Nymph Leader Formula # 2

Another leader that I see being used all the time and one I use is this two-fly leader formula. The leader setup above puts the weight between the two flies, which is better for getting the flies down, but this common steelhead leader formula places the weights above the flies.

The benefits to this steelhead leader formula are that it is simple to set up, it’s easy to cast and fish with, and it catches steelhead.

The downside to this is the weights are high in the water column, and in faster turbid water, the flies may not sink deep enough, or they may rise up at times.

This is a good setup and one that I use with 1 or 2 weighted flies. I will often have a fly with a tungsten bead head in the upper fly position. Using weight flies on one or both is a great way to keep the flies down and get them down faster.

Having the bottom fly weight might cause the flies to go too deep, and you may snag up. Also, having two weighted flies might make it too heavy for your indicator and that might sink your indicator. Therefore, you may need to adjust your flies and their weights.

Common 2 fly steelhead leader setup
This is a very common 2-fly leader setup for steelhead that works in most situations.

Drop Shot Style 2 Fly Steelhead Leader Rig

This is a method I’ve been using for over ten years, and I have shown this to many of my clients. It’s similar to the drop shotting method used by bass anglers, except it is used under an indicator with a set of flies.

I’ve heard this method is called drop shot nymphing or bounce nymphing. Whatever you call it, many guys like it because it can be very effective, especially in areas with lots of wood on the bottom and lots of rocks.

Drop Shot Nymphing steelhead leader setup
Known as the Drop Shot Nymphing steelhead leader or the Bounce Nymphing leader setup, this method can be very effective.

This method has two primary benefits. First, it helps you keep your flies in the strike zone better, and second, it prevents you from losing flies to snags.

As you can see, the weights are all on the very bottom of the setup, and the flies are above the weights. With this method, it’s almost like suspending your flies.

You can keep your flies close to the bottom by using a short weight tag, or you can suspend them 12″ or more off the bottom by using a much longer dropper tag.

With the two previous setups, the flies are on the bottom, and they can easily get snagged on wood or rocks on the river bottom.

But with this method, the weight can bounce across the bottom and over wood and rocks with fewer snags. Some anglers even use a slinky rig for fewer snags.

I did find that I would lose a lot more split shots with this method, but I lost far fewer flies. However, I may lose 20 split shots or more with this method, it’s a lot cheaper to replace 20 shots than to replace 20 flies.

As you can see in the diagram, I use a very light tippet on the weight dropper tag because if I do get hung up on the bottom, I want the weights or the weight tag to break off easily so I don’t lose my flies.

NOTE: If you find your weight keeps slipping off, tie a simple overhand knot at the very bottom of the weight dropper tag to prevent slippage.

Tight Lines,


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