Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leaders With 2 Proven Setups

Steelhead guides are meticulous about how they set up their float fishing steelhead leaders, and as a guide, I am no different. Like other river guides, I have figured out what works and what doesn’t.

A steelhead leader is the section of your line below your float nearest to the bait, which separates the bait from the mainline. Steelhead leaders come in different types and can be set up differently. The steelhead leader includes the weights, swivels, and hooks.

Why Is A Steelhead Leader Important?

The leader separates the bait from the thicker mainline and is where you put your weights and your bait. My best advice for setting up your steelhead leader is to ensure you use the right size of leader.

If the steelhead leader is set up properly it will be thin enough so the fish do not see it but strong enough that you won’t be breaking the steelhead off. It will also be set up in a way that gives the best presentation which will help you catch more steelhead.

Once you have seen the best leaders, check out my page on Float Fishing: Tips From A Pro River Guide For More Trout to help you learn how to float fish better and catch the most steelhead possible.

5 Best Steelhead Leader Lines

Best Steelhead Leader
A favorite all-around steelhead leader material is Drennan 4lb.

Using the best leader brand possible makes sense since the leader is often the weakest link in your setup.

Whether you float fish or fly fish, the best steelhead leader lines should be thin and strong and very abrasion-resistant.

I recently tested out some popular steelhead leader brands and found some to be weaker than others, even though they are the same pound rating or the same thickness.

What Type Of Leader Is Best For Steelhead

There are three types of leader materials that anglers use, but in my opinion, there is only one I would use. Anglers will use Monofilament, Copplymer, and Fluorocarbon.

Fluorocarbon Leader

The best type of leader for steelhead is called Fluorocarbon. Fluorocarbon is proven to be less visible in the water, it’s also more abrasion resistant which is great when you are running your baits and leader over the rocks.

The downside to fluorocarbon is that it is the most expensive type of leader.

Fluorocarbon leaders are all I ever use when fishing for steelhead because the thing with fluorocarbon leader is that you can use a heavier pound test, and it will still be less visible, and that means fewer fish will break off.

GUIDE TIP: Your leader and tippets are only as good as your knots. Are you using good knots? Check Out: 4 Best Knots Used By River Guides

3 Best Leaders For Steelhead: By Brand

#1 Sunline Super FC Sniper Fluorocarbon Line

Sunline Super FC Sniper Fluorocarbon Line
The Sunline Super FC Sniper Fluorocarbon Line is great for making leaders for all steelhead fishing materials.

The Sunline Super FC Sniper line is a very popular fluorocarbon line that steelhead anglers use as leader material. I recently tested this line and compared it to some of my favorites listed below.

It’s a supple line that still provides good line sensitivity, and it’s thin but still very strong.

It’s also very invisible and durable which is exactly what you need for steelhead, trout, and salmon fishing.

I like the 5 pound line for ultra-clear smaller steelhead rivers, the 6 and 7 pound is great for most river conditions, and when I fish fast and big rivers or off-colored water I recommend the 8lb.

For my shot line, I use the 8lb or 10-pound sizes. See below about shot lines.

#2 Drennan Leader

Drennan Leader For Steelhead
Drennan leader material is great for steelhead. This is the old label (left) and the new label on the right.

Drennan Leader is a very popular leader line for steelhead anglers, and for very good reason. It’s very strong, very durable, and it’s abrasion-resistant.

The Drennan Leader is a mid-priced leader that comes in compact spools of 50 meters. I like the spool because it fits in your vest and pockets well.

The Drennan Leaders also come with a unique plastic cover that locks the line in place after you cut off the amount you need. I like this feature, so I use Drennan a lot.

Caught with a 3 pound Steelhead Leader
Ed has caught over 100 steelhead on guide trips with me and he almost always uses 3 pound Drennan Steelhead leader, and in all that time of the water, I may have seen him only break off one or two.

The downside to the Drennan Leader is that it is not rated properly.

Many steelhead anglers use the 4-pound and 5-pound tests when fishing around the Great Lakes, but my tests show that the 4-pound test actually breaks at 8 pounds and the 5-pound test breaks at 10 pounds.

6 pounds and 8 pounds are ideal for bigger rivers and for West Coast steelhead.

I even use 3-pound Drennan leaders for Great Lakes steelhead when the water is very clear, and I rarely break off because it’s closer to 6-pound test.

#3 Seaguar AbrazX

Seaguar AbrazX Fluorocarbon Line
Seaguar AbrazX Fluorocarbon Line

For guys like me that are on the water a lot and that use a ton of leader material, I recommend the Seaguar AbrazX line as a steelhead leader.

The reason is that it’s not actually a leader, it’s meant as a mainline to go on your reel and that makes it cheaper by the yard.

The 6lb comes in at around $24 for 200 yards which is about $6 for every 50 yards compared to other high-quality steelhead leader brands that are $9 to 15 dollars for 50 yards.

I also like the AbazX because it is more abrasion resistant than other fluorocarbon leader brands, and because it is meant to be cast and is more supple which could be better to get a more natural bait presentation.

  • 4-pound – Very clear low water Great Lakes steelhead fishing
  • 6-pound – For normal to clear water on medium-sized Great Lakes River rivers
  • 8-pound – For fast water and off-colored water, and for West Coast steelhead.
  • 10-pound – For large West Coast rivers.

Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader Material

Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader Material
Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader Material is another small leader spool that anglers around the great lake like to use for steelhead.

Another very popular steelhead leader around the Great Lakes region. It has low visibility and good abrasion resistance.

I have used this leader often, and I have had clients and friends use it. It is a tested, proven, and liked steelhead leader line.

It comes in compact 50-yard spools that fit nicely in your pack or vest pockets.

  • 5.6-pound – Very clear Great Lakes rivers.
  • 6.6-pound – for most clear to normal water conditions on small to medium-sized Great Lakes rivers
  • 7.6-pound – for high water, or sightly off-colored water on bigger Great Lakes steelhead rivers.
  • 8.8-pound – for huge rivers like the Niagara River and West Coast Steelhead.

Proper Leader Strength and Diameter For Steelhead?

Steelhead Leaders
If you set up your steelhead leader right you will catch more steelhead.

Steelhead can be line-shy, and using a leader that is too thick may mean no fish will bite, and a leader that is too thin will mean lots of steelhead will bite, but too many will break off.

This is the best steelhead leader size, and what I recommend:

I always recommend that you buy your leader line based on the diameter, not the pound test rating on the package, because many companies do not rate the lines properly, and people end up using the wrong strength.

  • Super Clear Water – 0.18mm or .007in.
  • Clear to green water – 0.20mm or .008in.
  • Dirty water, or fast and big water, or heavily wooded water – 0.22mm or .009in.
  • For really big water like the Niagara River, or for West Coast steelhead, I may go up to 0.23mm to 0.24mm.

For you guys that want to see that in pounds. Here it is.

  • For smaller rivers or slow-moving clear rivers: 6-pounds.
  • Clear to green water (most rivers): 8-pound.
  • For rivers with lots of wood or obstructions: 10-pound.
  • For West Coast Steelhead and faster and bigger rivers: 10 – 12-pounds.
  • For dirty water: 10 to 12-pounds.

My best all-around size for a steelhead leader on most medium-sized Great Lakes rivers of up to 50 feet wide is 0.20mm or .008in. I have landed thousands of steelhead on this size of line with very few breakoffs.

Leader diameter can be critical.

I watched a friend make ten drifts with 6 lb Drennan and catch zero steelhead in a pool full of fish. This was green water and not super clear. I switched his leader to 4lb Drennan and then he made nine drifts in the exact same spot and landed 9 in a row. It was obvious that the steelhead were seeing the 6lb line and not the 4lb line.

Since then, I am very careful to make sure I use the right steelhead leader diameter for maximum success.

How To Setup A Steelhead Leader For Float Fishing?

Steelhead Leader Setup
This Leader Setup works for trout and steelhead by just adjusting the weight of each section of the leader.

The steelhead leader setup that I use includes what I call a shot-line.

A shot-line is a separate line from the mainline and the bottom of the leader.

A shot-line is where I place my weights and it is always heavier than the leader line where the bait attaches, but it’s lighter than the main line.

Therefore, if I break off due to a snag or a fish I won’t lose the shot line and I will only lose the hook or the leader at the bottom and that means less time re-tying and more time fishing.

The other reason I use a shot-line is that adding shots to the mainline is a mistake for a couple of reasons.

Since the mainline is often too thick or colored the fish may see it and it may spook them.

It’s also because most mainlines are made of monofilament, which is not very abrasion resistant, and the shots may drag the line down onto high rocks, which can nick the mono line and cause it to break.

Even pinching the split shots onto the line can crush mono lines, but fluorocarbon lines are tougher, and therefore, Fluorocarbon is the best line to put your split shots.

My shot-line is always made out of a good fluorocarbon line, and I rarely ever break it or lose it so it lasts a long time.

My shot-line is usually between 16 and 20 inches, and when I add the leader to the bottom the entire leader is about 4 to 6 feet. I use this length for rivers that average 3 to 6 feet deep. If I need more depth I just slide the float up to the desired length. I have run a shot-line+leader in pools up to 9 feet deep.

For my shot lines and full Great Lakes steelhead leader I use:

  • XS Micro Swivels from Raven or Blackbird.
  • Drennan 6lb or Seaguar AbrazX .010″.
  • Sure Shots – AA or AB sizes ( BB for smaller very clear water).
  • Leader of your choice 0.20mm.
  • Hooks – #8 Raven Sedge hook or my favorite the Raven Specimen hook.

If you are not sure about which hooks to use when or for different baits check out the page on the Best Steelhead Hooks. Also, check out the page on the best Split Shots For Fly Fishing And Float Fishing.

Keep the diameter of each part of your leader and mainline in mind.

You want your entire setup to go from heaviest at your mainline to lightest at your hook.

The reason for this is that you want the weakest knot down at the bottom of your leader so that you don’t lose all your shots or the float on the mainline should you break off which means less tying should you break off for some reason.

But remember that what the company says is the pound test may not be accurate and if you follow their label rating you may get it wrong.

My Current Steelhead Leader Formula – Great Lakes Rivers

Steelhead Leader Formula
My Steelhead Leader Formula when using 2 baits. You could also omit the middle bait.

I use this exact leader setup for all my guiding on rivers of 3 feet to 10 feet deep. With this setup, my high-viz mainline is always 4 feet from the fish and is out of their line of vision or their line of concern, which means it shouldn’t spook them.

The total leader length for spots 3 feet of water or deeper is 44 to 48 inches long. For deeper spots, I just slide my float up to the appropriate level. I can fish this up to about 10 feet deep.

  • Micro Swivel.
  • 20 to 24 inches – of 10 – 12 Pound Leader, which is 0.22mm to 0.26mm (shot Line).
  • Micro Swivel.
  • 12 inches – 8 – 10 PoundLeader which is 0.20mm – 0.22mm.
  • Hook.
  • 12 inches – 8 – 10 PoundLeader which is 0.20mm – 0.22mm ( bottom of leader).
Steelhead Leader Formula For Great Lakes Steelhead
This is my Steelhead Leader Formula for great lakes steelhead on most rivers. For very large or fast rivers I will often up-size everything by 2 pounds.

I use an 8lb mainline for most of my great lakes float fishing, but 10 pounds will also be fine.

Using the wrong type of mainline or a mainline that is too heavy is a big mistake that many anglers make.

See my page 5 Best Float Fishing Lines For 2023.

Even though I use an 8-pound or 10-pound mainline, the 8-pound mainline is often much heavier at around 12 to 14 pounds, and the 10-pound is normally closer to 14 to 16 pounds. Therefore, an 8 or 10-pound leader works.

You don’t have to use the exact leader brands that I do, just make sure they are staggered from heaviest to lightest using the diameter of the line not the pound test rating.

Determining where you set your float is important when float fishing and is something I know a lot of anglers struggle with. Where you set your float will be determined by how deep the water is, and I explain how to find the bottom so that your float is set correctly on my page How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float – 2 Easy Ways.

Guide Tip: I learned this trick from a world champion fly angler and this will save you a lot of time retying and save you on leader material.

Strong Fishing Knot
At the top is the stronger double clinch knot, and below is an improved clinch knot.

Below the swivel (the one closest to the bait), where I tie on my bottom leader section, I will use a slightly stronger knot than the knot at my bait. I’m not saying I want a weak knot at my bait because I don’t. I just want a slightly stronger one above. How do I do this?

At the swivel, I tie a double clinch knot, which is a bulkier but stronger knot than a standard improved clinch knot, and down where the bait is, I will tie a standard improved clinch knot or a double Davy knot.

This will ensure that if my client or I does break off for some reason, it will almost always break at the bait and not at the swivel above, which saves my leader and means I only need to tie one knot to get back fishing.

How to tie the double Improved Clinch Knot?

Simply double the line through the hook eye, pull about 6 to 8 inches of leader line through the eye of the hook, and then run the tag end of the leader partway back through the hook, which doubles the line, and then proceed to tie a regular or the improved clinch knot with a double line. I hope to have a video of how to tie this coming soon.

Leader Formula For West Coast Steelhead

My experience when fishing for West Coast steelhead is that the guides out there use the same type of leader setup, except that they upsize everything.

Leader Formula For West Coast Steelhead
This Leader Formula For West Coast Steelhead is perfect for small to medium-sized rivers.

Often, for West Coast steelhead, the floats, leader size, length, split shots, and hooks are all 1 or 2 sizes bigger.

We do this because of the deeper rivers, faster currents, and the bigger, stronger steelhead that use these faster currents and wide rivers to their advantage.

This Leader Formula For West Coast Steelhead is perfect for small to medium-sized rivers. For larger, deeper rivers, I will increase my shot line length by 1 to 3 feet.

I will also increase my split shot sizes to whatever it takes to get my bait down and then change my float to a size that can accommodate all the extra weight without sinking.

Leaders Size For West Coast Steelhead Rivers:

Ten to fourteen-pound leaders are best for West Coast steelhead. You will need to determine which size is best for you based on the size and type of rivers you are going to fish.

  • For smaller rivers, or slow-moving clear rivers: 10 to 12-pound.
  • For rivers with lots of wood or obstructions: 12-pound.
  • For faster and bigger rivers: 12 to 14-pound.
  • For dirty water: 12 to 14-pound.

2 Bait Leader Setup

2 Bait Steelhead Leader Rig
This is the two bait steelhead leader rig that I use when guiding and fishing.

Running two baits is a great way to increase your chances, just make sure that two baits are legal in your area or on the river you want to fish.

For the 2-bait leader rig that I use, all I do is increase the length of the fluorocarbon leader to about 24 inches and add a 6″ tag with another bait attached.

I try to keep the two baits 14″ to 20 inches apart. My rule is closer in dirtier water and farther apart in clear water.

The combinations for a 2-bait rig are many, but I like to use these combinations the most:

  • Two bead leader.
  • Bead and roe bag leader.
  • Bead and plastic worm leader.
  • Fly and worm, bead, or roe leader.
  • Worm and roe leader.
  • two fly leader.

I often get asked which bait goes where?

Fishing with Plastic Worms
Fishing with plastic worms can be more effective than fishing with worms that are real.

My answer is usually that my confident bait, the one I think is going to work the best under the conditions of the day is the one that goes on the bottom and my test bait goes up top.

Check out the page on the Best Steelhead Baits to see which baits I like to use.

If you are not sure how to use beads properly check out the page on Fishing With Beads: 5 Guide Tips For More Fish or my page Fishing With Worms – 10 Guide Tips For More Trout And Steelhead

Proven Leader Setups For All Water Types

I change my leader for different types of water and you should too.

I have a leader that I use in shallow water, one for deep water, one for fast water, and one as a general-purpose leader, which I have shown you above, and I have two leaders that I use when fishing two baits at a time.

You can see all five leader setups on my page 5 Most Effective Leader Setups For All Water Types.

What Leader Length For Steelhead?

The steelhead leader length will depend on the type of water you are going to be fishing. You want a leader that can get down to the steelhead.

On big rivers like the Niagara River, I may use a leader of 12 to 16 feet and a slip float.

Anglers fishing on a medium size steelhead river
I’ll adjust my leader size for large rivers or for small to medium-sized rivers like this one.

On most small medium-depth rivers with average pool depths of 3 to 6 feet, I will run a leader that is around 4 to 5 feet long. If I need it to get deeper, I can get added length by simply sliding my float up the line and making the line and the leader the desired length.

Make sure you check out the page on the Best Steelhead Floats to be sure that you use the right float for your leader and for the situation.

Tight Lines,


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  1. Hi Graham,

    Thanks for this informative article.

    I’m wondering how many shots you add when running the Raven 6.2g FM float. Wouldn’t it take a lot of AB or BB shots to weight the float down enough? Do you use bigger shots or just add many smaller ones?



    1. Hi Adam, For a 6.2 gram float I use 7 AA or 7 AB shots. Even if the 7 AB shots is a little to light that’s OK because I will often slightly underweight the float so that if I need to get my bait down in faster water or for another reason I can still add 1 or 2 more split shots down near the bait without sinking my float too deep that it sinks or becomes less visible.

      1. Thank you for the reply. That clears it up. I didn’t realize that many shots were wanted on the shot line. Thank again and happy new year.


  2. Hey Graham,

    I’ve read that InvizX is a softer, more supple line than AbrazX and they are both 0.205mm at 6lbs test.

    Would InvizX be a better leader for steelhead since the presentation will move more freely and look more natural in the water due to the low line memory and softer nature?

    I currently have AbrazX and I noticed it was a little stiff and was thinking maybe a softer line like InvizX would increase my chances of hooking onto more fish.


    1. Hi Evan,

      I have used both InvizX and AbrazX a lot and I find there is no difference in the amount of fish I hook so in all honesty I don’t think you can go wrong with either one. The only thing with AbrazX is it is supposed to be more abrasion resistant which might make it a bit better choice on river bottoms that have lots of big boulders that you might drag your leader across. I Don’t drag the bottom much so both lines worked well as leaders for me.

      Hope that helps, Good luck.

  3. Nice article Graham,

    Would it not be much more suitable to use a tinted floro for shot leaders as the fish are much more spooked by the flash of the line?
    Clear floro carbon is better when the background is darker such as cloudy skys , but it can shine and flash specially when light travels through its core specially if the fish are looking at it bottom up, specially on bright days/open wide rivers.

    1. I believe light refraction is less on floro than on mono which is part of the reason it’s o clear in the water. I can’t say that I’ve ever seen tinted floro tippet sold in stores and don’t know of any of the pro-competition anglers or guides using tinted floro so I would assume it’s not an issue. I’ve never experienced such a problem with my floro when fishing in sunlight. I would think the tint in the floro would make it more visible to the fish the same way it would be more visible to humans. If you find any actual studies on this let me know.

  4. Your website is amazing for a beginner like me.
    I just started trout fishing these day. I am struggling to catch fish. (Steelhead)
    I usually go to Benmiller falls in Goderich.
    I think the depth is about 3~4 feet and fast flow there.
    If then what set up is good for there?
    – Float / Leader length / Split shot set up


    1. Hi Chris,

      The leader on this page is the one I use when guiding in water from 3 feet to 1 feet, I and have used it on the Maitlands with great success.. You should also check out my page on float fishing leaders.

      It also sounds like you are a beginner which is why I suggest starting from the beginning page Centerpin Fishing For Beginners and learning how to set your depth, find the bottom, control your speed, and about the better baits. All of that stuff needs to come together at the same time if you want to start catching fish consistently.

      Good luck.

  5. hi graham, my question for you is when using your float are you also using bobber stops and a corgi? im assume your using a slide float setup. thanks!

  6. Graham, thanks for all the advice you have given me. Appreciate you taking the time. What do you think about using spinners for steelhead. I have had good luck with steelhead slammer spinners but all of a sudden I’m not. Thanks again

    1. Spinners can be great for steelhead! The Steelhead Slammer Spinner do look good, not sure why they are not working for you. My favorite for spinners are Blue Fox Vibrax Spinners.. Spinners don’t always work every time.. Mix it up with different lures, or different methods, change depending on the conditions and mood of the fish.


  7. I live in oregon and am slightly confused about what size diameter of a leader I should be using for west coast rivers? I think you said to go one or two sizes bigger compared to the great lakes diameter size as you recommend. However on one of your diagrams you say to use a 12 to 14 pound liter which is much larger than your 4 to 6 pound liters you recommend for the great lakes. You could kindly let me know what diameter I should be using that would be great. The typical steelheads probably 8 to 15 pounds here

    1. Hi Nick,

      You may have read that wrong. My go-to size leader on the great lakes is 0.20mm, which for most leaders is about 8 pounds.

      For West Coast rivers:

      10 to 14-pound leaders should be good. You will need to determine which is best.

      For smaller rivers, 10 to 12 pound.
      For rivers with lots of wood or obstructions 12 pound
      For faster and bigger rivers 12 to 14 pound
      For dirty water 12 to 14 pound.

      Hope That Helps


  8. Hi Graham,

    I would like to attend a guided trip and I was wondering if you were guiding for Spring 2023 steelhead float fishing. I live in Brampton but I think I am ok with any location you prefer. Please let me know.


    1. Hey Joseph,

      1. The main thing is to set your float depth right and learn how to detect bottom which I explain at How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float – 2 Easy Ways
      2. Use enough weight for the current velocity and depth of each spot you fish.
      3. Try a glass bead, they get down faster and deeper – See the bead fishing article –
      4. If legal in your area, run a two bait rig about with the baits 20 – 24 inches apart with a heavy bait on the bottom. This makes the leader longer and more likely that one bait will be deep enough.

      Hope that helps


  9. hey graham ive been using the phantom flurocarbon in 4.4, 5.6, 6.6, and 7lb for shot
    specifically for shot line. although ive noticed that it often gets frayed when adding shot thus greatly decreasing the strength. Do you think i should change the leader brand or change the shot brand(sure shot)