Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leader And 2 Proven Setups

What Is A Steelhead Leader?

A steelhead leader is the section of your line below your float nearest to the bait which separates the bait from the mainline. Using the right size and type of steelhead leader along with setting the leader up properly is essential for catching more steelhead.

In this article, I will discuss the best steelhead leader brands for float fishing, how I set them up for maximum success, and what sizes and lengths I use to get my clients hooking more steelhead. I will even show you my favorite 2 bait steelhead leader setup.

Why Is A Steelhead Leader Important?

Leaders must be used for Centerpin fishing and float fishing with spinning reels if you want to catch more steelhead. The leader separates the bait from the thicker mainline and is a good place to put your weights.

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.

Check out my page on Float Fishing: Tips From A Pro River Guide For More Trout to help you float fish better.

5 Best Steelhead Leader Lines

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

It makes sense to use the best leader brand possible 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.

Be careful of the pound ratings since many brands are not accurate. See the sizing below.

My 3 favorite steelhead leader brands are:

Guide Tip – I’m a guide so I go through a lot of steelhead leader material and because of that I find the best deal for me is usually the Seaguar AbrazX in 6lb. It’s meant as a mainline on spinning reels but it works great as a leader and it works out to be around 6 dollars per every 50 yards which is a great price compared to many other leader brands that could be as much as $15 dollars for 50 yards.

What Leader Strength For Steelhead?

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

Be very careful about how you buy your leader lines.

Steelhead can be line shy and buying a leader that is too thick may mean no fish, and a leader that is too thin will mean lots of steelhead being broken off.

This is the best steelhead leader size and what I use –

  • 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 I may go up to 0.23mm to 0.24mm.

Best all-around size for a steelhead leader on most medium sized rivers of up to 50 feet wide is 0.20mm or .008in

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.

Here is what I mean. Let’s compare 3 lines that all have a 0.20mm / .008 inch diameter size.

  • Drennan Brand claims their 4lb is 0.20mm / .008 inch diameter size.
  • Seaguars Brand claims their 6lb is 0.20mm / .008 inch diameter size.
  • Frogg Hair Brand claims their 8lb is 0.20mm / .008 inch diameter size.

As you can see, three lines with all different pound test ratings, (4lb, 6lb, and 8lb) but all have the same 0.20mm diameter. I have used all 3 of these lines extensively and I believe they are all equal in line strength despite what their label claims.

So an angler that gets good results with 8 pound Frogg Hair leader that switches to 8 pound Drennan won’t catch any fish because it would be too thick, so be careful about you leader sizing.

I have guided many clients that have fished for years with a steelhead leader that was too thick and they struggled to catch many fish. Once I fixed their leader problems catching steelhead from that point forward was much easier.

I watched a friend make 10 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 9 drifts in the exact same spot and landed 9 in a row. It was clear that they 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 weights of the leader lines.

The steelhead leader set up 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 is lighter than the mainline so that 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.

This 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 line and cause it to break.

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 a desired length. I have run a shot-line+leader in pools up to 9 feet deep.

For my shot lines and full leader I use:

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 set up 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 Setup

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.

  • Mainline 8lb Raven – 0.26mm / .010″
  • Shot Line ( 20″ )- 8lb Seaguar AbrazX – 0.235mm / .009″
  • Bottom of Leader – (16″ to 24″) – 4lb Drennan – 0.20mm or .008″

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. Notice I use two 8lb lines back to back but as you can see they both have different diameters indicating that one is likely not rated properly.

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 then a regular improved clinch knot, and down where the bait is I will tie a regular improved clinch knot or a double Davy knot.

This will ensure that if I or my client does break off for some reason, almost always it will 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? Simple 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 part way 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.

2 Bait Leader Setup

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

Running 2 baits is a great way to increase your chances, just make sure that 2 baits is legal in your area or on the river you want to fish.

For the 2-bait leader rig, 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 2 baits 14″ to 20 inches apart. My rule is closer in dirtier water and farther apart in clear water.

I use a triple surgeon’s knot or a micro swivel to attach the tag. I will be doing a YouTube Video on this set up soon.

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

  • 2 bead leader.
  • bead and roe bag leader.
  • bead and plastic worm leader.
  • fly and worm, bead, or roe leader.
  • Worm and Roe leader.
  • 2 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

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 river like the Niagara river I may use a leader of 12 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 plus 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.

Ask A Guide

I hope you enjoyed this blog post on steelhead leaders and you picked up a tip or two that will help you catch more steelhead. If you have any questions or other ideas please post them in the comment section below and I will do my best to answer as soon as possible or I will update and add the question and answer this post.

Tight Lines,


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  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.


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