What Is A Steelhead Leader?
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 and these steelhead leader setups that I share with you here are the most effective.
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 they can be set up in different ways. The steelhead leader includes the weights, swivels, and hooks.
Updated June 21, 2022 – 1 New Leader Brand was added, and My Leader Formula was added
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. 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
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.
I recently tested out some popular steelhead leader brands and found some to be weaker than others even though they were the same pound rating or the same thickness.
I have even bought leader materials from big-name brands that were so crap that I just chucked them in the garbage. The lines that I recommend on this page are steelhead leader lines that I use, and that my guides and buddies all use.
What Type Of Leader Is Best For Steelhead
There are 3 types of leader materials that anglers use and I will explain what they are and which ones are best for your steelhead leaders.
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.
Monofilament or just “mono” leaders are another leader material that is still somewhat popular.
Mono is more visible to the fish, it’s less abrasion resistant, but it has a stronger knot strength, and it is much cheaper at sometimes 50 percent cheaper than fluorocarbon leaders.
Because of the visibility issue and because it’s less abrasion resistant, which means it will get weak faster and could break, I don’t use mono leaders anymore. As a guide, I use only the best type of leader to ensure my clients don’t lose the trophy of a lifetime or their first steelhead.
Copolymer leaders are strong like fluorocarbon but are more visible to the fish. Copolymer leader lines are more supple allowing your bait to move freely in the water and this is preferred by some anglers but I still think that Fluorocarbon is the best steelhead leader material.
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 Steelhead Leaders – By Brand
#1 Sunline Super FC Sniper Fluorocarbon Line
The FC Sniper line is a very popular leader fluorocarbon line that the guys are using for their steelhead leaders. 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 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.
The only downside to this line is that it only comes in 200-yard spools which are a bit big inside a vest or pack. I re-spool it onto my old Drennan spools which are much smaller and hold the line well.
For my shot line, I use the 8lb or 10-pound sizes. See below about shot lines.
#2 Drennan Leader
Drennan leader is a very popular leader line for anglers around the great lakes region and for very good reason. It’s very strong, very durable, and it’s abrasion-resistant.
It also works so well and is so popular that many guides will use it. It’s also highly recommended by anglers and tackle stores.
The Drennan Leader is a mid-priced leader that comes in compact spools of 50 meters. I like the spool because they fit 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.
The downside to the Drennan Leader is that it is not rated properly. The 4 pound and 5-pound test are what many anglers use when fishing around the great lakes but tests show the 4 pound actually breaks at 8 pounds and the 5-pound breaks at 10 pounds.
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.
The big problem with Drennan not being rated properly is that guys will go out and buy the 6 or 8lb Drennan because they think or heard that 6 and 8-pound line is what you need for steelhead.
Unfortunately, 8 pound Drennan is so thick that the fish see it and then they won’t bite a bait tied to it. This means that guys that use heavy 6 pound and 8 pound Drennan don’t catch as many fish.
Aside from it not being rated properly, it is one of the best steelhead leaders that you can get.
For Great lakes Steelhead I recommend 4 pound Drennan for normal to clear water, 5 pound Drennan for faster water, off-color water, and for bigger water, and 6 pound Drennan if you fish big water like the Niagara River.
#3 Seaguar AbrazX
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.
For very clear low water great lakes steelhead fishing I would use the 4-pound line. For normal to clear water on medium-sized rivers I use the 6-pound line and for fast water and off-colored water, I use the 8-pound line. I will go up to 10-pound for huge rivers or for great lakes salmon.
Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader Material
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 this. It is well tested, proven, and liked steelhead leader line.
It comes in compact 50-yard spools that fit nicely in your pack or vest pockets.
This steelhead leader line is more accurately rated so choose your sizes wisely. An angler switching from 4 pound Drennan to 4 pound Phantom isn’t going to be happy because 4 pound Phantom Leader is actually really 4 pound test and they will likely break a bunch of fish off.
When fishing for great lakes steelhead with Phantom Steelhead Leader I use the 5.6 pound in very clear water, the 6.6pound for most clear to normal water conditions on small to medium-sized rivers and I will use the 7.6 pound for high water or sightly off-colored water.
I will go up to 8.8 for huge rivers like the Niagara river and when fishing for great lakes salmon.
What Leader Strength For Steelhead?
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 for great lakes steelhead is:
- 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 great lakes salmon 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 pound.
- Clear to green water (most rivers): 8 pound
- For rivers with lots of wood or obstructions: 10 pound
- For 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 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.
- Seaguar 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 your 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 much 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?
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 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
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
- 12 inches – 8 – 10 PoundLeader which is 0.20mm – 0.22mm ( bottom of leader)
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 8-pound or 10 pound mainline, 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.
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 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?
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 myself and the guides out there use the same type of leader setup except that they upsize everything.
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
Running 2 baits is a great way to increase your chances, just make sure that 2 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 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 setup 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?
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, one as a general-purpose leader which I have shown you above, and I have 2 leaders that I use when fishing 2 baits at a time.
You can see all 5 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.
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.
A little off-topic but I know A lot of steelhead anglers also fish for salmon and I have been getting asked about my salmon leaders formula. I discuss that on my page Float Fishing For Salmon – Great Lakes Tactics From A Top Guide.
Got a Question About Steelhead Leaders
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 or some tips to share please post them in the comment section below.
Cool River Fishing Accessories
Simms Taco Bag
It’s a wet wader bag for storing your waders after a day on the water and it’s a mat to stand on to keep your feet dry when getting your waders on and off.
Duffel Bags and Stream Packs
Having a dedicated bag to pack and carry your waders, vests, boots, jackets, and more is a good idea. Waterproof and mesh bags are available.
Waterworks Release Tool
Protects your flies from damage caused by forceps, This tool gets all hooks out easily. Even deep hooks come out with this tool.
When I flip these down to tie knots a lot of guys say ” I need to get some of those”. These are great for anyone that ties knots. Make sure they are lined up properly for the best view.