What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead?

Big steelhead like this caught on 8 pound line
My clients and I have caught thousands of steelheads like this using eight-pound test leader on a Centerpin reel.

As a steelhead guide and steelhead angler for over 37 years, I’ve been testing leaders and working with other guides to determine proper and effective leader sizing for steelhead fishing in all situations.

I’m talking about the bottom part of the line where the bait, fly, or lure attaches. This article is also relevant to fly fishing tippet since tippet is the same as a leader and need to be the same pound and diameter.

Unfortunately, there isn’t one size of leader that is perfect for all conditions and all steelhead. I will tell you from expereince that there are major downsides to leaders that are too heavy or too light.

When it comes to what pound test leader is best for steelhead, there are a few very important things I’ve learned over the years. Every steelhead angler should know this.

  1. Leader Brands: Many brands do not rate their leaders properly! This can result in either fewer bites or breaking off fish. Some brands also use high-quality leader material, while others suck.
  2. Diameter: The diameter of the leader is critical to getting more steelhead to bite.
  3. Leader Strength: I use a leader that is so strong the steelhead won’t break, but thin enough that the steelhead won’t see it and refuse to bite the bait.
  4. Method: I use different leader strengths for casting or trolling lures versus baits.
  5. Type Of Water: I might need a heavier leader in very fast currents, but I need a lighter and thinner leader in slow, clear water.
  6. West Coast Vs. Great Lakes: My experience fishing both Great Lakes steelhead and West Coast steelhead is that West Coast steelhead are stronger fish so I upsize two to four pounds when fishing for West Coast Steelhead.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead?

The best pound test leader for steelhead is 8 pounds for most Great Lakes steelhead rivers, and 12 pounds for most West Coast steelhead rivers. But these sizes only work if the diameter is correct so see my diameter to pounds charts below.

I will change leader sizes based on river conditions and the fishing method I’m using, and you should too.

Using the wrong pound test steelhead leader under certain conditions will mean the steelhead will see the thick and heavy line and not eat my bait. On the other hand, if the steelhead leader is very thin, I’ll probably get a lot of bites, except I will break a lot of steelhead off.

It’s important to find a middle-ground size, which means that I want a steelhead leader line that is not too light, and not too heavy.

It’s equally important to have my reels drag set properly and have a good leader setup suitable for steelhead.

Use my leader sizing chart as a guideline.

Pound Test

Diameter Size

Method

River

Area

6 pound

0.007 in. / 0.18 mm

Float Fishing

- Small to Medium / Under 60 feet wide

- Clear Water

Great Lakes

8 pound

0.008 in. / 0.20 mm

- Float Fishing

- Bottom Bouncing

- Plunking

- Small to Medium / Under 60 feet wide

- Clear water

Great Lakes

10 pound

0.009 in. / 0.22 mm

- Float Fishing

- Drift Fishing and Bottom Bouncing

- Plunking

- Larger Great Lakes Rivers and faster currents

- Off colored rivers

- Small West Coast Rivers

Great Lakes and West Coast

12 pound

0.010 in. / 0.25 mm

- Lure Fishing Great Lakes

- Float Fishing West Coast

- Drift Fishing West Coast

- Plunking on West Coast

- Large Great Lakes Rivers

- Small to Medium West Coast Rivers

Great Lake and West Coast

14 pound

0.011 in. / 0.28mm

- Float Fishing on West Coast

- Drift Fishing on West Coast

Medium to Large Rivers

West Coast

16 pound

0.012 in. / 0.31mm

Lure Fishing

Large to XL

West Coast

Downsides To Heavy Steelhead Leaders

An angler fishing a big steelhead
Heavy leaders won’t break when fighting big fish, but a heavy leader might prevent the big fish from biting in the first place.

I have proven this over and over again. If the steelhead leader is too thick, the fish will see it and won’t bite it!

A very heavy leader might also be too stiff and prevent the bait from drifting naturally.

The thicker the leader the more the current will push or pull it, moving the bait unnaturally.

A thicker leader also sinks slower, which means it takes longer to get the bait into the strike zone.

Buy Your Leader Lines By Diameter Rating, Not By The Pound Rating

I tell my clients to ignore the pound test rating on the label and buy leader lines by the diameter rating instead.

The diameter rating is usually a more accurate indication of the true-breaking strength of the leader, and it’s the thickness of the leader line that the steelhead see.

Best Steelhead Leader
A favorite all-around Great Lakes steelhead leader material is Drennan 4lb. I use 6-pound for West Coast steelhead. The reason for such light leader is that they are not rated properly.

Based on my tests:

  • Great Lakes Steelhead: 0.20mm (0.008 inches), is ideal for most small to medium steelhead rivers. Ranges – (0.18mm – 0.19mm for very clear small rivers or 0.22mm – 0.23mm for larger faster rivers)
  • West Coast Steelhead: 0.24mm (0.010 inches) is ideal for most small to medium steelhead rivers. Ranges – (0.22mm – 0.23mm for small clear rivers or 0.25mm – 0.26mm for large fast rivers)

Now you know the ideal leader diameters for steelhead fishing. But, there is NO IDEAL pound test, which I will show you why below.

Unfortunetly, there are no standardized regulations that say that a company is required to label its leaders accurately, which can be a problem.

The first chart below shows popular leaders all around 8 pounds, but it also shows a significant difference in diameter. My expereince has proven that steelhead can be very line shy, so anglers buying and using some thick 8-pound leaders won’t catch very many steelhead becuase the leaders are too thich.

This is why I tell anglers to buy leaders based on diameter size, not the leader pound rating.

Steelhead Fishing Leaders Comparison

Steelhead Fishing Leaders Comparison of 8-Pound Lines

Brand Diameter (mm) Labeled Strength (pounds) Thickness Assessment
Drennan 0.28 8 Way too thick
Frog Hair 100% Fluorocarbon Tippet 0.20 8 Perfect
Scientific Anglers Absolute Trout Fluorocarbon Tippet 0.20 8.4 Perfect
Seaguar STS Trout/Steelhead Fluorocarbon Leader 0.235 8 Too thick
Blood Run Tackle Fluorocarbon Leader 0.25 8 Too thick
Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader 0.234 8.8 Too thick
P-Line Shinsei Fluorocarbon Leader 0.26 8 Way too thick

0.20mm Diameter Comparison To Pound Test Ratings

In this chart, all leaders are in the 0.20mm range (perfect for Great Lakes steelhead) but they all have different pound test rating (some are double). My expereince is that despite the pound test each claim, they all break around the same.

Brand Diameter (mm) Labeled Strength (lbs)
Drennan 0.20 4
Blood Run Tackle Fluorocarbon Leader 0.21 4
Maxima Ultragreen Monofilament Leader 0.20 5
Seaguar 0.20 6
Rio Fluoroflex 0.203 6
Seaguar STS Trout/Steelhead 0.205 6
Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader Material 0.20 6.6
Frog Hair 100% Fluorocarbon Tippet 0.20 8
Scientific Anglers Absolute Trout Fluorocarbon Tippet 0.20 8.4

These inaccuracies occure with lighter and stronger sizes as well.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead By Methods

I use many different methods for steelhead fishing which all require leaders and might require different leader strengths or diameters. These methods include:

Steelhead Fishing Leader Diameter Table

Leader Diameter for Steelhead Fishing Methods

Method Location Condition Leader Diameter
Float Fishing
Great Lakes Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.20mm
Extra Clear Water 0.18mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.22mm – 0.23mm
West Coast Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.22mm – 0.24mm
Extra Clear Water 0.20mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.25mm – 0.26mm
Fly Fishing (Nymphing)
Great Lakes Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.20mm
Extra Clear Water 0.18mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.22mm – 0.23mm
West Coast Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.22mm – 0.24mm
Extra Clear Water 0.20mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.25mm – 0.26mm
Fly Fishing (Streamers and Swinging)
Great Lakes Steelhead 0.24mm – 0.26mm
West Coast Steelhead 0.25mm – 0.27mm
Drift Fishing And Bottom Bouncing
Great Lakes Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.20mm
Extra Clear Water 0.18mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.22mm – 0.23mm
West Coast Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.22mm – 0.24mm
Extra Clear Water 0.20mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.25mm – 0.26mm
Back Bouncing Great Lakes Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.20mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.22mm – 0.23mm
West Coast Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.22mm – 0.24mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.24mm – 0.26mm
Side Drifting Great Lakes Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.20mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.22mm – 0.23mm
West Coast Steelhead Small To Medium Rivers 0.22mm – 0.24mm
Big Rivers/Fast Water 0.25mm – 0.26mm
Back Trolling West Coast Steelhead 0.28mm – 0.36mm
Casting Lures Great Lakes Steelhead 0.26mm – 0.32mm
West Coast Steelhead 0.28mm – 0.34mm

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Clear Water?

An angler using the right pound test leader for steelhead on a clear river

Clear water can mean the steelhead will be able to see the leader line easier so I use the thinnest leader possible.

See Low Clear Water Steelhead Fishing Tips and Tactics.

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Slow Water?

Using the right pound test leader for steelhead on a slow flat river

In slow water, the steelhead has plenty of time to see the bait coming and to inspect it and if I am using a leader that is too thick they might not eat the bait.

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Fast Water?

An angler using the right pound test leader for steelhead on a fast rivers

In faster water, the bait is moving past the fish quickly and they have little time to inspect the bait and must react quickly.

If the section of the river that I’m fishing is all fast water, the fish will use that fast water to their advantage so upsizing my leader might be required to help turn that fish and get it in the net.

Because of this, I will upsize two to four pounds. But, remember, the thicker the leader, the more it gets pushed by the current and the slower it sinks.

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Normal Clarity Conditions?

An angler using the right pound test leader for steelhead on a stained rivers

For a general-purpose leader line, I will use a 0.20mm or 0.008″ leader line for Great Lakes Steelhead, and 0.23 – 0.24mm for West Coast steelhead.

This works great in most medium clear water rivers that are open and where I am able to walk down the river with a bigger fish if I need to.

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Dirty Water?

An angler using the right pound test leader for steelhead on a dirty river rivers

If the water is dirty I will often upsize my leader by one or two pounds because the fish can’t see it and that will allow me to hook the fish and get it in quickly.

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Heavy Wooded Rivers?

An angler using the right pound test leader for steelhead on a wooded rivers

This is a tough one because sometimes the wooded water is also very clear. If I use to light of a steelhead leader I will have a tough time steering and turning the fish when they run for the wood. Too heavy of a leader and they won’t touch it. Usually, wooded water is also slower water which also requires a lighter leader.

My suggestion is to start with a slightly heavier than normal sized leader and if they won’t eat the bait, go lighter. If I start hooking fish but keep losing them in the wood go up a size or 2.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Small Rivers?

An angler fishing a small clear river

Small rivers are often clear rivers and I can walk up and down the river to chase fish if needed. Therefore I usually go with the lightest leader possible.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Large Rivers?

Aangler fishing a big steelhead river

Sometimes very large rivers like the Niagara, Skeena, or Columbia have a lot of fast currents and they are also hard or impossible to walk far along the banks to chase a fish.

This is when I will use slightly heavier leaders to help land the fish.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For West Coast Steelhead?

When I fished the west coast rivers I realized that those steelhead were stronger and they used the current of the bigger rivers to their advantage and this meant that I need to go with a 10-pound leader under clear conditions and upsize to a 12-pound test if and when I could.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Great Lakes Steelhead?

Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead
The author with a nice fall steelhead from the Great lakes caught on 0.20mm leader.

In my opinion, the best pound test leader for great lakes steelhead under most normal river conditions is 8-pound, 0.20mm leader. 90 percent of the sometimes 500 steelhead that myself and my clients land in a year are using 0.20mm steelhead leaders and we rarely ever break off. Then change either up or down based on the conditions I see.

Breaking Steelhead Off Is The Anglers Fault

Ok, I will be straight up with you, 80 percent of the time if an angler breaks off when using 8 pound or 10-pound test line it is angler error. You may not like to hear that but it’s true and I say this because as a guide, I have watched hundreds of guys break fish off that they shouldn’t have.

The other 20 percent of the time the line breaks it’s due to damage to the line from rocks or fish teeth.

Mechanical errors, meaning ones the angler is not responsible for might even be related to a bad drag system or even an old line, however, those are rare, and both can be fixed by the angler, in other words, purchase some new line and buy a better reel with a better drag system.

The exception to this is if I am fishing around a lot of wood in which case I will always lock up my drag just before the steelhead goes into the wood. The choice is to lock the drag and maybe turn the fish or break it off before it goes into the wood, or let him go into the wood and then break it off and possibly lose my whole float and leader setup.

The Best Leader Brands

My three favorite steelhead leader brands are:

  • Drennan  (buy this brand by the diameter only) – I use 4 pounds and 5 pounds for Great Lakes steelhead, and 5 pounds and 6 pounds for large rivers and for West Coast steelhead.
  • Redwing Tackle Phantom Fluorocarbon Leader – I use 6.6 pounds and 7.6 pounds for Great Lakes steelhead, and 8.8 pounds for large rivers and for West Coast steelhead.
  • Seaguar STS Trout/ Steelhead Fluorocarbon Leader Material I use mostly 6-pound, which is 0.20mm or 8-pound for bigger Great Lakes rivers. For west coast steelhead consider 10 and 12 pounds for bigger water.

For these leader brands, check for the best prices in the USA at FishUSA.com or in Canada at FishheadsCanada.net.

Use the Right Leader Setup

Now that you know what pound leader to use, now you need to set it up properly and I will show you how to do that with the same leader setup that I use when I guide. Check it out on my page 2 Float Fishing Leader Setups From A Pro River Guide

Tight Lines,

Graham

Leave a Reply

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

2 Comments

  1. Great post. First year steelhead float fishing/ bottom bouncing on Lake Ontario tributaries. I was using a 6 pound fluorocarbon leader that has the diameter of 2.18mm. I found that most of the steelhead I hooked immediately snapped the line. I needed to increase the diameter to 2.5mm to land one. The water had a fast current but shallow (4 feet). Wondering if you have any suggestions? Maybe a drag issue?

    Thanks!

    1. Hi Kevin,

      Check your line diameter sizes again, what you wrote doesn’t sound correct to me, did you mean 0.18mm and 0.205mm – if so see below.

      0.18mm leader is as light as I go, I only use it in gin clear water with nervous steelhead, and only on great lakes steelhead. I have buddies and clients that use 0.18mm all the time with no break-offs while using Centerpin reels. FYI They are also skilled at fighting steelhead. I’d say be sure your drag is properly set and that it’s a smooth drag system, some reels just suck!!. See Best Reels For Steelhead

      0.20mm leader is my go-to line size most of the time for great lakes steelhead. It’s rare I or a client breaks off with this size and I/we get lots of bites with it. I/we have landed many steelhead over 10 pounds with no issues.

      0.22mm leader is the maximum I will go for Great Lakes steelhead. However, I know some guys that love it and use it all the time. I use it in dirtier water and faster bigger water. I feel I get less bites in clear water at this size.

      0.24mm / 0.25mm leader This is a better size for West Coast steelhead on faster water. I may use it on extra large and fast Great Lakes rivers like the Niagara. Onless the water is fast or dirty, I get fare fewer bites on Great Lakes rivers. Otherwise, I mostly use this size for my shot line for leader for Great Lakes Steelhead.

      Hope that clears thing up and helps you land some more steelhead.

      Graham