If you want to know what pound test leader is best for steelhead you have come to the right place. As a steelhead guide, I need a leader that is thin enough for my clients to get lots of bites but thick and strong enough that they don’t break off a lot of steelhead.
I have tested leader sizes on thousands of steelhead in all types of conditions.
Unfortunately, there isn’t one size that is perfect for all conditions and all steelhead but you can get close to perfect if you know what pound test leader is best for steelhead for different methods and under different river conditions.
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. I will change leader sizes based on river conditions and based on the fishing method I’m using, and you should too.
Steelhead are big strong fighting fish but they also have great vision and which means they are often line shy which can cause a problem for many anglers, especially in clear slow water.
Using the wrong pound test steelhead leader under certain conditions will either mean the steelhead will see the thick and heavy line and not eat your bait. On the other handif the steelhead leader is very thin, you’ll probably get a lot of bites except that you will break a lot of steelhead off.
It’s important to find a middle-ground size which means that you want a steelhead leader line that is not too light and not too heavy. But it’s not always that easy. There are times when an 8 -pound leader just won’t work well and you will need to upsize or downsize.
It’s equally important to have a good leader setup suitable for steelhead.
These are the guidelines I follow, however, I want to warn you that following the pound rating can be a big mistake which I will discuss below. Instead, always choose your line by the diameter size only.
0.007 in. / 0.18 mm
- Small to Medium / Under 60 feet wide
- Clear Water
0.008 in. / 0.20 mm
- Float Fishing
- Bottom Bouncing
- Small to Medium / Under 60 feet wide
- Clear water
0.009 in. / 0.22 mm
- Float Fishing
- Drift Fishing and Bottom Bouncing
- Larger Great Lakes Rivers and faster currents
- Off colored rivers
- Small West Coast Rivers
Great Lakes and West Coast
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
0.011 in. / 0.28mm
- Float Fishing on West Coast
- Drift Fishing on West Coast
Medium to Large Rivers
0.012 in. / 0.31mm
Large to XL
The best pound test steelhead leader for me when fishing great lakes steelhead in most conditions is 8-pound test but I will discuss when and why I will change for more steelhead.
Why Heavy Steelhead Leaders Suck
First, let me be clear about this, I have proven this over and over again. If the steelhead leader is too heavy the fish will see it and they won’t bite it!
A very heavy leader might also be too stiff and it might prevent the bait from drifting naturally.
If you want to get technical, the thicker the leader the more the current will push or pull it around as well, and a thicker leader also sinks slower which means it could take longer to get into the strike zone.
Buy Your Leader Lines By Diameter Rating, Not By The Pound Rating
What I really tell my clients is to ignore the pound test rating on the label and buy their leader lines by the diameter rating instead.
The diameter rating is usually a more accurate indication of the true breaking strength of the leaders.
It’s the thickness of the leader line that the steelhead see, not the pound test.
This is actually more important than you think so don’t skip this.
Anglers hear that they need 8-pound test leader for steelhead and then they run out and grab any 8 pounds test leader off the store shelves and then they never catch any fish and don’t know why.
That’s because some brands say their leader line is an 8-pound test but IT’S NOT.
There are no standardized regulations that say that a company is required to label its leaders accurately. It could be 10, 12, or up to 16 pounds, and a 16-pound test steelhead leader is way too heavy for steelhead fishing using a bait.
I always try to go as thin as possible and at times I’ll even use 6-pound leader line.
As an example of mislabeling it’s normal for a true 8-pound line to be 0.20mm in diameter. But look at the difference in these 4 lines, Drennan’s 0.20mm leader label says 4 pounds, Seaguar’s 0.20mm label says 6 pounds, and Rio’s 0.20mm label says 8 pounds.
If you also look at the 8-pound Raven mainline, their 8-pound labeled line is 0.26mm in diameter which is probably closer to 14-pound breaking strength.
What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead By Methods
I use 3 different methods for steelhead fishing which require leaders and these are the more effective methods used on rivers around the great lakes. These methods include float fishing, fly fishing, and bottom bouncing. I use the same steelhead leader sizes for all of these methods.
The exception would be streamer fishing, swinging flies, and lure fishing.
For the most part, with all of these methods, I follow the same leader size based on the conditions below.
What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Clear Water?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in very clear water.
When I am fishing in clear water rivers for great lakes steelhead I may have to drop down to a 6-pound leader. The 6-pound leader would be 0.18mm or .007″ in diameter. I will only drop down to this light if the fish are very nervous and won’t hit a thicker leader.
I will also only go 6-pound leader on rivers that I can walk along with a running fish. Using a lighter leader like this might mean more hookups but it might mean a few break-offs as well. A few break-offs are usually better than hooking nothing at all.
What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Slow Water?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in very slow water.
In slow water, the steelhead has plenty of time to see the bait coming and to inspect it and if you are using a leader that is too thick they might not eat the bait.
This is why I use certain pound test leaders in slow water.
I fished with a buddy a few years back and we walked into the first pool which was a slow pool that my clients hooked over ten fish the day before. I told my buddy to cast first and that he should get one on his first drift. He didn’t hook anything and after three drifts and I was really surprised so I told him to change his spawn to one of my spawn bags which were hot the day before.
After a few drifts and still no fish even on my spawn bags, I had him change his hook because it was too big. He made a few drifts with the new spawn bag and the new hook and still nothing. Something was wrong, I knew there was fish there.
I asked him what pound test his leader was and he said 6 pounds. My response when someone tells me what pound test is always “What brand?”. He said, Drennan.
I knew that Drennan’s 6-pound test leader is a good leader but it’s as thick as most 12-pound test lines.
So, I pulled out my 4-pound Drennan leader and rigged up a 4-pound line, with the hook I gave him before, and a new spawn bag, and on his first drift, and on his next eight drifts in a row, he hooked a steelhead. Nine drifts, nine steelhead.
Before changing his leader he made about ten drifts with not a single bite, but, as soon as I changed his leader, he hooked nine in a row.
This clearly showed us both that in the slow water, which wasn’t even that clear, the steelhead were line shy.
In slow water I will often use a true 6-pound line which is 0.18mm or 0.007″ or if the water is not super clear I will go up to a true 8-pound leader which is 0.20mm or 0.008″
What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Fast Water?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in fast water.
In faster water, the bait is moving past the fish quickly and they have little time to inspect the bait and must react quickly.
Because of this, I will usually use a true 8-pound test leader, or I will upsize to a true 10-pound leader. A 10-pound leader is about 0.22mm or 0.009″ but in the faster water, they won’t see it.
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 having a leader that is 10 pounds can help you turn that fish and get it in the net.
What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Normal Clarity Conditions?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in normal clarity rivers, like when it’s medium clear or just stained but clear.
For a general-purpose leader line, I will use a 0.20mm or 0.008″ leader line. 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?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in dirty water.
If the water is dirty I will often upsize my leader simply because the fish can’t see it and that will allow me to hook the fish and get it in quickly. A 10-pound leader is about 0.22mm or 0.009″ and it will be perfect in dirtier water.
You could probably even go up to a true 12-pound 0.24mm leader but there is probably no need for it.
What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Heavy Wooded Rivers?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in heavily wooded water.
This is a tough one because sometimes the wooded water is also very clear. If you use to light of a steelhead leader you 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 true 8-pound 0.20mm leader which is in the middle of not too light and not too heavy, and if they won’t eat the bait, go lighter. If you 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?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in very small rivers.
Small rivers are often clear rivers so I will usually go based on the water clarity and not worry about the size of the rivers, start with a true 8-pound 0.20mm leader and drop down to a 6-pound 0.18mm leader if they won’t eat your bait.
What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Large Rivers?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in very large rivers.
Sometimes very large rivers like the Niagara and some west coast rivers have a lot of fast currents and they are also hard or impossible to walk far along the banks to chase a fish.
The steelhead will use the current to its advantage and therefore using a 10-pound, 0.22mm leader is required. If you can’t turn the fish you will want to go up to 12-pound leader 0.24mm.
What Pound Test Leader Is Best For West Coast Steelhead?
Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead on the west coast rivers.
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 on the great lakes rivers.
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 you see.
Breaking Steelhead Off Is Your Fault
Ok, I will be straight up with you, 80 percent of the time you break off when you are using 8 pound or 10-pound test line it is human 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 3 favorite steelhead leader brands are:
- Drennan (buy them 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
A day on the water with a good river guide can teach you more than you could learn in years on your own. A good guide can show you everything you need to know and to do to start catching fish more often.
Got A Question About What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead
I hope you learned something about the steelhead leaders. If you have a question or tip related to what pound test leader is best for steelhead let me know in the comments section below