What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead?

Big steelhead like this caught on 8 pound line
Myself and my clients have caught thousands of steelhead like this and bigger using 8 pound test line on a Centerpin reel.

If you want to know what pound test leader is best for steelhead you have come to the right place. As a top river guide, I have seen firsthand what using the wrong steelhead leader can do.

What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead?

The best pound test leader for steelhead is 8 pounds, but unfortunately, not all leader brands are rated properly and some 8 pound test steelhead leaders are closer to 16 pound test and that can prevent you from catching fish. Different river conditions might also require 6, 10, or 12 pound steelhead leaders.

Steelhead is a big strong fighting fish but they also have great vision and that means they are often line shy.

Using the wrong pound test steelhead leader under certain conditions will either mean the steelhead will see the line and not eat your bait, or the steelhead leader will be too light and they will break you off.

You need to find a middle ground, a steelhead leader line that is not too light and not too heavy.

This is exactly why my clients are always asking me what pound test leader is best for steelhead. The best pound test steelhead leader for me when fishing great lakes steelhead in most conditions is 8-pound test but I will need to change sometimes based on a few of the things below.

Why Heavy Steelhead Leaders Suck

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.

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.

An it’s the thickness of the leader line that the trout see, not the pound test.

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

This is actually more important than you think so don’t skip this.

Guy’s 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 8 pound Raven mainline, their 8 pound labled line is 0.26mm in diameter which is probably closer to 14 pound breaking strength.

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Clear Water?

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

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. 6-pound leader would be 0.18mm or .007″ 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?

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

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 10 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 3 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 4-pound line, with the hook I gave him before, and a new spawn bag, and on his first drift, and on his next 8 drifts in a row, he hooked a steelhead. 9 drifts, 9 steelhead.

Before changing his leader he made about 10 drifts with not a single bite, but, as soon as I changed his leader, he hooked 9 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 true 6 pound line which is 0.18mm or 0.007″ or if the water is not super clear I will go up to true 8 pound leader which is 0.20mm or 0.008″

What Pound Leader Is Best For Steelhead In Fast Water?

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

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 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?

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

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?

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

Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in dirty water.

If the water is dirty I will often up-size 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?

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

An angler fishing a small clear river

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?

Aangler fishing a big steelhead river

Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead in very large rivers.

Sometimes very large river 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 10-pound leader under clear conditions and upsize to 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

Guys ask me what pound test leader is best for steelhead on the great lakes rivers.

In my opinion the best pound test leader fro 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, 95 percent of the times that you break off when you are using 8 pounds or 10-pound test line is human error.

The other 5 percent of the time is damage to the line due to rocks or fish teeth. I say this because I know how to fight and play large steelhead properly and I probably only break off 1 steelhead out of every 100.

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 set up.

The Best Leader Brands

If you want to know what I use for leader material go to Steelhead Leaders: Best Float Leaders

My 3 favorite steelhead leader brands are:

Use the Right Leader Setup

Now that you know what pound leader to use, now you need to set it up properly and I 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

Learn More

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 steelhead leaders, just ask in the comment section below

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

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