How to gear-up for steelhead fishing

One of the biggest hurdles when getting into North Shore steelhead fishing is selecting the right equipment.

This is especially true for non-fly fishing anglers, many of whom are unfamiliar with such terms as 1-12 weight rods, weight-forward line, tippet and strike indicator. To some anglers, fly fishing is simply an overly complicated form of spin fishing. As such, it makes sense that fly fishing terminology is complicated too, they contend.

Selecting the right rod

Rod weight: A 7 weight or 8 weight fly rod is the best option for fishing steelhead on Lake Superior tributaries. Yes, you can land steelhead with a standard 5 weight rod but a stouter rod will perform better. Besides, a 5 weight rod is harder on the fish than a 7 or 8 weight rod because it takes longer to land the fish. A 10 weight rod, on the other hand, is too much rod. It will have plenty of backbone to pull in a hard-fighting steelhead but later in the season, when the water clears up, you will want to lighten your line and downsize your hooks. When that happens a heavy rod is not good choice because it is not as forgiving when fishing with a light tippet.

Rod length: A 9-foot fly rod is a good choice as it is long enough to allow for mending your line on the water while short enough to fish smaller sections of rivers. A 10-foot rod is also a good choice. The extra length makes it more tip heavy but it allows for better mends and easier high-sticking.

Rod considerations: Most anglers don’t fish for just one species, and it is not necessary to have a different rod for each species. So, if you are looking for a good all-purpose rod you may want to own a 9-foot 8 weight rod. On the other hand, if you mainly fish for steelhead and want an ideal rod for nymphing and swinging flies, then a 10-foot 7 weight rod or even an 11-foot 7 weight rod are good options.

Cost: You don’t need an expensive rod for steelheading. That’s because you are typically fishing smaller waters and you don’t have to rely on delicate, highly accurate casts to catch fish. Your local tackle shop and tackle shops along the North Shore can help you make a wise rod selection. A reasonable fly rod can be purchased for $50 or so.


Size: Pair your reel to your rod or go up a size. Most fly reels come in sizes 5/6, 7/8 or 9/10. Reels in the 7/8 size are commonly used for steelhead fishing. Still, some anglers prefer larger reels as they take in line faster and can better balance a longer rod.

Drag: Make sure it has a good drag as steelhead will rip line from your reel. Use the money you saved on a rod to buy a nice reel. You will likely want to have a reel that features a large drag dial and large arbor.

Photograph of a fly rod and reel, fly line, backing line and five different trout flies.


Some anglers prefer to use fly line while other anglers prefer monofilament. Both have their pros and cons. Therefore, you may want to load one spool with fly line and another with monofilament. By doing this you are prepared for whatever line will work best given the prevailing water conditions.

Fly line: Most angler prefer a weight forward floating line that is paired up to or slightly over your rod. Some anglers, for example, use a 9 or 10 weight fly line on an 8 weight fly rod to better turn over heavy indicator setups. You will need fly line backing. Twenty- to 30-pound test backing is ideal. Although a fighting steelhead is unlikely to take you to your backing it is nice to have in place for peace of mind. Also, you will want a 6- to 9-foot 0-3x tapered nylon leader and a 2- to 3-foot 1x-4x fluorocarbon tippet (6- to 12-pounds).

Monofilament: Many north shore anglers skip fly line altogether and use straight 6- to 10-pound monofilament on their reels. The higher abrasion resistant and visibility lines are best. There are pros and cons to using straight monofilament. Monofilament line is harder to handle with gloves or cold fingers but it is ideal when fishing fast deep water. You can either fish straight monofilament to your hook or use a fluorocarbon leader.


Yarn flies are cheap, easy to tie, and a proven steelhead catcher. Bead flies are growing in popularity and tend to work better is slower clearer water conditions.

Nymphs/Stoneflies (in sizes 6 to 14)

Popular nymphs and stoneflies for steelhead fishing include the pheasant tail, hare’s ear, prince nymph, Frenchie, copper John, Superior X-Legs and Kauffman’s stone.


Popular streamers for steelhead fishing include the wolly bugger, egg sucking leech, intruder, double bunny and Borger leech.


You don’t need a fancy trout net but you should have a net, and it should be big enough to fit the biggest fish that you expect to catch in it. If you hook into a 30-inch steelhead you’d better hope your net it large enough to easily land it.

If you don’t already own a net you should consider purchasing a rubber net. They are easier on the fish, and they don’t tangle with your hooks.


Any one-piece waders will do but if you know you are going to fish for steelhead for more than one season look into a pair of stocking foot lightweight breathable nylon waders. You are fishing to have fun, and you’ll have more fun if you aren’t sweating and tired from hiking around in heavy waders with no ankle support.


Sunglasses are a must and they should be polarized. Not only will polarized sunglasses allow you to see structure but they will sometimes let you see steelhead as well. Sunglasses also protect your eyes from flying split-shot and hooks, and they allow you to see the rocks you are walking on while traversing fast and sometimes deep rivers.


You will want to have nippers with you, whether they are $2 fingernail clippers or $100-plus cast aluminum nippers sold at high-end specialty stores. Any type will do as long as it slices your fishing line.


Hemostats are handy to have for removing hooks from steelhead and they work great for almost any other type of fish too.  


You will need extra hooks if you fish yarn on snelled hooks or if you fish with beads. You will want to pair the hook size to your line as well as your rod. Commonly used steelhead hooks range from size 6 all the way down to size 14.


Sling packs are my favorite because they allow you to easily swing them around and get whatever, then swing them to your back and get them out of your way.

Fly Box

You will want a fly box for storing your flies.

Strike Indicators

You will want to have a supply of strike indicator. They can be small traditional bobbers or other types of indicators made primarily for trout fishing.

Split shot

You’ will want an assortment of spit shot depending on the depth, and speed and the water as well as the technique you are using. Common split shot sizes are #B, #BB, #7, and #5 depending on water depth and the type of presentation.

Fishing license and trout stamp

Fishing steelhead requires a Minnesota Department of Natural Resources fishing license and additional trout fishing stamp.

Adapted from JS-Outdoors of Duluth, Minn. To view the complete article go to

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