Written by Jason Swingen, Updated

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome when getting into steelheading is picking out the right tools for the job. Especially if you are coming from the spin fishing where your rods are easily labeled from light to heavy, and moderate to fast. Then you decide to get your first fly rod and you are hit with terms like 1-12 weight rods, weight-forward line, tippet, and strike indicators. Fly fishing can be thought of as an overcomplicated form of spin fishing, so it is only fitting that the terminology is equally as complicated.

Everyone has there own ideas on their favorite brands and styles for fishing gear, but for the most part, the equipment used by 90% of anglers on the north and south shore is all quite similar. I’ll go over rods, reels, line, flies, indicators, nets, and the rest of the gear you should have if you are getting into steelheading, upgrading your current gear, or are looking for a gift for the steelheader in your family!

Releasing a Brule River Steelhead
Releasing a Brule River Steelhead

Basic Steelheading Equipment

  • Rod
    • Weight: The most popular rod weight for fishing steelhead on the tributaries of Lake Superior is a 7 or 8 wt. When I first got into fly fishing I heard that a 5wt is the most versatile fly fishing rod, but didn’t realize that they meant for trout and not necessarily for steelhead. You can land steelhead with a standard 5wt fly rod, but it is not easy and is typically not good for the fish to fight it for as long as it takes to land a fish on a 5wt. On the other hand, a 10wt rod has enough backbone to pull in a hard fighting steelhead, but later in the season when the water clears up you will want to lighten up your line and downsize your hooks. Using a heavy rod is not as forgiving on light tippet.
    • Length: Fly rods are most commonly found in 9’. These rods are long enough to allow for mending your line on the water but short enough to fish smaller sections of rivers. I started with a 9’ and recently switched to a 10’. The extra length makes it a more tip heavy, but it allows for better mends and easier high-sticking.
    • Multispecies: Most fishermen don’t only fish for one species, and it is not necessary to have a different rod for each species. So if you want to through streamers for bass and pike as well you may want to get a 9’ 8wt. Although, if you mainly fish for steelhead and want an ideal rod for nymphing and possibly swinging flies on the north and south shore tributaries I would highly recommend a 7wt 10’ or even a 7wt 11’ switch rod.
    • Cost: You don’t necessarily need an expensive rod for steelheading. Since you are typically fishing in smaller waters and don’t need to rely on delicate, highly accurate casts. A more expensive rod will have higher quality components, will often be lighter, and often a better warranty. I have used a Maxcatch Extreme Fly Rod (9ft 8weight) for a few years and is hasn’t let me down, and at only $50 it’s a steal! You can also by it as a combo. If you are looking for something a little nicer, take a look at fly rods like the St. Croix Rio Santo, or the Redington Vice. If you are looking to get one of the best rods available it is hard to beat a rod like the Sage X . If you are near or are visiting Duluth, the Great Lakes Fly Shop currently has some great rods from Echo and Scott.
  • Reel
    • Size: Pair your reel to your rod or go up a size. Most fly reels come in a 5/6, 7/8, or 9/10 size corresponding to the line size they hold. 7/8 reels are the most common depending on the size of fly line you are using, but larger reels will take in line faster and can balance out a longer rod better.
    • Drag: Make sure it has a good drag system. Steelhead will rip line from your reel and can sometimes get caught in the current and you’ll have no choice but to chase them down. Use the money you saved on a rod to buy a nice reel. I have been using a Redington Behemoth 7/8 Reel and it is a fantastic reel, offering a large arbor and extremely smooth drag with a large drag dial. A few other good options are the Allen Kraken, and if you want to change spools with different fly line, the Waterworks Lamson Liquid is a great option because it comes with two extra spools.
  • Line
    • Some anglers prefer to use fly line, while other prefer mono. Both have their pros and cons and excel in different situations. It is a good idea to one spool with fly line and another with mono so you can switch between techniques easily depending on water conditions.
      • Fly line: Weight forward floating line. Paired up to or slightly over-lined to your rod. (I like to use 9 or 10wt fly line on my 8wt fly rod to turn over heavy indicator setups).
        • You will also need backing when using fly line. 20 to 30 lb is ideal. Although steelhead likely won’t take you to your backing, it is good to have it for peace of mind.
        • Leader: 6-9ft 0-3x tapered nylon leaders work great for many different applications. I often build my own leaders for steelheading that consist of 6ft of 20lb mono and 3ft of 15lb fluorocarbon. I tie on a small barrel swivel or tippet ring then tie on tippet depending on water depth and clarity.
        • Tippet: 2-3ft of 1x-4x (6-12lb) fluorocarbon.
      • Monofilament: Many north shore anglers skip the fly line altogether and use straight 6-10lb monofilament. (Higher abrasion resistance and visibility lines are best). There are pros and cons to using straight mono. Mono is harder to handle with gloves or cold fingers, but it is ideal when fishing fast deep water. You can either fish straight mono to your hook, or use a fluorocarbon leader.
  • Flies
    • Egg Patterns
      • Yarn flies are cheap, easy to tie, and a proven steelhead catcher. McFly Foam is my personal favorite yarn when tying yard flies for steelhead.
      • Beads are growing in popularity tend to work better is slower clearer water conditions.
    • Nymphs / Stoneflies in sizes 6 to 12
      • Pheasant tail
      • Hare’s Ear
      • Frenchie
      • Copper John
      • Hairy Ass Stone
      • Superior X-Legs
      • Egg Sucking Leech
      • Kauffman’s Stone
    • Streamers
      • Wolly Bugger
      • Egg Sucking Leech
      • Intruder
      • Double Bunny
    • Note: You can only use one fly on the North Shore of Lake Superior.
  • Fishing License / Trout Stamp
    • You’ll need a regular MN Fishing License and also a Trout Stamp to target Steelhead on the North Shore of Lake Superior. Trout stamps typically run $10 for the year.
    • Wisconsin has a good deal for first-time license buyers. You will need an Inland Trout Stamp if you are fishing the south shore as well.
  • Net
    • 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” chrome steelhead you’d better hope your net it large enough to easily land it.
    • If you don’t already have a net, and you are looking to buy a net for steelheading I highly recommend getting a rubber net. They are easier on the fish, and they don’t tangle with your hooks. Check out these custom built steelhead nets from Dam Goods and Gear!
  • Waders
    • Any old 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
    • They must be polarized. Not only will they allow you to see structure, they will sometimes let you see the steelhead. They are also a good piece of safety equipment protecting your eyes from split-shot and hooks, and they allow you to see the rocks you are walking on while traversing some fast and sometimes deep rivers.
  • Nippers
    • Whatever kind you prefer. From $2 fingernail clippers to $100 cast aluminum Orvis nippers, as long as they cut through fishing line they’ll work.
  • Hemostats
  • Scissors
    • Only if you fish yarn and use a snelled hook to hold the yarn instead of fishing pre-tied yarn flies.
  • Hooks
    • If you fish yarn on snelled hooks, or fish with beads you’ll need extra hooks. I’ve tried many different types of hook brands, in different sizes. You’ll want to pair the hook size and strength to your line as well as your rod. Most hooks range from size 6 all the way down to size 14.
  • Pack/Vest
    • 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.
  • Strike Indicators
    • Airfo Airlock Strike Indicators: I use 3/4” and 1” Airlock indicators most of the time. They are durable, easy to see, easy to change depth, and easy to change between sizes and colors. The only cons are that they are relatively heavy making them harder to roll cast than other strike indicators.
    • Thill Bobbers: Great little indicators for fly fishing. They are colored a two-tone color of bright orange and bright chartreuse. This can be extremely helpful when nymphing because the bobber will lay on its side until your weight and nymph are pulling straight down. This way you can tell exactly when you are fishing the correct depth. The main downside is that you need to string your leader through them, which makes it more difficult to change out to a different size or style of indicator. However, they are not as durable as a Thingamabobbers or Airlocks.
  • Split Shot
    • You’ll want an assortment of spit shot depending on the depth, and speed and the water as well as the technique you are using. I mostly use #B, #BB, #7, and #5 Split Shot depending on depth and the type of presentation.

If you are have everything you need to catch steelhead, but are looking to get a few more products to make your time on the water more enjoyable, check out my list of 10 Fly Fishing Accessories For Under $20

 

North Shore Steelhead

My Current Selection of Steelhead Gear

Redington Palix River Waders

Allen Company Granite River Wading Boots

Umpqua Steamboat Sling

Redington Vice

7wt 10’

Redington Behemoth

7/8wt

Fly Line Backing

20lb

Scientific Anglers Frequency Magnum

9wt

Rio Powerflex Trout Leaders

Airflo Airlock Indicator

3/4” and 1”

Thill Gold Medal Ice ‘N Fly Special Float

Water Gremlin Round Split Shot

B, BB, 7, and 5

Airflo Fluorocarbon Tippet

1x through 4x

Dr. Slick Mitten Scissor Clamp

Stainless Steel Line Nipper

Fly Fishing Net with Soft Rubber Mesh