There are few guarantees in fishing, but without fail, each year comes steelhead migration. That migration can look different depending on where in the country you’re located, but one thing is for sure: with that migration comes droves of anglers flocking to their local tributaries in hopes of hooking into one of these magnificent creatures.
If there's one thing steelhead anglers are just as passionate about as they are the fish, it’s the gear. And rightfully so. It takes some quality, often specific gear, to be able to tame a hard-fighting, acrobatic fish like steelhead.
As with any fish, the reel you’re using could make or break your success. But don’t worry, that's what we’re here for. We’ve got you covered with our picks for the best reels for steelhead fishing.
Quick glance at the best steelhead reels:
- Shimano Sustain FJ - Best Spinning Reel For Steelhead
- Pflueger President XT - Budget Spinning Reel
- Shimano Curado DC 200 - Best Casting Reel For Steelhead
- Abu Garcia Revo X - Budget Casting Reel
- Islander Steelheader - Best Centerpin Reel For Steelhead
- Okuma Aventa - Budget Centerpin Reel
- Sage Spectrum - Best Fly Reel For Steelhead
- Orvis Clearwater - Budget Fly Reel
Table of Contents (clickable)
- 1 Best Reels For Steelhead Fishing Reviewed
- 1.1 Shimano Sustain FJ - Best Spinning Reel For Steelhead
- 1.2 Pflueger President XT - Budget Spinning Reel
- 1.3 Shimano Curado DC 200 - Best Casting Reel For Steelhead
- 1.4 Abu Garcia Revo X - Budget Casting Reel
- 1.5 Islander Steelheader - Best Centerpin Reel For Steelhead
- 1.6 Okuma Aventa - Budget Centerpin Reel
- 1.7 Sage Spectrum - Best Fly Reel For Steelhead
- 1.8 Orvis Clearwater - Budget Fly Reel
- 2 Selecting The Best Reel For Steelhead Fishing
- 3 Final Thoughts
Best Reels For Steelhead Fishing Reviewed
Shimano Sustain FJ - Best Spinning Reel For Steelhead
Weight: 7.4oz, 9.3oz, and 9.5oz
Line Capacity: 8/140, 8/170, 10/200, and 12/195
Bearings: 9 total
Gear Ratio: 6:1 and 6.2:1
The name Shimano is commonplace in the fishing world, and having a name that everyone knows doesn’t come from making subpar products. From their entry-level reel to their high end stuff, the care put into crafting precision equipment is obvious.
While we would never suggest that price equals quality, the Sustain FJ is an example of you get what you pay for. If anything, you get more than you pay for.
From the 2500 series to the 5000, there is a reel size to cover any steelhead, in any water. The ultra-smooth cross carbon drag won’t bind up and retains that smoothness, even in the toughest conditions steelheading can throw at us, thanks to the same X-protect water-resistant technology that keeps moisture away from gears and bearings.
With an MGL rotor for smooth easy startup and a long stroke spool for increased casting distance, the aluminum body reduces reel flex when under the load of a big, strong steelhead. It doesn’t hurt either that the Sustain is one of the best looking spinning reels on the market.
- Ultra-smooth cross-carbon drag system
- 1 piece titanium bail
- Light and strong aluminum body
- Long strong spool for improved casting distance
- On the higher end of mid-range priced reels
Pflueger President XT - Budget Spinning Reel
Weight: 5.6oz, 6.6oz, 7.6oz, 9.1oz, and 10.1oz
Line Capacity: 4/100, 4/110, 6/145 8/185 and 14/280
Bearings: 7 total and 10 total
Gear Ratio: 5.2: and 6.2:1
As with any fishing reel, if you’re looking for something that is entry level, there are a few things you might expect to sacrifice, like size, weight, line capacity, etc. When it comes to steelhead fishing, those are factors that should always be taken into careful consideration.
What the Pflueger President XT doesn't sacrifice is durability. This reel is a work horse and will stand up to even the toughest punishment any steelhead angler can throw at it. Despite being heavier than more expensive reels, the President XT uses an aluminum main shaft, aluminum gears, and a carbon handle for precise balance and comfort for those long days on the water.
With stainless steel, corrosion-resistant bearings and a sealed drag system, the larger size version of this reel will handle fish after fish without fail, and the line capacity is more than enough when those big steelhead decide to take long line peeling runs.
- Precise balance and comfort
- Corrosion resistant stainless bearings
- Smooth sealed drag system
- 10 bearing system on larger sizes
- Larger size reels are heavy
- Line can sometimes get caught in bail
Shimano Curado DC 200 - Best Casting Reel For Steelhead
Line Capacity: 10/155
Bearings: 7 total
Gear Ratio: 7.4:1 and 8.5:1
When it comes to fishing big steelhead in big water, a casting reel is the way to go. While not the best choice for smaller Great Lakes tributaries, on the big rivers of the west coast, professional guides and amateur steelheaders alike turn to casting reels as a go-to, multi-technique reel.
A favorite for many of those guides and our top choice is the Shimano Curado DC 200. Shimano knows how to put together high quality reels at reasonable prices, and the Curado DC 200 is no exception.
Designed for anglers using larger tackle, whether float fishing, casting lures, or back trolling plugs, this reel features 40% more line capacity than the regular Curado, ideal for those long drifts or when steelhead make powerful runs.
Even if you haven’t mastered using a casting reel, the Curado DC 200 is one of the easiest reels to use, thanks to its multi-setting digital control braking system that maximizes casting distance while helping to reduce backlash.
The incredibly smooth, friction-free spool and cross carbon drag system come together in a package that is lightweight without sacrificing strength. The result is a reel that will tame even the biggest steelhead.
- Low profile design is lightweight and comfortable
- Multi-setting digital control braking system
- Super Free Spool for long casts and friction-free drifts
- Shielded bearings block debris and keep reel running smooth
- Not suitable for light terminal tackle
Abu Garcia Revo X - Budget Casting Reel
Line Capacity: 10/175, 12/145, 15/100
Bearings: 8 total
Gear Ratio: 5.4:1, 6.6:1, and 7.3:1
At first glance, the Abu Garcia Revo X has just as good - and sometimes better - specs than some of the high end casting reels, and that’s one of the reasons it made this list. It’s a reel that provides many of the features, at a fraction of the cost.
With up to 30lb of drag, the Carbon Matrix hybrid system is super smooth, doesn’t bind up and provides more power than most comparable casting reels, meaning there isn’t a steelhead this reel can’t control.
The combination of the alloy frame construction and brass gear design make the Revo X lightweight without sacrificing strength and durability while the dura clutch design and magnetic braking system provide smooth, friction-free casting and free-spool drifting.
If you're looking for an entry-level casting reel that can compete with the high-end ones, and do so for years to come, it’s hard to beat the Revo X.
- High quality at a reasonable price
- Super smooth and strong carbon drag system
- Compact and lightweight
- Lube port for easy oiling
- Brass gears can be loud
Islander Steelheader - Best Centerpin Reel For Steelhead
Line Capacity: 20/350
Gear Ratio: 1:1 (gear free design)
As the popularity in centerpin fishing continues to grow, so do the reel choices, from well-known fishing manufacturers to small independent customer builders, the options available today are seemingly endless.
That wasn’t always the case, and few manufacturers offered centerpins. One of those that did was Islander reels. Known for making quality fly and mooching reels, Islander also produces one of the best and most reliable centerpins on the market today, the Islander Steelheader.
Centerpin reels are very simplistic in design: no gears, no drag, just a spool on a shaft with a couple of bearings that give them their free spooling effectiveness. It’s that simplistic design that draws steelhead anglers in. Not only is it the most effective way to present a float setup, but there's something to be said about fighting a hot steelhead with nothing slowing it down but the palm of your hand.
CNC machined from anodized aluminum and stainless steel, the Islander Steelheader is both strong and smooth and is one of the most durable and reliable centerpins on the market. Even after years of use and abuse, with the right care, this reel will free spool as if it was fresh out of the box.
- Free spool design presents float fishing set-ups like no other reel can
- Aero-space grade anodized aluminum
- High polished palming rim
- Two year manufacturer's warranty
- Very high learning curve
Okuma Aventa - Budget Centerpin Reel
Line Capacity: 8/275
Gear Ratio: 1:1 (gear free design)
Whether you’ve been centerpin fishing for steelhead or you’re looking to get into it, you’re probably aware that it isn’t the most cost efficient way to chase these awesome fish. In fact the cost of some of the specialized equipment can quickly turn people off. But that doesn't mean there aren’t great options at reasonable prices.
The Okuma Aventa is one of those reels and is the reel I recommend to anyone getting into centerpinning. The Aventa takes everything that makes high-end reels so desirable and puts it into a package that is affordable.
Made from anodised aluminum, the Aventa has both a ported spool and backing plate, helping to reduce weight without sacrificing strength and durability. The solid aluminum bar stock provides precise spool alignment and maximizes the reel’s free-spooling ability. Not only is this reel an excellent entry-level option, but it could possibly be the one centerpin you use for life.
- Anodized aluminum construction
- Ported spool and backing plate reduces weight
- High-quality stainless steel bearings
- Easy to remove spool for simple cleaning
- Ported design means bearing are more susceptible to the elements
Sage Spectrum - Best Fly Reel For Steelhead
Weight: 3.8oz, 4.2oz, 6oz, and 7.2oz
Backing Capacity: 20/100, 20/200, 30/200
Line Weight: 3/4 5/6 7/8 and 9/10
There isn’t a fly angler around that isn’t familiar with the Sage brand, and that's because they're one of the top producers of high quality, long lasting fly fishing equipment.
The Sage Spectrum is a super lightweight, large arbor reel that can suit any of your steelhead fishing needs. Whether you’re a spey-caster, use a switch rod, or prefer single-hand casting, there is a Spectrum to cover you.
Cold-forged, tempered, and anodized aerospace-grade aluminum make this reel ultra-light yet strong. In addition to the great line capacity, the Spectrum features a concave spool surface and an upsized hub that provide both high drag efficiency and coilless line flow, making it easy to use and capable of handling even the biggest steelhead.
- Super lightweight
- Large arbor design is idea for big water steelhead
- Sealed carbon drag system
- Ergonomic and comfortable handle
- Hard to find any cons to using this outstanding reel
Orvis Clearwater - Budget Fly Reel
Weight: 5.5oz and 6.3oz
Backing Capacity: 20/100 and 20/200
Line Weight: 4/5/6 and 7/8/9
Orvis is another company that is no stranger to manufacturing high quality fly reels, and the Clearwater is a reel that delivers on that quality at an affordable price. Whether you’re looking to get into steelhead fly fishing or looking to add to your collection, this large arbor reel shouldn’t be overlooked.
The Clearwater features an inline carbon to stainless stacked drag system that is strong and durable, able to handle the hottest steelhead. The positive-click drag knob makes drag adjustments easy, even mid-fight.
The diecast frame and anodized finish results in a reel that is lightweight and able to withstand the elements for countless hours of fishing without fail. Whether used single-handed or switch, paired with the right rod, this reel will not disappoint.
- Heavy-duty diecast frame and anodized finish
- Stainless steel stacked inline drag system
- Easy to adjust drag knob
- Large arbor design
- Reel can freeze up in cold weather conditions
Selecting The Best Reel For Steelhead Fishing
Whether you’re looking for a technique-specific reel or one that you can use to cover a few, your options can be somewhat overwhelming. Whichever one you need, there are a couple of things to keep in mind when choosing the best reel for steelhead fishing.
Size of River
The size of the river is going to be a big deciding factor in which reel you choose. On smaller rivers, you might be able to get away with a smaller reel with less line capacity because the fish occupying those rivers are in a much more confined space and are less likely to make long runs. Those small rivers also often require lighter terminal tackle, meaning they are better suited for a spinning reel that has the ability to cast and handle that smaller tackle.
Big rivers, on the other hand, are home to much bigger fish and require heavier tackle. This is why you tend to see casting set-ups on these bigger rivers, more specifically, those on the west coast. Not only can casting gear handle that tackle more easily, but they also often have more line capacity for when steelhead make long runs.
Size of Steelhead
While we could lump the river size and the size of the steelhead together, small water doesn’t necessarily mean small fish and vice versa. Plenty of smaller rivers hold huge steelhead, and I often run into anglers using spinning gear that is underpowered for the fish they are anticipating on hooking. It’s not wrong to think that a small river requires lighter gear - and that’s most often the case - but going too light could result in you being no match for a big steelhead.
Drag and Gear Ratio
Of all the features that a quality steelhead reel can have, none are more important than the drag and the gear ratio. Yes, in the case of a centerpin, those two factors are non-existent, but you get into centerpinning knowing your reel isn’t going to help you with that, and it’s all on you.
That being said, most reels do have a drag system and that drag system should be the thing you focus on most. It needs to be smooth, consistent, and durable. There is nothing worse than hooking into the steelhead of a lifetime only to have your drag start binding up, or worse yet, fail completely.
Gear ratio is also very important. That gear ratio determines the speed at which your line is being reeled in. It’s not overly important when retrieving your lure, as in a river setting that is very easy to control. Where it does play a big role is when fighting the fish. Just as quickly as a steelhead can turn and run in the opposite direction, it can come screaming right back at you, and you’ll need to be able to pick that line up and catch up to the fish in a hurry.
If you’re one of those anglers who flock to their local tributary at the word that steelhead are running, then you’re also one of those anglers who understands the importance of good gear when going after them
That doesn’t always mean having to break the bank, which is why we put this together: to offer you some options for what we consider some of the best reels for steelhead fishing.
We hope we were able to help you make an informed, and more importantly, the right decision to cover your steelhead fishing needs. Leave us a comment and let us know if we were!