Best Steelhead Rods Unveiled: Rods with Superior Performance

Written by: Dan R
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I often get asked what the most important piece of equipment is when it comes to steelheading. While a case could be made for just about anything, my answer is always the rod. Steelhead are strong, acrobatic fish that can put some serious punishment on your gear, and it's the rod that takes the brunt of that punishment.

When I give that response, it's usually followed by questions about which rod is best. There isn’t an easy answer to that because as with any other fishing, the rod you use is going to depend on the technique. That’s why steelhead guides will have multiple rods rigged up for a day on the water - rods that will cover any situation thrown their way.

Sure, it’s not practical for bank anglers to be carrying a bunch of different setups with them each and every day, but if you determine how you want to chase these incredible fish, then you can start narrowing down what rod you want to use.

To help with that, we’ve put this piece together, looking at what we consider the top rated steelhead rods for whatever technique you might be using.

Quick glance at the top rated steelhead rods:

Related: Best Steelhead Reels

Best Steelhead Rods Reviewed

Spinning Rod: St. Croix Triumph Steelhead Rod

Bass Pro

Length: 8’6, 9’, and 10’6

Power: Ultra-Light to Heavy

Action: Slow, Moderate and Fast

When it comes to steelheading, using a spinning rod is one of the most versatile ways to catch them. Every seasoned steelheader has at least one, and for newcomers, a spinning rod is the best place to start. With the right length, power, and action, a single spinning rod can cover multiple techniques, from float fishing to bottom-bouncing and casting lures. The right spinning rod means not having to carry multiple rods when walking the bank.

St. Croix is no stranger to building high quality fishing rods, having been handcrafting them for over 70 years. While some may argue that there are better spinning rods for steelhead, what St. Croix manages to do with their Triumph Steelhead rods is incorporate all of the high quality components that more expensive rods are known for, at a fraction of the price.

For an all-around steelhead rod that will cover multiple techniques, we recommend going with the 9 foot, light action, moderate power version. This rod has the length needed to properly present a float, cast even the smallest lures with ease, and has the sensitivity to feel even the most subtle bites. Where some rods, even the ‘higher-end’ ones, feel limp - as if they don’t have the power to handle a hot steelhead - the Triumph Steelhead rod is strong enough to turn a big fish without ever feeling like it's going to let you down.

Pros

  • Every rod is hand crafted in the U.S.
  • Premium SCII carbon construction
  • High-quality aluminum-oxide guides
  • Premium comfortable and durable cork handle

Cons

  • Heavier than some higher-priced steelhead spinning rods

Casting Rod: G-Loomis E6X Steelhead Casting Rod

FishUSA

Length: 8’6, 9’ and 9’6

Power: Light to Heavy

Action: Moderate and Fast

Casting rods are another great option when it comes to a universal rod that you can run multiple presentations on. The major difference between casting rods and spinning rods is that casting rods are better suited for heavier gear. Bigger rivers often mean bigger fish and, in turn, larger presentations. Whether you’re float fishing, drift fishing or casting lures, casting rods have the power to handle big steelhead in big water, but lack the ability to present the ultra-light set-ups than many Great Lakes steelheaders are familiar with. If you’re looking for a big water rod, a casting rod is the way to go.

Since the early eighties G-Loomis has been handcrafting high-quality graphite fishing rods for any situation. Having a hand in transforming graphite from the lightweight but fragile rod material it was back then, into the strong, sensitive rods we know today, G-Loomis is one of the most well known brands in steelhead fishing.

Every rod in the G-Loomis lineup is hand-crafted with the utmost care, using their multi-tapered design to reduce weight while reinforcing possible weak spots of break points. Strong, yet super sensitive and light weight, the E6X casting rods feature the qualities G-Loomis is famous for at a reasonable price. Sure, there may be more affordable options on the market, but none compare to fishing the E6X.

With eleven different models, there is an E6X casting rod for any situation. For a multipurpose rod, we recommend going with the 9’6” medium light, fast action model. With the length and sensitivity, this rod is perfect for float or drift fishing, and is still able to properly present spoons and spinners, all with the power of turning big steelhead in heavy flows.

Pros

  • Multi-tapered design reinforces stress points while reducing weight
  • Handcrafted in the U.S.
  • Light and comfortable cork handle
  • Unmatched performance and durability
  • Limited lifetime warranty

Cons

  • Expensive

Centerpin Rod: G-Loomis GLX Centerpin Rod

Tackle Direct | FishUSA

Length: 11’3, 13’, and 15’

Power: Light and Medium Light

Action: Moderate

Centerpin fishing is nothing new to the steelheading world, yet year after year, it garnishes more and more attention. It is now one of the most popular methods around the Great Lakes, especially north of the border where you’ll see more centerpins than any other technique combined.

It’s not surprising, either, as the drag free drift allows bait to be presented under a float more accurately and naturally than any spinning or casting rod. Not only is it one of the most effective ways to catch steelhead on any river, but there’s also something to be said about fighting strong acrobatic fish drag-free, with nothing slowing them down but the palm of your hand. 

With the use of light lines and dragless reels, a centerpin rod takes the brunt of all punishment, acting as a shock absorber to keep those light lines from snapping under the pressure of a big steelhead. The longer rods also aid in float control, making it easy to mend and control the line above the float and prevent that line from dragging the float, creating an unnatural presentation.

The recent surge in centerpin anglers has also led to an influx of custom-made fishing rods, and while it’s nice to have a rod tailored to your personal specifications, that doesn't mean there aren’t great factory options available, and the GLX Ceterpin Rod is as good as those factory made rods can get.

The price could spook even the most hardened centerpiner, but hold one of these rods, and you’ll quickly understand the care that G-Loomis has put into them. The GLX is lightweight, even for a long rod, perfectly balanced, and incredibly strong. It’s a rod that can be fished day in and day out without regret. It's also backed by a limited lifetime warranty, so if you’re looking for your forever centerpin rod, the GLX is hard to beat.

Most Great Lakes centerpiners will be using the 13 foot version as its a rod that can easily fish the lighter gear used in small rivers, yet still have enough power and back bone to handle fish in bigger water. If you’re someone who spends the majority of their time fishing smaller streams, then the shorter 11 '3 would be the way to go. On the other hand if you’re always on bigger water the 15 foot version would be the better option.

Pros

  • Limited lifetime warranty
  • Lightweight and perfectly balanced for less fatigue when fishing with a long rod
  • High-quality components from the cork to the guides and reel seat
  • Strength and durability unmatched by other factory centerpin rods

Cons

  • Expensive

Spey Rod: Reddington Claymore Spey Rod

Bass Pro

Length: 11’6, 12’6 and 13’6

Line Weight: 5wt, 6wt, 7wt, and 8wt

Spey rods came about as a way for west coast salmon and steelhead anglers to accurately and properly present their flies in big water, the long, two handed rods making it easier to fire big flies longer distances and get out to fish that would normally be unreachable with conventional fly gear.

Spey fishing isn’t only for the west coast, but can be equally effective on Great Lakes tributaries. The downside here is that there are few rivers large enough to effectively fish a spey rod, or for it to be necessary for that matter. But on rivers that are big enough, it can be a fun and effective way to catch steelhead.

There is no shortage of spey rods on the market these days. From the high quality and expensive, to bare bones entry level rods, fly anglers have a lot to choose from. The Reddington Claymore Spey Rod falls right in that sweet spot where it's not outrageously priced, but also not clunky and hard to fish with, like some lower priced rods. A great rod for both beginner and advanced spey fisherman, the Claymore has a smooth and powerful blank that is perfectly balanced to reduce the fatigue that can come with a day of two-handed casting.

The 12’6 7wt model is the most ideal version of an all around spey rod. The length makes it great for fishing big water but is still short enough to work in tighter quarters. Of course if you’re fishing rivers that don’t allow for much back casting room, you could always downsize to the 11’6 model, however we do still recommend it in a 7wt to retain the power needed to control big steelhead.

Pros

  • Anodized aluminum down-locking reel seat improves rod balance
  • Fast action for easy casting and efficient hooksets
  • Premium cork handle
  • Lifetime warranty

Cons

  • Does not have a hook keeper

Switch Rod: Temple Fork Outfitters Axiom II

Bass Pro

Length: 11’

Line Weight: 6wt, 7wt and 8wt

To put things simply, a switch rod is a hybrid rod that combines both a two handed spey rod and a conventional single handed fly rod. The result is a rod that can be used to fish multiple techniques from swinging flies to indicator fishing and everything in between. Fishing a switch rod for steelhead is an excellent way to cover multiple river conditions with multiple techniques in a single day without having to carry several different rods.

Temple Fork Outfitters Axiom II switch rod is the first of its kind to achieve the right balance to properly present multiple techniques, optimizing two-handed casting while combining it with the ability to single hand cast in tight quarters. Where most other rods are available in different lengths, the Axiom II comes only in an 11 foot version, the ideal length for both line management and fighting leverage. No matter what technique you’re using the rod loads up easy and the result is long, accurate casts like no other even in confined areas.

Just like with a spey rod, we recommend using the 7wt model as it provides the perfect balance of handling big steelhead without overpowering the smaller trout and steelhead you may run into along the way.

Pros

  • First multi-technique two handed fly rod
  • Perfect load awareness to easily cast any type of fly line
  • Large stripping guides for heavier line weights
  • Durable and comfortable composite cork handle

Cons

  • Thinner grip design may not be comfortable for new switch rod users

Single Handed Fly Rod: Douglas LRS Fly Rod

Bass Pro

Length: 9’ and 10’

Line Weight: 7wt, 8wt, 9wt, and 10wt

Single handed fly rods don’t get a lot of love for steelhead these days as more and more anglers are turning to both switch and spey rods to handle their big fish. But single handed rods shouldn’t be ignored, especially when it comes to fishing for steelhead in the Great Lakes region where single handed rods might be the best option for big fish in tight spaces.

The Douglas LRS is a rare combination of high-end components in a rod that's affordable for just about anyone. From the stainless steel stripping guides to the interchangeable fighting butts, the LRS has all of the features you should be looking for in a single handed rod with the quality you would expect from rods that cost three times as much.

What impressed us the most about this rod was its incredible fish fighting ability. Both the 9 foot and 10 foot versions in a 7wt have more than enough power and strength to land any Great Lakes steelhead. If it’s trophy fish you’re chasing you could always go to an 8wt or even a 9wt, but those are rods that will quickly overpower smaller fish.

Pros

  • Interchangeable 2 and 4 inch fighting butts
  • Stainless steel stripping guides
  • Lightweight carbon fiber reel seat
  • Lifetime warranty

Cons

  • Tip guides could be bigger to handle heavier line weights

Selecting The Right Steelhead Rod

There is no right or wrong way to choose the right steelhead rod. It comes down to your preference. What you like in a rod may not be what someone else likes in a rod. WIth that being said, there are a couple of things you should consider when trying to choose the best steelhead rod.

Technique

Determining what technique you are going to be using is the first, and most important step in figuring out which steelhead rod is best for you. While the right spinning rod or casting rod can cover multiple techniques, many steelhead rods are specific to single uses. You’re only going to use a centerpin rod for float fishing, or a spey rod for casting big streamers. Deciding how you want to target these fish will greatly narrow down your rod choices.

River Size

Once you’ve determined your preferred technique, you’re going to want to consider the rivers you will be fishing. For example, a spey rod isn’t going to be the most ideal choice when you’re fishing small rivers that offer little in the way of casting room. On the contrary, a single handed fly rod isn’t going to offer the casting ability needed to get your fly out to the fish holding in big water.

Bank vs. Boat

Boat anglers, drift boat or otherwise, have a luxury that bank anglers just don’t have; the ability to carry multiple rods that can cover multiple situations and fishing techniques. As a bank angler, the last thing you’re going to want to be doing is lugging around a bunch of heavy, awkward gear. Unless you have your mind set on one specific technique, centerpin fishing being a perfect example, we recommend choosing a rod that is versatile and can be used in multiple ways.

Final Thoughts

Steelhead are strong, hard fighting, acrobatic fish and as their popularity continues to grow year after year, so too does the amount of gear available, most notably fishing rods.

The single most important piece to the steelhead puzzle, choosing the right rod can be more than a little overwhelming at times. No matter how experienced with steelhead fishing you might be, innovation in not just the rods themselves but the techniques used continue to make that decision a tougher one.

We hope we were able to shed a little light on the process with our picks for the best steelhead rods. Leave us a comment and let us know if we were!

About The Author
Dan R
Review Editor
Dan was practically born with a fishing rod in his hand. Growing up in the Great Lakes Region fishing has been a major part of his life from a very young age. When not on the water you can find Dan enjoying time with his family.
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