Leaders for Steelhead by John Nagy

Leaders and tippet material are all part of the well equipped steelheaders arsenal

Of all the equipment considerations that the Great Lakes steelheader makes probably the most overlooked are leaders and tippet material.
But without a proper leader and tippet you really can’t perform the technique being used correctly, deliver the fly effectively to the steelhead and play and land a steelhead quickly to minimize any stress or harm to the fish

Short-Line Nymphing

Leaders used for “short-line” nymphing methods, where you are fishing in close proximity to steelhead lies and using “high-stick” rod positioning, should have stiff butt and mid-sections (about 60 to 75% of the overall leader length) to turn over split-shot, indicators and weighted flies.

The taper design, whether you custom make it yourself or buy one off the shelf, need not be intricate as long as good power is maintained for turnover. The tippet section is ideally a softer material (3X-5X) allowing for drag-free presentations along the stream bottom.

Short-line nymphing methods can be categorized as either “bottom- bouncing” (without a floating indicator) and the “right-angle” floating indicator technique.

Bottom-bouncing steelhead egg patterns, bead-head nymphs, soft hackles, small streamers and wooly buggers works well in shallow, faster flows like pool heads, runs and pocket water. A good rule of thumb when bottom-bouncing is to use a leader (including the tippet) roughly the length of your fly rod. Since most steelhead fly rods are in the 9 to 10 foot range you’re talking about a similar size leader.

This leader length allows for easier fly line and leader control when assuming the high-stick rod position during the drift. There is just enough fly line extending off the rod tip to balance the weight of the split-shot and fly (which may be weighted) at the end of the leader. The result is a relatively tight fly line that helps the fly fisherman feel the stream bottom and more importantly detect any steelhead strikes.

Too long of a leader makes fly line and leader control more difficult when short-lining due to mostly monofilament leader extending off rod tip resulting in a slack or loose leader and a loss of strike detection and bottom feel. The opposite of this scenario is using too short of a leader (all fly line off rod tip) resulting in excess fly line getting into the water which can interfere with drag-free drifts.

Longer fly rods are ideal for high-stick nymphing since they enable the steelheader to effectively use longer leaders. These long leaders can “cut” through the water column easily (with minimal fly line interference) to achieve drag-free drifts.

Using a 25 or 20 lb. section of fluorescent red Sunset Amnesia (hard nylon running line) for the butt section of the leader works great as a built in strike indicator especially when bottom-bouncing. Keep in mind that going to a heavier leader butt size can reduce the ability of the leader to sink quickly through the water column and get the fly quickly to the fish. Lighter than that can cause poor turnover of the leader when casting especially when using shot or indicators.

The right-angle-floating-indicator technique is a deadly method for dead-drifting flies adjacent to stream structures such as drop-offs and shale ledges. This technique is most effectively done with a buoyant floating indicator and a leader that is longer (versus bottom-bouncing) since you are covering more distance due to the right angle formed in the leader. Using a continuous piece of tippet material at the end of the leader (same size and without any knots) allows for easy indicator adjustment along its entire length depending on the water depth.

For the rather shallow tributaries of Lake Erie a 3-5 foot, knotless tippet section is ideal for most water depths. In clear flows, it may be necessary to add a short section of lighter tippet (to the base tippet) to get hook-ups. Just make sure the knot connection location does not interfere with the floating indicator adjustment.

Fishing roughly the depth of the water in this method (indicator is set at water depth) requires a fair amount of adjustments depending on the water being fished but is a very precise way to present your fly to finicky/drag conscious steelhead, especially in colder flows. Fishing more than the depth of the water (1½ to 2 times or more) is more forgiving in terms of getting the fly on the bottom but it has inherent problems. Namely, possible loss of bottom contact and strike feel and accidental snagging of fish since the swirling fly and tippet in the current flow can easily “line” the fish.

Note: John Nagy offers a "Hot Butt" Leader and Indy Kit that is designed for the Right-Angle-Floating-Indicator Technique and also Short Line Nymphing presentations. Please go to John Nagy Leader Kit to order.

Swinging Presentations

Leaders used for swinging flies with some sort of sinking system should be on the short side (2-5 ft.) with a simple taper design. The sinking system can be incorporated into the fly line or leader itself. There are numerous sinking systems (each with various sink rates or speeds and lengths) that you can use to get your fly down close to the bottom on the swing. These include: custom mini-tips made of Rio tungsten T14 shooting head material, tungsten coated sinking leaders, interchangeable sink tip lines and shooting heads systems.

The mini-tips (which are looped on the ends and easily connected into the leader) and sinking leaders are ideal for small to medium size tributaries that are running medium to low in flow and have tight holding areas. Sink tip lines and shooting heads (which are longer in length) are ideal for bigger rivers that have broad pools and runs and also faster, deeper flows. In general as flows become faster and deeper go to a faster sinking system to keep your fly down where the steelhead are most of the time (particularly in flows below 45 degrees F).

The tippet used on a sinking system can be kept heavy (1X-3X) since keeping the fly “swimming” on the swing is more important than a drag-free drift. Also a steelhead will normally never see the tippet on the swing, just the rear or side of the fly. In clearer flows, fluorocarbon tippet material may be helpful at times on the swing.

In warmer flows (above 50 degrees F) it is not unusual for a steelhead to “look up” to take a swinging fly or even a dry fly. In this case a slower sinking system or just a floating line and a longer leader (9 ft. or longer) will do the trick. This traditional swing presentation, just below or at the surface, was originally made popular with Atlantic salmon in the Canadian Provinces and is known as “greased-lining”.

(Note: refer to John Nagy’s Steelhead Guide book for custom steelhead leader formulas. Recommended manufactured or “off-the-shelf” steelhead leaders include the following. For short-line nymphing: Frog Hair’s Great Lakes Steelhead and “Hi-Vis” Transition Nymph Leaders, Rio’s Indicator and Steelhead/Salmon Leaders, Scientific Anglers Steelhead/Salmon Leader, Cortland’s Climax Nymph Leader and John Nagy’s custom-made “Hot Butt” Leader. For sub-surface swinging presentations: Rio’s VersiLeaders, Airflo’s Trout and Salmon Polyleaders.)


Tippet selection seems to vary as personalities out on the steelhead tributaries. For dead-drift techniques in higher, stained flows the conditions allow you to use a tippet that is heavier in strength as well as stiffer and more abrasion resistant like Dai-Riki GTS copolymer monofilament nylon or Maxima Ultra Green. The result is a definite advantage in landing more and bigger steelhead. In lower, clear flows using a thin diameter tippet that is more supple like Orvis Super Strong mono will get you more hook-ups but at a lower landed percentage due to a loss of strength and abrasion resistance in the material.

Color is another consideration with green cast monofilaments such as Maxima Ultra Green or Damyl Tectan Premium Plus (which is sold as a fishing line) easily blending into the olive-green clay tinted flows of the Lake Erie tributaries and black Maxima Chameleon mono ideal for the darker cast flows of the Salmon River in New York.

Most of the new generation fluorocarbon tippet materials can be rather pricey and include Umpqua Super Fluoro, Rio Fluorflex and Grand Max Seaguar. These materials are nearly invisible in the water and are great for dead-drifting flies in super-clear conditions. They also have excellent knot and breaking strength, are more supple than earlier fluorocarbons, have improved abrasion resistance, excellent UV protection for longer life (particularly the Umpqua) and sink quicker than regular monofilament nylons. Orvis, Climax and Dai-Riki make fluorocarbons that are somewhat more economical with good properties also.

Gamma Technologies makes a next generation fluorocarbon material called Frog Hair FC that is not only supple but also has great stretch and shock resistance properties that are ideal for playing surging and running steelhead. They also offer an innovative knotless fluorocarbon Great Lakes Steelhead leader that incorporates light, long fluorocarbon tippets for dead-drift fishing.

Some frugal steelhead fly fisherman buy fluorocarbon marketed toward spin and bait fisherman such as P Line Fluorocarbon or Seaguar CarbonPro which are sold in large filler spools. They claim the quality is generally good (versus fluorocarbon tippet materials) with some loss of suppleness/breaking strength versus diameter. There are also fewer size selections (in terms of pound test) but the steelhead don’t seem to mind
More detailed information on leaders for Great Lakes steelhead can be found in John Nagy's book "Steelhead Guide, Fly Fishing Techniques and Strategies for Lake Erie Steelhead".