Friday, December 07, 2007

Rod Selection for Steelhead Fishing the Great Lakes Tributaries

Rod Selection for Steelhead Fishing the Great Lakes Tributaries
By Will Turek

As a fly fishing manufacturer’s rep and fishing guide in the Great Lakes region, I am often asked what the best rod is for steelhead fishing the Great Lakes tributaries. For years the standard answer has been a 9 to 10 ft 7 or 8wt rod. Of course, if the rod will double as a salmon rod, a 7 or 8wt is TOO LIGHT! A 9 or 10wt is a more appropriate choice for salmon fishing. Generally, a 9 ft rod will be a better choice if it will also be used for a variety of coldwater, warm water, and saltwater techniques and species. Otherwise, a 10ft rod will provide better line control and presentation of the fly. Line weight selection depends on terminal tackle, fly size, sink tips/lines, and size of steelhead targeted. For example, a 7wt is fine for fishing the Fall run of OH steelhead which average 5-6 lbs with an indicator. However, for the larger spring run steelhead 8-10 lbs + or when fishing heavy flies or sink tips an 8wt rod would be a better choice.

Longer rods have several benefits: provide better reach when tight/short line nymphing; make mending line easier by being able to pick up and direct more and longer lengths of line off/on the surface of the water; make easier and more efficient roll and spey casts by being able to create a bigger a D-loop to load the rod; allow an angler to cover a greater amount of water more effectively; access water previously out of range of shorter rods or in areas that have no to little overhead back cast room. Given the benefits, it is not surprising that “switch” rods longer than 10 ft are becoming increasingly popular in the Great Lakes region. As an avid steelheader and proponent of spey casting and swinging flies, I’ve been fishing the Scott Two-hand Assist 10’ 8” 8wt “switch” rod almost exclusively for the last two seasons.

The Scott Two Hand Assist rod is designed for use with either one or two hands for overhead or spey casting. It’s been my personal experience that two handed rods 12 ft and longer lose the ability to fish in close and are difficult and tiresome to handle with one hand while managing line with the other. By purposely keeping the Two Hand Assist under 11 ft, Scott has made a rod is easy to cast overhead all day with one hand and retains the ability to cast and fish in close like a shorter single hand rod. The bottom fighting butt/second hand assist handle allows the caster to instantly switch from casting with one hand to two hands to apply more power to the rod for extra distance, casting larger flies or sink tips, or spey versus overhead casting. The blank has been specifically designed to handle the torque of spey casting and handle true change of direction casts made with one or two hands on the rod. The true test being the ability to make single spey casts without collapsing the tip and dumping the forward cast. The medium-fast action, progressive taper, and flexible tip section provide tippet protection down to 4x while maintaining superior line control, and fish fighting and landing ability. Rods that are only flexible in the tip and stiff throughout the rest of the blank may cast well, but are poor fish fighting tools because they do not access the power of the butt section and do not protect the tip from breakage when landing large fish with a long rod.

Because the Scott THA, like all switch rods, can handle a wide range of grain weight and fishing/casting techniques, matching the right line to the rod can be tricky. This has to do with the relationship of head length/weight needed to load the rod depending on how the fly is presented to the target, casting overhead or spey. Overhead casting takes less weight to load the rod while roll/spey casting takes more weight to load the rod. Or put another way, the longer belly “standard” fly lines are great for indicator nymphing and mending with one hand; While short heavy belly lines are great for single and two hand spey casting. So, two spools are needed – one for overhead casting and mainly indicator fishing, and one for spey casting and mainly swinging. Another option, involving some compromise, is to use one of the multi-tip lines in a heavier line size and adjust head length/weight by subtracting or adding tips. Of course, if only one technique is used the majority of the time then one spool with the appropriate line will suffice. Unfortunately, there is no perfect “switch rod line” at this time. Although, the NEW Scientific Anglers Single Hand Skagit Line comes pretty close. Given the growing popularity of switch rods such as the Scott Two Hand Assist 10 ft 8” 8wt, however, and the fact that the Skagit taper is the newest and hottest development in line tapers in many years, it’s a sure bet fly line companies will be working to develop a line that will do it all; have a long enough belly for easy roll casting and mending of extended dead drift presentations, and have interchangeable sections to adjust head length, line weight, and sink rate for casting overhead and spey with single and two hands.

Now, when I’m asked what the best rod for steelhead fishing in the Great Lakes region is I don’t have to waffle with qualifications, the Scott Two Hand Assist 10’ 8” 8wt will do it all. This rod excels at casting and fishing indicators with shot on light tippet at close ranges as well as extended dead drifts. And deftly handles casting streamers, with or without a sink tip, overhead or single/two hand spey to distances of 70 ft and beyond. I simply wouldn’t want to go steelhead fishing without it.

My current Great Lakes steelhead gear set-up is:

ROD #1

Scott E21007/4

Nautilus CCF#8 (See below)

Spool #1 - Scientific Anglers Steelhead or Nymph taper WF8F. I specifically go up one line weight because we are often fishing at relatively short distances in the Great Lakes. So, by adding more weight to a short(er) length of line, I have more weight in the D-loop when I roll cast or single hand spey cast. More weight in the D-loop makes the rod load better and cast easier. It also helps add mass for turning over slightly heavier flies and sink tips. For longer casts, carrying 50+ ft of fly line in the air, the rod will be overloaded.

ROD #2

Scott T2H Two Hand Assist 1088/4 – Line rating refers to single hand line weight. Spey line rating would put this rod at a 6wt.

Nautilus CCF#10 – Reel size becomes important for rods over 10 ft, especially when casting a switch rod with a short heavy head. Large arbor reels that are too light or too small will not be able to properly balance the rod or accommodate the backing, running line, and spey line. In the rush to create the lightest reel on the planet, many manufacturers have forgotten this. Nautilus has not. The CCF#10 perfectly balances 10 – 11 ft rods. And with a fully sealed, airtight drag system Nautilus reels are perfect for Winter fishing.

Spool #1 - Scientific Anglers Steelhead or Nymph taper WF9F. (See above).

Spool #2 - Scientific Anglers NEW Single Hand Skagit Multi-tip line and NEW Dragontail shooting line. This line has a 22 ft head length, 5 ft shorter than the regular Skagit head. Maintaining the proper ratio of rod length to head length is important to developing a consistent casting stroke that can be used with rods of many different lengths. And like most things, it’s a bit tricky. Since not everyone has the same casting stroke, the ratio falls somewhere between 2.5-3.5x the length of the rod. All the SHS lines come with 10 ft tip sections (floating, intermediate, type III, type IV). Do the math: 22 + 10 = 32/3 (average) = 10.6. Just about perfect for rods 10 to 11 ft. I find that the 6wt (320 grn) head cast best for me. Some anglers may prefer the 7wt (360 grn) head. My normal fishing rig is the head + floating tip + short 7 ft sinking leader. When using longer sink tips consideration must be given to the total head length including the length of the sink tip, especially when using very fast sink tips or long tips 12-15 ft, and adjustments must be made.

NOTE: The grain weight of the tip is of secondary importance to its sink rate, as long as the tip weighs less than the head so it will turn over. It is true two sink tips of the same sink rate, but different grain weights will sink slightly different. The ease of casting the lighter tip, however, far exceeds the slight gain in depth of the heavier tip - especially when spey casting. Also, the ONLY grain weight that is important is the weight that loads the rod. IF the tip is not in the D-loop then it’s not loading the rod and therefore is NOT important. In my set up the head = 320 + the floating tip = 100 = 420 total = the AFFTA standard for a 6wt short belly spey line.

Behind the shooting head I run the NEW SA Dragontail shooting line. This is a unique shooting line that has a 15’ taper so the diameter between the head and the running line connection is of similar diameter then gradually tapering off to regular running line diameter. This allows the loop to loop connection to be out of the tip top when casting WITHOUT collapsing the forward loop. It also gives the caster 15’ of line to tweak or adjust the head length to suit the rod or personal casting stroke. It has a low stiffness for fishing during the winter, a welded loop for easy connection, and floats for easy control and mending.

Tippet and Leader Wallet

Fluorocarbon I has better abrasion resistance for sharp slate river bottoms, though I’ll occasionally use FC II in very low, clear water.

When choosing lengths of sink tips, it’s important to remember the 2.5-3.5x rod length to head length ratio rule. This is especially true when wade fishing. In my set up, a 22 ft head + 10 ft floating tip + 15 ft sink tip = 47 ft which is beyond the max ratio for an 11 ft switch rod. Trying to spey cast even a slow sinking 15 ft tip at this head length can be difficult because the length of the rod makes it more challenging to roll cast the line to the surface, clear and pivot the line into a d-loop 180 degrees to the target, etc. So, when fishing longer sink tips I remove the floating tip and attach the sink tip directly to the head. Now, 22 ft head + 15 ft sink tip = 37 ft which is within the acceptable ratio for 10 -11 ft rods. Even then, casting fast sinking tips can be a challenge. Fishing tapered sinking leaders 7-10 ft and shorter with the 10 ft floating tip is no problem.

NOTE: Fishing out of a boat changes the equation quite a bit. In essence, standing in boat above the water is like wade fishing with a much longer rod. It makes handling and casting longer or heavier lengths of line with shorter rods much easier.

Fluorocarbon I 12lb
Fluorocarbon I 1x-4x
7.5 ft 1x-3x trout leaders
10 ft 12lb steelhead leaders

7.5 ft tapered sinking leaders 3.9, 5.6, 7.0
10 ft tungsten type iV
T8 custom tips 3, 6, 12 ft
T11 custom tips 6, 10 ft
T14 custom tips 3, 6 ft
LC13 custom tips 1, 3 ft – attach to slower sink tip to create a “hinge” to fish ledges and slots

For more information on Scott Fly Rods, Nautilus Reels, and Scientific Anglers fly fishing products please visit,,

For an in depth look at the growing “switch” rod revolution see the article, Switched On! By Zach Matthews. American Angler Volume 30, Issue 5. Fall 2007.

For questions about spey fishing and casting contact Will Turek at


steelhead said...

Thanks for some great information on fly rods! While I'm relatively new to the sport I have been enjoying it immensely and your article helps me while thinking of purchasing a new rod.

Anonymous said...

shutup anonymous, jerry helped me nail the green drake hatch on the mad this year