Article: Three rod rotation for winter steelhead

Posted: November 15, 2012 by Hellcat in Fish Reports, Gear Fishing, Salmon, Trout & Steelhead, Tutorials
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I receive lots of questions about a multitude of rod and subsequent appropriate specifications questions for a variety of methods commonly used for steelhead success during the winter months. Here’s an article I posted a couple years ago with changes made to it today to reflect any changes I feel relevant. Hope it helps you guys and gals decide how to prepare your arsenal this season.

Basically, I recommend a three rod rotation for bank or boat angling for winter steelhead. It looks something like this:

*Steelhead Rod Rotation Number One: The Drift Rod

Typical drift outfit: Method best suited using a casting set up unless fishing on very small rivers in which case a spinning rod is recommended.

This Steelhead rod can range in length anywhere from 8’6″ with a rating as light as 4-8# test all the way up to 10′ and a salmon heavy rating of say…12-25# or even 10-40#. For drift fishing chinook salmon….there are two great sub-$100 rods produced by Okuma meeting these specifications…..The SST1062MH and the NRC106H. However, if you were to ever require the performace and sensitivity a higher end rod can provide…this method is it. It’s all about what YOU can afford and how long you expect your rod to last.

The SST meets your needs at 75.00 and the North River, also made by Okuma, rings in at 80.00. Very relevant offerings by a company that has identified the need for affordable ‘method-specific’ finesse river rods. They commonly plagerize Lamiglas and Loomis specs but what the hell. They’re affordable. The guys designing these rods are not trying to reinvent the wheel. Most of them have worked for the higher end companies (Lamiglas, Loomis, St. Croix, etc) and have realized THEY already have it nailed. For those of you looking to invest for a long term solution…go with a Certified pro Lamiglas XJC96.

You are choosing this fishing rod not only based upon the size of the fish you are catching but also on other very important criteria that is almost always method-specific. Certainly the size, speed and depth of the river you are fishing comes into play as well.

But what are you drifting? Is it salmon eggs? Or is it a yarnie all by itself? And don’t forget that a steelhead likes a hopping bait along the bottom and a salmon will usually need the bait to drag the bottom to get it’s attention.

All these things and much more will determine your best drift rod for the job. Eventually you will most likely need several drift rods as you become more of an Allaround river Angler.

*Rod Rotation Number 2: The Float (bobber) Rod

Steelhead Float fishing has revolutionized how many new anglers are approaching our rivers and streams in the last 5-7 years. It has also allowed itself to be more quickly mastered by a new angler moreso than our last method described.

This is true for many different reasons: For the ease of presentation (which can be a superior to any other method at times), an increased margin for error resulting from very little bottom contact, the distance from which you can effectively set the hook (extremely long floats are possible with braided or fused lines) and so the list goes on.

Without turning this article into a feature/benefit seminar…let’s look some float or bobber rod specs I recommend you look for as you consider purchasing a float rod:

* 9’6″ to 11 feet in length with the 10’6″ models being the most popular over the last two years

* At least a 6-10# rating for most steelhead or silver angling while a chinook float rod must be 10-20# minimum.

* Find an action you like and that feels right. Remember, the longer the rod the easier it will be for you to mend the line, long-lining your float down river…also called the ‘Grandpa’.

A long rod will also assist you greatly in the landing of the fish. If you are using a braided line then the long rod will absorb shock from the fight of the fish that would have exposed the weaknesses of going with a more traditional shorter rod.

Your reel should be roughly the size of an Shimano 2500 with the salmon spinning reels running at least one if not two series larger. I also recommend Berkley Fireline exclusively for your float fishing needs. Go with 14lb. Remember to double your line prior to tying your terminal knots. This is a MUST.

Hands down this fused, performance line when paired with at least a 10′ rod will allow to do things with a float you didn’t think possible; extra long hang time behind boulders and excellent hook setting capabilities are just a couple of benefits you can look forward to.

We can thank the Canadians for these relatively newer schools of though with respect to rod selection and method participation. They really know they’re stuff, eh?

*Rod Rotation Number 3: The Hardware Rod (Spinners and Spoons)

There is some irony surrounding my own hardware rod scenario. It’s ironic that hardware, a Mepps spinner in-fact, was the first method that produced my first steelhead in 1986 at 12 years old. Spinners became a hobby of mine to make and fish for steelhead for the next several years and into my late teens.

It becomes even more ironic that I would abandon that method for sexier ones and seriously not even touch a spinner tossing rod for the next 15 years. All of that has changed though as I consider a hardware rod an absolute must if you are employing the 3 rod rotation.

My choice of hardware however has changed, much like the times and designs of these lures has changed…as I now mostly resort to the oblong shaped BC Steel, R&B, Rivrfshr, Little Cleo (Chinese and cheap) or equivalent look-a-like. This type of spoon typically weighs 2/5 of an ounce, is oblong in shape and fishes best in a drift/swing combination.

Features you want to look for when choosing your hardware rod:

* At least 8’6″ in length with the more specialized and higher quality rods offering a 9’6″ to a ten foot length…with a few offerings even landing in between those specifications.

I have used a Lamiglas Cert Pro XJC96 since 2001 and am a huge proponent of this series. Very similar specs are also now available on the newest North River rod from Okuma…and the rod runs 80.00 all day long.

It’s a lot easier to start there unless you are so inclined towards the top end rod manufacturers which provide a superior product hands down.

* Line ratings should be at least 6-12#. A hardware rod will fish with the most versatility with an 8-17# rating however.

* Hardware rods word much, much better if you decide to make yours a casting version instead of a spinning. So much less twist and significantly increased accuracy on the cast leaves a spinning rod in the dust against a good casting rod.

I recommend monofilament for hardware fishing but many anglers I respect use braid for this method along with a mono bumper or swiveled leader.

How about giving your own 3 rod rotation a shot next time you head out to your favorite river or stream?

Aside from the burden of humping all three rods through the brush….I know you’ll thank me for this information. Your catch counts will surely increase and you’ll become a better Allaroundangler. Try purchasing some KND Rod Butlers to keep your bundle tight on the hike.

Try this rotation for yourself and I can promise you a productive season.

Chris Heller

Chris is the Founder of, a six year old website combining education and entertainment while protecting the anonymity of our rivers and streams…

  1. Josh Kennedy says:

    very good article H3LLCAT I will be keeping this in mind in the up coming months!

  2. Hellcat says:

    Thanks JK!!

  3. Good stuff Chris!! Great information and well written. When I am bank hopping, I have at least 3 rods with me, each one rigged for a different technique as you described. No one technique is perfect for all sections of water. Carrying a good set of tools with you will enable you to cover the water more effectively.

    When I used to work in the retail fishing/hunting industry, customers would ask me “what rod would be the best for everything”…… I don’t golf, but I would try to explain to them that I would imagine it would be like trying to play an 18 hole golf course with just a putter. There is a reason they make so many different types/styles of clubs to more efficiently handle different situations.

    Being a rod builder, if anyone is interested, I would be happy to design/build another rod for your quiver. Great piece of mind comes when regardless of the type of water you find around the next bend, you have the equipment to fish it properly and effectively. 🙂

    Tight lines !

  4. Strick says:

    Good stuff. Usually pack 2 rods while bank fishing, this winter I will bump up to your recommend er d 3. That ks for the tips. As always.

  5. Hellcat says:

    Stricker you flatter me you fishy f***……:)

  6. supertrucker says:

    i was looking for a float rod for jig fishing,pink worms and sometimes bait. i see you use the okuma sst’s. have you tried any of the st croix’s in 10 ft 6 6 to 10. thanks read your article on a 3 rod setup. i usually bring at least two or 3 rods with me. thanks i see okuma has came out with a new split grip rod. i like watching your fishing videos there very cool!

  7. Hellcat says:

    Scott I only have those sst rods out of necessity. I’ve recently started using a St. Croix 10.6 8-14. SII series. Thanks for reading my site dude. Much respect.

  8. supertrucker says:

    i seen pictures of your new rod that is one killer rod! reel tech makes some sweet sticks! your one fishy dude i hope you christen that rod soon!

  9. Hellcat says:

    Thanks super trucker! I’ve picked up fish the lady two trips but both on casting outfit. Float fish hopefully coming soon. And yes…Reel Tech rod post coming soon.

  10. Ben Steel says:

    I primarily fish from the bank and I enjoyed your take on the rotating 3 rod set-up. I tend to fish Mepps Spinners for both Chinook and Steelhead almost year round, so I find my rods vary best on the conditions and the fish

    1). My go-to rod is the St. Croix Legend Elite LES96MLF2. It works well for me becaue of the length and the fact that I can fish spinners ranging from a #1 all the way to a #6, which covers me for both winter and summer condition. I simply vary the line. In off-color conditions, I use fluorobraid to help my spinner sink and in clear water I use Tatsu Fluorocarbon to maintain near-invisibility.

    2). I have also started using the Lamiglas SI 98 MS. It is a 9’8 fast action rod rated 8-12lb test, but the 3M nano resin makes it insanely strong so I don’t worry about hauling in the bigger kings. I like to fish bigger spinners and maybe spoons on this rod. It also works really well for drift fishing, though I don’t do much of it anymore.

    3). For flshing I like the G Loomis 1265 2 GL2. The 10’6 length and moderate action make it a great float rod, plus the 10-20lb ltest means I can snag steelhead and chinook easily.

  11. Hellcat says:

    Hi Mr. Steel. I loved your comment and shared in on my All Around Angler FB account page. Thanks so much!

  12. DJ says:

    Great read Chris! Was looking for an article to pass to my buddy just getting in to steelheading. He has no idea what he’s in for hahaha. Thanks again!

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