Never Call Them Bobbers

Floats for Big Brown Trout & Steelhead
by Lou Bignami

Everywhere you look these days you see writers discovering the latest and greatest "strike indicators" for fly fishermen and soft and hard styrofoam bobbers for steelhead. Someone seems to reinvent the wheel every ten years or so.

Bobbers -- not the rotten red and white plastics Americans favor -- suited English and European fishermen ever since Walton's time. Their special wood and, lately, clear plastic floats suit a good dozen different stillwater and moving water techniques that at least double your chances at tough fish like big brown trout and steelhead.

However, those in search of the "magic bullet" won't score with bobbers without close attention to several small points. Bobber, bait, shot and hook selection are each vital. So is an appropriate rod, reel and line. Then you need to fish impoundments, streams, rivers and lakes with a reputation for big browns and decent slack water holding areas for steelhead to score. Leave anything out and you reduce your chances. I know, I have been bobbing for a long time.

In 1970 I spent most summer weekends in the Sierras with Fred Hoare, a British exchange professor. Fred used his long rod, odd baits and unusual techniques to catch, and safely release, dozens of big trout. Most were browns from the Truckee River or nearby reservoirs. Fred took large rainbows and steelhead from tough streams like the Eel and Russian River too. 

Fred left his special bobbers with me. In the 20 years since, I made some bobbers, bought some in England and Holland and read all the European books on the subject I could find. These days noodle rods and mini bobbers are hot in Michigan too. I suspect this is more because of the bobber than the limp rods.

Of course, some systems work better than others, but bobbers and bait are productive, if properly rigged, all over the world. Now the special bobbers you need are available from Cabelas and other sources. Marsh, Stream and Upland in Vancouver (19725 Ave., Langley, BC. V3A 3C9) will send catalogs. In the U.S. write to 64 H Street, Blaine, WA 98230 or send me an Email message. 

It's easy to make your own floats with less than $5 worth of hard balsa and small diameter wood doweling. Add soft shot, limp line and rig properly and you can score.

Bobbers especially suit steelhead that laze in slack water holding areas before they run upstream. When I guided in California, I found bobber fishing often more productive than the usual back trolling in the case where clients are really "reelers" and the boatman controls lure or bait placement.

Bobbers do have several major advantages. First, and probably most important even with crude American rigs, you know where your bait is -- it's under the float. Second, bobbers provide casting weight with small delicate baits or light lures. Third, bobbers present baits without the hangups associated with bottom-dragging methods. All of these advantages are increased with the proper terminal tackle setup and rig.

Most European systems work in the U.S. if you allow for our shorter rods and different fish. Very long rods do help. I use nine foot steelhead sticks in streams, and rods up to 15 food long in lakes. Why long rods? To start, you can better control drifts, and ease out fragile baits with a smooth, shallow-U side cast. With fixed bobbers you can't fish much deeper than your rod length either, and sliding bobbers are, in my experience, only effective on still water. So I prefer a longer rod and don't often fish water deeper than 10 or 15 feet.

Old fiberglass fly rods can, with a closed face spinning reel, work fairly well. So do the latest graphites. I wrap light spinning guides on flyrod blanks; the result is quite useful. Do realize that rod weight isn't important in still water where casts are fewer. When casting more often on rivers or streams, a lighter graphite rod seems worth the investment. I currently favor IM6 and relatively light, long rods if they are not too top-heavy. I prefer a rod that balances just at the hand for all-day casting. At times the only way to get this with commercially available rods is to tape on some lead tape at the butt. Check your local golf pro for this or use cheaper tire weights.

Good limp line makes bobber fishing easier. Really small stillwater bobbers require two, three and four pound test in most impoundments. I go to six or eight pound test in rivers or around snags. On Idaho's Clearwater (which is now in my backyard, so to speak) eight pound test works early in the season, but the big "B" run fish require 10 pound test. Overall, however, lighter lines, like smaller hooks, mean more natural bait presentation which big browns and sulking steelhead require. Line size seems most critical in sunlight and clear water, and where fish either sulk or are hit hard by anglers.

Bobbers are, of course, basic to bobbing for browns and steelhead. In the 20 years since I started bobber fishing, I have pruned bobber types down to three or four, each in several sizes to fit bait size and water depth. Some designs work best on windy days at lakes. Others suit still water. During steelhead trips I might change bobber size or type at every hole.

Fortunately, it is easy to change bobbers with half-inch long rubber tubing attachments which slip on over one or, depending on conditions, both ends. You can buy this tubing, and the hard balsa, hollow plastic or hardwood dowel stems to make bobbers, at hobby shops.

Shape and type depend on function. All British bobbers are long and skinny for more floatation and less water and, on the cast, less air resistance. All are dull colored so they do not scare fish. The latest bobbers available in England take camo even farther; they are transparent. However, these work better on overcast days when their reflections do not scare fish. 

Such bobbers let you hook most fish in the lip, as they are extremely sensitive. To help with this, British bobbers have a thin white line below a usually "Hot Orange" tip; bobbers shotted down to this "waterline" show even the slightest bite. I strike immediately on any movement. In still water, for example, the biggest fish often pick up the bait so the bobber "grows" up through the water rather than sinks. This kind of take cannot be seen with typical red and white plastic globe floats. It's the key to stillwater success on browns.

In moving water, bobbers pause, dip or, a most common take, move an inch or two at right angles to the current. Such takes are almost impossible to feel when bouncing baits on bottom. They are easy enough for beginners to master with bobbers. Of course, on days when steelhead or browns mash baits you could use lodgepole pine cones for bobbers. Such days are, of course, rare.

To discuss bobbers it's useful to know that different types have different names. In England, bobbers are also rated by the amount of shot they carry. Four "Swan" shot ratings would be heavier than two, for example.Such size differences relate to the size of the bait and shot needed for cast or current. A couple in each class mentioned below get you started.

"Fat" bobbers such as "Chubs" made from balsa, float more lead where you need longer casts on, for example, steelhead rivers or tailwater. These are also essential with lines above six pound test because they have the bulk needed to control the float or drift. You fasten chubs to the line at the top and bottom. I find them best in moving water with larger baits and with upstream or no wind. For upstream winds blow on the line in the air. This tends to slow the bobber so, as is always desirable, the bait reaches the fish first. A bit of floatant on the first twenty feet of line above the bobber insures this.

The American version of this bobber is usually larger, cruder in design and made from Styrofoam. It is only recommended with very large jigs and other massive terminal tackle. Even where such rigs are popular, as on Idaho's Clearwater, the catch rate improves with a more sophisticated, lighter rig.

With downstream winds you need can use bobbers fastened only to the line at the bottom and you should keep rod tips low. "Antenna" bobbers with elongated tops also work best in still or slowly moving water, and with lighter baits. When fish take with antennas, you can see where it moves by the tilt of the antenna top, and set the hook with a gentle side sweep of your rod. This avoids the rod tip recoil toward the fish that results when you snap a long, flexible rod straight up on the strike.

There are several other bobber types; wire stem bobbers "cock" or sit up without weights so you can fish them with delicate, unweighted baits over picky fish. This can be a winning system for stream brown trout with stump grubs and suits very thin summer steelhead water and tiny baits.

In deeper water I like top-ring sliders that, what else, slide so you can fish very deep water. British types are more sensitive than the usual American designs. They suit several trout and walleye systems and will be discussed another time.

Do realize that shot type, size and softness is critical with light rigs. I use imported British shot which is extremely soft in tiny "mouse dropping" sizes for fine adjustments in still water. However, Water Gremlin "eared" shot handles most needs. It's extremely soft so it does not crimp and weaken line, and its "ears" make it easy to reuse.

Shotting methods vary. The basic pattern spreads shot from the bobber to the bait with the largest shot at the top. This suits most moving water fishing where the bottom is fairly even, and mid-depth still water. Note that British bobbers are marked with the amount of shot they float. You might do this if you make your own.

The second common shotting pattern "bulks" most of the shot a foot above the bait. This makes depth changes easy. Two further refinements make a big difference in results. First, a tiny "point indicator" shot six or eight inches from the hook insures that the bait is at the proper depth. A second large shot pinches on half-way between the bobber and bulk shot. This eliminates the whirling "bolo" effect and snarled gear on the cast. Only this shot needs to be moved when you change depth. This rig is a winner on steelhead streams and not a bad choice when fishing still water where depths vary considerably.

Hook selection is equally important. I prefer live baits such as red worms, nightcrawlers, stump grubs, hellgrammites, soft shell crayfish or, where legal, minnows for trout. You can also, of course, use weighted nymphs, streamer flies, Corkies, small spinners and other lures in streams. However, when bait-fishing, a thin wire hook in a shape that permits the bait to move freely is important. I use 3X thin wire fly hooks for worms, dry fly hooks for "bugs" and odd-shape nymph or bait hooks for minnows and crayfish.

TIP: fill a pint jar with water. Drop in your bait. Then drop in a baited hook. If you see a major difference in drop speed, the hook is (usually) too heavy, too big or the wrong shape.