Steelheading With Floats

by Dave Vedder

"Let me live harmlessly, and near the brink
Of Trent or Avon and have a dwelling place;
Where I may see my quill or cork down sink
With eager bite of Perch or Bleak or Dace;
And on the world and my creator think:"

--Sir Henry Cotton Circa 1645

Nineties anglers are discovering a "new" and deadly technique for tricking steelhead. This "new" technique, as is so often the case, is simply a variation on angling methods used centuries ago by the pioneers of our sport. The float, or bobber as some persist in calling it, has been in use for hundreds of years. (I think of bobbers as those red and white plastic gadgets used by small children.)

Today savvy steelheaders have developed a sophisticated system for fishing with floats to take steelhead under even the most difficult conditions. Late spring steelheading can be some of the season's most rewarding angling, but it can be extraordinarily difficult. Switching to a float can seriously increase your chances of coming in contact with a spring steelhead.

Center-pin reels improve line control.

PHOTO CREDIT: DAVE VEDDER

Imagine, if you will, a perfect run. One you know holds steelhead. The lie is upstream from you, and you have no way to get above it. In addition, the lie hugs an undercut bank on the far side of the stream and the bottom is a jumble of rocks as grabby as a covey of bedsprings. With conventional steelhead tackle this lie is unfishable. You know how hard it is to make an upstream cast without snagging the rocky bottom. And you know it's impossible to keep your lure or bait in a lie that is parallel to the far bank. If you did hit a fish before a snag, your chances of feeling the bite on a slack line are slim. A modern float system will solve all those problems with ease.

Upstream Casts

Upstream casts with a float are as simple as down and across casts with conventional techniques. All you do is flip the float upstream and begin reeling in line as it moves downstream toward you. Your float and lure glide in a natural drift just above the snaggy bottom - hang-ups will be a thing of the past. Stream hydraulics will keep your lure floating, along in a perfect line, in the heart of the lie. When a strike comes, even if it's the subtle mouthing of a lethargic spring steelhead, a delicately balanced float will instantly alert you. Fish on! It's as easy as that. 

 Precise Line Control

Another advantage of floats is the ease of placing your lure smack-dab in the middle of a steelhead's living room. Suppose you want to fish a seam where slow and fast currents meet. No problem. Simply cast your float past the seam and retrieve line until your float is just at the edge of the seam. Now, free spool line while the float bounces along in perfect position to pass over the fish.

The float really shows its stuff when working pocket water behind boulders. You can flip the float past your target, then reel in until the float and its payload are swirling merrily in the back eddy. You can let your lure swirl in the back eddy as long as you like. Try that with conventional gear and your tackle will look as though it's been in a blender.

A major drawback of conventional steelheading techniques is the short time that the lure spends in a fish's "strike zone". In a typical situation, the angler casts down and across stream; the current immediately sweeps the offering across the stream, eventually depositing it directly below the angler. Strikes usually come as the lure passes across stream or immediately after the drift stops. Unfortunately, this presentation usually moves your lure so rapidly steelhead have little time to see the offering. In addition, the jerky presentation of bottom bouncing is completely unnatural. In low clear water, bottom bouncing will spook fish that could have been taken with a small float, light line and a tiny lure.

Detecting Strikes

Veteran steelheaders know the one skill that separates the top rods from the wannabes is the ability to feel the subtle pick-up of a steelhead. Learning the elusive difference between a pick-up and a rock is vital, but difficult. With floats the angler immediately sees that a fish is mouthing their bait. Even a novice will be able to detect most pick-ups. 

Big fish come to properly presented lures and baits.

PHOTO CREDIT: DAVID VEDDER

Strikes are signaled in one of two ways. The most obvious strike indicator is the sudden sinking of the float. If you have properly adjusted the distance from your float to the lure, only a fish can cause it to sink. STRIKE!!!

Sometimes a steelhead will pick up the bait and drift downstream with it. This may not cause your float to sink, but it will make it pop up and float unnaturally high. Any time you see the float come up or begin moving upstream or sideways, that's a fish. STRIKE!!!

Occasionally, you will see your float go under and pop back up before your brain tells your hand to strike. No problem. If you miss a strike, take note of where your float was when it went under. The float tells you exactly where the fish was when it struck. Another cast placed twenty feet upstream and directly in line with the last strike will often get you an instant rematch. The float's natural presentation will not usually spook a fish. Many times you can get a second strike. This time pay attention!

Depth Control

The first step in steelheading with a float is to adjust for proper depth. Your goal is to place your bait or lure about one foot above the bottom. If your float continually drags under or tips downstream as it drifts through the run, you are dragging bottom. Shorten the distance between float and lure until you can make the drift without touching bottom.

Your float should drift at the same speed as the current. When your float is upstream from you, it should sit straight up and down in the water. As your float passes in front of you, begin free spooling line while gently thumbing the spool to maintain just enough tension to tilt the top of the float slightly back upstream.

Retard the drift so the bait or lure arrives before the float.

Ninety-nine percent of the time steelhead will hold on or very near the bottom. When that is the case, you want your gear to be within a few inches of the rocks. Occasionally steelies will stack in deep runs and will stratify well above the bottom. It may take some trial and error to find the depth they prefer, but when you do, a float will let you put your offering right in front of their noses.

Downtime

It's axiomatic that you can't catch fish when your line is not in the water. It is also a fact that steelheading with conventional tackle involves tons of lost tackle and big doses of time spent re-rigging. Old-timers always tell beginning steelheaders, "If you ain't losing tackle, you ain't fishing right." That may be so, but only if you're a bottom bouncer. Float anglers seldom lose tackle.

My favorite stream has a very fishy boulder garden that almost always holds steelhead. Before I learned to fish with floats, I usually planned to fish the "Garden" until I took a fish or until I lost five leaders. My quota of lost leaders almost always came before I hooked a fish. Now I fish the "Garden" confident that I will not lose any tackle. I often take steelhead in this prime water which most steelheaders ignore.

Float fishing isn't the answer to all the steelheader's dreams. The weather will still be miserable, the fish will still be scarce, and, as often as not, they will ignore everything you offer them. But if you give floats a serious try, you will find some of your dreams coming true. You will be able to effectively fish water you had to pass up with other methods. You will fish your bait or lure with a very natural presentation. You will miss very few bites, and you will spend a lot less time retying gear. Isn't that a lot like what you have been dreaming of?

The History of Float Fishing

The English are credited with developing sports fishing as we know it. Fly fishing was a popular form of the Englishman's sport but, so too, was bait fishing. Isaac Walton in his book The Complete Angler discusses several methods of preparing baits of insects, fishes and pastes designed to draw the fish with their enticing smell. Often, these baits were suspended by a float of quill or cork.

On rivers, bladders, bottles and bundles of straw were used to transport the bait downstream. Some enterprising anglers used geese for floats. They tied their baited fishing line to the goose's leg. The goose was then chased across the waterway causing the bait to be trolled.

There were no steelheaders in old England, but there were many extraordinarily dedicated river anglers. William Scrope who fished salmon in Scotland during the late 1800's offered this advice to river anglers:

"Should you be of delicate temperament, and be wading in the month of February when it may chance to freeze very hard, pull down your stockings and examine your legs. Should they be, black or even purple, it might, perhaps, be as well to get on dry land; but if they are only rubicund, you may continue to enjoy the water."

Had Scrope lived in modern times, no doubt he would have been a steelheader.

In his book The Master and His Fish, Roderick Haig-Brown tells us, "In British Columbia many fishermen use bobbers, adjusting them so that the lead weights bump along the rocks or gravel of the bottom while the lighter bait or lure sweeps along just above. With this rigging, it is possible to cast upstream and get a long reasonably safe drift down past the fisherman." Those observations are from 1971. From that day to this, little has changed in the art of float fishing. Perhaps, because the system has neared perfection?

Float Fishing Tackle

The float fishing steelheader has an arsenal very different from other steelheaders. Float rods are between ten and fourteen feet long. Reels are usually center-pin knuckle busters, but a large minority of float fishing steelheaders use level wind reels. Terminal gear consists of a float held above a series of small split shot, or a slinky, with a swivel and leader below.

The most important part of the float fisherman's arsenal is the rod. Long rods are essential. A rod ten feet long or longer is necessary to cast terminal gear as much as ten feet in length. Another reason for long rods is the need to keep your line off the water to assure a solid hook set. This chore is easy with a long rod, impossible with a short one.

For weight, most float anglers use split shot. Weights are placed at four to eight inch intervals beginning about sixteen inches above the bait or lure. Some steelheaders use slinkys tied in-line or simply slip a section of hollow core lead on the line above the swivel. Weight should be adjusted to allow only a small portion of the float to poke above the water. This makes a very sensitive float.

Most tackle shops carry floats, but often the floats available are designed for panfish or walleye. To find appropriate floats for steelheading, you may have to order from the manufacturer. In Canada, where float fishing for steelhead was perfected, anglers use a simple foam tube called a "dink" float. These are versatile and inexpensive. In the US balsa floats are popular in the mid-west and are rapidly catching on in the West.

Terminal Gear

In British Columbia where almost everyone fishes with a float, most steelheaders use salmon eggs, Gooey Bobs or rubber worms under their floats. In the Great Lakes area, spawn sacks are the float fishers favorite. Here in the Northwest the small percentage of steelheaders who use floats prefer Marabou jigs. Which is best under a float? Whatever bait or lure you have confidence in. The truth is, any steelhead bait or lure can be fished well under a float. Buoyant lures such as Cheaters will tend to float too high unless a small split shot is placed within a few inches of the lure. All other baits and lures should be rigged the same way under a float as you are used to doing now.

Float Manufacturers

  • Mr. Ed's Floats, (Dink floats) 4001 S.E,. Crown Rd, Camas, WA 98607
  • Class Tackle,(Balsa Floats) 5719 Corporation Circle, Unit 1, Fort Meyers, FL 33905 800/869-9941
  • Float Fishing Specialist, (Distance Casters and Others) 5604 Wood Valley Drive, Haslett, MI 48840, 517/339-8971
  • Thill (Complete Selection of Balsa Floats) PO Box C., Brainerd, MN 56401, 218/829-1714