Float Fishing for Salmon and Steelhead

Float fishing for Steelhead and Salmon is one of the most simple and effective techniques to use. This page will teach you the basics of how to float fish, and a few tips to be effective.

A nice summer Steelhead caught under a float

A nice summer Steelhead caught under a float

The beauty of this technique is you have 100% control of the presentation of your tackle.  Here are some basic advantages:

  • It is very easy to cast a float, and you can be confident that your tackle is directly underneath it.  That allows you to be confident of where your gear is.
  • You can hit small pockets effectively, and fish further upstream than most other techniques.
  • You can easily change your depth in the water column.  Allowing you to tell where the bottom is when your tackle starts to drag or get hung up.  This is also important as at times Steelhead can be suspended in the water column – fishing under a float is the easiest way to put your lure directly in their face.

If you would like to learn the basics of float fishing then this page is for you. First let me say that while the paragraph above may have gotten you excited, remember that ALL fishing techniques have a purpose. There is no one best way to fish for steelhead and every great angler will use them all. If you are a complete beginner and want to focus on only one technique I recommend starting with drift fishing as it will teach you the touch and finesse needed to land fish.  You will also loose less gear, which can be very frustrating when starting.


Gear Needed

Terminal Gear(from top to bottom):

Bobber Stop

Bobber Stop

Bobber stop:  This is how you control your depth with a float.  It is the first thing which goes onto your mainline.   You slip the entire black tube up onto your mainline.
Pull the tube out and off and throw it out (in the trash, not on the bank).  Grasp each end of the string and pull tightly.  Trim the excess.  You will be able to side the bobber stop up and down your mainline to adjust how deep you are fishing. It is important to be able to see your bobber stop as your float will not always slide up to it for various reasons. If you cast and this happens, you’ll need to reel in and change something.

Bead:  Next goes the bead.   The purpose of this bead is to prevent the float from sliding over the bobber stop and getting stuck damaging it.  This isn’t necessary with all floats such as Beau Mac.

A Beau Mac 3/8oz Float

Beau Mac 3/8oz Float

Float:  Next goes the float.  I like to use Beau Mac Inline Slider floats.  If you are just starting you need to know that you will loose these, and they are the most expensive part of the system. Due to that you may want to use a float made out of cheaper foam. The most important thing  is that you know which size float you are using as you will have to match it to your weight.  A general rule of float weight for river fishing is from 1/2 oz – 1/4 oz, but there are always exceptions.   I find myself fishing with 3/8 oz most often.  These can be expensive, so when you find deals buy them.

Weight: the last piece of gear on your mainline before your swivel will be your weight.  Typically this will be a slip weight equal or near the weight which your float is rated.    Sometimes you may fish a heavier jig (1/4 oz) or add splitshot to your leader.  What you need to know is the total amount of weight under your float should be the equivalent of the float’s rating.   All floats are different, and for some this is a more steadfast rule than others. Also some people like to fish a tad heavier (lower, less buoyant float) or lighter (higher) than others.  As you progress you will find what works for you.

3/8oz egg sinker

3/8oz egg sinker

It is nice to put a bead below your weight so that it will not get hung up on, and fray your knot.

Swivel: barrel swivels work best here.  Don’t overthink this part – use what you have.  I tend to have #10-#7’s.  For the knot a simple improved clinch knot (standard fishing knot) works.

Leader: Tied to the other end of that swivel will be your leader. The most important thing about your leader is that it is lighter than your mainline. For example if you have 15lb mainline, use at minimum a 12lb leader. This is so if you get a snag that you cannot get off your leader will break before your mainline. This way you’ll only loose a jig, rather than your whole setup. It will save you money, but more importantly it will reduce your downtime re-rigging.

Jig: You can fish a lot of different tackle under a float.   When not fishing bait, a jig will be used a

Swivel

Barrel Swivel

majority of the time under a float. This is the reason it is good to focus on them when you’re getting started. We will have a series on water levels/colors and jig sizes/colors coming out soon. For now try the steelhead standards: pick, peach, or purple.


Alright so now you know how to rig up, let’s go over how to actually use it. First you will have to fish in the right spot. Reading water is a huge part of the sport. If you float fish in water better suited for drift fishing, you’ll miss out on countless bites. The ideal float fishing hole will be 3-10 feet deep with water moving at about walking pace. Search the river for an area like this, and if you don’t find one try a different technique.

When you have found your spot, the next step is figuring out the depth. 90% the steelhead will be holding on the bottom of the river, so this is where you will want to fish. Determining the depth is

AreoJig Jackle Jig Hot Pink/Purple

AreoJig Jackle Jig Hot Pink/Purple

pretty easy. It starts with a guess – take a look at the hole, and set your bobber stop accordingly. To know how deep you are setting it it is nice to use either your rod (on a 9 ft rod when the bobber stop is at the rod tip, and the jig is at the base of the handle, you’re fishing 9 feet deep), or yourself (head to toe I know I’m just over 6′). Cast out – if you immediately see your float wiggling, ticking, bouncing, or sideways pointing downriver that means you are hitting the bottom… shorten up. If you see no action increase your depth till you do, then back it off about 6 inches inches to a foot. Be ready to snag the bottom when probing new holes – this is just part of the sport. You can avoid loosing gear by keeping a nice tight line, and reacting when your bobber goes under. A lot of times this will be a root, branch or rock – but setting the hook will quickly release your jig before it’s too far gone. Once you’ve drifted a hole enough times you will start to know exactly what the bottom of the river “looks” like by what your float is doing. If you’ve picked a good spot, and you start to catch fish, you will also be amazed to learn that your float sinks in the same spot over and over again. That is because all steelhead tend to act alike, and use the same areas for cover.

Now you’re standing in front of a Steelhead hole, with your bobber stop set to the depth to put your jig directly in front of a steelhead’s nose. If there are fish in the river, you should feel confident. The last piece of the puzzle is to let the float do the work for you. Your float should be floating downstream as if there is only your weight, leader, and jig attached to it. Your mainline should not affect your drift. The float should be sitting perfectly vertical. To achieve this you need to mend your line. Mending in theory is simple, but it is what separates the steeleaders who consistently catch fish from those who do not. If you cast upstream you’ll need to reel in the slack as your float drifts towards you. As soon as it passes ideally you will be able to keep your line out of the water completely – by holding your rod tip up so there is a bow of line from the top of your bobber to the tip of your rod. Realistically this is often not easy to do. The biggest thing to avoid is having a large loop of line dragging in-front of and downstream of your float. This will begin to pull the float downstream at an unnatural speed and will also lift your jig off the bottom. If you have line in the water at all, you want it to be behind or upstream of your float.

float fishing for salmon and steelhead

Some common float problems

If you are doing all this in the right spot your float WILL go down. When it does, be ready. You are going to want to point your rod tip directly at your bobber while quickly reeling in any slack in the line. As soon as it close to slack free, set the hook! It’s on.

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