Float Fishing For Steelhead – How River Guides Do It

Float fishing for steelhead

Float fishing for steelhead is one of the most productive ways to catch steelhead in a river. There are many river guides in the great lakes region float fishing for steelhead with great success. This article covers the methods and tips that these river guides and I use when we teach float fishing for steelhead.

What Is Float Fishing For Steelhead

Float fishing for steelhead is when you suspend your bait below a specialized bobber that is designed for river fishing and you allow the bait and bobber to drift naturally down the river with the current.

Getting Started In Float Fishing

This is a great place to get started in float fishing steelhead so that you are not one of those anglers that spends years trying to figure it all out on their own while catching almost no fish when other anglers are catching plenty.

On this website, I will help you with everything from gear selection so that you don’t go out and buy the wrong stuff that will only make things harder for you, to the right methods, best baits the tips, and tricks that will greatly improve your success when float fishing for steelhead.

Steelhead float Rods

Float fishing for steelhead rods

Float fishing for steelhead requires long rods in the 12 to 14-foot range. The bigger the river the longer the rod so some anglers will use 14 foot rods. The long rod protects light leaders from breaking and it keeps your line up off the water for longer which greatly improves your presentation.

I use mostly 13 foot rods on rivers that are from 20 feet wide to 100 feet wide.

There are many good steelhead rods on the market and most good ones will start at around $200. That’s not to say that you can’t find a decent float fishing rod under $120.00 because there are a few decent ones out there.

If you’re in the market for a float rod check out my page 5 Best Centerpin Rods Of 2021. I use Centerpin rods with spinning reels and Centerpin reels.

Steelhead Float Reels

Centerpin reels for float fishing

Float fishing reels can be spinning reels, baitcasting reels, or Centerpin reels. Spinning reels and Centerpin reels are the most common reels for float fishing for steelhead around the great lake because they tend to work the best.

You might see anglers on the west coasts’ big steelhead rivers using baitcasting reels but they don’t work as well on the smaller rivers of the great lakes.

The best reel for float fishing is the Centerpin reel because it provides you with the smoothest and most controlled drift with very little effort. I’m planning on writing an article about Centerpin vs. Spinning reels because this is a question I get asked about a lot. Keep an eye out for that on my Steelhead Page.

Spinning reels have been used for float fishing for steelhead for longer than I’ve been alive, I’m over 50 now and they are still used a lot today.

Spinning reels are the number 2 best reel for float fishing simply because the line does not come off the reel as smoothly as a Centerpin reel does and that affects your presentation. Presentation is the key to more fish when float fishing for steelhead.

If you really want to learn how to float fish for steelhead and you want to maximize your success I would highly recommend that you get yourself a Centerpin Reel.

I have guided with and I have used both and can honestly say that a Centerpin reel is the best reel for float fishing. If you are interested in Centerpin reels check out my page 23 Best Float Fishing Reels Of 2021: Buyers Guide

If you still prefer to use a spinning reel for float fishing check out my page 4 Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing.

Steelhead Float Fishing Lines

Whatever reel that you decide to use you will need a good line for float fishing for steelhead. The best float fishing lines will be light, thin, strong, and buoyant. Most anglers use Monofilament lines when float fishing but braid and Copolymer lines can be good too.

Float fishing lines that are heavy will cause all kinds of problems. Trust me, I have had dozens of guys come out for a lesson on float fishing and then struggle all day because the idiot in the store put the wrong line on their reel.

You also want to make sure that you use the right pound line for your area. For most great lakes steelhead fishing I recommend 8 to 10-pound test lines, and for west coast steelhead fishing, I would go up to a 14-pound test line.

If you want more on the best float fishing lines, check out my page 5 Best Float Fishing Lines For 2021

I also discuss the best line sizes when float fishing for salmon on my page Float Fishing For Salmon: Advanced Tactics for Great Lakes Salmon, and I discuss the best line sizes on my page Float Fishing For Trout- Expert tips and tactics for more trout.

Steelhead Floats

Good river floats are a must have part of Centerpin fishing gear

Not any float will do so if you visit a website that says it’s OK to use red and white bobbers for steelhead, leave and never go back. If you think that all a float really does is just suspend your bait and to help you see when a fish bites you will always struggle to catch steelhead.

The best steelhead floats are ones that are designed for steelhead fishing in rivers. They will be narrow with a pointed top and will be sensitive to help you detect strikes and the bottom. The right float will greatly improve your presentation and help you catch more steelhead.

I have an entire page on the best steelhead floats and I can honestly say that even me, with over 37 years of experience float fishing for steelhead, I wouldn’t be able to catch as many steelhead if I used the wrong float.

If you are going to do float fishing for steelhead you might as well do it right. Check out my page 5 Best Centerpin Floats For 2021

What Size Float For Steelhead?

This gets a bit tricky because the best size for steelhead will depend on the river that you are fishing.

As a general rule, the best size float for steelhead fishing on big deep rivers is a 14-gram float, and the best float for steelhead fishing on smaller rivers will be 6-gram float. The more weight you need the bigger your float needs to be and on deeper faster rivers more weight is usually required.

Large deep and fast-flowing rivers like those on the west coast will need 12 grams to 20 grams floats. You will be required to use more weight to get your bait down and smaller floats will just sink if you add too much weight

Anglers around the great lake will use float from 4 to 8 grams for most rivers because the river is shallower and not as fast. Too much weight on these smaller rivers will affect your presentation so less weight is best.

The size of your float will also depend on your vision. Larger floats are easier to see when they are 100 feet down the river. My go-to float is a Raven FM 6.2 gram float for most rivers that I fish because I often have older clients that have trouble seeing the smaller floats.

Many of my buddies with good vision prefer to use 4 and 5 grams floats on the same rivers.

The Steelhead Float Rig

The Float Fishing Leader Setup can be used in most river conditions.

It’s very important to set your line up properly which includes everything from your float, the swivels, the weight, and the proper placement of the weights, as well as the leader line and the hook. Get all of this right and you will catch more fish, 1 wrong thing could mean no steelhead for you.

That is why I have an entire page dedicated to the steelhead float rig. Check it out at Float Fishing Leader Setups Used By River Guides

What Pound Test Leader For Steelhead?

The proper leader brand and the right pound test are very important things to consider. I have witnessed anglers use a perfectly set up leader but still catch no steelhead simply because the leader was too thick.

If I made it simple for you and was like many anglers and just told you that the best pound test leader was 8 pounds (which it is for great lakes steelhead) I could be setting you up for disaster.

The honest truth is that not all 8-pound leaders are the same and many are not rated properly which is why I always tell my clients to buy leaders by the diameter, not by the pound test rating on the label.

0.18mm leader is good for super low clear water steelhead that are very line shy. 0.20mm line is ideal for most great lakes rivers from 20 to 80 feet wide with normal clarity and it’s the size I use the most. 0.22 is better for dirty water and for large fast rivers.

But, 0.22mm will likely be too weak for BC steelhead on larger faster rivers so I would upsize to 0.24mm. I discuss this more on my page What Pound Test Leader Is Best For Steelhead?

What Is The Best Hook For Steelhead?

Trout and Steelhead hooks

This is an overlooked piece of gear that is more important than you think.

The best hooks for most great lakes steelhead would be a size 8 wide gap Raven Specialist hook or Sabertooth hook from Blackbird. However, different conditions and different baits will require different hooks so it’s good to know what hook to use and when. The wrong hook can mean fewer fish.

 The Raven Specialist hook is a very popular hook for float fishing for steelhead.

Check out my page on the Best Float Fishing Hooks for more detailed information.

Float Fishing Baits

Fishing With Beads

I tend to rotate through the same baits when I fish for steelhead and there are some baits that just consistently catch a lot of fish. My most consistent steelhead bait is the Berkley Pink Worm.

The right bait can make a big difference. The best float fishing baits are the 3-inch plastic worm, the spawn bad, beads are also an excellent float fishing bait, and I also think that flies can at times be one of the best float fishing baits.

I have also found that at certain times of the year that artificial flies under a float can work great and when everyone around you is fishing with roe or something big and bright like a pink worm flies can be the best bait.

I discuss using flies under a float on my page Float Fishing With Flies: Expert Advice

I have an entire page on the 4 Best Steelhead Baits so if this is something that you want to know go check it out.

Steelhead Float Fishing Gear

Float fishing for steelhead gear

Float fishing gear will just make your day more comfortable and more enjoyable. The float fishing gear that I am talking about is stuff like waders, wading jackets, vests or packs, nets, forceps, polarized glasses, and more.

To make sure you have everything that you need for float fishing for steelhead check out my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed In 2021

Even specialty stuff that will keep you warm during the colder months is something you should consider. I have a page all about tips and tricks so you don’t freeze your a$$ off in the winter on my page Fishing In The Winter – Stay Warm With These 10 Tips

How To Float Fish Like A Pro

Float fishing for steelhead like a pro

The last thing you will need to know to get flat fishing for steelhead better is actually how to float fish. The presentation is very important and I have watched hundreds of anglers do it wrong and not catch any fish when I’m catching lots.

There are 4 fundamentals you need to know when float fishing for steelhead but it would take an entire page for me to explain it to you which is why you should check out my page Centerpin Fishing: An Expert Centerpin Guide Explains It.

Got A Question About Float Fishing

If you have a question, a comment, or a tip about float fishing for steelhead let me and others know in the comment section below.

Tight Lines


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  1. Hi Graham, I have a couple questions about some local rivers in the Alliston area. I was wondering if the steelhead would still be in the Boyne river this time of year and if you think it would be worth the time to try and fish it or if I should focus my time on a different river with more fish. I was also wondering how far up the Nottawasaga the steelhead normally go and if it’s any good trying the smaller sections upriver of highway 89. Also if there are any smaller trout rivers/streams that have good numbers of fish that aren’t to far of a drive from Schomberg as I am 16 and have to rely on my parents driving me places.
    Thanks, Alex

    1. Hey Alex, Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to give you information on spots on here. You asked for the smaller rivers with good numbers of fish in your area but, if I say where they are on a public website like this, those small rivers might not be very good for very long. There are lots of rivers and creeks with trout in them that are not too far from you but the hard part is finding access to them since it is mostly all private property up there. Check out the posts on this other website which might give you some ideas as to where to try in your area. https://ontariotroutandsteelhead.com/category/ontario-rivers

    2. Thanks for all the great information on this site. I’ve been able to land a few steelhead on my centerpin because of it.

      I have a question about controling the drift. My float often seems to run towards the bank I am standing on, so I get a sideways drift, especially at the end. I also see this happening to other anglers in the pool. I try to follow the float and keep the line of the water, but this still seems to happen. I am using a 13 foot rod and 10 lbs Raven mainline. Do you follow the float with the rod tip or maintain an angle between the rod tip and the float to “guide” it down the drift? I hope this made sense. I’m wondering if it is a common problem with new float anglers.

      Thanks again.

      1. Hi Alex,

        It’s common for the float to come towards the shore that you are fishing because of the micro drag that is being caused by your reel. In most cases, it is ok that this happens if it is slightly coming in closer. To alleviate this a bit I will do two things. #1 Keep your rod tip straight out towards the middle and second, move further out into the river. Keeping your float directly below your rod tip will prevent the float from tracking in close to your bank. On super long drifts, (50 feet plus) I will start slowly pointing my rod tip towards the float to ensure a better hookset, but with drifts of 30 or 40 feet, your rod tip straight out will be fine. Good luck.

        1. Thanks for the reply. I appreciate all the information on the site. It has really helped me get on some fish. Thanks again.

  2. Hi Graham! I’ve just started reading you artic look es, and really enjoy them!
    I live in Oregon, and fish some rivers that you Great Lakes anglers would consider big, and fast. The thing that confuses me the most us the weight of your floats. Yours are measured in grams, and out here, ours are measured in ounces. It seems impossible to get good equivalents in ounces for your gram weights. Do you have any suggestions as to how to get accurate conversions? Any help would be greatly appreciated.
    Tight lines, and fish on to you!
    Brian Adler