Float Fishing For Trout – An Expert Guides Best Tips

Float fishing for trout is a very effective way of catching trout in rivers when most of the spots are 3 feet or deeper. Float fishing effectively for trout often requires stealthy methods, and proper gear, so with the help of our guides and myself we will provide you with the best guide tips and advice that you can use to help you catch more trout when float fishing.

Float fishing for trout is a great way of presenting a bait below a float and if it’s done well you can sometimes drift for hundreds of feet which puts your bait in front of a lot of trout. The right float fishing leader setup the right float are also important.

Rivers Suitable For Float Fishing For Trout

Float fishing for trout in long runs like this is good
Float fishing works well in longer deeper spots like this.

I have float fished rivers that were over 300 feet wide and as in creeks so small I could jump across them. Basically, any river can be fished with a float and baits but there are spots within the river where you should NOT float fish and these area are where other methods will work better.

In the above image, my client is fishing to the deeper darker water which is great for float fishing, but the water behind him is too shallow to float fishing well.

In the below image, this type of pocket water has lots of trout in it, but it’s not good water for float fishing because the pockets are short and shallow.

This is not good float fishing water.
There are no long runs and it’s all very shallow so this is not good float fishing water. Spots like this hold a lot of trout but it would be best to fish this using bottom bouncing methods.

In water under 2.5 feet deep and in spots less than 8 feet long it’s much more effective to use my advanced bottom bouncing method, which you can see at Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish.

Mastering bottom bouncing for the shallow water and small pockets and also mastering float fishing for the deeper longer spots will allow you to catch fish anywhere in the river.

As a guide, and as other guides will tell you, being versatile and being able to change methods quickly will greatly improve your chances.

Bottom Bouncing For Brown Trout
Bottom Bouncing with a colored Sighter allows for detecting the subtle takes of big brown trout.

I have caught huge brown trout in pockets that were less than 3 feet long and under 2 feet deep.

Even big trout over 24 inches will tuck themselves in and around big rocks, and to be honest, most anglers would walk right past these spots thinking they are too small for big trout. They’re not!

I have surprised many clients by making them fish in small and shallow spots.

However, these small spots are not good for float fishing! Not only will your float land on top of them and spook them in such small and shallow spots, but there is usually not enough time for the bait to get down.

Instead, focus on the bigger spots, and while fishing in those spots, work hard on improving your skills. This means mastering the five fundamentals of float fishing for trout.

5 Fundamentals Of Good Float Fishing For Trout.

There are five fundamentals to good float fishing techniques for trout. If you can master these, you will catch a lot more trout.

  1. Control your speed
  2. Find the bottom
  3. Cover the water effectively
  4. Use the right float fishing setup
  5. Use The Right Baits

The Best Baits When Float Fishing For Trout

A trout caught float fishing with a small fly
A trout caught while float fishing with a small fly.

The fifth fundamental to good float fishing is to use the right bait. Despite what most anglers think, the reason I put this at number 5 is that my experience has proven time and again that the bait is the least important factor when presenting a bait below a float for trout.

There is a saying that I believe is 100% true, “A bad bait fished good, is better than a good bait fished bad.”

What this means is that even if you have the best bait on your line, but you fish it poorly, or you use the wrong hook, or the wrong sized leader you won’t be able to get the most out of that bait. It simply won’t work very well.

I have seen it over and over and over again when one client catches 90% of the fish simply because he presents his bait better, even when they are both using the exact same bait, with the same hooks, the same leader, and the same set-up. I will cover the presentation more below.

Smaller Baits Are Better When Float Fishing For Trout

Small baits for trout like this one
Small baits catch large and small trout. Most of the biggest trout over 20 inches that I catch every year are on small baits like flies and beads.

Going with smaller baits is often a better choice than using bigger baits unless the water is dirty or off-colored, or is fast. Even big fish will eat a well-presented small bait.

Most of a trout’s food source is small. Small insects, single eggs, small baitfish. Three-inch worms will almost always work as well as an 8-inch dew worm, even on large trout and steelhead.

It’s also important to use baits that look natural and are already part of the trout’s diet. This can greatly improve your chances of catching more trout.

The Best Baits For Float Fishing For Trout Are:

These are not in order of “best to worst” because there are times when one bait will work much better than another.

There are plenty of great baits for trout and steelhead, it’s a good idea to have an assortment of baits so that you are prepared for all situations.

If I was to hit the river right now, I would have 100% confidence that I would catch a trout on any of my top five baits. I list my top five baits on my page Best Trout Bait – The Only 5 Baits You Will Ever Need

Use The Right Gear When Float Fishing For Trout

An angler using the right gear for float fishing for trout
An angler using the right gear for float fishing for trout

Mainline For Float Fishing

Someone asked a question about lines for float fishing, so here it is. You can use any line for the mainline for float fishing, but some lines are much better than others.

The mainline is the line that is on the actual reel. I mostly use Raven Monofilament because it floats, it comes off the reel easily and it has been proven effective by thousands of river anglers.

I never use fluorocarbon as the mainline because it sinks and that makes line mending (line above the float) and hooks set tough to do.

I personally do not use braided lines when float fishing for two main reasons, however, I am not against braided lines if you know how to fix these two issues and braided lines can work quite well.

There are advantages and disadvantages to braided lines when float fishing.

The primary advantage of braided lines when float fishing is that they are usually light and strong for their diameter. Light lines do not sag, and they float which is great for float fishing presentation, mending, and hooksets.

Braided line also has near zero stretch which can be both a disadvantage and an advantage when setting the hook on a fish that is 200 feet down the river.

The disadvantage for me as a guide is that because the braided line has no stretch, guys will set so hard that they break fish off on the hookset especially when the float goes down close to us.

They will also set so hard that the float, and bait come flying back at them and making a huge tangled-up mess.

Until you know how to “dumb down” (soften) your hookset down a bit, this is often a problem for new anglers to float fishing.

Another issue with braids is line wrapping around the rod tip more often. This can be frustrating for new anglers. Some lines are better than others, but as a guide with lots of new anglers, this is more than enough reason not to use braid when float fishing.

The other disadvantage to the braided line is that it can freeze and become problematic in below-freezing temperatures and as a guide, I spend many days on the water in below-freezing temps. The entire mass of line can freeze into a solid block if you dunk your reel.

Another big issue for both Centrepin and spin guys is that braided line can expand and shrink after it gets wet and if you do not use a backing of mono first or you secure it with tape after you tie it on the spool the entire mass of braided line can spin around the spool preventing you from reeling in.

I have seen this a few times so make sure you look up how to put a braided line on a reel before you try a braided line.

I discuss and tell you what lines river guides use when float fishing. See Best Float Fishing Lines.

Using the right line will improve your presentation. Some lines sink, some lines float, some are stiff, and some are supple. Heavy lines are not good for float fishing and honestly, I think too many anglers use lines that are way to heavy for float fishing.

I have seen first-hand on how bad lines can affect your presentation.

These lines in 4-pound or 6-pounds are ideal for most trout streams. Fishing larger trout streams or when also using lures, a 6 to 8-pound line might be better.

  • 6lb Raven Mainline
  • Sufix Elite Premium Monofilament Line
  • Sunline Line Fine Float ll

Spinning Reels For Float Fishing For Trout

River Fishing Rods For Trout And Steelhead
This rod and reel is set up with Raven Mainline and I use it for both float fishing for trout and when lure fishing.

When it comes to spinning reels, get one that is proven to work well for float fishing. You want one that lets the line come off the reel smoothly so your float drifts naturally without getting hung up and giving a jerky presentation.

The three things to consider when looking for a good float reel for trout:

  • A smooth Drag.
  • A smooth spool lip so the line comes off easy.
  • The right size.

You want a spinning reel that matches the smaller trout streams. I like a size 15 to size 20 reel. (1500 to 2000 for some brands). Some anglers will go as small as a size 10 which is probably OK on tiny streams.

If you want full details on the best reels and best sizes, and sizing charts, go to my page 4 Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing.

Spinning Rods For Float Fishing For Trout

When float fishing trout rivers you want to use a lightweight rod with a sensitive tip and one with good flex in the midsection. Longer rods are preferred when float fishing and the bigger the river the longer the rod.

The long rod allows you to keep the main line up and off the water longer for a better drift, and the longer rod is a good shock absorber that protects light leaders on the hookset and when fighting the fish.

I like 8 to 11-foot rods when float fishing trout rivers. One of my favorites is the 8-foot ultra-light Okuma Guide Select Pro Trout Spinning Rod. I use this rod with clients.

These are the best float fishing rods for trout: Prices may change

  • Best Under $110.00 – 8 foot Okuma Guide Select Pro Trout Spinning Rod – Approx. $104.99 – Get it At FishUSA
  • Guides Choice – 8’6″ Light St. Croix Premier Spinning Rod – Approx. $199.99 – See it at FishUSA
  • Best Economy Rod – 8′ Ultra-light Berkley Lightning Spinning Rod – See it at FishUSA
  • Best Big River Rod – 10’6″ light, or 12’6 Ultralight Fenwick HMX Steelhead Spinning Rod – Best Price I have seen is at FishUSA – HERE. Also, check it out at Bass Pro Shops.

See these rods and more – Best River Fishing Rods

Best Floats For Float Fishing For Trout

Drennan Crystal Loafer Float

One of the best floats for trout fishing that I have tested and use all the time is the Drennan Crystal Loafer Float.

If you use the wrong floats you limit your success on the river. Trust me, despite what some other websites say, red and white bobbers are NOT good for trout and neither are many other floats.

Drennan floats are the best clear floats and are used by many trout and steelhead anglers. Since they are clear and thin they are less intrusive and won’t spook wary trout.

They are also very sensitive floats for subtle bites and they come in a variety of sizes. They are my go-to float when trout fishing and guiding for trout.

I mostly use the size #2 and 3 floats for trout fishing on most normal trout sizes rivers, but for bigger rivers, I will go up to the #4 and #5. Get Drennan Loafer floats at www.FishUSA.com

Don’t forget to get yourself the Drennan float caps to secure these floats to the line.

For more information on the best floats and why and how to improve the use of them check out my page 5 Best Floats For 2021

Best Leader For Your Trout Float Fishing Setup

Rio Tippet is one of the best

I have written a few articles about leaders simply because I know this is where guys mess up and that means less fish. I have been experimenting with leaders of all sizes and brands for over 30 years.

Trout are line shy most of the time and good leaders catch more fish, so use a good 3 or 4-pound fluorocarbon leader as a general-purpose trout leader.

You should know that not all leader brands rate their leaders properly. I catch all kinds of steelhead on a 3-pound and 4-pound Drennan leader, not because it’s just a super-strong leader, but because a 4-pound Drennan is actually closer to a true 8-pound test. An 8-pound leader is usually too thick for trout and they will see the line and not bite.

Other 4-pound leaders might be closer to a 3-pound test and that means they might break too much, especially if it’s a cheap brand.

I will use different leader sizes in different types of situations to make sure I am being as effective as possible. That’s why you should read What Pound Test Leader For Trout and see what I recommend.

If you just want me to tell you which one to get, I like to use 3-pound and 4-pound Rio FluoroFlex + Tippet for most of my trout fishing.

Best Weight For Float Leader Setup For Trout

Always use split shots for float fishing for trout and use the right ones. The right ones will be:

  • Black, grey, or neutral colors – DO NOT use shiny split shots
  • Round. Do not use the ones with the removable wings. These can twist and cause problems.
  • Soft – soft shots do not damage light leaders
  • Legal – Lead or Tin Shots – In some areas, lead split shots or any type of lead on the line is now illegal. Check the regulations for your area.

I use the same split shots for float fishing as I do when fly fishing and when using bottom bouncing methods. See Best Weights For River Fishing.

Best Hooks For Trout

These are good hook for your Float Fishing Leader

Hooks are one of the most important pieces of equipment and they can be a big difference in hooking fish or not.

You want a hook that is the right size and the right shape for the fish and the bait that you are using.

Some hooks just work better than others.

I still see many anglers using the old-school cheap bait hooks that you can get at the local tackle store, but let me tell you that expert rivers guides and all the top river anglers do not use these.

For more about my favorite hooks and why, and also which ones I use with different baits check out my page Best Hook Size For Trout: A Guides Advice On Trout Hook Size.

The Float Fishing Leader Setup

The Float Fishing Leader Setup can be used in most river conditions.
This is my go to trout float fishing rig in water 3 feet to 8 feet deep.

Now that you have all the required stuff, with the exception of good micro swivels, you need to know how to set it up properly.

I set my float fishing leader up a certain way to be able to get the best presentation. This top picture is the rig I use for big trout and for great lakes Steelhead.

The above illustration is my go-to trout float leader setup in water from 3 feet to 8 feet deep. Below is what I would use when fishing less than 3 feet.

Shallow Water Trout Float Fishing

Shallow water float fishing for trout
When shallow water float fishing for trout this is the float fishing setup that I use.

When Float fishing for smaller trout I adjust the line sizes to the river conditions like speed and clarity, and for the size of the trout.

I really clear water I use a 3-pound leader on the bottom and a 6-pound leader on the shot line

Check out my page 2 Float Fishing Leader Setups From A Pro River Guide.

Presentation Is the Key

You might think the most important part of float fishing for trout is the bait but I have witnessed hundreds of guys fish with great baits and still catch very few fish.

Presentation is the key to catching more trout and float fishing allows you to present your bait better. When it comes to float fishing for trout you need to understand 3 things. These are 3 things I mentioned before and are part of the 5 fundamentals of good float fishing for trout and for steelhead and salmon.

Just like the gear, doing one thing wrong is your weak link and it will affect your ability to catch a lot of trout.

Cover The Water Effectively

An angler covering the water well
One of my clients fishing some faster water. If you cover the water well you will catch more trout.

I use a very systematic approach to cover the water. I believe, based on 35 years of experience fishing for trout that trout can be anywhere in the river and are often where you least expect.

Therefore, if I’m going to fish a spot, I’m going to fish all of it, and not just that nice seam, or that deep pocket, or the most obvious spot that everyone else fish.

Many of the biggest trout that I and my clients catch are in water less than 2 feet deep when there is water closer by that is 4 feet or deeper. Why is that? Well, that’s a whole other story, but for now let me just say, start fishing everywhere.

The picture above shows the obvious spots that are circled in red. Most anglers will fish these spots and move on, but the lines indicate where I would fish, and as you can see I would run my bait through almost every foot or two of water on a spot like this and it often pays off with big trout from unsuspected places.

Find The Bottom

Fishing a river

I tell all my clients the first thing they should do in every new spot is to find the bottom because that is where the trout usually are.

The closer your bait is to those trout the more likely they are to bite it.

When float fishing you set the depth of the float and then cast. The depth of your float should be about the same length as the depth of the spot you are fishing. That’s easy to do if you can see the bottom and if you know exactly how deep the spot is.

What if you can’t see how deep it is?

I set my float and make a drift and if I start hitting bottom I will shorten up the leader, and if I don’t hit the bottom I will make the leader 12 inches deeper. A good river float will help you do this right.

The mistake most guys make is that they will keep adjusting and then when they hit the bottom they fish the whole spot with that length of leader. Unfortunately, many spots won’t be the same depth all the way through the spot.

Once I find the bottom, I will make a drift and when that drift is over I will make another drift about a foot further, and then again, and then again, and as I move my float further out towards the middle of the pool I will start to check my depth again by making it deeper once more.

I do this because sometimes you will set your depth perfectly at 4 feet deep for in close to you where you started fishing, but 6 feet out in the middle it might be 6 feet deep, and another 6 feet out it could be 9 feet deep.

You need to find the bottom to find the fish. The further your bait is from the trout, the less likely they are to bite it.

See How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float.

Control Your Speed – The Number 1 Fundamental Of Float Fishing

An angler float Fishing with flies

I mentioned before that I have seen hundreds of times when one client catches all the fish when his buddy beside him catches a few or none.

Even though they are using the same bait, the same leader, the same hook, the same everything, one guy still catches more fish.

The reason for this is the presentation, and a big part of that presentation is speed control.

Speed control is something that if I ask 100 guys about only a few will be able to tell me why it’s so important. Without speed control, all that other stuff above won’t matter.

When float fishing for any species, speed control is why one guy catches ten fish, and the other guy catches none.

Often I will be guiding two clients and I will use two different baits to try and determine what the trout want that day. I have even taken the good bait off the guy’s line that is catching all the fish and put it onto his buddy’s line, and then take the bad bait off the guy’s line that was not catching anything just to see what happens.

The crazy thing is that almost always, the good bait stops working and the bad bait starts catching all the fish. This clearly shows me that the bait is not the issue, it’s the guy using the bait and how he is using it.

The sad thing is that I would bet 80 to 90% of river anglers are just like the guy that isn’t catching any fish.

Using the right float is extremely important to control your speed, that’s why I cringe when I read articles from authors that say a red and white bobber is fine for trout fishing in a river, IT’s NOT and it NEVER will be!

To control your speed effectively you need to understand angles, and you need to know how to hold your float back (some call it trotting or checking the float) and you need to do it well and all the time.

For more in-depth details on why and how to do this effectively see my page on Controlling Your Speed When Float Fishing.

How To Catch More Trout When Float Fishing?

The right gear, combined with covering the water well, combined with finding the bottom, combined with using the right bait, and then topping it all off with speed control equals a lot more trout.

If any of these are off, you will be like those other guys that will struggle to catch fish. This is true when using a float for trout, steelhead, or salmon in a river.

Float fishing for steelhead is very productive, this angler hooked 50 steelhead this day
Float fishing for steelhead is so productive that this angler hooked 50 steelhead on a guided trip on this day. Another reason to learn to do it the right way.

For more details on float fishing and float fishing methods for steelhead and salmon, See Float Fishing: Expert Tactics And Tips.

Got A Question About Float Fishing For Trout

If you have a question or comment or advice about float fishing for trout, let me know in the comments below.

Tight Lines,


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  1. Graham,

    I am just getting back to fishing after many years, I have found your articles extremely educational. the one thing I have not found and was curious about is the shot line. I have looked at the images provided, but struggle to determine the the spacing. Do you have a specific spacing? From the image I can tell there is 1 at each swivel, and from the articles, depending on the float used varying amounts of AA or AB shot. I assume more to the top swivel, with the remaining shot spread out along the 2nd 3rd of the line. An example for a 6.4g float might be 2x shot at the top swivel, 1 ~3″ down, 1 ~4″ from the last, 1 at the bottom of the top 2/3rds of the shot line, and the last just above the second swivel. I hope that makes sense. I know it doesn’t have to be perfect but getting ballpark spacing, I am sure, will only add to my successes.

    Thanks for all the knowledge you have chosen to share, it really is invaluable.

    1. Hi Jay,

      You configuration will work. The key is more weight near the float, less weight near the bait. Spacing depend on if you use the same size split shots, in which cas i gradually increase disance the closer I get to the bait. However, some angler use different sized split shots evenly spaced, with the lager spit shots near the float, and the lightest splits shots near the bait.

      There is a diagram of these two setups on my page 5 most effective float fishing leaders.

      Good Luck.