Float Fishing In Pennsylvania: Tactics and Tips

Float fishing in Pennsylvania is a great way to catch big steelhead like this one.
Float fishing in Pennsylvania is a great way to catch big steelhead like this one.

As a fishing guide for trout, steelhead, I consider only three methods to be effective enough that I will use actually use them, and float fishing in Pennsylvania streams is often the most effective method if the section of river is over 3 feet deep.

Pennsylvania has many great steelhead and trout rivers, and the reason float fishing works so well is the ability to keep your bait suspended above the fish’s heads and in the strike zone for extended periods. This dramatically improves the amount of fish you can catch.

There are things most anglers do or don’t do when float fishing that prevent them from catching fish that they should have caught. Once you understand these simple float fishing tips and tricks, I believe you can catch ten times more fish, and you can do it more consistently.

Whether you are the person on the river catching the most or the least fish, I assure you that the guide methods and tips I will share can improve your success when float fishing in Pennsylvania streams.

About Float Fishing In Pennsylvania?

Float fishing in Pennsylvania is a great way to catch big river rainbow trout like this one.
Float fishing in Pennsylvania is a great way to catch big river rainbow trout like this one.

Float fishing generally refers to a fishing method where you suspend your bait below a specialized float or bobber designed for river fishing. The float allows the bait attached to drift naturally down the river with the current moving the float for you.

Float fishing is widely used and is the most effective steelhead, salmon, and trout fishing method on many rivers.

As simple as it seems, there are fundamentals associated with this form of fishing, and I have discovered that the recipe for success comes down to 4 things.

  • Speed Control
  • Depth Control
  • Presentation
  • Bait Selection

A List Of Pennsylvania Rivers You Can Float Fish

All Pennsylvania rivers are suitable for float fishing if they have areas with depths greater than 3 feet. Ensure that you adjust your float fishing setup based on the type of water, which primarily means the current’s depth and velocity will allow you to fish almost all Pennsylvania rivers, even if you are limited to just the deeper pools.

Float fishing is an excellent method on all types of streams, from fast to slow and deep to shallower rivers.

If the water is deeper than 3 feet deep and is shallower than 13 feet, it is optimal for float fishing.

Sections under 3 feet deep, especially if it is very clear water, the float can spook the fish, and therefore, in this type of water, or in tiny pockets less than a few feet long, I will switch to bottom bouncing methods or fly fishing.

Best Steelhead Rivers For Float Fishing In Pennsylvania

  1. Elk Creek
  2. Walnut Creek
  3. Twenty Mile Creek
  4. Conneaut Creek
  5. Steelhead Alley (includes various tributaries such as Trout Run, Crooked Creek, and Sixteen Mile Creek)
  6. Godfrey Run
  7. Cascade Creek
  8. Four Mile Creek

Best Trout Rivers For Float Fishing In Pennsylvania

  1. Delaware River
  2. Susquehanna River
  3. Lehigh River
  4. Penns Creek
  5. Allegheny River
  6. Juniata River
  7. Lackawanna River
  8. Schuylkill River

Reels For Float Fishing

This image shows how I hold my Centrpin Reel
This client of mine is holding his reel exactly how I hold my reel. For me, this is the most comfortable grip.

If you are planning on float fishing in Pennsylvania, one of the most important things you will need is the right kind of reel. Some reels are better than others for the float fishing method, and there are 3 you can choose from.

Generally, the commonly used types of float reels for fishing with float are centerpin reels and spinning reels. Some anglers will also use open-face baitcasting reels.

Centerpin Reels Are Best For Float Fishing In Pennsylvania

A Centerpin reel is a large round spool that sits on a center pin or post, giving it its name, the Centerpin. The Centerpin reel is also commonly called a float reel.

Centerpin reels are characterized by their extremely high-quality bearings that allow for the free spool of the reel and line as the current pulls the float down the river. The angler merely controls the amount of line coming out with slight pressure on the reel if it starts spinning to fast.

Using a centerpin reel makes very long, precise drifts much easier than other reels without mending or feeding the line out. This greatly improves your ability to keep your bait in the strike zone for longer and improves your success.

Based on about 30 years of experience using Centerpin reels and comparing them to spinning reels and even baitcasting reels, I can honestly say that the Centerpin reel is the best reel for float fishing in any river.

Spinning Reels For Float Fishing In Pennsylvania

Float fishing in Pennsylvania is a great way to catch big brown trout trout like this one.
PFloat fishing in Pennsylvania is a great way to catch big brown trout trout like this one.

Spinning reels are, in my opinion, the second-best reel for float fishing in Pennsylvania rivers, yet they are by far the most popular reel for river fishing. I only use a spinning reel if my clients insist or if I need a multipurpose reel for other methods, such as lure fishing or drift fishing.

Even though the line does not come smoothly off the spinning reel compared to a Centerpin reel, with practice, the spinning reel still maintains a good presentation and long drifts.

The best spinning reels for Pennsylvania float fishing should hold a large amount of line, and have a good smooth drag system, combined with a large smooth spool that allows the line to come off the reel easily.

The spinning reel you use should also match the size of the river and the size of the fish.

I recommend a spinning reel of size 25 or 30 (2500 to 3000) for most river and fishing conditions.

Float Rods For Float Fishing Pennsylvania

Float Rods - Image By Dylan @mr_sandy_pond
Float Rods – Image By our team photographer Dylan @mr_sandy_pond – Click the image to see more from Dylan

The importance of float rods in Steelhead fishing cannot be overemphasized. You use the rod to get a good presentation and fight big fish so the rod is important for your float fishing success.

By saying this, I don’t mean you have to go buy the most expensive float rod which could cost over $1000.00. You just need the right size of float rod.

To increase your chances of success on the river, you want to ensure that your float rod has the right length, power, and stiffness for where you intend to fish and the size of the fish you fish for.

Generally, when float fishing in Pennsylvania rivers, whether for centerpin or using a spinning reel, long rods between 10 to 14 feet are best, and my go-to size is 13 feet. I will even use long 10-foot rods in small streams less than 15 feet wide.

The size of the river you’ll be fishing will determine the length of your rod in many cases. However, the long rod improves your presentation by enabling you to keep the line up and off the water.

The long rod also protects light leaders, which are often necessary on most Pennsylvania rivers. A general rule is the larger the river, the longer the rod.

Basic Float Fishing Rig

Single trout bead rig - Best leader setup
This is my single trout bead rig for below a float.

Below is what you are going to need for the float fishing setup. There are plenty of ways to set the leader up, but I recommend my tested and proven float leader setup.

It’s relatively easy to make if you have all the right parts, which I’ll discuss below. I can’t stress enough how important some of those parts are to ensuring success, so if you mickey-mouse this leader with the wrong parts, you will struggle to catch fish.

Hooks For Float Fishing Pennsylvania

These are good hook for your Float Fishing Leader

This is one piece of gear that is often overlooked by many anglers, although it is a critical part of the leader. Using the right hooks will go a long way in improving the success of your float fishing in Pennsylvania.

Some hooks are not effective, and using the wrong hook obviously means catching fewer fish.

I only use the best hooks that I know will penetrate better on the hook-set and will hold on better with fewer fish coming off.

I and other guides use only 5 or 6 types of hooks, but to keep it simple, my top two recommendations for float fishing hooks which can be found in most stores, are the Raven Specimen Hook (see at www.fishusa.com) and the very popular Gamakatsu Octopus Hook.

The choice of your hook size will depend on the different water conditions, the size of the fish, and different baits.

As a rule of thumb, bigger hooks will be suited for bigger baits and smaller hooks for smaller baits and smaller fish as well. However, I’ve caught plenty of large steelhead on small baits with very small hooks.

Generally, a size 8 or 10 hooks will work for most Pennsylvania rivers and for both trout and steelhead. I probably use size ten more than any other size. At times, especially with very small baits like a single salmon egg, I will use a size 12 hook.

Just keep in mind, the smaller the hook the less it hooks up and the more likely it will dislodge from the fish’s mouth during long battles.

Leader Line For Float Fishing Pennsylvania

The trout and steelhead leader line you use are very important when it comes to float fishing Pennsylvania rivers.

When it comes to leaders, you need to find a middle-ground leader and change based on conditions and fish size.

I use a leader so light that the fish do not see it and this gets my clients a lot more bites, yet I know the leader needs to be heavy enough that the larger fish do not keep breaking off.

Through years of experience, this is what I have found to be best in Pennsylvania streams for different species:

  • Trout Fishing: 3 to 4-pound leader
  • Steelhead Fishing: Clearwater, smaller rivers: 6 pounds (0.18mm) Best general purpose leader: 8 pounds (0.20mm) Large rivers, fast currents, large steelhead: 10 pounds (0.22mm)
  • Salmon Fishing: Very clear water and small streams:10 pound (0.22mm), General purpose: 12 pounds (0.24mm), Fast water and large rivers: 14 pounds (0.25mm)

I only use fluorocarbon leaders, and I use two sizes on my leader setup.

Generally, there are two sections (the shot line section and bottom section) of the leader setup, and you will need two different leader sizes. As a rule of thumb, the shot-line leader should be about two sizes heavier than the lower leader size.

Swivels For Float Fishing

The swivel helps to keep line out of the line. Sometimes the line will twist during line retrieval. This way, you prevent undesirable tangling of the line, which can lead to line weakening.

The Best Floats For Rivers

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

A float is the center of floating, as suggested by its name. Not all river floats are created equal, and some floats perform better while others fall short. Avoid round floats and use thin floats with a pointed top.

The right river float will help you control your speed(which is critical) as well as gauge your depth (by detecting the bottom), Help you detect bites easily, and ultimately catch more trout, steelhead, and salmon.

You need a float that is suitable for the type of water you intend to fish, considering the depth and size of the river. This means both shape and size. My go-to floats are:

In water deeper than my rod is long, I switch to a slip float which, if set up properly, enables me to fish spots even over 20 feet deep. Otherwise, when float fishing in water 3 to 10 feet deep, I always use what is known as a fixed float.

  • Drennan Loafer Floats: Best for clear water and slow water
  • Raven FM Floats: Great for most situations.

Float Size: For deeper, faster water that requires more weight, use a bigger float. 8 to 16 grams. 16 grams float would be suitable for very large rivers like the Niagara River. For most PA rivers, I prefer a 4-gram to 6-gram float.

There are some other factors I consider when deciding on the right float. You can learn more about choosing the best floats for your float fishing by checking out my page on “5 Best Centerpin Floats”.

Split Shots / Weights For Float Fishing Pennsylvania

I only use round split shots that are dark in color. I do NOT use shiny weights or ones with little removable wings. At times the shiny ones can spook the fish. At other times it can attract them, and they will bite the weight, which you don’t want.

You want subdued weights that won’t take the attention away from the bait.

Best Baits For Float Fishing Pennsylvania

Rainbow trout baits

There are a lot of baits that anglers use and many baits that anglers should not, like corn, marshmallows, and some artificial baits.

However, guides are selective and have narrowed down the most effective and consistent baits for trout, steelhead, and salmon.

These are baits they use 95 percent of the time, ignoring the less effective baits.

I choose my baits based on the conditions, and at certain times of the year or under specific water conditions, a normally effective bait might not be as successful.

For this reason, I always have multiple good baits with me. If I select a bait and it doesn’t work, I rotate through different baits, different sizes, and colors to figure out which ones are going to trigger a strike response.

Consider these Proven float fishing baits:

  • Salmon Eggs and Trout Eggs: At certain times of the year, this is an effective bait for trout, steelhead, and salmon.
  • Worms: Worms are generally effective in spring, but they can also be effective all year round.
  • Artificial Flies: Artificial flies, the kind fly fishermen use, can be effective at any time of the year, and at times, they are the most effective.
  • Live baits: This can include insects like crickets, hellgramites, stoneflies, beetles, mealworms, grubs, minnows, leeches, crayfish, etc.
  • Artificial baits: This can include plastic imitations of the above baits as well as baits like Powerbait Doughs.

Tips To Catch 10 Times More Fish When Float Fishing Pennsylvania Streams

There is a simple formula for success when it comes to float fishing, and if you mess up even part of it, you will struggle to catch fish.

I have said this many times, a well-presented bait dramatically improves the possibility of a hookup, but the same goes for each part of the formula. If other parts of the formula are wrong, even an excellent presentation can be ineffective.

Let me explain, and if you really understand this, you can start catching more fish. I have often wondered about the real reasons why some guys will catch 20 and others fishing the same method on the same river catch few or no fish. Haven’t you?

Well, as a guide, I’ve seen it firsthand.

If your presentation is perfect, which many claim is the key to catching fish, but you use a hook that is too big for the bait and the trout see it, you will struggle.

If your presentation and hook are perfect, but the leader is too thick and is visible to the fish, you will also struggle.

Even if you have the perfect setup, and you have the most effective bait, and you have a great presentation, if the speed of your bait is wrong, or the depth of your bait is wrong, you will struggle to catch fish.

Think about it: If everything seems perfect, and you have a great bait on the line, but that bait is positioned 5 feet above the fish’s heads, and the fish are only willing to move 2 feet for a bait, everything you are doing correctly is useless because your bait is out of of the fish’s strike zone.

What I’m saying is that each part of the formula for good float fishing needs to be perfect for the other parts to be as effective.

I’ve often emphasized that speed control is the most critical part of your presentation, and I say this from experience. I’ve seen one angler fish perfectly and control his bait speed through the pool and catch 10 fish, while his buddy with the exact same setup and bait drags his bait through the pool and catches nothing. The only difference is the speed of the bait.

I discuss speed control, depth finding, how to set your float depth, as well as baits and leader setups on the following pages:

Fishing Rules and Regulations

If you are going to fish you should know things like how many baits can you have on your leader, do you need a fishing licence or a tag for steelhead, trout or salmon, and what rivers are open and when can you legally fish them.

Check the rules and regulations on your State DNR website.

Float Fishing Pennsylvania Q&A

If you have questions or want to share your tips, tricks, and advice on float fishing Pennsylvania rivers, let us know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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