What Is A Float Fishing Leader Setup?
Your float fishing leader setup is the bottom section of your line below your float. It’s important that your float fishing leader setup is done right and as a top river guide, I’ll show how.
These float fishing leader setups are proven to be the most effective. For the float fishing leader setup, you will need a float, a leader line, swivels, weights, hooks, and the knowledge on how to put it all together properly. These float fishing leader setups are effective in all river conditions.
I have tried dozens of float fishing leader setups over the last 30 years and I have seen some really bad ones and some really good ones. My float fishing leader setup works on rivers all around the great lakes and on the inland trout rivers that I have visited.
There are only 2 float fishing leader setups that anglers need to know for fishing in all types of water conditions but I have included a bonus 2 bait leader setup in this post so be sure to read it all.
I have also updated this post as of March 3rd, 2021, and answered some common questions about fishing my float fishing leader setup in both shallower water and in deeper water.
Before you get started you will need the right materials because the wrong float, the wrong weights, or the wrongs hooks will limit your success.
Unfortunately, I see anglers using poorly setup float fishing leaders all the time which shows me that they just don’t know any better. With a few simple adjustments and they could be catching a lot more fish.
To make the float fishing leader properly you will need the following:
- River Floats – Raven FM floats – Get at FishUSA.com – HERE
- Float Caps – Get at FishUSA.com – HERE
- Leader Line – 6lb, 8lb, and 10lb – Get at FishUSA.com -HERE
- Swivels – Get at FishUSA.com -HERE
- Weights – Split Shots – Get at FishUSA.com
- Hooks – Get at FishUSA.com – HERE
- Bait – See my page Best Baits For Float Fishing
- Forceps or Pliers – For pinching on the split shots.
- Scissors or Nippers – For cutting the leader.
Where To Buy Your Leader Material
The reason I recommend getting all your float fishing leader materials at FishUSA.com is that they are one of the few places online that have it all in one place and with great prices. FishUSA.com also tends to sell more specialty river fishing products that you can’t get at other places and they are a big company with fast shipping and good customer service.
Bass Pro Shops is also another good place to buy your float fishing leader materials but I find that they sometimes don’t have the good quality specialty river gear that top anglers and the pro river guides would use.
You can usually find all the gear you need on Amazon but I sometimes see great prices and I sometimes see these products that I recommend at ridiculously expensive prices, especially on the harder-to-get custom gear that I like.
As an example, I’ve seen leader spools selling for over 50 bucks on Amazon when they are less than $15.00 on FishUSA.com or on Bass Pro Shops.
River Fishing Floats
Some anglers will call them bobbers but when you are a river angler they are called floats. Floats are a very important part of your float fishing leader system but not all floats are good for river fishing.
You only need two types of floats for most rivers in North America, a solid float and a clear float.
The Raven Tackle floats are likely the most popular float around the great lakes region and for good reason, they work and they are inexpensive!
I use the Raven FM floats for most normal small to medium-sized rivers. For the right floats and sizes for different conditions and for the proper setup of the floats check out my page on the 5 Best Centerpin Floats For 2021
For very clear or slow water when the trout, steelhead, or salmon are very cautious I will use the clear Drennan Loafer floats. These are often my go-to floats for trout in a really clear trout stream.
There is a very good reason why a float designed for river fishing is more effective than bobbers not made for river fishing. I discuss the 4 key fundamentals to becoming a successful float angler and why floats are so important to learning these fundamentals on my page Float Fishing: Tips From A Pro River Guide For More Trout
Leaders – The Best Ones For Float Fishing
The leader material you buy and use is important when setting up your float fishing leader.
I often tell anglers that for steelhead fishing I use 8lb leader but then I pull out a spool of leader material from my vest and it says 4 pounds on the label, what’s the deal with that?
Honestly, for marketing and selling reasons, the leader brands do not always label their leader properly and this could mean you might be using the wrong sized leader which might mean no fish for you.
A leader that is too thick will be seen by the fish and you will struggle to get them to bite your bait. A leader that is too thin will mean more fish will bite your bait but you will likely break off too many fish.
My simple rule when buying leaders is to buy them based on the diameter of the leader, not the pound test that the company says it is because they are often misleading.
I have used many brands that say they are 0.20mm or .008″ diameter and they all break at about the same pound test, yet some say 4lb, some will say 6lb, and some say 8lb.
The reason I believe they do this is that anglers will use a leader labeled 6lb test that is actually 12 pounds and they will believe it’s super strong. They may even use an 8-pound test that is 16 pounds and it will be so thick that the fish won’t touch it.
The truth is that there are no laws or enforcement against this. This is why if I tell you to use an 8lb test leader you could be using a brand or leader that is so thick you might not catch any fish on it. Go by the diameter size below and you should be safe.
What Size Leader Is Best?
- For Small Trout – 0.12mm to 0.177mm or .004″ to .006″
- For Very Clear Water Steelhead– 0.18mm or 0.007in.
- For Clear to green water Steelhead– 0.20mm or .008in.
- For Off colored or dirty water, or faster and big rivers, or rivers with lots of wood – 0.22mm or .009in.
- For really big water like the Niagara river, and when fishing out west I may go up to 0.23mm to 0.26mm.
The best all-around size for a steelhead float fishing leader setup on most medium-sized rivers around the great lakes is 0.20mm or .008in leader.
I also recommend buying and using only high-quality fluorocarbon leaders from reputable brands since some of that cheap crap you can buy online will break and cause problems. I get into all those details and more on my page Steelhead Leaders – Catch More Steelhead Using These 3 Proven Float Fishing Leaders.
Weights And Swivels
You need weights for your float fishing leader setup. Without them and with the wrong ones or the wrong sizes you won’t have much success in moving water that is over 3 feet deep.
Simply put, your weights get your bait down to the fish faster and they keep the bait in the strike zone longer. That equals more fish.
Some states do not allow the use of lead weights so I will use the Orvis Non-Toxic Oval Split Shot instead when I fish in those states.
The weights we use on our float fishing leaders are called split shots, and the best split shots will be dark in color and not shiny silver. I use BB and AB size split shots the most. You can get the Sure Shot brand that I use at FishUSA.com – HERE.
I have an entire page on Weights For Fly And Float Fishing: Everything You Need To Know
Hooks For Float Fishing Leaders
You can see all the hooks that I recommend and use, and my tips on when to use them on my page 4 Best Float Fishing Hooks
Forceps Or Pliers
Forceps or plies will be required to pinch on the splits shots.
Pinch them on only enough to secure them but not crush them.
Crushing them may damage the line or make them go flat which can cause the line to spin.
Shot Patterns For Float Fishing Steelhead
I use something called a shot line for my float fishing leader setup and recommend it to all my clients for their float fishing leaders.
The shot line allows me to use a colored mainline or a clear line. The shot line is heavier than the lower part of the leader where the bait goes.
Because the shot line is heavier it lasts a long time and is reusable and rarely breaks.
The mainline on your reel should be heavier than the shot line, and the shot line should be heavier than the lower leader line. The reason you want the shot line to be heavier than the bottom leader is that you want the leader to break near the bait and not up the line.
There are two ways to set up your shot lines. My way is to use all the same size split shots and to space them out further apart as they get closer to the bait. You can see this in the picture.
The picture above shows my standard tapered leader for Great Lakes Steelhead. For steelhead, I use AB size split shots.
I use the same leader for trout but I just lighten the shot line to 0.20mm and in the bottom part of the leader I change it to 0.12mm to 0.16mm, depending on my needs. For the split shots on my trout leader, I may downsize to BB-sized split shots.
The other option which you can see on the right in the picture is to use a larger split shot on the top and then they progressively get smaller and smaller as you get closer to the bait while maintaining the same distance between each split shot.
You can see both options in this in the picture.
I have seen the big-to-small shot pattern recommended by float fishing companies and other anglers. Personally, I think it’s a great way to sell more splits shots since instead of buying just one or two sizes of split shots and doing it my way, you need to buy 6 to 8 sizes to do it their way.
The thing with both methods is that the results are exactly the same, they both have more weight at the top and less weight at the bottom.
The goal with the heavier weight at the top and the lighter weights at the bottom are to create the leader angle that you see in both of my diagram pictures. With the heavier weight at the top and lighter weight at the bottom, the idea is that the bait will go first so as not to spook the trout with the split shots, heavier leader line, or the float.
There is much more to this than just the bait going first and it’s a concept that you should know if you want to really want to improve your success. I discuss this and the 4 key fundamentals to catching more fish when float fishing on my page Float Fishing: Tips From A Pro River Guide For More Trout.
I often tell guys that I like my float fishing leader setup better because I’m lazy, but in reality, I’m just being practical.
My way is faster to do, requires only 1 size of split shot, and is just as effective as the other way.
This picture shows my exact leader that I use. In fact, this is a used leader I found hanging on the wall in my tying room with a 6.2-gram float and a pink worm, and a raven #10 sedge hook.
FYI I use 7 AB size split shots with a 6-gram float.
This is the best general-purpose leader for trout and steelhead and on almost all slow to fast-moving rivers.
I would increase my float size, and my weights, and my hook size on very large west coast rivers or on big rivers like the Niagara River.
Why I Always Use A Shot Line?
A reader just asked about what happens in shallower water and he asked if he just slides the float down and over the top swivel. My answer and the 3 reasons that I always use a shot line is this.
The reason for the swivel and the separate shot line is so that I can run a piece of fluorocarbon leader where my split shots go. There are 3 reasons for doing this.
1. The fluorocarbon is more abrasion resistant than your mainline (which is usually mono) so it’s less likely to break should it hit rocks or logs that are below the surface.
I tell my clients that if you cut mono 50% of the way through the line that you will lose about 80 or 90 percent of its strength, which means the 10-pound line is now 1 or 2 pounds, but if you cut fluorocarbon 50% of the way through you will retain about 50% of its strength.
Now, that’s just a guess and not exact science, but based on my experience, mono that has been nicked or cut breaks much easier than nicked fluorocarbon does.
2. The fluorocarbon shot line allows me to go lighter than the mainline so not only is the fluorocarbon more invisible underwater than the mainline, but it’s also thinner and that makes it even more invisible to the fish.
I know for a fact that in some situations, guys that run their mainline all the way down to the bottom swivel will be spooking some fish that see the line.
3. The fluorocarbon is also a clear line which allows me to use a high viz line as my mainline, (which I always do). The high viz line has a lot of advantages over a clear line, or a green line, especially for someone who is learning or for a guide like me that teaches most of the time.
You should never run your high-viz line down to the lower swivel as some websites suggest, this often results in fewer fish hooked.
The total length of my leader from that top swivel to the bait is usually 3 feet. This allows me to fish a 2.5-foot to 3-foot spot providing I get the right angle that I talk about.
Getting your angles right is critical to catching more fish when float fishing. If you aren’t sure about getting the right angles to check out my page Centerpin Fishing: An Expert Centerpin Guide Explains It.
It’s rare that I will float fish a spot that is less than 2.5 feet deep and if I do, I simply pull the float caps off my float and slide them over the micro-swivel and then slide some weights down and then put my float back on below the swivel at the desired depth.
Should I find fish in pocket water or in really shallow water under 2.5 feet deep, I will usually take the entire leader and float off and switch to a bottom bouncing rig which is far more effective in that type of water.
Fishing Deep Water With My Float Fishing Leader Setup
Someone asked a question about what to do if you fish deep water. For me, deep water means about 8 to 15 feet deep and I have two options for you.
Deepwater is a bit tricky because it usually requires more weight to get the bait all the way down to the bottom. If you add more weight, you will also need to up-size your float. This is why you will see guys using 12 to 16-gram slip floats on big rivers like the Niagara river or out on the big west coast steelhead rivers.
As you can see in the diagram, if I am fishing in a river where most spots are 3 to 6 feet deep, but 1 or 2 spots are 7 to 12 feet deep, I still use the same leader, but I just simply slide my float up the line to the desired depth and leave my shot line and everything else exactly as it is.
It’s almost like the bulk shotting method that I will talk about below since all your weight is near the bottom and near the fish. This helps the bait get down faster.
If I fish a lot in the deeper water I will add a couple of split shots on the mainline which I can slide up and down the line as needed. It’s not usually needed to add the split shots on the mainline but sometimes it helps keep your float from lying flat on the water.
When you back to a shallow spot you simple move the shots and the float down. You can see the added split shot up near the float in the diagram above.
Someone mentioned the fish seeing the mainline with this method. The fish shouldn’t see the mainline since the bait should still be 3 to 4 feet away from the bait.
I will also sometimes add a second leader with a second bait of about 12 to 20 inches tied off the hook bend of the top hook to make the whole leader longer and to get the shots and shot line higher up and away from the fish.
Adding the second leader and bait makes the entire leader closer to 6 feet deep which is better in the deeper water of 8 to 12 feet deep, and so there is less mainline in the water.
If I move back into shallower water again I can just remove the second bait and leader so I have a short leader again.
If you do decide to run the 2 baits, to make sure that the bottom bait is getting down to the fish or the bottom, I will add a split shot between the two baits, usually about dead center. See my 2 bait float fishing leader in the diagram below.
Float Fishing Leader Setup For Deeper Rivers
If I’m fishing a bigger river where all the spots are 10 feet or more my float fishing leader setup is a bit different.
For a deepwater float fishing leader setup I will make a shot-line of about 6 feet long and use larger splits shots, and then space them out in the same basic pattern as I would with my regular shot line.
The main difference is that on my normal shallow-water shot-line the space between the top two split shots might be only an inch apart because I need to get 5 to 7 splits on a 16 to 20″ piece of leader, therefore they all need to be closer.
But on my longer float fishing leader setup, I will use a 6-foot long shot line and the space between the top two split shots might start around 6 inches because now I have to fill up 6 feet of leader, and not just 20 inches of leader.
With the deep water float fishing leader, you will need to upsize the split shots to be sure the leader works properly and that the bait gets down fast enough.
I use lead shots around the size of a pea. or ones that are double the size of my normal AB-sized split shots. If I don’t have big enough split shots, instead of using just one AB or BB split shot, I may just put 2 or even 3 split shots side by side and I will do this at every split shot location.
Your float size also needs to increase to a 12 to 16-gram float. Slip floats are often the best to use when fishing water is deeper than your float rod is long. This will help you cast easier and will help you land the fish easier.
Fast Water Float Fishing Leader
This fast and deep float fishing leader setup which is known as a bulk shot leader or as bulk shotting is one that I might use when I need to get my bait down to the fish very fast.
With this rig, all 5 out of seven split shots are placed12 to 14 inches from the bait which will get your bait down really fast.
Keep the same length of shot line section for all depths and just slide your float up or down to get the desired depth.
I also keep the bait 8 to 14 inches from the lowest splits shots so that it gets down and stays down. In fast water, the fish won’t notice the split shots so you can keep them closer than you normally would.
I only use the bulk shot float fishing leader setup if the fish are holding at the bottom of deep drop-off ledges like in the picture below.
An example would be if I was fishing a spot in fast water where the bottom went from 2 feet deep to 7 feet deep very fast and all the fish are sitting on that 7-foot drop.
I would cast a couple of feet before the drop and the weights would pull the bait down the slope of the drop and into the strike zone.
This would be the only time I would use this type of float fishing leader, all other times my standard float fishing leader setup is better.
Is Split Shot On The Bottom Leader OK?
Someone recently asked if it’s OK to add a split shot to the bottom section of the leader as seen in this diagram and the answer is yes, but only do it if you need to.
My float fishing leader uses a 16 to 24 inch bottom leader. 16 inches from the weight is not that far and the bait should get down and stay down. But, there are times when I will add a weight to this part of the leader.
The reason I don’t do this very often is that the split shot between the bottom swivel and the bait can easily slide down and hit the bait.
As long as you are observant and keep checking to make sure that split shot doesn’t slide down to the bait it will be fine and it could even work better than not having it there, especially when fishing more buoyant baits.
Most guys will fish many drifts before they notice that the split shot has slid down to the bait, and that wastes time and can spook fish on that drift and on all other drifts after that even if you move the split shot up, so I have a little trick that I use.
Guide Tip: I have been known to use a split shot between the bottom swivel and the bait when I use buoyant baits like a Berkley Trout Worm but you could do it with any bait if you feel you are not getting down to the fish.
To do this right, I will sometimes cut the leader dead center between the swivel and the bait and then tie in a Triple Surgeons Knot or Uni-to-Uni Knot, and then I will place my split shot above the knot so that it can’t slide down to the bait.
2 Bait Float Fishing Leader Setup
When I use a double bait rig, the second bait is far from the closest split shot and that can mean that the bottom bait won’t be able to get down to the fish or won’t stay down.
This is more true on light baits like a plastic worm.
Therefore, when I fish two baits I will sometimes add a split shot between the two baits to be sure that both baits are getting down to the fish and the bottom.
Got A Question About Float Fishing Leaders
Hopefully, I didn’t miss anything about float fishing leaders and how to set them up, but if you have a question or comment or an idea that works for you let me and all the readers know in the comment section below.