Float Fishing Ohio: Guide Tips For 10X More Fish

Float fishing Ohio rivers like the Grand River can be a great way to catch steelhead like this.
Float fishing Ohio rivers like the Grand River can be a great way to catch steelhead like this.

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

I have guided for 22 years using the float fishing method for trout, steelhead, and salmon. There are some things I’ve learned over this time on the water that have greatly improved my client’s ability to catch more fish, and I share this info with you here. 

What is float fishing?

Guide Graham with a nice steelhead, see the float rod and reel behind him.
Guide Graham with a nice steelhead, see the float rod and reel behind him.

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

Float fishing is a widely used and effective steelhead and trout fishing method.

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

  1. Speed
  2. Depth
  3. Setup
  4. Bait selection

I will tell you this from experience. If you get one of these things wrong, you will struggle to catch fish; if you get 2 of these wrong, you are almost guaranteed not to catch fish.

And I will be honest with you: all these things are equally important.

However, at the core of float fishing, four things are common to the setup of the float fishing method. Some are critical, and some not so much:

What You Need For Float Fishing Streams In Ohio

  1. Rod – A longer rod is preferred. 10 to 14 feet is best, even in smaller streams.
  2. Reel – There are three types of reels suitable for float fishing, a spinning reel, a baitcasting reel, and the best is a Centerpin reel.
  3. Fishing line – Generally, a good monofilament line or braided line is best. 
  4. Hooks – Guides are very picky when it comes to the hook they use. Some hooks are far better than others.
  5. A River Float – Some floats are much better than others when it comes to river fishing.
  6. A Leader – You won’t get many bites if your leader is too thick. On the other hand, if your leader is too thin, you will break off too many fish.
  7. Bait – There are four baits you should be using for maximum success.

I will discuss these in greater detail below.

What Ohio River Can You Float Fish?

An angler float fishing
Most rivers are suitable for float fishing if they are deeper than 3 feet deep with some current.

All Ohio rivers are suitable for float fishing. You need to adjust your setup based on the type of water, which primarily means the current’s depth and velocity.

Float fishing is an excellent method on all types of waters, from fast rivers like the Conneaut River to slow and deep sections like you see on the lower Vermilion River to shallow rivers like the Ashtabula River.

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

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

In water longer than my rod is long, in other words, over 10 feet, I will switch to a slip float, which, if set up properly, will enable me to fish spots even over 20 feet deep.

Float fishing is one technique that even an entry-level angler can easily figure out.

Reels For Float Fishing

One of the most important things you will need is the right kind of float reel. Some reels are better than others for the float fishing method.

Generally, the commonly used types of float reels for fishing under a float are centerpin reels and spinning reels. 

Centerpin Reels Are Best For Float Fishing In Ohio

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

Centerpin reels are characterized by their extremely high-quality bearings that allow for free spool spin as the current pulls the float down the river. 

Using a centerpin reel makes for very long, precise drifts without mending or feeding the line out. This greatly improves your ability to keep your bait in the strike zone for long 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 type of river.

Spinning Reels

Spinning reels are, in my opinion, the second-best reel for float fishing, but they are the most popular reel. I only use a spinning reel if my clients insist or if I need a multipurpose reel for other methods.

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

The best spinning reels for Ohio float fishing should hold a large amount of line, provide good smooth drag, and a large smooth spool where the line is able to come off freely. 

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 30 for most river and fishing conditions.

Float Rods

The importance of float rods in Steelhead fishing cannot be overemphasized. The rod is what you use to get a good presentation and to fight big fish.

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

Whether for centerpin or spinning reel, long rods between 10 to 14 feet are best, and my go-to size is 13 feet.

The size of the river you’ll be fishing will determine the length of your rod; the larger the river, the longer the rod. 

Basic Float Fishing Rig

Below is a quick visual on the basic float fishing setup or gear required outside the rod or reel.


Float Fishing Rig
This is my standard float fishing rig for a single bait.

This is one piece of gear that is often overlooked by many anglers. Using the right hooks will go a long way to improve your success. 

Some hooks suck, and the wrong hook obviously will mean few fish.

The best hooks will penetrate better and will hold on better. 

There are 5 or 6 good hooks that float fishing guides use, but to keep it simple. My top two recommendations for float fishing hooks are the Raven Specimen Hook and the very popular Gamakatsu Octopus Hook.

These are good hook for your Float Fishing Leader

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.

Generally, a size 8 or 10 will work for most Ohio rivers and for both trout and steelhead. I probably use size ten more than any other size. 

However, all these are subject to personal preference. I discuss more on float fishing hooks on my page: 5 Best Hooks For Float Fishing: What The Guides Use.

Leader Line

Drennan Leader For Steelhead
Drennan leader material is great for steelhead. This is the old label (left) and the new label on the right.

When it comes to leaders, you want a leader so light that the fish do not see it, yet heavy enough that the larger fish do not keep breaking you off. 

Through years of experience, this is what I have found to be best in Ohio:

  • Trout Fishing: 3 to 4-pound leader

Steelhead Fishing:

  •  Clearwater, smaller rivers: 6-pound (0.18mm)
  •  Best general purpose leader: 8 pounds (0.20mm)
  •  Large rivers, fast currents, large steelhead: 10 pound (0.22mm)

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

Generally, there are two sections (the shot line section and the 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.


The swivel helps to untwist the line during line retrieval. This way, you would prevent undesirable tangling of the line, which can lead to its weakening.

The Floats

Steelhead floats comparison
You can see a wider float on the left and a thinner float on the right. For bigger pools, I tend to go with wider floats.

The right float will help you control your speed, gauge your depth, and catch more trout steelhead. 

You need a float that is suitable for the type of water you intend to fish, whether in terms of the depth and size of the river. My go-to floats are:

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

You can learn more on how to choose the best floats for your float fishing by checking out my page on 5 Best Centerpin Floats for 2022.

Split Shots

I only use round split shots that are dark in color. I do NOT use the shiny weights or the ones with the little removable wings.

Best Baits

Rainbow trout baits

There are a lot of baits that anglers use. However, guides are selective and have narrowed down the most effective and most consistent baits, and they use them 95 percent of the time and ignore the less effective baits.

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

 For this reason, I always have multiple good baits with me, and I rotate through the baits, the sizes, and the colors to figure out which baits are going to trigger a strike response.

Consider these baits

  • Salmon Eggs and Trout Eggs: At certain times of the year, this is an effective bait for trout and steelhead.
  • Worms: Generally effective in spring, but can also be effective all year.
  • Artificial Flies: Artificial flies that 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 More Fish When Float Fishing In Ohio

How to put a bait on a hook
An example of where you want to put your bait on a hook to be sure most of the hook is covered but also to be sure the hook gap is wide enough, and the hook point is not covered.

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

A well-presented bait dramatically improves the possibility of a hookup, but so does each part of the formula, and if other parts of the formula are wrong, even an excellent presentation won’t work.

As an example, I don’t know how many times I’ve had two anglers on a guide trip, both using the exact same gear and same bait, and one catches 90% of the fish.

There is a reason for this, and once you understand it, you can catch a lot more fish.

So, let me explain this so you understand it and so you can start catching more fish. If your presentation is perfect, but you use a hook to big for the bait, you will struggle.

If your presentation and your hook are perfect, but the leader is so thick the fish see it, you will struggle.

If you use the perfect setup and the most effective bait, but your speed or depth are off, you will struggle.

Think about it, if everything is perfect and you have a great bait on the line, but that bait is 5 feet over the fish’s heads and the fish are only willing to move 2 feet for a bait, everything that is perfect is useless because your bait is too far for them.

What I’m saying is that each part of the formula needs to be perfect, or the other parts of the formula CAN NOT be as effective.

The reason why one angler catches 90 percent of the fish when they are both using the exact same gear, the same setup, and they are both fishing at the same depths, is the speed of their presentation. 

Almost always, the angler catching 90 percent of the fish is able to present their bait at the same speed as all the natural food sources the fish are feeding on, while the other angler’s bait is moving unnaturally fast and is deterring fish from biting. 

I’ve said many times that speed control is the most critical part of your presentation, and I say this from experience.

Everything needs to be perfect, and you can not use a bad hook or a bad leader and think it does not matter because I guarantee you that it does matter. 

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

Be sure to check out the Ohio Department of Natural Resources for laws and regulations for fishing Ohio.

Tight Lines


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