Float Fishing With Flies: Expert Advice

Float fishing with flies

There are times when flies are the best bait for trout or steelhead and as a guide, I know that float fishing with flies will put more fish in the net for my clients. I will discuss my tactics, 4 leader setups, and my best flies for float fishing with flies.

Float fishing with flies is when you drift flies under a float on a specially constructed lead. If you have the right leader set up and know how to get the best presentation float fishing with flies can be a deadly tactic for trout, steelhead, and even salmon in a river.

When Should You Float Fish?

Deeper flatter water like this is great for float fishing with flies
Deeper flatter water like this is great for float fishing with flies.

The best time to float fish is when you are in spots in the river that are 2.5 feet deep or deeper.

When you start getting into shallower water less than 2.5 feet deep you risk the fish seeing the float and getting spooked or you risk your flies getting stuck on the bottom too much.

In spots that are less than 2.5 feet deep, I will often switch to a method known as Bottom Bouncing and I will use my advanced bottom bouncing technique which is exceptionally effective in shallow water and pocket water.

I also like to float fish in bigger pools or runs. In pocket water, float fishing is not always the best method unless it’s deep.

Fast Shallow trout water
Fast shallow rivers like this are not good for float fishing and I will change to the bottom bouncing method for this type of water.

Float Fishing With Flies Using A Spinning Reel

You can float fish using spinning gear and it’s not uncommon for guys to switch from float fishing to bottom bouncing to casting lures.

Some spinning reels are better than others. Some spinning reels allow the line to come off the reel easier, some will hold more line for those big long drifts and some have better drag systems. To see which reels I use and recommend go to my page 4 Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing.

Spinning reels are the best reels to use if you want to change tactics often, but if you just want to do float fishing with flies or other baits, there is no better reel than a Centerpin reel.

Float Fishing With Flies Using A Centerpin Reel

Centerpin reels were made to float fish and when it comes to float fishing with flies or any other bait the simple and honest truth is that there is no better reel for float fishing.

The float fishing reel allows anglers to get long smooth and controlled drifts which greatly improves your presentation and that means more fish in the net.

if you are not sure about what Centerpin fishing is check out my page Centerpin Fishing For Beginners – 20 Steps.

Rods For Float Fishing With Flies

When float fishing with flies on a river I always prefer longer rods of 8 to 12 feet long. Even when I’m fishing on smaller rivers that are only 10 feet wide I still like rods from 8 to 10 feet long.

The longer rods allow you to float fish with flies better because the longer rods keep the line up and off the water and that gives you more control on your float and a better hook set.

The longer rods are great when float fishing for flies because they will protect your light leaders which are often needed when using flies.

Best Line When Float Fishing With Flies

The best line to use when float fishing with flies or with any bait is a monofilament line that floats.

There are times when you will make a long drift and the line will need to settle on the water. If the line sinks and gets pulled by the current it can cause problems like pulling your float sideways, or the line will float beyond your float and create too much slack which is bad for hook sets.

A line that sinks is also harder to get a good hook set.

Floating lines can be mended or managed better and that means a better presentation and a better hook set.

You can also use braided lines when float fishing but braided lines have no stretch and I have found that on shorter and stiffer rods guys will break off fish on the hook set.

Braided lines can also freeze during the winter.

I discuss the best lines for float fishing on my page 5 Best Float Fishing Lines For 2021.

Best Floats To Use When Float Fishing With Flies

The best floats for float fishing with flies.

When it comes to river fishing we call them floats and not bobbers.

The floats we use are long thin and sensitive and if you use the right floats the float will do more than just detect a bite.

You can use the float to help you detect the bottom and to help you control the speed of the bait which will improve your hookups.

The right float will also tell you if you are dragging bottom, or if your flies are upriver or downriver.

Flies that are upriver are bad, flies that are slightly downriver are good, flies that are too far down the river are also bad.

Anyone that tells you a round bobber like those old-school red and white bobbers is Ok to use when fishing for trout in rivers is an idiot. You will NEVER see a good river guide using a round red and white bobber and for very good reason, they suck!

Use the right floats and learn how to use them to get a better presentation and you will catch more trout.

I Use different floats in different types of water. In shallow and clear water I use the Drennan Loafer float and in medium, to deep water, I use the Raven FM float.

I discuss the best floats for float fishing on my page 5 Best Centerpin Floats For 2021

The 2 best Leader Setups When Float Fishing With Flies

When float fishing with flies I use 3 leader setups. Setting up your leader properly will help you catch more trout.

These 3 leader setups are all you will need for any type of water.

The Shallow Water Setup

When float fishing with flies in shallow water that is between 2.5 and 4 feet deep I use this leader setup.

You simply slide the float up and down as needed.

I also use the clear Drennan Loafer floats if the water is shallow and clear so I don’t spook the fish.

Medium to Deep Water Float Setup

This is the deepwater rig that I use up to 12 feet deep.

I will use this leader in water as shallow as 4 feet deep simply by sliding the 2 weights and the float down to the swivel.

This is the rig that I use the most for steelhead and in trout water that is not super clear.

2 Fly Float Setup

In my area, we are allowed to run up to 3 flies so most of the time when I am float fishing nymphs I will run this 2 fly setup.

Having 2 flies allows you to cover different depths which helps you determine if the fish are all feeding low or if they are feeding high.

Running two flies also means you can experiment with flies and see which ones the fish want the most.

Bottom Bouncing Float Rig

This is a unique rig that works well in shallow to deep water when float fishing nymphs

With this rig, all the weights are on the bottom and below the fly and the flies are always up and off the bottom and in the strike zone.

Recent studies indicate that trout only feed off the bottom 13% of the time so it’s much more effective to keep your fly off the bottom.

I tell my clients that it’s better to be 12 inches off the bottom than 1 inch under the trout’s head.

The weights are on what I call the tag line and you can run a short tag line and have the fly closer to the bottom or you can run a long tag line and have the fly further up the line.

Often times I will also hang a second fly up the line off of the swivel.

With this rig you may lose a few more weights but I rarely lose any flies.

Best Flies When Float Fishing With Flies

I love to use flies known as nymphs as well as egg flies, and small streamer flies like Woolly Buggers and Clousers.

Some of my favorite patterns are:

  • Frenchie
  • SOS Fly
  • Polish Pheasant Tail Nymph
  • Surveyor
  • Pheasant tail and bead-head pheasant tail nymph
  • Rainbow Warrior

Also, check out these great flies from The Fly Fiend:

  • Glassy Peacock Nymph
  • Sexy Walts Worm
  • Hot Tag Hares Ear
  • The Bio Biot
  • Ice Dub Pheasant tail
  • D-Rib Stonefly
  • Polo Club Pheasant Tail
  • The Last Tag Nymph
  • Flash Back Quill Baetis
  • Olive Wired Soft Hackle
  • Diamond Braid Biot Emerger
  • Surveyor Scud
  • UVP Nymph

Got A Question About Float Fishing With Flies

I hope you learning something new but if you have a question or comment or a tip for me and the readers about float fishing with flies, let me know in the comments section below.

Tight Lines,


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  1. Great information!
    I am fishing the Trinity River in Northern California for steelhead. I am using a 13ft redline with an Okuma centerpin. I have noticed a stonefly hatch (salmon fly to be exact) not yet adults, I believe the term Naiad is its phase. They are about 2″ long. And are everywhere. What is the fly you’d use this size and how would you fish it? Just like a wet fly? Is there some way to use a dry fly with the centerpin set up?

    Thanks for your help.

    1. Hi Nik,

      If the steelhead are coming to the surface for flies, you could use an 8 or 9 weight fly rod and a floating line for this. Just drift the dry fly pattern along the surface. You could also nymph below an indicator, or you could use a wet fly swing with a similar-looking fly pattern. I would like try all 3 methods and see which worked best.

      It’s not ideal, but I don’t see what you could not use a float and a dry fly if you really had no other option. juts cast the float out with 3 to 6 feet of leader below the float and let the float and fly drift along the surface. You could also present the fly below the float since it’s likely the steelhead are eating 90% below the surface even if you see them rising for flies.

      Good Luck,


  2. Good Morning!. Been doing well fishing the Lake Erie tribs this winter. Just a hobby after my retirement that has really taken off. I received a new 7wt set up for this Xmas and am chomping at the bit to try it out. Upon walking the creek yesterday, I noticed many fish in 1-2’ of water. What would be a good terminal starting point considering the conditions? Thank You very much’
    I pretty much have the center pin understood and need info as to leaders, tippet etc.methods……

  3. This website is like the bible for fishing thank you graham it has helped me go from no fish to my best years yet.

  4. Thank you for this information. I’m going to the Methow river in Washington . Do you have any suggestions on using a center pin float fishing rod using flies? I have never fished the Methow. Thanks

    1. Hey Ron,

      In the past, the Methow river has one of the highest return rates of wild steelhead in Washington state but things have changed so special fishing regulations on steelhead now apply and they can change from year to year. Hopefully, it will be back to normal regulations and good fishing with the recent stocking efforts.

      You could try the stretch from Lower Burma Road to Gold Creek, but again check the regs.

      If fishing is permitted, Egg sacs, skein, and your typical nymph patterns will all work under a float.

      Many of the same flies I recommend on my page best flies for steelhead will work on the Methow River steelhead. Try Wooly buggers, egg sucking leaches, zonkers, mayfly and stonefly imitations, worm patterns, and egg patterns.

      Best of luck,