Float Fishing: Tips From A Pro River Guide For More Trout

Float Fishing For Trout

Get Your Float Fishing Advice From An Expert

I was introduced to float fishing for trout over 36 years ago on a small river near my house. Now I teach float fishing to thousands of other anglers through my guide service and I’m hear to teach you.

Float fishing means that you are presenting your bait below a float or a bobber. Float fishing is one of the best methods for catching trout in small and large rivers. The great thing about float fishing for trout is that you don’t need a lot of gear and it’s easy to learn if you follow my tips.

If you learn to float fish well you will catch more trout, but if you don’t understand certain fundamentals of float fishing for trout you will have a hard time catching trout. I can teach you these fundamentals.

I will go over every aspect of float fishing but you can jump to any section using our handy table of contents.

What Do You Need To Float Fish?

When it comes to float fishing for trout or for steelhead in a rivers you are going to need a few things. In order to float fish well you must have:

  • A right rod and reel.
  • A good line suitable for float fishing.
  • A good float that works in rivers.
  • The proper leader setup which includes, proper leader material, the weights, swivels and a hook.
  • Bait.
  • Some pliers, and a river net.
  • And the knowledge on how to put all of this stuff to good use.

How To Float Fish

It might be a bit premature to tell you how to float fish before telling you what the best floats are, or the best hooks, or best baits, or before I show you my float leader set up, or tell you what the best rods and reels are, but you can see all of that below.

Once you learn how to float fish well, you will know how to work your float through the drift, control your speed, know how and when to adjust your float to keep your bait in the strike zone and you will understand leader angles. Once you do all of this well you will catch more trout and steelhead than other anglers around you.

After watching thousands of anglers float fishing, (not just my clients) I would say over 80% of float fisherman fish poorly and they lack many of the skills required to catch trout and steelhead consistently.

While most anglers believe having the right bait below your float is the key to success I disagree 100% and would tell them your technique and your skill is far more important.

Float Fishing On A Small River
Float fishing can be done on any size river or stream but leaning the proper way will improve your success.

There are 4 key fundamentals I teach all my students when they are learning float fishing.

The first thing all float anglers need to know how to do if learn how to set up your rod, reel, line, float, leader and your bait for success. I’ll get more into that below.

The second thing is to get your bait down into the strike zone fast and keep it there.

In order to float fish well you need to know how and when to adjust your float to get your bait into the strike zone which is usually near the bottom of the river. You need to know how to find the bottom with your bait when you can’t see the bottom with your eyes!

There are methods to help you do this with nothing more than the right float and your bait. Having the right float helps a lot, but so does having the proper leader setup and learning your leader and float angles.

Covering the water effectively and not missing any water is number 3 on my list.

Many angler fall into a rut and keep fishing the same lines over and over often unsuccessfully. They also position themselves in wrongs spots so that they don’t get great drifts or so that they don’t cover the entire spot well. There are methods for covering the water like a pro and that will help you catch more trout and steelhead when float fishing.

Number 4 is the most critical thing that all float anglers should know and master but unfortunately 90% of anglers I talk to don’t have a clue about it.

I explain to all my float fishing students that most of the time the current near the bottom is slower than the current near the surface.

In fact the bottom current could be 90% slower than on the surface. If the surface current is flowing at 8 miles per hour the bottom current could be flowing at 3 miles per hour, or less.

The rocks along the bottom create friction or resistance and that slows the water down but on the surface there is nothing slowing the current down. Why does this all matter so much?

Because, if you don’t know how to control your speed, by working or controlling your float, which is controlled by your reel and how fast the line comes off the reel, your bait down on the bottom might be going through a pool full of trout at 8 miles per hour, (because that’s how fast your float on the surface is moving), when all the trout food, all the particles, all the insects, the eggs, the worms, and the debris is all passing the trout at 3 miles per hour.

That’s a crap load of stuff moving in their strike zone at 3 miles per hour.

To the trout, your bait moving at 8 miles per hour looks unnatural, and all but the dumbest or most aggressive trout will ignore your bait because of it!

This is the primary reason why I can guide 2 anglers at the same time, with the exact same bait, and 1 guy will catch 10 fish while the other guys catches none. It’s a simple matter of one guy controlling his speed and working his float better than the other. I see it ALL the time.

For me to explain all that in detail will take an entire page which is why I recommend going to my page on Float Fishing / Centerpin Fishing For Beginners where I explain and provide my best tips on how to float fish for trout and steelhead. I discuss these 4 things and show you multiple leader setup, what the best angles are and how to cover the water.

Whether you spin fish with a float or Centerpin fish with a float that page goes into more detail on how to do it well.

But wait, before you leave this page see below for more on the best floats, the rods and reels for float fishing, the baits, my float leader setup, and much more. . . . .

Using The Right Floats For More Trout

Float Fishing for trout
Float Fishing for trout and steelhead is easier if you use the right type of float for river fishing.

First, lets get something straight. Many anglers call them bobbers but when trout fishing or river fishing they are known as floats.

Even the companies that specialize in these river bobbers call them floats.

The floats we use for trout fishing in rivers are the thin profile floats that are sensitive and will detect strikes better, as well as help you control your speed and detect the bottom easier.

The thin profile floats also tilt providing the angler with a better idea of where your their bait is which is a critical concept that most anglers don’t understand.

The thin profile floats also slip below the surface easily when a trout grabs the bait, this allows you to see that something is happening so you can react quickly.

Because the thin float goes under so easily when grabbed by a trout, it’s less likely that the trout will feel the tug and spit the hook out. You can’t get that type of performance with all floats or bobbers.

Despite me reading a few articles on trout fishing that say you can use those round red and white bobbers or those other sites that say any bobber will do, (be careful where you get you information guys), let me just say from thousands of hours of experience perfecting float fishing for trout and for steelhead, those red and white bobbers suck in rivers when float fishing for trout, as do many other bobbers.

Floats For Trout
Using the right float for trout can make a big difference

There are a lot of advantages to using the right float for trout so make sure you use a proven effective one. There’s a good reason why you won’t see the best trout guides in the world using red and white bobbers!

Raven Tackle makes gear specifically for fishing trout and steelhead in rivers and the Raven floats that they make are one of the most popular floats that I see on rivers.

Other brands like Redwing Tackle also specialize in river fishing and have excellent products that work better.

These companies provide light weight, narrow floats that are visible from a long distance. They also come in the right sizes for all type of rivers.

For water that is 3 to 6 feet deep I will use the Raven FM 4.2 gram float and for bigger rivers over 40 feet wide and over 6 feet deep or for steelhead I use the 6.2 gram float. See the float below.

Raven floats are black bodied float that probably looks like some debris floating down the river to a trout. They are great floats for most big and small rivers with depths of 3 feet of more and are great in normal water clarity conditions. These are one of the best multipurpose river floats.

For smaller rivers, shallower rivers, and rivers that are gin clear with nervous trout, I use the Drennan Loafer Floats. These are clear floats with a small colored section on top and are about as stealthy as it gets.

When I use Drennan floats I use the size 1 and 2 floats in small rivers or pools with low clear water. For rivers from 15 to 30 feet wide that are over 3 feet deep I will use a size 3 Drennan float.

I will also use Drennan Loafer float in size 4 and 5 in bigger water for both trout and steelhead, but they are harder to see from a distance so I don’t use them on rivers where I might be making 100 foot drifts.

Under most light conditions the bright orange topped floats are easiest to see, however on cloudy days or early morning or just before dark when the light is low, some anglers prefer the chartreuse colored floats.

I find the chartreuse color can get lost in the glare on the water on sunny days so I mostly use orange during the day. It may make sense to have a few of each color on hand so you are prepared for all situations.

These are the best floats for float fishing for trout.

Drennan Floats For Trout In Clear Water
The Drennan Loafer float is one of the best floats for trout in clear water.

You can get Drennan floats and the float caps to secure the float to the line at FishUSA.com

Raven FM floats For Float Fishing For trout
The Raven FM floats are a great general purpose float for trout.

You can get these Raven FM floats and the float caps to secure the float to the line at FishUSA.com

Sheffield Floats For Trout
The Sheffield floats for trout are a good in-between option.

A good in-between float that offers the large top like the Raven floats with the clear body like the Drennan floats.

Blackbird by Redwing Tackle Phantom Floats
These Blackbird floats by Redwing Tackle are popular.

These floats from Redwing tackle come in black body and clear body and are a great float for rivers.

With all of these floats you will need rubber caps, also know as float caps to secure the float onto the line. I use the Drennan Assorted caps which seam to fit most floats.

Floats and Float Caps
Make sure you use the right floats and the right floats caps. You want a float cap with a snug fit.

GUIDE TIP: As you can see in the picture I have 3 caps on each float.

I do this because under pressure while fighting a fish or on the hook-set the line can cut through the cap and the cap will fall off.

If I only have 2 caps on and one breaks, I have to cut the line, slide another cap on and then retie.

But if I have three caps on at all times I can use 1 as a backup should I break a cap and then I don’t need to retie as often.

Remember that often the point on the top of the float is bigger then the bottom so you will need different sized caps and some floats do not come with caps so you need to buy them separately. You can buy the Drennan Assorted Caps and other caps at FishUSA.com – HERE

I also have an entire page dedicated to the 5 Best Floats which will give you even more option and details on floats so go check it out when you are done here.

The Float Fishing Leader

Not all leader line is good for float fishing and not all sizes of leader work either. Getting your leader size, using the right strength, and having the right set up is very important to catching trout with a float.

The best leader lines are quality fluorocarbon leaders like the ones I discuss on my Best Leaders For Float Fishing page so I suggest you go check it out.

NOTICE: Not all leader brands are rated properly. In fact, not many leaders or lines are accurate. Just because the spool says it’s 4lb doesn’t mean it’s not actually 6lb or even 8lb or 9 pound.

It’s not uncommon for a brand to say their line is 4 pound when in truth its 8 pound simply because it makes there 4lb seam stronger that the other brand who has 4 pound that breaks at 5 or 6lb.

This marketing trick can be bad for you because if you think you are buying 6lb test to fish for trout and it turns out to really be 12 pound test it could be too thick and the fish will not bite it.

I have seen guys struggle for years trying hard to master their presentation, get the right baits and right hooks, and then they hire me and find out none of that matters because the line they though was 6 pound was so thick that it limited the amount of fish that would bite. I discuss all this on my Best Leaders Page.

In short, I recommend to all my clients to buy a quality fluorocarbon leader and use the diameter size and not the pound rating.

I use Drennan 4lb Leader which is 0.20mm / 0.008in for bigger trout, steelhead and wooded water with lots of snags. This line, although it says is 4lb test, will break closer to 8 pounds which is why I catch 90% of my steelhead up to 15 pound on it. I would not go any stonger or thicker than this for trout unless I’m throwing lures. I also use Seaguar AbrazX in 6lb which is also 0.20mm / 0.008in. simply because it works and is a better deal per foot.

For bigger river with clear water I will use 4lb Seaguar AbrazX or 3lb Drennan Line. Both these lines are about 0.18mm thick,

For ultra clear water where I need extreme stealth the the trout are very line shy I will use the RIO Fluoroflex Plus in 5x or 6x. This line is usually rated accurately so if it says 5lb test it likely is 5lb test.

The Float Fishing Setup

How you set up your float fishing setup is very important. I’m talking about the leader setup and the float. I have seen many anglers do this wrong and I’m not surprised when they tell me they haven’t caught any trout when myself or my clients have caught lots.

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

In my area I am legally allowed to have up to 3 baits on the line at the same time but I rarely have more than 2 at a time. Some areas will only allow 1 or 2 baits at a time so check your regulations.

3 baits can become a big mess during the fight or in the net or when used by unskilled anglers. 2 baits can be very productive however I have noticed time when 2 baits is just to intrusive and the trout will shy away from it.

If you decide you want to use 2 or 3 baits you may need to feel them out to determine if they want that much stuff coming down at them at once. For me, it’s easy to tell because when one client with only one bait is catching all the fish and the other client that has two baits doesn’t seam to be catching many, I know two baits isn’t what they want. Some days it’s the reverse.

This rig in the diagram is my go to rig for steelhead but I will use the same rig with slightly lighter line thickness for trout – I prefer lines in the 0.005in to 0.007in size for most trout.

With this float fishing rig, you can run any bait that you want. I have more about this float fishing rig and more about my 2 bait float fishing setup as well as the swivels, split shots, and hooks that I use and recommend on my Best Leaders Page.

And if you are going to making your own leaders also check out my post on my best weights for fly fishing and float fishing.

The Best Baits For Float Fishing

There are many baits that can be used for float fishing for trout.

The most common baits for float fishing are live worms, plastic worms, real and imitation eggs, flies, maggots, and even stuff you might find in your pantry like corn or marshmallows.

Some of these are great and some you should probably not use.

I use the same baits for trout as I do for steelhead and I go into detail on how to use worms, eggs and flies on separate posts. Check out these pages for guide tips and advice on these baits:

Mainline For Float Fishing For Trout

Your mainline that is on your reels will also likely be rated inaccurately so watch out for that. a typical 8lb line will likely break close to 14 or 16 pounds which is over kill for trout. For smaller rivers a 4 or 6 pound mainline will work but for larger rivers a 6 or 8 pound line should do the job nicely.

Some lines are more supple and some stiffer and that can make a big difference on how the line comes off the reel and how well it fishes when you are float fishing. It’s important to use a line that has been thoroughly tested to be good when float fishing.

For more information on mainline for float fishing check out my page on The Best Lines For Float Fishing.

The Float Fishing Hooks

Not all hooks are good for float fishing and in fact I see some guys using some really bad ones without even realizing it.

The best hook for float fishing will be the right size for your bait and will be strong enough not to break or bend and be of high quality so it’s very sharp. The right shape of hook is also very important when using baits.

Remember that when you are float fishing sometimes the bait is moving slow enough that the trout have plenty of time to inspect it which means if you have a 1 inch extra thick hook with a singe trout egg they will likely see the hook and not eat your egg. I have a entire page on The Best Float Fishing Hooks so be sure to check it out.

The Best Float Fishing Rods

The rod you use for float fishing can make a big difference. You could use a standard 6 or 7 foot multipurpose rod but a longer rod in the 8 to 13 foot range would be better. Check out the chart below for best sizes and go to the page on Best Centerpin Rod/Float Rods for my recommendations on the best brands and rods.

Rod Type

River Type

Fish Size

Float Fishing

6 foot - UltraLight Action

Small creeks that are 3 to 10 feet wide

Best for trout Under 14"

Small floats, small baits, little weight

6 to 7.6 foot Light Action

Best in Small creeks and rivers from 10 to 20 feet wide

Suitable for 6" to 20" Trout

Small to medium floats, most sized baits with light weights

7 to 9 foot light action or Med - Light Action rod

Best for larger creeks and rivers- 16 to 40 feet wide

Suitable for trout from 10" to 30"

Medium To large floats, any sized bait with a fair amount of  weight

9 to 11 foot Med-Light Action

Best all around rod - good for rivers that are 16 to 60+ feet wide

Good for trout of all sizes up to 20 pounds - Good for great lakes steelhead

Medium To large floats, any sized bait with a fair amount of  weight

11 to 14 foot - Med-Light Action

Best rod for bigger rivers of 30 to 80+ feet wide

This is a big trout rod. It's best for bigger trout and steelhead over 16"

Best rods for float fishing with floats and weights of any size.

The Best Float Fishing Reels

A good float fishing reel will have a smooth drag system and a bail system that will allow the line to come off the reel smoothly. I have noticed after guiding hundreds of anglers with their own reels that some reels just don’t work very well when float fishing. You can use a pinning reel or a centerpin reel when float fishing.

I have also noticed that some lines don’t work very well either and can coil up more than other and cause some problems. If you have a bad reel and a bad line you’re going to have lots of problems that will prevent you from catching trout.

I have an entire page on the Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing so if you are in the market for a good spinning reel you should check it out.

Float Reels, Also Known As Centerpin Reels

It started around the great lakes region. Anglers were seen using large round reels that looked like giant fly reels but with spinning line on them and a float. They were called a Centerpin reel.

The Centerpin reel has no drag and smooth bearing which allows the line to come freely off the reel as the current pulls the float and the float pulls the line. The Centerpin reel allows the angler to get smooth extra long drift and allows the angler to present his bait very well.

The Centerpin reel is the best reel you can use for float fishing, especially in medium to large rivers that have water over 3 feet deep and long runs. In my opinion, as a Centerpin specialist who is well versed in spinning reel fishing and fly fishing, that the centerpin reel catches more fish than all other methods in a river.

If you want to know more about Centerpin fishing check out my Master Page on Centerpin fishing and if you want to know what the best centerpin reel is, then check out my page on The 5 Best Centerpin Reels.

What Species Can You Float Fish For?

You can float fish for many river species.

The most common species to float fish for are brown trout, rainbow trout, brook trout, steelhead, salmon and even carp and bass can be caught with float fishing.

Ask A Guide – Got A Question?

I specialize in float fishing so if I missed something and you have a question or you have some tips and advice you would like to add to help all the ready just say so in the comment section below.

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