Get Your Float Fishing Advice From An Expert
I was introduced to float fishing for trout over 31 years ago on a small river near my home and I now teach float fishing for trout, steelhead, and salmon to thousands of anglers through my guide service. This article on float fishing covers the most effective methods and setups by me other float fishing river guides.
Float fishing means that you are presenting your bait below a float or bobber. Float fishing is one of the best methods for catching trout, steelhead, and salmon in rivers with depths of 2 feet to 15 feet. All you need is a long rod, a good reel, a line, a good float, and a leader with a hook and bait.
Many anglers think all there is to float fishing is to cast your float out and watch it go, but these are the guys that catch 1 fish when others are catching 10 fish.
If you learn to float fish well you will catch 10 times more trout, steelhead, and salmon. The key is knowing the fundamentals of good float fishing. If you don’t understand certain fundamentals of float fishing for trout you will have a hard time catching trout.
I will explain the 4 key fundamentals of good float fishing that I use when guiding that have enabled me to net over 300 steelhead in a month. Plus, there will be a lot of other great tips from other great river guides in this article.
Most of this article will apply to float fishing for trout, however, many of these methods work for steelhead and salmon. I discuss steelhead and salmon below and provide links below for those readers that specifically want to float fishing for those species.
What Do You Need To Float Fish For Trout?
When it comes to float fishing for trout in rivers, you are going to need a few things. In order to float fish well you must have the right float fishing setup:
- A good suitable rod and reel.
- A good line suitable for float fishing.
- A good float that works in rivers.
- The proper leader setup includes the proper leader material, the right weights, swivels, and the right hooks.
- The right baits.
- Some pliers, and a river net.
- And the knowledge on how to put all of this stuff to good use.
I will discuss in more detail the best river fishing gear for trout below.
Rivers Suitable For Float Fishing For Trout
Not every river or every section of the river is suitable for float fishing for trout. The best water to float fish is the bigger deeper pools and not the fast shallow pocket water.
In water under 2.5 feet deep and in spots less than 8 feet long it’s much more effective to use my advanced bottom bouncing method which you can see at Bottom Bouncing – 5 Proven Guide Tips For More Fish. Mastering this method will allow you to catch fish anywhere in the river.
How To Float Fish For Trout- The 5 Fundamentals
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. 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 I would say that over 80% of float fishermen 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 and would tell them that their technique and their skill are far more important than the bait is.
There are 5 key fundamentals I teach all my students when they are learning float fishing and they start with good gear which I will discuss later. The reason for good gear is that it will help you perfect the fundamentals and make things much easier for you.
Getting Your Bait Into The Strike Zone Is Key
I will start with the second fundamental of good float fishing which is to get your bait down into the strike zone fast and keep it there. In order to do this, you need to know where the bottom is even when you can’t see it.
In order to float fish well, you will also 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.
You can see how I do this in detail on my page How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float – 2 Easy Ways.
Covering The Water Effectively For More Fish
Covering the water effectively and not missing any water is the number 3 fundamental on my list.
I will get to the number 1 fundamental soon.
Many anglers fall into a rut and keep fishing the same lines over and over often unsuccessfully.
They also position themselves in the wrong 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 would and being in the right position will help you catch more trout and steelhead when float fishing.
I go into full details on how to cover the water well when float fishing on my page Effectively Covering The Water When Float Fishing.
Control Your Speed For 10 Times More Fish
The number 1 fundamental and 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. That Critical thing is controlling the speed of your bait.
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 near the bottom, but on the surface, there is nothing slowing the current down. Why does this all matter so much?
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 which is 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, and all the particles and all the insects, the eggs, the worms, and all the debris is all passing the trout at 3 miles per hour.
That’s a crapload 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 except for the dumbest or most aggressive trout will ignore your bait because of it!
Speed 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 guy 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 Controlling Your Speed For More Fish When Float Fishing.
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
The gear that you use is very important and will help you with your 5 fundamentals of good float fishing.
Let’s start with the floats that you use when float fishing. First, let’s get something straight. Many anglers call them bobbers but when trout fishing or river fishing they are known as floats.
Even the companies that make 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 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 your 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.
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 lightweight, narrow floats that are visible from a long distance. They also come in the right sizes for all types 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 or the 8-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. These are great floats for most big and small rivers with depths of 3 feet or more, and they are great in normal water clarity conditions too. 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 under 3 feet deep. For rivers from 15 to 30 feet wide that are over 3 feet deep, I will use a size 3 or 4 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.
You can get Drennan floats and the float caps to secure the float to the line at FishUSA.com
You can get these Raven FM floats and the float caps to secure the float to the line at FishUSA.com
A good in-between float that offers the large top like the Raven floats with the clear body like the Drennan floats.
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 known as float caps to secure the float onto the line. I use the Drennan Assorted caps which seam to fit most floats.
GUIDE TIP: As you can see in the picture I have 3 caps on each float, 1 on the top, and 2 on the bottom.
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 cap breaks, I have to cut the line, slide another cap on and then retie.
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 than the bottom part of the float 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 that will fit your floats at FishUSA.com.
I also have an entire page dedicated to the 5 Best Floats which will give you even more options 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 setup 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 pounds.
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 thought was 6 pounds was so thick that it limited the amount of fish that would bite. I discuss all that on my page 2 Float Fishing Leader Setups From A Pro River Guide.
In short, I recommend to all my clients to buy a quality fluorocarbon leader and use the diameter size listed on the label and not the pound rating.
4lb Drennan line is not good for trout in smaller clear rivers because although it says it is 4lb test, it will break closer to 8 pounds which is why I catch 90% of my steelhead up to 15 pounds on it. It is too thick on gin-clear trout rivers so don’t use it for that type of water.
For great lakes steelhead and big trout on a bigger river with clear water, I will use 4lb Seaguar AbrazX or 3lb Drennan Line. Both these lines are about 0.18mm thick but that is usually too thick for trout.
For ultra-clear water where I need extreme stealth because the trout are very line shy, I will use the RIO Fluoroflex in 5.2lb and 3.8lb. This line is usually rated accurately so if it says 4lb test, it is likely 4-pound test.
I have recently tested the breaking strength of two other leader/tippet brands to the Rio Flouroflex and they both broke much easier at the same diameter. This proves to me that Rio Fluoroflex is a much stronger line.
The Float Fishing Setup
Learning how to build and set up a good float fishing leader for all the river conditions is the #4 fundamental that you need to know.
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.
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 most of the time, however, I have noticed there are times when 2 baits are just too 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 seem to be catching many, I know two baits aren’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 0.005inch to 0.007inch 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 be making your own leaders also check out my post on my best weights for fly fishing and float fishing.
Shallow Water Trout Float Fishing
I have many anglers that contact me wanting help to learn how to float fish for trout.
One reason for this is that they struggle catching trout in shallower water simply because the floats that they use are being spotted by the trout and that spooks the trout.
I always use clear Drennan Floats in Shallow water.
When I float fish for trout in shallow water I use this trout float setup in the diagram. In the diagram, it shows 2 colors of leader but I only did that to show that there are two leader sizes and not just one, and also so the white line could be seen on the white background.
Both leaders are always clear fluorocarbon leaders and I adjust the size to the clarity of the water and the size of the trout.
I use two leaders of different strengths and I attach them with a Triple Surgeons knot or a Double Uni knot.
The reason I use the knots is so I can slide the float over the knots to make it very shallow or deeper.
I attach 1 or 2 weights close to the bottom knot and usually leave them alone. The other 2 weights stay just below the float at all times. If I slide the float up I also slide the weight up.
With this trout float setup, you can fish 12 inches deep to 3 feet deep. Any deeper than 3 feet deep and I will switch to my regular steelhead trout float setup above.
Best Weight For Float Fishing For Trout
You will need weights when float fishing for trout and you will need to know how to set them up properly. I will show my float fishing leader setup below.
Putting your weights on properly and using the right weights are both important. Some types of weights just don’t work very well. Remember, I’m trying to teach you how to do float fishing for trout like and pro, not like a hack.
I see hacks all the time along the river and they rarely catch any fish. Hacks are the guys using the wrong weight, wrong float, wrong lines, or wrong rods and reels. How do you expect to catch trout if you don’t have the right stuff?
Some states and some rivers have banned lead so when fishing in those states it’s best to use tin split shots. I use the Orvis Non-Toxic Oval Split Shot.
Also, for the reasons why I use these and why some weights work and some don’t be sure to check out my page Weights For Fly Fishing: Everything You Need To Know. Yes, I know it says fly fishing but I use the same weights for everything because they are the best.
Why do we add weights? The simple answer is to get the bait down, but I also add my weight in a way that gives me the best angles on my leader and the best presentation possible.
The Best Baits For Float Fishing Trout
The 5th and final fundamental to good float fishing for trout is to use the right baits and to know when certain baits will work best and how to cycle through the baits to find the best baits for trout.
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 baits are great and some you should probably not use.
The best baits for float fishing for trout are:
- Worms – Plastic worms and live worms
- Spawn – Spawn sacs are a good choice
- Beads – Beads are a great imitation of a single salmon egg
- Imitation Eggs – There are lots of egg imitations
- Flies – You can use nymphs under a float for trout.
- Jigs – Small jigs are goo under a float
A lot of the time, 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 pages like my page Best Trout Bait – The Only 5 Baits You Will Ever Need.
Also, check out my newest page Bead Fishing For Trout – Easy Guide Secrets.
Smaller Baits Are Better When Float Fishing For Trout
Going with smaller baits is often a better choice than using bigger baits unless the water is dirty or off-colored. Even big fish will eat a well-presented small bait.
Most of a trout’s food source is small. Small insects, single eggs, small baitfish. 3-inch worms will almost always work as well as an 8-inch dew worm, even on large trout and steelhead.
It’s also important to use baits that look natural and are already part of the trout’s diet. This can greatly improve your chances of catching more trout.
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 much too heavy or thick for trout but is a good choice for great lakes steelhead.
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 are 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 on spinning reels and on Centerpin reels.
For more information on the 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 and they don’t even realize 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 it will 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 single trout egg they will likely see the hook and not eat your egg.
For more about my favorite hooks and why, and also which ones I use with different baits check out my page Best Hook Size For Trout: A Guides Advice On trout Hook Size.
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 10 to 13-foot range is much better.
Longer rods allow you to have a better presentation, better float control and they act like a giant shock absorber that protects light leaders on the hook sets and when fighting big fish.
Guys using 7-foot float general-purpose rods will not catch as many fish as the guys using longer 12 to 13-foot float rods.
Check out the chart below for the best sizes and go to the page on Best Centerpin Rod/Float Rods for my recommendations on the best brands and rods.
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 Spinning Reel For Float Fishing For Trout
Float fishing for trout can be done with a spinning reel or with a Centerpin reel.
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 spinning reel or a Centerpin reel when float fishing.
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.
Some of my favorite spinning reels for float fishing for trout are:
I have also noticed that some lines don’t work very well either and they can coil up more than others 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. Make sure you read my article The Best Fishing Line For Trout: What The Guides Use On Rivers.
Float Reels, Also Known As Centerpin Reels
Centerpin fishing started around the great lakes region probably back in the early 80’s. Anglers were seen on rivers using large round reels that looked like giant fly reels but these reels had spinning lines on them and they were using a float. They were called a Centerpin reel.
The Centerpin reel has no drag and a smooth bearing which allows the line to come freely and smoothly off the reel as the current pulls the float and the float pulls the line. The Centerpin reel allows the angler to get smooth long drifts 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 expert who is also well versed in spinning reel fishing and fly fishing, I can honestly say that under the right conditions, that the Centerpin reel catches more fish than all other methods.
If you want to know what the best Centerpin reel is, then check out my page on The 5 Best Centerpin Reels.
If you want to know more about Centerpin fishing check out my Centerpin Fishing For Steelhead: 13 Tips From Expert Guides
Float Fishing Gear For Trout
The next thing you need to be sure of doing if you want to maximize your success when float fishing for trout is to use the right gear.
When I see guys standing on the side of the river with the wrong gear I don’t even need to ask them if they caught many fish. Simply put, the guys with the wrong gear catch 10% of the fish, while the guys with the right gear catch the other 90%.
And it’s not really just the fact that you have the right gear that is going to make you all of a sudden catch more trout, it’s about knowledge.
Most of the time, the guys with the right gear know how to fish, and they know that the right gear makes a big difference and the guys with the wrong gear don’t have a clue how to fish well, and their gear makes it even worse.
The right gear includes using all the right gear in combination. You could have the nicest reel on the planet, but if you use the wrong hook you still aren’t going to catch any fish.
Think of it as the link in a chain, the entire chain is only as good as the weakest link. That also means all your gear is only as good as your worst piece of gear.
You could have a great bait and the perfect hook, but if your leader is too thick and the trout see it that won’t matter. Maybe you have a great reel, but the wrong line could prevent you from presenting your bait well and you could be that one guy catching 10% will the other guy catches 90%. Make sure you get these all correct:
There are all kinds of things that can help you catch more trout like having a pair of good waders that can help you get into spots that you could not get to from the bank. Also, stuff like a net to make sure you never miss that fish of a lifetime, or a vest or pack to help you carry all your tools.
I also use forceps and nippers every single day on the water.
let’s not forget one of my most valuable pieces of gear which greatly helps me do my job as a river guide and puts 10 times more fish in the net is a good pair of polarized glasses.
Glasses not only protect my eyes, but they also help me see the float better, see the current breaks, see deeper water and fish-holding spots, I see the structure better, they allow me to avoid snags, and they even help me see the fish sometimes.
You can see all the geat that I recommend on my page River Fishing Gear: Everything You Need To Succeed In 2021.
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.
You may also be around the great lakes region or on the west coast and if you are you should check out my pages on float fishing For Salmon.
If you want to see my specific methods for float fishing for steelhead, go to my page on float fishing for steelhead.
Ask A Guide – Got A Question About Float Fishing?
I specialize in float fishing for trout, steelhead, and salmon so if I missed something and you have a question about float fishing or you have some tips and advice that you would like to share, just say so in the comment section below.
Cool River Fishing Accessories
Simms Taco Bag
It’s a wet wader bag for storing your waders after a day on the water and it’s a mat to stand on to keep your feet dry when getting your waders on and off.
Duffel Bags and Stream Packs
Having a dedicated bag to pack and carry your waders, vests, boots, jackets, and more is a good idea. Waterproof and mesh bags are available.
Waterworks Release Tool
Protects your flies from damage caused by forceps, This tool gets all hooks out easily. Even deep hooks come out with this tool.
When I flip these down to tie knots a lot of guys say ” I need to get some of those”. These are great for anyone that ties knots. Make sure they are lined up properly for the best view.