Fishing with a float is one of the best methods for catching trout, steelhead, and salmon in rivers with depths of 3 feet to 15 feet.
Float fishing means presenting your bait below a bobber, which is known as a float. Presentation and setup are the keys to success.
Through my guide service, I have taught thousands of anglers how to float fish. These are the five Fundamentals great anglers use to float fish:
- Proper Setup And Gear
- Depth Control
- Speed Control
- Covering The Water
- The Bait
- Putting it all together
Float Fishing Effectively
Many anglers think all there is to float fishing is casting your float out, watching it drift down the river, and hoping and waiting for a bite. That is wrong!! The guys who do this catch one fish, while others like me catch ten.
If you don’t understand and use the key fundamentals of float fishing, you will have difficulty catching many fish. Using these fundamentals has enabled me to net over 300 steelhead in a month for my clients.
1. Float Fishing Setup And Gear: Everything You Need?
The first fundamental is your gear and setup. If you use the right gear, you will do a lot better. This is everything you need:
- A good suitable rod and reel.
- A good mainline suitable for fishing with a float.
- A proper float for rivers.
- The proper leader setup includes the proper leader material, weights, swivels, and hooks.
- The right baits.
- Pliers, and a wading net.
- Wading gear such as waders, vests, packs, and jackets can really improve your game.
- And the knowledge of how to put all of this stuff to good use.
I will discuss all the gear in more detail below, and I will show you the leader setups that I and other guides use.
Guide Tip: A reader just asked a good question regarding clear water fishing and spooked fish: Question – “I just went fishing recently and noticed that whenever my float approaches the salmon they always move out the way, any idea to fix this?” See my 8 tips in the comment section below or check out.
Some of the 8 tips are also guidelines that I use all the time to ensure my clients catch the most fish possible, not just when the fish are spooked.
2. Depth Control: Getting Your Bait Into The Strike Zone Is Key
The second fundamental 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.
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 a foot or two off 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, some weights, and your bait.
You can see how I do this in detail on my page How To Know How Deep To Set Your Float – 2 Easy Ways.
3. 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 is how to control the speed of your bait so it drifts naturally and looks natural to the fish.
I explain to all my students that the current near the bottom is usually slower than the current near the surface. In fact, the bottom current could be 90% slower than on the surface.
To slow your bait down, we use a method known as “trotting” or “checking the float.”
Speed is the primary reason why I can guide two anglers at the same time, both using the exact same bait, but one guy will catch ten 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.
To explain everything in detail will take an entire page, which is why I recommend going to my page, Controlling Your Speed For More Fish.
4. Covering The Water Effectively For More Fish
Covering the water effectively and not missing any productive water is the number 4 fundamental on my list.
Many anglers fall into a rut and keep fishing the same lines over and over, often unsuccessfully.
There are methods for covering the water like an expert would, and being in the right position will help you catch more fish.
I go into full details on how to cover the water well and properly on my page Effectively Covering The Water.
5. The Best Baits For Float Fishing Trout
The 5th and final fundamental is to use the right bait, and also to know when certain baits will work best, as well as how to cycle through the baits to find the most effective bait.
There are many baits that can be used for fishing with a float.
The most common baits are live worms, plastic worms, real and imitation eggs, flies, maggots, imitation bas, 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 to use under a float 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 good under a float
How To Make Your Baits More Effective
The Right Bait: Use the right bait at the right time. Worms might work great in the spring when worms are abundant, but worms might suck in the heat of summer when the ground is bone-dry.
Rotate Baits: I carry multiple baits, multiple colors, and multiple sizes because I know that a hot bait yesterday or when the river was higher might not work at all when water is low and clear or when conditions change. If the fish are not biting one bait, I’ll start rotating through baits, colors, and sizes to figure out what they will eat, all guides do this, and they do it a lot!
Hooks Matter: Use the right hook and the right size of hook for the bait that you use. Guides and savvy anglers are very picky when it comes to the hook they use because they know that some hooks just work better. I discuss hooks below.
Leader Matters: Trout, steelhead, and salmon can be line shy, especially in slower clear water. Using the wrong type of leader or a leader that is too thick will prevent fish from taking your bait. Trust me, I’ve proven this over and over again. You should know my tips on how to choose the right size leader.
Using The Right Floats For More Trout
Only use floats designed for river fishing!
The best floats for river fishing are the thin profile floats with a pointed top.
Unlike round bobbers or round top floats, the thin profile river floats are sensitive and will detect strikes better. They will also help you control your speed and detect the bottom easier.
Thin floats tilt, providing the angler with a better idea of where their bait is, which is a critical concept that most anglers don’t understand.
For most rivers, I use Raven or Drennan brand floats.
For water that is 3 to 6 feet deep, I will use a 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. For large deep, and fast west coast rivers, the Raven FX float in 16-gram float is a good choice.
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.
Under most light conditions, the bright orange topped floats are easiest to see.
- Drennan Loafer Float: The Drennan Loafer float is a clear plastic float and is one of the best floats for trout in clear water.
- Raven FM Float: The Raven FM floats are great general-purpose floats for trout and the ones I use the most. It doesn’t need to be the FM, since different models work better in different water types.
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.
Check out: 5 Best Floats.
You can buy the Drennan Assorted Caps and other caps that will fit your floats at FishUSA.com.
The Right Leader
Your bait can sometimes be moving very slowly, and line-shy fish may be able to see the leader in the slow water and then avoid biting your bait.
You want to use a leader that is so light that it is not seen by the fish, but is also heavy enough that the big fish won’t keep breaking you off.
The best leader lines are high-quality fluorocarbon leaders. Fluorocarbon is less visible in the water and is more abrasion-resistant than mono, which is why I do not recommend monofilament for leader material.
I highly recommend that you choose you your leader based on the diameter, not the pound rating on the spool. The reason is twofold.
- Not all bands rate their leaders properly. One brands 4lb line is .20mm diameter, while another brands 8lb line is also .20mm diameter. Same daimater but twice as strong. One of them is lying!
- Since fish see the thickness of the line, it’s always best to buy and use a leader they can’t see.
This is what I suggest for leader diameter sizes:
- Small Trout/Clear Water – 0.0055in (0.13mm)
- Large Trout/Bigger Rivers – 0.007in (.18mm) to 0.008in (.20mm)
- Great Lakes Steelhead in Small to Medium Rivers – 0.008in (.20mm)
- Great Lakes Steelhead in Large Rivers 0.009in (.22mm) to .010in (.25mm)
- West Coast Steelhead – 0.010in (.25mm) to 0.011 in. / 0.28mm
- Great Lakes Salmon – 0.011 in. / 0.28mm
- West Coast Salmon – 0.012 in. / 0.31mm to 0.36mm
The Float Fishing Setup
How you set up your float rig is very important. I’m talking about the leader setup below 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 two at a time.
Some areas will only allow one or two baits at a time, so check your fishing regulations.
This rig in the above diagram is my go-to rig for steelhead, but I will use the same rig with slightly lighter line thickness for trout, see leader size recommendations above.
Shallow Water Trout Float Fishing
When I float fish for trout in shallow water, I use this trout float setup in the diagram.
I use two leaders of different strengths and I attach them with a Triple Surgeons knot or a Double Uni knot so the float can slide over the knot if I need to adjust the depth.
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 which then provides the best presentation possible and that equals more fish.
Putting your weights on properly and using the right weights are both important. Some types of weights just don’t work very well.
And if you are going to be making your own leaders make sure you use good split shots. I use the Sure Shot premium lead split shot because I find it is soft and easier to pinch on the line, and these shots don’t damage the line if I need to slide them up or down the line.
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.
The mainline on your reel should be supple and buoyant.
For smaller rivers, a four or 6-pound mainline will work for trout, but for larger rivers, a six 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.
It’s important to use a line that has been thoroughly tested when float fishing on spinning reels and on Centerpin reels.
For more information on the mainline check out my page on The Best Lines For Float Fishing.
You want a hook that penetrates well and holds well, not all hooks do this.
The best hook for fishing with a float will be the right size for your bait and will be strong enough not to break or bend and it will be very sharp. The right shape of hook is also very important when using baits.
My two favorite hooks are the Raven Specimen hook and the Daiichi 1150 hook. The size of the hook will depend on the bait, and if you are fishing little trout or 30 pounds salmon.
- Best Hook Size For Trout: A Guides Advice On Trout Hook Size
- Best Hooks For Steelhead
- Best Hooks For Salmon
The Best Float Rods
The rod you use can make a big difference. You could use a standard six 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 and better float control, and they act like a giant shock absorber that protects light leaders on the hook sets and when fighting big fish.
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
Float fishing for trout can be done with a spinning reel or with a Centerpin reel.
A good spinning reel will have a smooth drag system and a bail system that will allow the line to come off the reel smoothly.
I have an entire page on the Best Spinning Reels For Float Fishing.
Float Reels, Also Known As Centerpin Reels
The Centerpin reel looks like a large fly reel. but it 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 fishing with a float.
Float Gear For Trout
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.
Polarized 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.
Rivers Suitable For Fishing With A Float
Not every river or every section of the river is suitable for fishing with a float. The best water is the bigger deeper pools, deeper runs, and riffles. Slow to medium-fast pools are good for float fishing.
Long runs are good, and anywhere you can fish within the length of a cast is good.
Float fishing is not good in water less than 2.5 feet deep or spots less than 8 feet long.