Advanced Float Fishing Concepts
Steelhead and Salmon float fishing is often referred to as being an “easy” method for new anglers to catch fish. I agree with this summation, however to become an expert float fisherman, it is every bit as difficult to master as other techniques.
I hope to shed light on some things I have found to be important pieces to the float fishing puzzle.
The Gear Equation
Choice of gear for float fishing is evolving all the time and it’s a very personal belief. Many of the techniques in this article are dependant on a number of technical requirements and not all gear is suited them.
My choice and one that was driven by the many types of water I will fish, is the use of a very long rod and a reel that has large capacity. I will use a 13 foot rod on most occasions, but also use a 14 foot beefier rod for brawling rivers and strong fish. The rods I use are not just long rods but quite nimble as well, they permit the use of light leaders when needed and give much needed reach while fishing large runs and far off fish holds. As for reels, I use mostly centre pin and mid size level wind reels, such as a Shimano Calcutta 400. I like to be able to put 200 yards of at least 15lb line on my reels- that is the minimum requirement. On the smallest of streams a shorter rod will suffice, as will a smaller reel, but most of the techniques herein, relate to fishing medium to large rivers for salmon and steelhead.
One very important aspect is your float. Although some prefer small sensitive floats, this is not practical in most cases and will hamper your ability to use advanced techniques.
As long as your float is highly visible and can withstand a heavily weighted set up, than float choice is personal. I use only 6 inch high density foam floats, and heavily favor the wrap around style, as it can be adjusted the quickest.
A very important part of becoming a skilled float fisherman is being able to fish all water types. I firmly believe that most anglers never look past the obvious spots and leave huge expanses of secondary water untouched.
One of the first places I look for when steelheading, is “pocket” water. Pocket water can be a huge boulder strewn run, or a white water section with very small “washtub” pockets , where angry steelhead rest.
Fishing these spots can be done quickly and efficiently and large expanses of untouched water can be found on most rivers.
Many types of lures or baits can be used for floating through pockets and this is a personal choice. I will use a heavy bait such as “roe” or “spawn sacs”, but seldom fish anything but jigs in the pocket water. Jigs are a heavy lure and have much natural movement, and with a small stinky piece of prawn on the hook, fish cannot resist.
Learning to read this type of water takes time and practice. You will need to always keep your line off the water and have no slack at all, other than the very small amount you give to get a natural presentation. A long fishing rod is great for this.
Over time you will learn to swim your float presentation through the pocket water and be making casts to far off pockets, slowly pulling you gear across the stream and letting it drop in to the various spots where the fish will hold.
Once you learn a good section of pocket water, it can become yours to enjoy for many years, as these spots tend to remain the same, due to the large boulders that litter these areas.
Most pocket water is quite shallow, from 1-4 feet deep, and unless visibility is poor, stay away from the bottom, fish are very aggressive in this water and will pounce on most items in their vicinity.
Usually when you hit a pocket right, the float travels slowly and it’s obvious you are in the right zone. A few passes through and move to the next spot.
The next situation is where a nice run has swift water moving down the center with obvious good holding water on both sides of this heavy flow. The average float fisher will certainly cover the soft “sweet spot” of this run and seldom take the time to fish the deeper, faster, heavy water. I seek out these spots, as the run is a known fish holder, it only stands to reason that some fish, especially bigger and stronger ones will take refuge from the pressure of anglers and the threat of predators in the seemingly un fishable water.
Under the surface however, this water may be slower moving and a particularly good spot for fish to rest and feel protected.
The offering you choose in this situation should again favor a heavy lure or bait, also consider that a fragile bait such as eggs is not a good choice and artificials really shine here. Pink worms, gooey bobs, roe sacs, and jigs are just a few items I will use in this situation.
Floating through this water will seem fast, and almost uncontrolled, it will take practice to avoid slack line while still having your presentation precede your float and weight downstream. Once you begin to hook fish in these spots you will soon seek them out, and again you will be amazed how few people fish these spots even in busy runs.
Remember to always fish the far side of these heavy water sections. For this the long rod will enable you to hold your line high above the fast water and access a spot few can hit. This is especially effective where the far bank has no access and fish hide from the daily procession of anglers, in this hard to reach spot.
I have had huge success following skilled anglers through these runs, and gain consistent hook ups by fishing the water others cannot or will not.
The next situation is fishing huge broad tail outs, while most anglers realize that steelhead and sometimes salmon will favor the tail out, most will only fish the close in portion of it and skip covering the whole enormous piece of water. What a serious mistake this is, being shallower than the main portion of the run most anglers will not take the time to shorten up their presentation to fish it all the way down. Very often you will back fish down the run while fishing the “sweet spot”, then just as the fish is running out of real estate, many anglers will move down to the next run.
I’m sure we have all had the scenario, where you give up on a run as you get to the tailout, only to have someone come along and pick up the fish you have aggravated, but never covered properly.
When I approach these waters, I will start by fishing the closest portion of the tailout right to the very end, shortening up my presentation as needed to fish it right down to the very end of the run. I will now start to work the water out farther and using my long rod and great reach, I will continue to fish this whole tailout, until satisfied that no biters are present. Another technique that is useful here is “swinging” your presentation across vast tailouts, often this is my chosen technique when fishing huge tailouts that I have not caught fish in before. I can cover them quickly with this approach and will fish this water harder in following trips if success is realized. My favorite lures for swinging tailouts are the jig and Colorado blades (fished under a float).
The last type of situation we will discuss in this article is the big river, deep water sections that intimidate most anglers and present challenges to the gear many float fisherman use. I cannot count the number of times I have followed behind fellow anglers through a big, deep run on a large brawling river, picking off all the fish left behind by anglers not willing or able to cover it properly.
I can remember fishing these spots myself, where I had my arms extended high in the air, trying desperately to keep my line off the water and never being in control of my drift.
Often my float would dip under, and by the time of my hook set, I would be left with a baitless hook or a fish not willing to come again.
It’s this very situation that tipped my hand to the use of long rods for salmon and steelhead. As with the fly fisherman’s choice of the spey rod, a float fisher using a long rod is much more versatile and has great line control at greater distances and can fish much more of a river while keeping direct contact with their float. Add to this the ability to cast a line with 15 feet of line from float to lure and it opens up waters that were left for others in the past.
Float fishing is much more technical than many give it credit for. Having heard it called things such as “training wheels” or the “Canadian crutch”, it is obvious that those making such comments have never spent the time to truly learn the many skills to becoming an advanced float fisherman. For those that have or wish to, this article will hopefully help you continue this progression to becoming a complete angler.
Rod Toth- Bent Rods Guiding & Fishing Co.