Floating Fundamentals by Dan Robson

Floating Fundamentals by Dan Robson


As peaceful as the morning was, there was a degree of intensity that is hard to explain. There was no one else around and the breeze pushing through the trees was the only sound.

Birds, aware of the impending storm, were silent. There were no distractions, just me, alone with my float. My heart wasn’t quite to the point of racing, but beating faster than normal.

As intently as I watched my brain failed to register the exact moment the float went down: there one second, gone the next.

It’s a sight that keeps me coming back for more.steelhead float fishing centerpin

It’s almost as exhilarating as the fight itself. There is just something about having a visual; seeing the exact moment when the fish takes what you’ve offered up to them.

My early steelheading days were generally spent chucking hardware for aggressive spring chrome. Spinners, spoons and crankbaits all led to excitement on the water.

It was how my father did it, and with him as my mentor it was how I did it. It was years later before I started float fishing but it wasn’t long until it took over.

Float fishing will reward you with fish faster than any other method.

Its simplicity makes it intriguing, its complexity makes it addicting. A float captivates and mesmerizes.

For me it started with an 8-foot rod and a spinning reel - the same set-up I used for chucking hardware. The spinning reel stuck around for a while as the rod grew from an 8 to an 11 footer.

As my confidence and ability progressed so too did my equipment until it came to the point now where all of my float fishing is done with a centerpin. The beauty of the float is that even though there are endless options available, you don’t need to break the bank on all new equipment until you’re ready to.

Let the equipment evolve with you. Whether you use a spin set-up, baitcaster or centerpin, the ultimate goal is to catch fish.

Steelhead can be selective to say the least. To overcome this selectiveness anglers more often than not need low profile, natural looking presentations. There is no better way to achieve this than with a float.

A float can cover considerably more water than any other technique, without having to move around a lot.

Floats can efficiently cover back eddies and current seems, again better than any other technique. There is a pretty strong case that float fishing, when done effectively, is better than any other technique, which is precisely why it has become so popular in tributaries up and down the great lakes

Whether you choose to run a float with a spinning reel, baitcaster or centerpin, the idea is to get a drag-free drift. Drag-free lets the bait drift toward the fish with the current and when done right offers a natural drift unmatched by any other.

As I said before, the centerpin isn’t the only way I catch steelhead but it is the only way I run a float so maybe I’m being a little biased when I say that it is the most efficient way to achieve this drag free drift.

centerpin float fishing

The free spool action and zero start-up of the ‘pin makes it the easiest, most effective way to present a float. Centerpin float fishing continues to gain popularity throughout U.S. tributaries, but north of the border the ‘pins dominate Ontario tribs.

That doesn’t mean the natural drift can’t be accomplished with other gear if you so choose. Many quality baitcasters come with excellent free spooling options that, although will not outperform a centerpin, will present a float effectively, and are very well suited for big, fast water where you may require something extra to turn a big fish.

A spinning reel requires a little more effort, and a lot more practice to achieve the right drift. There is a very fine line between a good drift and a bad one, and not getting the drift right means not getting fish. You can open the bail and let the line spool off, but be careful, too much line leads to big bows in the line. Bows in the line lead to missed hook sets.

On the other end not feeding enough line out leads to awkward, inefficient swinging motions and un-natural looking drifts. Too many of those in a row will spook even the most steadfast steelhead.

A key variable to float fishing is rod length.

Go long.

Line control is crucial and the longer the rod the easier it is going to be to control that line. A typical float rod will run anywhere from 10 ½ to 15 feet in length. Rods on the shorter end are generally used along with spinning or baitcasting reels, while the longer 13- to 15-foot rods are considered centerpin rods.

When floating with a ‘pin there is no help from a reels drag and the long rod acts as a giant shock absorber, taking the brunt of the punishment while still protecting the light leaders often needed on Great Lake tributaries. You can get away with a shorter, stouter rod when you have the luxury of letting the reel slow the fish down.

Often still referred to as ‘noodles’ todays float rods are a far cry from the soft, limp rods of old. Rods today have a considerable amount of power yet remain soft enough to maintain the ability to protect light lines.

One of the biggest variables in float fishing is the terminal gear. Hooks; leader strength and length; shot size and placement; will all change drastically depending on water, weather conditions and time of year. Sometimes these changes can happen three or four times in one outing.

If you were to ask a hundred float fisherman how they place their shot, it wouldn’t surprise me if you got a hundred different responses.

There are seemingly infinite ways to place your shot, and believe me when I say I’ve tried them all. What a good shot pattern does is get the bait down into the strike zone while remaining as invisible as possible. Before we discuss patterns it’s important to know one thing: Current speed is at its fastest on the surface. This is the basis for all shot patterns. This is why no matter what pattern is used, the closer to the float you get the larger the split shot will be. The larger shot slows the float and allows the bait to travel out in front, being the first thing the fish sees.

There are two patterns for shot that I stick to for Great Lakes tributaries; a “shirt button” pattern and a “stacked” pattern. The “shirt button” pattern starts with two big split shot directly under the float and continues down the line to the swivel that attaches the leader. As the shot progress, evenly spaced and usually two at a time, down the main line they get smaller until the smallest are placed by the swivel that joins main line to leader.

At this point I could discuss what size of shot should be used where but that really is determined by the water being fished. If the water is low and clear you’ll want to go as small as possible while still getting down into the strike zone efficiently. On the other hand if the water you’re fishing is fast, or dirty, you can get away with bigger shot and not worry about spooking fish.

The shirt button pattern is easily adjusted. Depending on the water being fished the split shot can be slid up or down the line to adjust for depth or added and taken away to adjust the amount of weight. Be careful when sliding the shot up and down. Always wet the line first to help prevent the heat created by the friction from compromising line strength.

The “stacked” pattern is as is sounds. Stack a few split shot under the float, and a few just above the swivel attaching the main line and the leader. This is a pattern I will typically use in fast water, the shot stacked by the leader helps get the bait down and into the strike zone, or in colored water where the fish are less likely to spook.

No matter what pattern you use, the idea is to get the bait down to the fish without tipping them off to your presence. Use enough weight to properly balance the float.

Steelhead floats have a bright colored top, if weighted properly that top should be level with the water.

Shot pattern comes down to one thing: confidence.

Experiment a little, and when you find one that catches you fish use it.

steelhead float fishing tributaries

Fluorocarbon really changed the game when steelheaders of the 90’s followed their saltwater counterparts and began using it as leader material. Fluorcarbon’s refractive index (the degree of which light bends as it passes through a substance) is almost identical to water, making it nearly invisible.

This along with its incredible strength and abrasion resistance, all while maintaining a very thin diameter, has made it the line of choice when it comes to leader lines.

This is important because it means that there is no longer a need for ultralight leaders. Gone are the days of 2-pound test mono leaders replaced by the more invisible, stronger, more abrasion resistant fluorocarbon.

Some do still remain set on the light leader theory, but in my opinion the super light leaders lead to long dragged out fights, and exhausted fish. Exhaust the fish too much and its chance of survival after being released is slim.

With the heavier lines of today you can put some pressure on the fish without the fear of blowing your lead. I run nothing less than 6-pound-test fluoro, even in crystal clear water. I’ve experimented with all strengths of fluoro and find no difference in hook-ups if I were to drop down to 4- or even 2-pound test. Six pound is just as invisible and allows the luxury of putting pressure on the fish without the fear of leader break.

Six-pound fluorocarbon is the perfect leader weight for most Great Lake steelheading situations but I will even bump it up to 8 or 10 pound depending on water clarity, weather conditions and fish aggressiveness.

I hear a lot of talk of leader length and how to determine the right length.

Like anything else in float fishing it comes down to the water being fished, more specifically water depth. Of the amount of line between hook and float, the majority of it is main line. There is no need to run fluorocarbon this entire distance, instead attach a length of flouro to the main line using a quality barrel swivel. This fluoro leader can be anywhere from 8 to 32 inches long depending on water clarity.

All of the split shot should be placed on the main line between the float and the swivel, leaving the fluoro leader bare. Fluoro sinks on its own, so you really don’t need to worry about weighing it down, the split shot above the swivel will accomplish that. Split shot on the leader only places an unnecessary stress point making it more susceptible to breaking.

Of all the things we’ve discussed so far, there is one integral piece I have yet to mention: The Float.

Without the float we’d be nothing more than bottom bouncing.

Floats allow us to control the depth of our fishing, keeping our presentations suspended up and off snag infested bottoms, and more importantly keep the bait in the strike zone at all times.

Steelhead sit in the bottom foot of the water column, but they look up and out, not down. A suspended presentation is always in the right spot.

There are all kinds of floats available on the market today, so which one is the right one? Great Lakes floats of today took years of development. West coast floats were too large so Great Lake steelheaders experimented with floats from the UK, the pioneers of fishing with a float.

Experimentation led to development of Great Lake specific float styles that are now seemingly endless. There are however three major styles that every steelheader should carry.

First let’s talk Pencil floats. If you fish long enough it’s inevitable that you’re going to run into low, ultra-clear water conditions. Enter the pencil float. Designed for stealth, the pencil float is thin and sleek and presents the bait without large amounts of weight, and without casting a fish spooking shadow. When the sun is high, and the water is low, the pencil float is the ultimate in stealth.

Next is the pear shaped float. These floats are short and wide, representing and inverted pear. These floats can handle a considerable amount of weight, and are designed to fish fast water where bulk shot patterns are used to get the bait down quickly. In fast flows, whether shallow or deep, it’s hard to beat a pear shaped float.

Finally the Cigar shaped float. Cigar shaped floats are one of the most versatile float style available to Great Lakes steelheaders. Originally used to fish fast, deep flows the Cigar float can handle a considerable amount of weight while still maintaining the sensitivity needed to detect subtle takes. Even though they were designed with fast deep water in mind, when balanced properly the cigar float can also be used to fish the slow flows; the “frog water.” This range of usability makes it the most versatile float shape, and often saves from having to change float multiple times per outing. The cigar float is the float I start every day with and is usually the float I end the day with.

steelhead float bobber options

Fixed or sliding? Balsa, cork or clear plastic?

Even after you narrow it down to three styles, there are more options. Now, however, it is a matter of experimenting which leads to confidence and personal preference.

For the majority of my applications I’ll use a slip float, like a Drennan Piker, fixed to the line with a toothpick pushed through the center. I’ve been asked countless times: Why a slip float to the line? Why not just use a fixed float? The answer is simple: In my personal experience most slip floats are easier to balance and track better (floats in the water better) than fixed floats.

There also seems to be much debate between clear plastic versus solid colored balsa or cork floats. I know guys who fish clear plastic exclusively, claiming that the sight of a solid colored float passing overhead will spook the fish. Personally I’ve never noticed anything to support that theory, but I do fish clear plastics floats almost exclusively for no other reason than personal preference.

I can’t reiterate enough how important it is to experiment.

Experiment with every aspect of float fishing be it hook size, floats and the amount of weight needed to run the effectively, or even the bait you’re presenting.

The more experimenting you do the more confidence you will gain. The best steelheaders are the confident ones; the ones that know exactly what to run and when.

Float fishing has taken the Great Lakes by storm in recent years, and its popularity is only going to continue to grow, and for good reason; it is by far the most versatile and most effective steelhead method out there.

- written by Dan Robson

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1 comment

What kind of line do you have on that reel in that picture

Jeff grandy

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