Float Fishing For Steelhead 101

angler showing off his catch while float fishing for steelhead
The author used a float rig on this “chromer.”

A Novice Angler’s Guide to Float Fishing For Steelhead

Every season a new batch of anglers takes the plunge into the steelhead fishing scene, and they quickly realize this isn’t chasing bass in a pond. Steelhead fishing can be a frustrating proposition for new anglers; the fish are always on the move, aren’t easily spotted and are as moody and fickle as any fish that swims.

The Float Fishing Technique Gives Anglers an Edge

Fortunately, float fishing for steelhead can help get newcomers up and running with some basic tackle and get them started on solving the mysteries of this great fish. Technology advances and availability of gear have made it easier than ever to get properly rigged and cut the learning curve way back from when I started 22 years ago!

The Basic Supplies For Your Float Fishing Setup

Spin Fishing Gear

Spinning gear would be the best place to start with your steelhead float fishing setup, since their design makes them the ideal reel to cast light float rigs a long distance. Make sure you have a spinning reel with a smooth drag; cheap spinning reels with sticky drags will lead to break-offs and utter steelhead float fishing frustration. A float fishing reel that can hold at least 150 yards of 8 pound line is a necessity as fresh steelhead can take a lot of line in a hurry.

High Quality Line

Speaking of your float fishing line, be sure to spend the money and fill your reel with high quality monofilament line that has high tensile strength and low memory. Float fishing gear puts a lot of stress on the main line as you’ll be moving the float and shot up and down the line, not to mention dealing with slack line during the drift; I can’t stress enough how crucial this component is to your success and enjoyment on the stream while you’re float fishing for steelhead.

Float Fishing Rod

I hate to sound like some old geezer, but when I started float fishing for steelhead, there wasn’t a commercially made float rod. You had to get a custom rod built in order to float fish. Boy, how times have changed! Now there are a myriad of commercially built float fishing rods that will fit just about any budget.

Match the rod length to the water you plan to float fish for steelhead.  A 13 foot rod will be ideal for all medium to large streams, while a 10 to 11 foot rod is better suited to small water. Make sure to choose a rod with plenty of backbone as the power in the lower half of the rod is required to wear down a big fish quickly while steelhead fishing.

Tackle for Steelhead Fishermen

An angler showing off his first successful catch while float fishing for steelhead
Ohio native Trevor Shaheen with his first steelhead from the Salmon River courtesy of an egg sack and a float.

The terminal tackle needed for the basic float fishing rig is the float, split shot, swivels, hooks, and leader material. Basic stuff, but it’s the right stuff that will get you connected consistently, a winning combination.

Raven Tackle has the most expansive float line up in the market today, and three of their float styles are well suited for the majority of the Lake Ontario watersheds:

The SS series in the 3.0g size is a great float for smaller rivers and streams. It holds enough weight to get your offering down to the fish but is stealthy enough not to spook fish upon entry. This series is sure to help you catch steelhead on your float fishing rig.

The FM series in the 6.2g size is one of the most popular in the Great Lakes region today. This float supports an ideal amount of weight for most rivers and streams you’ll encounter, and its high visibility top makes it easy to see in choppy runs or low light conditions. Float fishing for steelehead with this series is a fantastic way to catch your Great Lakes steelhead.

The FD series in the 11g size is useful to have in high water or big stream situations while float fishing for steelhead. You can cast this float a mile and get down in the deep, gnarly holes! River fishing requires the right float while float fishing steelhead.

Split Shots

Split shots are the means of weighting the float rig. This allows the bait to get down to the fish holding zone and provides ample weight to reach a far holding lie. Carry size 7 and 3/0 shot for use as keel weight just below your float. Two or three pieces usually do the trick. This helps with casting distance and balancing the float. BB and B sized shot are the tools needed to get the bait down without being too intrusive.

Stagger The Shots

Stagger these shot on your main line starting at the leader and go up the line towards the float. Use as much shot as the float will hold, usually 6 to 12 pieces, depending on the float size. When split shot are rigged in this manner, the lighter shot and bait will be ahead of the float so the fish will see the goods before the terminal tackle. This is what makes float fishing so effective, especially in clear water.

Swivels, Hooks and Leaders – Oh My!

Swivels, hooks, and leader material round out the terminal tackle for float fishing. Small swivels like the Raven Micro Swivel help to alleviate line twist and make tying leaders a breeze.

As with the floats, match the hook size to the water conditions. Size 8-10 hooks are ideal for small streams while size 4-6 hooks are better choices for bigger water. Look for a bronze or black nickel finish and a chemically sharpened point when hook shopping, I would highly recommend using the Raven Specialist hook.

The last item you’ll need to stock up on is leader material; you’re going to need it! Spend the money and buy leader material made from fluorocarbon. This material refracts light making it harder for fish to see.

The tackle industry has come a long way with this style of line and it is stronger and more abrasion resistant than ever. Carry a spool of 6 pound test for most situations and 4 pound test for small water or super clear water.

Getting the Drift

Take It From The Top

Float fishing is ideal for fishing pools where steelhead rest during their migration upstream. If you have the luxury of having the water all to yourself, start at the top of the pool and work your way down. Be sure to work your way across the pool on successive drifts. This insures you are covering the water properly which leads to finding the sweet spot in the hole that the fish are holding in at that moment.

Keys To Success

An angler on a small stream, showing off his success while float fishing for steelhead
The author used a stealth float fish to land this big “chrome” from a small stream.

There are two important keys to success when using the float rig on the water: line management and rig depth.

Float fishing for steelhead works well because it presents the bait at current speed. It is critical that you do not hold back on the float during the drift as this causes the rig to drag and the bait to lift out of the strike zone.

Open the bail to feed line in short intervals to keep the drift going and keep in constant contact with the float. Too much slack line on the water will result in a missed strike when the float shoots under. Keep your eye on the float at all times and be ready for that magic moment.

Go Deep

The biggest mistake I see new anglers make when float fishing for steelhead, is not fishing deep enough. You aren’t going to get a bite if you don’t get down to the fish! Keep adjusting your float until you tick bottom. Once you know you are close to the bottom, you’ll be in the zone and ready for a strike.

Lastly, set the hook and set it hard when the float goes down. If you hesitate for a moment, the fish will feel the tension and spit the bait. As west coast icon Bill Herzog says,  “jerk or be one!”

Learn More About Float Fishing

Want to learn more about float fishing for steelhead? Check out the Raven Tackle website: www.raventackle.com.

Original Article By Brian Kelly

About The Author

Brian Kelly has chased steelhead from British Columbia to New York and enjoys teaching others about this great sport, as well as testing his skill on new waters.

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