Most catfish anglers use some kind of bottom rig for most fishing situations. One reason is the ease of rigging and the “chuck-it-and-chance-it” mentality often associated with catfishing. While bottom rigs can be effective, they should not be considered the definitive catfishing method. After all, thereʼs more than one way to catch a cat.
Catfish float fishing is another productive method that’s ignored by all but the most creative catfish anglers. Constructing float rigs requires more thought and preparation than most bottom rigs. Correct presentation also is more complicated, but the rewards are worthwhile. And don’t underestimate the added enjoyment gained from mastering a new technique, or watching a float bob, bob, bob along before being yanked underwater when a cat engulfs the bait.
My float-fishing experience centers around the European wels catfish (Silurus glanis), and this article details the riggings and tactics that have proven successful for these magnificent fish. Hopefully, though, the same methods that I use in Europe will catch North American cats. And who knows? You might even abandon your traditional methods for European float-fishing tactics—at least in some situations.
Wels catfish are active feeders, pursuing food through all levels of the water column in warm water. They often venture far from the bottom during summer, and successful anglers often experiment with several depths. This can be achieved by popping a bait up from the bottom or by suspending it beneath a float on the surface.
Float-fishing offers several advantages over popped-up bottom rigs. A free-roaming livebait covers a greater area than an anchored baitfish, increasing the chance of attracting fish. Suspended baits also can be set at precise depths, keeping them safely above snags, weeds, and other cover. Some float rigs also can be presented close to snaggy cover where cats often hold during daylight.
And while most anglers use floats only as a bite indicator or to suspend baits at a particular depth, float rigs are far more versatile. In some situations, a particular hole might only be accessible with a float. Let’s say you have a beautiful hole downriver from your anchored boat. Overhanging trees prevent an overhead cast, and there’s too much current to drift a freelined bait into the hole. You might be able to bump a sliprig downstream into the spot, but only if the bottom is clear of woody debris.
With a float rig, the solution is simple. Guide the bait downstream at whatever depth you choose, working the float back and forth across the current as you go. See an interesting spot along the way? Stop releasing line to check the float then resume your drift. With enough weight on the line, the float can be held in almost any current.
Like most catfish rigs, float rigs must be modified to match certain conditions. One rig might work for one situation, but a minor modification will make it better for another. With experience you’ll learn to quickly assess conditions and choose the rigging option that best matches the situation. Until then, consider the following rigs a starting point.
The Sliding Float Rig
Many fishing situations demand a slipfloat rig, particularly holes that are deeper than the length of the rod. Most floats can be used as a slider, though traditional slipfloats allow the main line to pass through the center of the float or through a pair of eyes on the side of the float.
Depth is determined by a stop knot fashioned from a length of monofilament or braided line that is tied to the main line. A small bead sliding on the mainline between the top of the float and the stop knot prevents the knot from travelling through the eye of the float.
The Dumbbell Float Rig
This rig sounds confusing, but it’s simple to construct and use. Dumbbell rigs were developed in Scotland, where they were used for pike in weedy lochs. English anglers adapted this rig for catfish in small, shallow lakes with abundant vegetation.
Dumbbells allow livebaits to be presented in the upper layers of the water column, close to lily pads and dense weedbeds. Presentation resembles a bottom rig, since the bait is held in place by a lead weight on the bottom. The rig can be used at any depth, but since it’s most popular for fishing weeds, it’s usually used in the shallows.
To construct a dumbbell rig, attach a suitable size lead to one rung of a barrel swivel with a 4- to 6-inch length of line. This line usually is a bit lighter than the main line so the rig can be retrieved if the weight snags. Thread the main line through the other swivel rung then through a dumbbell float and a 2-inch piece of silicon tubing. Next tie a larger swivel on the end of the main line and push the tubing over one end of the swivel and the dumbbell float to lock it in position. Finish the rig by attaching a 6- to 8-inch fluorocarbon leader and a suitable hook.
Circle hooks work well with this rig, since the baits hang just below the surface and a cat must attack from below. I first saw circle hooks used during a flathead trip on the Kansas River with Catfish Guide Editor Steve Hoffman and veteran setline fisherman Gary Van Pielt. I now use them extensively in England, especially for livebaits suspended near the surface.
Once in position, the dumbbell float lies flat on the surface, occasionally dipping toward the hook as the bait swims. The bait also is able to move in a tight circle, the degree of movement controlled by adjusting the tension between the sinker and the float. In position, the dumbbell float lies flat on the surface, occasionally dipping at the hook end as the bait swims around.
Bites are indicated either by watching the float or by standard bite indicators. These indicators might be as advanced as a bobbin or electronic bite alarm, or as simple as a freespool bait clicker. Make sure you have either a free spool capability on your reel or the bail arm flipped open, as bites tend to be explosive and you risk losing rods if you fish a tight line and a closed reel.
Float Trolling Rig
This is another technique borrowed from pike anglers. Float trolling allows a livebait or deadbait to be presented at any depth while slowly drifting through productive areas. Trolling floats are like sliding floats and usually are rigged the same way.
Most trolling floats have a streamlined shape, though experience suggests that this shape offers little advantage. Some trolling floats also have a kinked tube running through them that’s designed to lock the float on the line. But the weight of the bait and sinker usually is sufficient to keep the float tight to the stop knot and working at the intended depth.
When fishing deep or snaggy water, a lighter sinker dropper can be used on a three-way swivel rig. If the sinker hangs, the dropper is easily broken so the rest of the rig can be salvaged. I prefer to fish baits high off the bottom, though, so snagging is rarely an issue.
Float trolling also is a useful method when drifting open water in windy conditions. You don’t have the same degree of control as you do with a controlled drift, but you still cover a large expanse of water. If you catch fish in a particular area, motor back upwind and repeat the same drift.
The Free Roaming Float Rig
This is perhaps the most oft used weapon in a cat angler’s float-fishing arsenal. The rig can be used either from the bank or from an anchored boat and is a great way for searching water—especially eddies, glides, or other interesting current features.
This is perhaps the most easily constructed float rig, involving almost any large float capable of supporting the chosen bait and a sinker heavy enough to balance the float while holding the bait at the proper depth. The main line can be attached to the top or bottom of the float, but I favor the bottom. The connection is made with a small snap swivel; thread the main line through the swivel and attach the snap to the bottom of the float stem.
A small bead above the swivel butts up against a stop knot to set the depth. Slide a suitable in-line weight such as an egg sinker onto the main line to hold the bait at the proper depth. A large bead below the lead cushions the knot and slightly cocks the swivel to the side to prevent tangles. I prefer large, well-made swivels tied to the line with a palomar knot. The rig is finished with an 18-inch leader fashioned from 20- to 40-pound mono or heavy braid. Large live baitfish, say from 6 to 12 inches long, are typical, though much larger baits can be used if the float is buoyant enough to support them.
A free-roaming float rig is best fished in conjunction with a floating braided line that can be worked down or across the current or used to catch the breeze. I prefer a longer rod here, maybe 10 feet long to help control and mend the line. While long rods aren’t so nice to use from a boat, the extra control they afford—especially when working multiple rigs—makes them essential.
This rig shouldn’t be considered only a river rig, either. Lakes and ponds also are easily tackled with this method, though you’re dependent on the wind and bait to cover water. With a steady breeze at your back, baits can be worked a good distance from shore, especially with a floating braided line. The addition of a small vane on the top of the float acts like a sail to move the bait with the wind.
On a good day, distances of more than 100 yards can be achieved. Take care when fishing at long range, though; monofilament lines stretch so much that setting hooks at such distances can be difficult. Longer, more-powerful rods are required to get the job done, unless you’re using no-stretch superline. This lack of stretch offers so much advantage, in fact, that I wouldn’t consider fishing this type of rig with mono.
All these rigs can and should be altered to specific conditions. None should be considered definitive, but rather a starting point from which to make adaptations and changes. One of the great things about float fishing is the versatility it offers. For example, any of these rigs can be used at night simply by adding a small chemical light stick to the side of the float; glue or tape a short piece of silicone tubing to the float and insert a light stick.
The sliding and free-roaming rigs can be converted to a float bottom rig by sliding the stop knot up the main line until the weight is sitting on the bottom. This can be useful when fishing holes or current areas that require a static bait. One of my favorite methods is to drift downriver in a small boat, stopping to try likely looking eddies, slack areas, holes, or other interesting features. A sliding float rig allows me to work a bait downstream from my anchored position, or to fish the bottom by adjusting the stop knot.
A good selection of floats makes you more versatile, too; I always carry several sizes and styles. Most situations can be met with a bulbous float fashioned from cork, balsa, or polystyrene. Many anglers favor balsa, but some of the new foam materials also work well. The most important considerations are buoyancy and durability. The float has to support a lot of weight for its size and shouldn’t fall apart the first time you use it.
Cigar-shaped sliders or saltwater-style floats also are useful. I don’t know of any major float manufacturer who produces dumbbell floats, so I make mine from foam balls and stiff tubing. An excellent selection of European-style floats is available from the Catfish Conservation Group, www. catfishconservationgroup.com.