In 1496, Dame Juliana Berners wrote about drilling corks to use for "flotes" in Treatyse of Fysshynge With an Angle. By 1921, an English company named Wadhams was already offering over 250 styles of "float" in a catalog. Most were as sophisticated as any we use today. Judging by sophistication alone, those notched balsa bobbers with springs on the stem must have appeared about the time Jesus delivered the Sermon on The Mount. Yet that was all I could find onboard back in 1974 while canoeing the bays of a reservoir, hunting for smallmouths. I looked down to see a bluegill the size of a small poodle staring back at me. I scrambled through tackle boxes for panfish gear, but all I could find was on old yellow-white standup bobber.
I clipped it on, but had no split shot, only #4 hooks and nightcrawlers for bait. On 8-pound line the rig was all but uncastable. But I flopped it out with a small piece of worm on the hook. The float lay on its side like a fallen toy soldier. Suddenly it stood at attention then dove like a Navy Seal. Up came the medium-power rod, which snapped into an arc, and out of the water flew a bull bluegill. That process, repeated over and over, drove home several points: 1) An unweighted float can be sensitive; 2) In a pinch, almost any float will do; and 3) There has to be a better tool for the job.
The following list represents half a century of applying panfish float rigs to various situations for panfish. Traveling to many storied fisheries, I've been fortunate to see what kind of rigs guides and pros use for slabs, jumbos, and bulls. They're the most universally effective and functional float rigs I've found.
Early in the season, before vegetation become dense, the quickest, most efficient, and most productive float is Rainbow Plastics' A-Just-A-Bubble, which is both a bubble and a fixed float. A piece of rubber tubing extends through the center, and the line passes through it. Twist the top of the float and the tubing wraps the line, so the float can be set at any position.
Loosen the cap and water can be added to the bubble. About one quarter full, it casts like a crankbait, yet becomes almost as sensitive as a Euro-style float as a strike indicator. Even without added water, the dense plastic of the A-Just-A-Bubble casts well.
Another advantage is the slow, natural fall of a tiny jig from the surface to the end of the drop. Even more important some days is the option of fishing something very light that you don't want to drop at all. Not into fly-fishing? A-Just-A-Bubbles present small poppers and floating flies on short leaders, too. When crappies chase minnows near the surface in spring and early summer, the A-Just-A-Bubble can cast an unweighted Aberdeen hook with a crappie minnow out past the fish, so it can be pulled stealthily toward them.
I use A-Just-A-Buazbbles throughout the open-water season. While vegetation is thin, bubble rigs shine on big, shallow flats in lakes. In river backwaters, I use them to hunt big bluegills and crappies as they begin to move from winter holes into shoreline wood after ice-out. A light jig with a small gap, a beaked hook, and no weight on the line can be finessed through wood without snagging as often as a slipfloat rig does. Split shot on the line can actually push the point of a light jig into the wood on the drop.
I slide A-Just-A-Bubbles onto 4- to 8-pound Berkley FireLine and tie a small SPRO or Eagle Claw swivel below it, with two to three feet of 2- to 8-pound mono or fluorocarbon tied to the swivel below that. Mono works better for floating flies and poppers, and when the water is cloudy. Fluorocarbon works better with jigs in clear water. Heavier line is for thick cover and spots that also hold largemouth bass, which seem to crave panfish-sized baits before the water hits about 52°F.
The rod of choice is a 7- to 7.5-foot light or ultralight stick. The G. Loomis and St. Croix rods I use are rigged the same way, with the same line, year-after-year. Braids, and fused lines like FireLine, never break down, so simply take them out each spring, throw them in the boat, and shove off.
Guides on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee often dap for slab crappies with long poles. They reach toward sheltered cypress trunks and drop short float rigs with a jig-minnow setup or jigs dressed with plastic tubes.
Over the past several years, I've been fortunate to observe first-hand how that world-class tinkerer, Dave Genz, has adapted dapping to his style of fishing. For decades, he's tried to make open-water fishing more like his favorite pastime—ice fishing. I watched him fish with ice rods and other sticks short enough to keep his jig in the "cone" of his Vexilar flasher, with the transducer dropped off the side of the boat, so he could continue watching how fish react to a jig under a blazing summer sun.
The past two summers, I've ventured into Minnesota's North Country with Genz to hunt for goliath 'gills. His summer program: Cruise slowly across shallow flats to visually locate the tallest, thickest stands of cabbage. In the absence of cabbage, coontail or milfoil will do. When he finds an expansive "condo complex," he anchors upwind and lets the boat settle where he can work cabbage stalks in all directions it.
He daps with a rather stiff 12-foot spinning rod. On the business end he uses long, extremely sensitive, Thill Shy Bite Floats. Many European "stick" floats work equally well. "A 12-footer is precise," Genz says. "It allows me to reach out, cover more water from an anchored position, and drop jigs down through the cabbage stalks. It lets me fish down to depths of 12 feet or so with a fixed float. The rod has to be stiff enough to transfer action to the jig when I 'pound' the blank with my fingers."
Genz places enough Thill Soft Shot on the line to balance the float precisely. He wants only the tip above water at rest. The float spends more time out of water than in it, as he lifts, shakes, and repeats, gradually checking every depth range along the weededge. "When the intensity of the quiver is just right, the bobber doesn't move much," he says. "I mostly use small feather jigs or ice lures with #10 hooks—baits that quiver when you thrum the blank. It's the action that catches fish, so sometimes soft little Maki Plastics work best, but I also bait with maggots, waxworms, leeches, or whatever's working best."
The Wind Beater
Waggler-style floats have been around a long time, first appearing in the literature of English angling of the 19th century. What many Americans don't understand about this long, ungainly looking float that doesn't fit in a tackle box is that it's a slipfloat. It can also be used as a fixed float, so it's versatile. Either way, it's a wind beater.
Years ago, In-Fisherman contributor Rich Zaleski told me how upset it made his partner to lose a crappie tournament to anglers using poles with no reels. "The winners used 14-foot poles and waggler-style floats," Zaleski told me. "They could reach out next to the wood, lower the float, and fish with unerring accuracy."
Standard slipfloat rigs get dragged into fallen trees by wind and waves or move out of the strike zone before reluctant crappies can make up their minds to bite. Wagglers stay put because the body of the float is submerged and only the tip of its long stem protrudes above the surface when weighted correctly. Rigged with a bobber stop or swivel at the bottom of the float, your line stays below the surface where wind can't catch it.
Wagglers work best on long rods like those used for dapping. It's not a long-cast technique. For one thing, you can't see the tip of a waggler much more than 30 feet away, especially in wind. Wagglers are for up-close fishing around cover.
Good ol' American slipfloats have certain advantages. Before casting, the float slides down to form a small package of swivel, split shot, short leader, and jig or hook. When casting around and between objects like overhanging branches, docks, or stumps, it's much easier to be accurate with a slipfloat.
We have plenty of slipfloat options. My favorites include the Cast Away Bobber, Northland Tackle Lite-Bite, and Thill Pro Series. The Thill models have brass grommets on top so line doesn't cut into the rim of the plastic stem and impede line flow. Another slipfloat I keep in my panfish box is the Wing-it Quick Snap. Slide your line through the bottom clip and you have a detachable slipfloat that can be added or removed as needed when you can't decide whether pitching or suspending a tube is the way to go. And because it's connected only at the bottom of the stem, it's more wind resistant than standard designs.
As with all other float applications, my slipfloat rigs have a swivel below the float with a short fluorocarbon or mono leader to prevent line twist. Split shot are placed in a group just above the swivel for a quick drop, to prevent damage to the weaker leader, and to keep shot from sliding down to the hook or jig. Add just enough weight to sink the float to its "water line," where different colors meet on the body of the float.
Slipfloats can be effective around heavy cover, but excel on deep spots when fish are scattered on rockpiles, weed humps, and mudflats. I have a slipfloat rod handy when my primary or secondary tactic involves jigging vertically, or whenever crappies are the target. When crappies suspend just off weedlines or structure at specific depths, slipfloats find them faster and stay on them better than other rigs.
Slipfloats and A-Just-A-Bubbles work fine in river backwaters, but when water levels get extremely low in bigger rivers like the Mississippi, crappies and bluegills migrate out of bays, backwaters, and even shoreline wood and into main-river areas. During recent droughts, I've found bull bluegills in the same areas occupied by migrating smallmouths. Crappies may use the inside of a bend, eddies behind wing dams or bridge abutments, or other reduced current areas. In fall they begin sliding into deeper main-river holes.
While smallmouths favor the upstream end of a rockpile, bar, or hump, panfish tend to use the downstream side. Active fish can be caught by vertical jigging or pitching small jigs and plastics, but when livebait and floats are required, the most efficient floats are fixed floats designed for current. The smallest Thill River Masters, Thill Turbo Masters, Drennan Alloy Sticks, Red Wing Blackbirds, and Raven Floats are designed to remain stable in current and allow water to flow around them.
One thing that's often overlooked by float fishermen in current is the need to make a baited jig or hook travel slower than surface speed. A river float can be "checked" by applying slight pressure, slowing it just enough to allow surface bubbles and debris to pass the float by. For that kind of manipulation, a 9- to 12-foot rod helps hold line off the water between you and the float. Split shot can be spread on the line, with the heaviest ones nearest the float, to create a curve that presents the bait first.
Stream floats, balanced with the right amount of lead, slip under with minimal resistance. Light-biting crappies have no chance to escape, as the submerged float pins the hook against their papery mouths. Today, float fishing continues to evolve, as it has for 500 years since Dame Berners first wrote about "flotes." That evolution led to sleek tools that balance, dive, and function far better than the makeshift corks panfishermen so often make do with today.