Float Fishing Steelhead
Up is down, down is up, and that’s the difference between horizontal and vertical. If that makes no sense at all, it soon will.
Most steelhead anglers know that float fishing is a dynamic method for hooking numbers of fish, when numbers of fish are available. In fact, having pitched hair jigs, crankbaits, suspending baits, plastic worms, and every kind of bottom-oriented bait rig for steel in rivers from Alaska down the West Coast to California and throughout the Great Lakes, personally, it’s difficult to accept that anything can be more effective than a float rig most days.
Unless it’s not being presented correctly. Or it’s not presenting the right bait or attractor.
Set aside the confusing up-is-down thing for a few paragraphs and consider attraction. Long ago, on a river far away (cue Star Wars sound track), I discovered how effective glow-in-the-dark jigs can be. It was a slow, cloudy river. Always cloudy, in fact. At the time, living in Michigan, my experience was only with steelhead rivers that ran clear at low to above-average flows. Cloudy rivers running at those levels were a new experience.
First day on that river, I pulled out a 1/32-ounce Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee painted glow orange. Not a perfect steelhead jig because, being designed for panfish and walleyes, bigger steelhead could straighten the hook. And the glow collar kept bait from being secured against the head. So I cut the long, plastic collar back to about a quarter inch in length, ran the hook under the bunched netting on top of a spawn bag, and sent it on its way under an Ultra Grayling Float. And I loosened the drag a little.
Steelhead kept coming to the bank that day. For me and my friends. Just not as many for them. And, of course, they were curious as to why. I revealed my little secret, shared my thinking on the matter, and before long we were all painting our favorite TC Tackle and Owner jigs with glow colors. Which led to other discoveries.
The Business End
Phosphorescence works in cloudy water because it illuminates nearby particulates in the water. A glowing jig, by giving off its own light, creates an aura around itself, reflected off those particles that make the water cloudy. A small item suddenly creates a big attraction.
Last fall, faced with high, cloudy water on normally clear rivers, I began experimenting with large, glow beads pegged to the line several inches above a small, baited, glow jig. It was a winning combination when fished vertically, which almost brings us to the up-is-down thing. But not quite (patience is a virtue).
A 10- to 12-mm glow-in-the dark bead becomes an attractor, not unlike using a flasher out on the big lakes or the Pacific, where big attraction is a plus. Peg a glow bead above a baited jig and it creates a triple whammy of attraction: Light, bright color, and scent—three draws that help steelhead zero in on the jig when visibility is poor.
Lazy Larry’s Glow Roe patterns allow quick and easy experimentation with color. Larry’s beads have a slot and can be unpegged, removed, and replaced without cutting and retying the leader. Handmade glow Hevi-Beads have standard holes through the center, but also have the highest density of any beads on the market. The added weight aids in keeping the rig vertical—straight below the float—which is the right way to fish high water. To further peg the rig in the flow, making it easier for fish to find, use heavier jigs in the 1/8- to 1/4-ounce range below larger stream floats.
In average flows, bait is seldom required when applying the old adage that marabou is just as good. Forgotten by many these days is the universal appeal of marabou at the business end of a float rig. Bass, walleyes, pike, muskies, panfish—every species can fall for a marabou jig and salmonids are no exception. From small stream trout to 40-pound king salmon, a marabou jig excels. Especially—but not exclusively—under a float. Light marabou jigs in the 1/64- to 1/32-ounce range can “waft” slightly. By checking the float—holding it back to speeds slightly slower than surface currents—the jig can swim out ahead of the float and sidle around when the rig is weighted correctly for conditions, which will be described shortly.
Average flows are where beads as both attractor and bait excel as well. Steelhead being sight feeders—to the small extent that they actually feed in rivers—there is no need for bait here, either. Pegging a bead about 2 inches above a bare hook remains one of the most effective approaches for steelhead in all seasons.
In low-water conditions, a baited, bare hook under a float is best, because it should be fished in the opposite manner of a high-water rig—horizontally as opposed to vertically. Which finally brings us to…
Down Is Up
The best way to weight a high-water rig is to bulk the weight down low on the line below the float. And the proper way to rig a low-water float is to bulk the weight up high on the line, right under the float. When the water is up, put the weights down. When the water is down, put the weights up. Up is down, down is up.
In high, cloudy water, a steelhead may not be able to see a bait that passes a foot or even less from its face—even though steelhead have some of the best visual acuity in the piscatorial world. To address that, fish vertically and cast incrementally. Bulking all the shot above a fairly short (18- to 24-inch) mono leader (fluorocarbon is not required in cloudy water) using a glow Hevi-Bead attractor and a 1/16-ounce or heavier jig results in a rig that hangs straight down and won’t waft around. Making each cast 6 inches or so longer than the last with that kind of rigging results in complete, precise coverage of a run or pool.
The same kind of rigging produces more hookups in extremely cold water, with a few slight changes. In high, cloudy flows or when stream temperatures register 34°F or less, steelhead become far less likely to move even a few inches to take a baited jig. You have to hit them right on the nose, which means rigging for vertical presentations. The only differences are leader length and jig size. In cold, clear water, move that tight grouping of shot about 6 inches or so above a 3- to 31⁄2-foot fluorocarbon leader terminating in a 1/64- to 1/32-ounce jig. (Leaders are attached to a #10 SPRO Power Swivel.)
Don’t put split shot right on the leader—which should be lighter than the mainline. If the mainline is 10-pound mono (right for high water), the leader should be 6- or 8-pound mono or fluorocarbon. If the mainline is 8-pound mono (right for low or cold water), use a 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon leader.
Low, clear water calls for the opposite—a more horizontal presentation. Even though fishing with a float, horizontal is achievable. Well, almost. Call it quasi-horizontal. Or diagonal. Or whatever you want. The idea is to get the bait way out in front of that drifting float—which actually becomes a spook factor. A float passing overhead may not make a steelie bolt, but it just might keep it from opening its mouth or cause it to move aside.
To achieve a proper horizontal drift: (1) Use the smallest float possible; (2) Bulk all the shot directly under the float; and (3) Check the float hard.
Checking means letting line slip off the reel at a slower speed than surface currents are traveling so the business end is moving at slower bottom-current speeds. Leaves, twigs, and bubbles should be passing the float. Checking hard means actually stopping the float for a second or two every 6 feet or so. The current then sweeps all the line and a baited hook well out in front of the float, creating a more horizontal presentation that wafts side-to-side quite a bit, in a natural manner.
Lighter baits like spawn bags, worms, waxworms, and plastics on light #10 and #8 hooks make horizontal possible. Done correctly, the length of line below the float can actually be a foot greater than the depth of the water. In clear water, however, steelhead will both see and move to intercept a bait well overhead and off to the side. No need to hit them in the face.
Marabou jigs are deadly in average to slightly high flows, which call for a shirt-button weighting pattern. Spread the shot 2 to 5 inches apart on the mainline under the float—heaviest on top and lightest close to the swivel. Check the float lightly and this pattern creates an arc in the line below it as the lighter shot and light jig are swept slightly out in front—a compromise between vertical and horizontal.
Shotting patterns may seem black-and-white, given only three solutions, but situations sometimes call for compromises there, too. A few shot bulked, a few spread out—but beware. Tangles ensue. Every stream level and current speed has its perfect shotting response. But at the extremes, in a perfect world, up is down and down is up.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw has been teaching anglers about steelhead and details for catching them since the 1980s.