December 10, 2020
A float diving under the surface is childhood revisited. Most of us were introduced to fishing at an early age with a cheap stick and a bobber. Watching it go down results in a serial affirmation: Life is happening down there, it responds to this, and it bites. What is it this time?
The appeal of fishing with a “cork” only wanes when it refuses to go down. But that’s true for every technique. Failure leads to boredom leads to a change of plans. Knowing when to employ a method and when not to sidesteps boredom.
Wisconsin guide Greg Bohn wrote the book on slipfloat tactics. Literally. Bohn’s Master the Art of Slip Bobbering, and his sequel on night fishing with floats, explores every detail of this kind of presentation. Though published in 2005, it remains a great resource for veterans and novices alike.
It’s not that Bohn only uses slipfloats. We’ve detailed his jig tactics with both plastics and bait, his advice on lures, and his understanding of the effect of celestial events on timing hot bites. Timing has everything to do with deploying a slipfloat rig, too. One of the final steps in the quest to become a better fisherman is understanding when to do what. A random approach to changing tactics is the road to boredom. A thoughtful approach can lead to eventful days on the water.
When to Cork
Wind is Exhibit A: Bohn thinks winds from 0 to 5 mph are nice. “But winds from 5 to 10 mph are perfect,” he says. “Winds from 10 to 20 mph still allow you to drift and cover water with slipfloats, but anything stronger than that and it’s time to anchor or employ spot-lock. Some days, however, the boat has to be drifting along or bites are few and far between, so days with light winds often produce better results than calm days.”
Big waves make both float and bait rise and fall precipitously, and many anglers think that’s a bad thing. But leeches, minnows, and nightcrawlers aren’t the only things worth fishing under a float. Hair jigs, marabou jigs, and scented plastics can light walleyes up under a float in waves. Big wind is not a reason to pass over the cork option—with or without livebait.
Bohn often deploys a driftsock or two and control-drifts with his bowmount electric, with at least one large sock (36 to 42 inches) connected to a cleat near the bow, maybe a second (25- to 30-inch) sock to the same cleat in high winds. “Too much assisted movement pulls the rigs up out of the strike zone, though,” he says. “We lower rigs right near the boat to eliminate casting, and little maneuvering—just enough to keep the boat over fish or key spots and moving at 1 mph or less.”
Walleye position in the water column is Exhibit B: Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, a Minnesota guide often quoted on topics involving walleyes, said any fish spotted well off bottom should be targeted with slipfloats. “I like using bobbers on suspended walleyes over deeper weed humps,” Brosdahl says. “Weeds tend to be filamentous algae and deeper milfoil that’s hard to get a lure through. Cabbage is great, too. The idea is to keep the bait in the strike zone and not just pass through it. When the most active walleyes are right up in tops of the weeds, or suspended above, a slipfloat is the most efficient and productive solution. When using leeches, it’s nice to hover them and let them swim over the stuff.”
With today’s side-finding live-sonar units, we can see exactly where fish are in the water column and nothing precisely targets specific depths like a slipfloat. Set the bobber stop to position the bait a foot or so above the marks to give walleyes a perfect view of the bait.
Cover is Exhibit C: Fouling in weeds might be necessary when walleyes hug bottom. But as Brosdahl points out, it’s more efficient to stay above cover when walleyes are marked up high. The same goes for rocks. Whether walleyes are down among the rocks and hard to spot or hovering above the cover and giving off shadows on the screen, dragging sinkers or jigging on bottom can be inefficient. Tying knots catches no fish. Hovering baits just above a snaggy bottom results in more time spent fishing, less time grumbling and developing bad karma.
“Tipping the bobber and making it hop vertically can trigger strikes,” Brosdahl says. “Sometimes I sweep it, let it settle, and sweep it again all the way back to the boat to keep it above rocks or clinging weeds. When fish are in shallow rocks, sweeping keeps it above the rocks.”
The throw-back option is Exhibit D: In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange describes how floats not only serve as a main presentation, but in some situations they’re an effective secondary approach. “On the prairie lakes I fish in western Minnesota or in Northeast South Dakota, we start off pitching small paddletail swimbaits or sometimes countdown lures to the outside edges of cover to find weed pockets and points and catch a few fish,” he says. “We work through an area then stop and drift back in to cast slipfloats to these spots, usually with a small jig and a live leech or—more likely—a Berkley Gulp! Leech to catch a few more fish. They either bite in 10 to 15 minutes after making a few drifts into these spots or we move on.”
As my friend, outdoor writer Rich Zaleski liked to point out, active fish tend to be the smallest portion of a population. Most walleyes are inactive most of the time. In today’s run-and-gun world, a lot of us fail to go back through a productive area with a low-profile tactic after gunning it down with lures. Few presentations appeal to less active walleyes better than a bait that hangs in their face and won’t go away.
Lunch is Exhibit E: Always have a bait in the water. When an empty, growling stomach can no longer be ignored, break out the float rod and hover a bait or marabou jig safely above rocks and weeds and snarf a sandwich. Makes you chew your food and enjoy it—no need to rush. A slipfloat presentation should always be on hand anyway. When untangling other lines, tying knots, putting on a bandage, breaking out rain suits, talking on the phone, or when anything comes up that stops hands-on fishing, toss out a float, put the rod in a holder, and get to it.
Seeing fish off to the side is Exhibit F: Years ago, before live-streaming sonar existed, Bohn advanced a method for using sonar and wide cone angles to watch walleyes approach float rigs deployed all around the boat by clients. “Now I’ve upgraded to the Lowrance HDS 12 Live,” he says. “What a difference. Hundreds of times I’ve informed clients their bobber is about to take a dive. Pointing out afterwards that I was tracking a big walleye following their rig on the sonar screen is awesome. People eat that stuff up.”
Brosdahl has a been doing much the same thing with his Humminbird Helix 12 SI with CHIRP by using side imaging. “Now you can throw your float anywhere and watch walleyes approach the rig,” he says. “Even 30 feet or more from the boat you can see fish react to the float. You can see them grab it. Being able to see where the fish are and cast to them is vitally important. In shallow water I use two 15-foot Talons, making no sound. Spot-Lock is good, but it creates turbulence and sound. You can use side-finding in shallow water and I’m always looking to see which side of the boat walleyes are on. It tells us how far to cast and how deep to set rigs.”
New live-stream, side-finding sonar can reveal which way a school of walleyes is moving, so anglers can cast float rigs ahead of them. “When they appear on screen with heads up, they’re swimming toward the front of the boat,” Brosdahl says. “If their heads are pointed down on screen, they’re swimming toward the back of the boat. Keep an eye on them. Watching walleyes approach then refuse to strike suggests changing baits or colors.”
When casting, long rods are best. An 8- to 10-foot rod is more effective at steering floats around objects, mending the bow out of the line in wind, and pulling submerged rigs out of the water to set hooks. I still use 81/2-foot telescoping St. Croix Slip Sticks, which are no longer made, but the 8-foot St. Croix Eyecon Slip-n-Float is designed for slip-float duty, too.
“I use 8- or 9- foot Berkley Air Rods,” Stange says. “Medium-light or medium power. If it’s in the cards that a big one might show up around weedcover, I use the medium, but 90 percent of my fishing is with a medium-light. I work much the same way Jason Mitchell has described so often on Devils Lake. He often drags a float behind the boat as he works down a shoreline. Very practical.” Laying horizontal to the water in a rod holder, a long rod keeps the float just outside the boat path.
Brosdahl uses a slightly shorter stick. “I like the 7-foot 6-inch medium St. Croix Legend Elite because the eyelets aren’t tiny,” he says. “Length helps you keep slack out of the line, but you have to have some slack to let walleyes pull the float down. I set the hook with the reel. Reel tight then sweep. Too many people just sweep and pull the bait out of their mouth. The line is at a 45-degree angle and you have to reel until it’s a straight line or the hook-set affects the bobber, not the fish.”
Bohn uses a 7-foot rod when fishing vertically near the boat to keep rigs in sight with Downscan. When casting, or when he needs a long rod to position rigs within the cone angle of the transducer while drifting, he uses one of his own 9-foot Mr. Slip Bobber Float Sticks. He uses Thill Pro Series slipfloats with a brass grommet on top, so line can’t cut a groove into the rim. His rigs often terminate with 1/32- to 1/8-ounce Lindy Mr. Slip Bobber Rigs tipped with livebait. “My personal best walleye taken under a slipbobber came to a rig tipped with a fathead minnow,” Bohn says. “It measured 33 inches and weighed 12 pounds 3 ounces.”
Brosdahl likes green or pink Gamakatsu #4 octopus hooks. “The hook should be an attractor,” he says. “A spottail shiner works in spring and fall, hooked through the dorsal fin. I use my thumbnail to clip off the bottom of the tail fin so they can move but not get anywhere. When bugs begin hatching, I go with a partial ‘crawler or a leech on a small jig. But if they’re feeding on perch, you need to use a minnow. Perch pester leeches and ‘crawlers. The critter factor makes or breaks your day you need enough bait to survive it. Around nice walleyes, you may have to bring a pound of leeches as opposed to a couple dozen. There isn’t a fish around that won’t hit a leech and when walleyes are being selective you need to be prepared. Pitch it out, let it sit, then reel and stop. Don’t just sit around. Always better to slightly move the cork around from spot to spot. I use plastics sometimes, too, or a Northland Puppet Minnow under a bigger cork. Brass grommets on the Northland slipfloats allow me to use braided line, so I don’t have to exaggerate the hook-set.”
Monofilament soaks up water and eventually sinks, but works well as a mainline. Fluorocarbon just flat sinks from the get go. Braid floats all day. I use 8- to 10-pound Berkley FireLine as a mainline, which facilitates longer casts while using far less force. Like Bohn, I use Water Gremlin Rubbercor Sinkers, which won’t damage line yet slide to whatever position on the line is optimum. Weight should be just enough, with the jig, to stand the float and pull it down to the “water line” separating top and bottom colors. Just below the sinker is a barrel swivel tied to a 3- to 4-foot, 4- to 6-pound Seaguar Fluorocarbon leader. I use 1/32-ounce Crappie Pro and VMC Neon Moon Eye jigs with leeches and small minnows, but jigs up to 1/8-ounce keep the rig vertical in big waves. And don’t overlook unbaited marabou jigs in 2- to 4-foot waves.
“By me, the best hooks are Kahle style,” Stange says. “Or a jighead. I want the bait to get down to depth and stay there, so typically a 1/32-ounce jighead is at the end of the leader—either chartreuse or some sort of orange pattern on the jig. Something to attract attention to the leech. I tie a four- or five-wrap uni-knot on the line, using colored Dacron, for a bobber stop. Or just use something off the store shelf, leaving a tag end of at least an inch. No need to trim. The tag line flows freely through the rod guides and the tag ends make it easy to retighten the knot after adjusting for depth. Then a bead, which rests on top of a simple Carlisle Float. Then, keep it simple, with three BB lead shot about 9 inches above the jighead.”
To effect the throw-back option, like Stange does, it pays to have a float rod rigged and ready on deck. But it doesn’t always happen. We forget things. Cutting off lures, slipping on bobber stops, then a bead, then a float—seems like a hassle out on the water. But a new slipfloat design called the Slip Lock from Clear Blue Waters Inc. makes it a lot easier to re-rig on the spot.
Slip Lock floats have a slot along the stem and body. Lay the line in the slot and just turn the little locks on the top and bottom of the stem. Presto. Smart Stops, also from Clear Blue Waters, can be applied much the same way. Just lay the line through one and snap it off the carousel with a small pliers. That crimps it onto the line, but it still slides.
New slipfloat gear and tactics might be slipping past our run-and-gun, snapjigging, tournament fishing culture largely unnoticed. But family outings will always keep slipfloats on the shelves. Kids keep reminding us what it felt like—what it still feels like—to see a cork dive under the surface.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an exceptional multispecies angler, often contributing to In-Fisherman publications on tackle and rigging refinements.