Steelhead Floats Q & A

It's that time of year again. Rivers swollen with warming rain bring steelhead charging into the flow to close the circle of their life cycle on gravel bars and rocky riffles. Like the river above, brown water water is the norm in spring. When rising, brown water results from rain, we find big trout in pockets, at the heads of pools, on the insides of bends, in the places where anglers normally wade to fish, or on the break into the pool on the inside of the bend.

Rain can warm the water, apparently triggering fish to run. Unless snow persists on the banks. When rivers are swollen with snow melt, it's a different story. Snow melt cools the water. Though the water rises, fewer fish are triggered to run. Most of the fish we catch are holdovers with dark backs and bright red highlights on flanks, bellies, and gill plates — like the fish above. And they like to hold in the center of a pool, along that inside break, or in the tailouts.

In those conditions, when the water still measures 37°F or less, few tactics work so well as suspending a bead, a plastic worm, or a small baited jig under a float. Bait could be fresh steelhead spawn, wax worms, or maggots.

Every spring, I field a barrage of questions about this process. I introduced you to my good friend, Stan Blood, this winter by covering our adventure on his drift boat (Sidney). He just e-mailed to ask if I ever use slip floats for steelhead in rivers? (As opposed to piers and breakwalls, where we often use them because slip floats: 1/ Create a tighter package that cast farther, allowing  you to cover more water in expansive harbor environs; 2/ Have a bulkier profile that catches wind and slight currents, allowing the float to cover more water; and 3/ No way are you getting down 15 feet or deeper with a fixed float, unless you have a 15-foot float rod and don't have to cast very far.

Here's my answer to Stan:

Yes, we use slip bobbers in the deep runs (over 10 feet) on the Muskegon and Big Manna (two of Stan's favorite rivers) when we're on shore. No need in a boat if you have a 12- or 14-foot float rod. But a 14-foot float rod makes it hard to land fish in a boat. I say, "so what?" I still land plenty of fish. I like a fixed float because when you move it the bait moves in an arc. When you move a slip float, the line (and bait) goes straight up. Doesn't allow you to sweep baits back under the tips of fallen trees as well, doesn't reveal "up takes" as well, makes jiggling the jig (giving movement to the jig can be critical some days) problematic, and I think it makes your presentation less effective overall. Slip floats are not designed for current, but work "well enough." They're bulky and force you to use more weight than you would with a more efficient design. They get carried along by the current too fast and they're harder to "check," and checking is critical every day (slow that float down under surface current speed). But when the water's high and the fish are deep, using a 9- to 10-foot rod with a slip float is less hassle and plenty effective on a dead drift.

I always have a few Thill Pro-Series slip floats in my float vest (because they have brass grommets for easy line passage), along with the usual array of Thill River Masters, Turbo Masters, Raven, Grayling, and custom stream steelhead floats (with sleeves already slipped onto the stem, top and bottom, for stream-side efficiency). But when the water's cold and ice is forming in guides, slip floats are miserable. Ice forms on the line and won't allow passage through the float. Too many wasted drifts.

But slip floats are a tool you need to have along when rivers rise in spring.

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