July 14, 2017
By Cory Schmidt
I last encountered Mick Thill about 15 years ago, each of us strolling the aisles at the Chicagoland Sport Show. You quickly learned that anytime you crossed paths with the venerable float-fishing master the best thing you could do was to shut up and listen. That's what I did during a long lunch that day, listening to him talk about the virtues of matching floats to tackle and the tribulations of working in the tackle industry.
Mick invited me to one of his favorite local "swims," a multispecies spot where we dabbled toothpick-sized floats, micro shot, and tiny nymph hooks baited with live redworms during a sleet storm. Hand over fist, he caught about 30 fish in an hour while I managed half as many on the same tackle.
As we broke down 12-foot rods and parted ways late that January day, Mick left me with a bit of float wisdom, which I paraphrase here: "Float-fishing is the key. And the key to float-fishing is first understanding that not all floats are created equal. Further, it's as much about presenting bait in specific, sometimes difficult-to-reach spots and to let the rig soak long enough for fish to find it and strike, as it is to provide bite detection. Bite detection is little understood — that each different float features a unique shape, size, and design best matched to specific tackle as well as various wind, current, and depth conditions.
"A float should be weighted with shot such that a bite from even the most selective fish is met with next to zero resistance. Ideally, a float should be properly matched to tackle so it's scarcely on the surface side of neutrally buoyant, tip extending just enough to be visible. Learn to properly match floats to the situation and tackle, and you'll be the best angler on almost every water you fish."
Thill disappeared down the road, taillights enveloped by Chicago showers, vanishing metaphorically and literally from the North American fishing landscape. When he returned to his native United Kingdom, America lost perhaps the last master float fisherman, or at least one of the last remaining anglers here who fully understood the rationale behind float design. Still the only angler to win gold medals in match and world ice-fishing events, he captained Team USA for many years, beginning in 1982, and trained an entire generation of great anglers.
At times, float-fishing isn't the rocket science Thill sometimes made it out to be. But if you don't own and know how to use at least a handful of floats of various designs, you're missing opportunities to watch balsa sink out of sight.
Pop and Stop
In much of the crappie world, spring is the best time to watch corks go down. April, May, and June encompass the spawn in most of the country, when swarms of crappies haunt shallow, dark bottom bays. One of the best tactics for hooking tons of panfish during this period is a float pinned a foot or two above a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jig and soft plastic. The classic Puddle Jumper is a prevailing crappie catcher in this scenario, behind a Double X Tackle A-Just-A-Bubble. Slide the line through the narrow end of the bubble and out the fat end. Tie on the desired jig, or hook and split shot. Measure out the appropriate length of line based on depth, and twist the upper plug until it clicks into position, securing the float in place.
Besides suspending the bait at a fixed level above bottom, vegetation, or other cover, a weighted A-Just-A-Bubble yields rifle casts, even with ultralight baits. Especially in spring when armies of anglers fish from docks or other shore spots, it's an ace presentation. Wielding a 7- to 8-foot medium-light spinning rod with 4- or 6-pound-test mono, you retrieve the rig a bit more actively than most float systems. Cast and let the jig and Puddle Jumper glide toward bottom. Pause a few seconds. Give the float a fast, hard pop, pulling the jig forward before gliding back toward bottom. Repeat.
Every angler pulls off a slightly different variation of the retrieve, as on each day, a different approach seems to shine. Slower and less aggressive works one day; almost stationary is best the next; and there are many variations in between. Some anglers reel the rig slowly, stopping every 5 to 10 feet to let the jig flutter.
The Puddle Jumper's not the only game in town, although it's a sweet little gliding bait. Northland Tackle's Impulse Water Bug is another great darter/glider. And a 1- to 2-inch curlytail can be good just about anywhere, as are pintail baits like the Bobby Garland Baby Shad, Scent Wiggl'r, and Northland Tackle Water Flea. For scooting across clean-bottom areas, tiny crayfish plastics or Puddle Jumpers excel under a bubble.
Trailing a small jig or fly behind a small floating minnowbait can be magic at times. A #14 bead-head nymph behind a #5 or #7 Rapala Minnow is one example that also works in modified pop-and-stop fashion.
In colder water, many bites don't entirely submerge the bubble, or you don't always have the luxury of waiting before setting the hook. Watch for the tip of the float to twitch and turn in one direction or to rise to vertical before slowly sinking out of sight. Pressured or negative crappies can inhale and exhale a jig within a second, making it easy to miss the bite.
Float visibility is a key factor in bite detection. On calm, sunny days and when you're making shorter casts, a clear bubble is quite visible. During cloudy conditions, yellow or chartreuse bubbles are easy to see, while in moderate chop, red and orange floats can be easiest to spot. Double X Tackle also offers a Lighted A-Just-A-Bubble illuminated with a light stick for night-fishing.
I don't recommend doing pop-and-stop retrieves with a slipfloat. Popping the rod tip more easily fouls a slipfloat with the line, jig, or splitshot. Instead, you want a float that sits flatter to the surface, or at least at a slight downward angle, as opposed to riding vertically (mast up, stem down). It's more of a cast-swim-stop presentation, as opposed to a stationary, drift approach carried out effectively by other designs. Cylindrical line-through bubbles execute the pop-and-stop to perfection.
The same fundamental approach that works for early-season crappies may be equally deadly for schooling white bass and perhaps perch, with an audible twist. Adapted from "popper-knocker" rig for redfish and speckled trout around the Gulf and Southeast Atlantic coasts, a similar method has been embraced by some freshwater anglers. Given the appeal of rattles to many species, adding sound to a float may have merit in some situations, such as for drawing fish in from a distance, drifting across featureless flats, or murky water.
Double X Tackle offers the Rattle Bomb, a 3-inch plastic bubble loaded with rattle beads. Betts makes the Mr. Crappie Rattlin Pear Float, a tiny clip-on float filled with BBs that gives off a high pitched jingling sound.
Betts, Billy Bay, and Bomber make loud, heavy, clacker-style floats. Most clackers have a floating cylinder that slides on a 7- or 8-inch wire arm between multiple brass and plastic beads. The idea is to pop the float aggressively on the surface, causing the cylinder to rapidly collide with the beads and produce a loud clattering noise. Most clacker style floats are large and may have limited application for panfish, though they're worth experimentation for white bass, redear sunfish, or large perch. Choose cigar/cylinder versions, which are more sensitive than other oblong designs. You might also consider a smaller rattling float in the Puddle Jumper/crappie scenario described above.
A distinctive pattern occurs where crappies feed on crayfish over relatively clean bottom areas, or spots with decomposing vegetation. Rig a black or brown tube, Puddle Jumper, or a tiny soft-plastic crayfish bait behind a casting bubble. Folks who popper-knock for inshore redfish believe the auditory appeal relates to the snapping noise made by shrimp — a favorite forage of redfish. The same process might apply where panfish feed on crayfish, or where redears forage on grass shrimp.
Thill would likely scoff at some of these methods as so much nonsense. He'd show up at the community crappie dock with wacky tackle — in Thill's case, a clutch of 12- and 14-foot poles, a rod pod, and a "session seat box" filled with all sorts of curious accoutrements. On a windy day, he'd rig up something resembling his namesake balsa Thill TG Bodied Waggler and proceed to put on a clinic.
The Waggler is a brilliant, underutilized design, with the line passing through the base rather than through the bottom and out the mast. Besides supreme sensitivity, this style is more resistant to wind and waves.
Thill was the first to show me how he used long rods to submerge his line, eliminate wind drag, and maintain constant contact with a bait. With the rod tip and line slightly submerged (rod typically set into a holder) and with the float precisely weighted so only the top of the mast extends above the surface, you can cast a Waggler rig to a spot and achieve a natural, deliberate drift, free from wind drag and a big loop of slack line.
With a 9- to 12-foot float rod, such as those in the St. Croix Panfish Series, and smooth 3- to 5-pound mono, long casts can be made with minimal effort, useful when using delicate livebaits. Asso Super High Tenacity, offered by yourbobbersdown.com, is a strong copolymer line with high abrasion resistance. Ande Premium Monofilament also excels for float-fishing, since its smoothness, flotation, and stretch work in your favor. I often add a 12- to 24-inch fluorocarbon leader to the jig or hook. If I'm using a 4-pound mono mainline, I often terminate the rig with 2- or 3-pound-test Asso New Micron 3, a smooth, strong fluorocarbon.
Ways of the Waggler
A key with a Waggler is to use shot on each side of the float to "pin" it in place. Rather than using a stop knot, European anglers who developed Waggler floats long ago pinch one tiny BB or soft shot onto the line on the rod side of the float, followed by a 1- to 2-inch gap and the float, and finally one to two additional shot on the opposite (hook) side of the rig. Use soft, ear-free shot, such as Thill Double-Cut Soft Shot. Pinch them just enough to hold, but not so firmly that they can't be moved without abrading the line.
The advantage of surrounding the Waggler with shot is that the configuration keeps line down and tight to the float, valuable for fishing in wind, providing a more direct, sensitive presentation. When fishing deeper than about 5 or 6 feet (with a 9- to 12-foot rod), convert the Waggler to a slipfloat by sliding a stop knot and a tiny bead onto the line.
Set to any depth, the knot slides smoothly through most ceramic line guides, allowing your float rig to reach depths greater than rod length. A two-handed sideways pendulum cast works in both cases, with the float and rig hanging below the rod tip and speeding up at the end of the forward cast.
Even after making short casts to specific targets from a boat, it's best to keep the rod tip low to the water, so when a bite occurs, you're in position with a long rod to release line if necessary, or to swing up or to either side. Usually, a slow but firm sideways and slightly upward stroke to load the rod results in a solid set and secured fish. Avoid rapidly jerking the rod like you're setting the hook on a plastic worm for bass. It's better to reel down to the fish while gradually loading the rod tip. Once the rod's loaded slightly, sweep it into an arc, using its length to both absorb shock and provide a cushion for light line and delicate panfish jaws.
One of the ways American float manufacturers could improve their products is to follow the example of English companies who print the weight capacities on floats, designated either by quantity of shot (e.g., 3 BB) or by weight rating (e.g., 1/16 ounce).
The finest line of English-style floats available in the U.S. today, Bentley Fishing (bentleyfishing.com) prints the weight capacity on side of each float. For example, their Micro-Panfishing Floats say 2.0 g (2 grams is slightly heavier than 1/16 ounce.) Some models also accept interchangeable stems in various colors, for matching to water and light conditions.
With trial and error, you can quickly establish a weight capacity for any float by tying on different jighead weights and adding or subtracting shot. For fine-tuned balancing, soft tungsten putty used by fly anglers (Mojo Mud Tungsten Putty) works well.
One of the best all-around panfish floats, the 4-inch Thill Stealth, is a mini version of a Waggler that includes a quick-change line attachment. It works as a slipfloat and can be swapped out for different sizes. Loaded with two BB shot, the Stealth barely stays topside, offering great sensitivity. A bluegill that bites this rig feels almost no resistance. Even more sensitive, Thill's Gold Medal Supreme Super Shy Bite is at capacity with a 1/16-ounce jighead. With about the same buoyancy as the Stealth, the Thill Mini Stealth offers a more compact shape, exceptional for shallow water presentations around cover, and with slightly more stability. I've caught crappies and 'gills in bulrushes with this float and a tiny jig in 6 to 8 inches of water. For extreme ultralight applications, Bentley's Ice Expert holds no more than 0.5 grams, or about 1/64 ounce.
If there's one situation best for a float rig, it's crappies or sunfish in tight cover, such as brush or overhead vegetation. In deep pads, for example, a sliding Bentley Ice Expert or Thill Mini Stealth set a few feet above a 1/64-ounce Little Atom Rat Finkie has helped extract thousands of beautiful panfish from otherwise impossible nooks and crannies. For extra-dense cover, consider a small tungsten Fiskas ice jig, which sinks fast and stays in place, negating snags. You can't do better that pinning a jig at fish-eye level, and dabbling it until someone loses the staring contest.
Outside the pop-and-stop patterns mentioned here, I haven't covered traditional through-stem balsa slipfloats. For panfish, I rarely use them, nor do most anglers who've spent any time with Wagglers or modified Waggler designs, which fish with stealth, sensitivity, and style. Traditional cigar and other through-stem designs shine for larger species, while relatively diminutive panfish play perfectly into the hands of a well-presented Waggler.
On the rare day I'm fishing perch or crappies deeper than 15 feet, I might opt for a Northland Lite-Bite float or a small Thill Center Slider. Even then, drop-shotting, jigging, or other presentations are often more efficient for deep panfish. The rest of the season — particularly when fish haunt the shallows in spring and early summer — a wisely chosen Waggler excels. Even Mick might have hard time disputing that.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is an avid multispecies angler and contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.