Float Fishing

Jig caught winter steelhead During the fall of 1997 I started using a bobber and jig while fishing for Chum Salmon, and began having tremendous success. This technique worked when the Chums would not touch standard drift gear. That winter I decided that I would give this technique a serious effort while steelheading. I tried the bobber and jig technique for steelhead on days when I was not getting any hookups with my standard drift gear. Needless to say, I did not have much luck with this technique and found myself reverting back to the ole corky and yarn that I had a lot of confidence in.

My first steelhead caught on a jig was a wild summer run from the Humptulips River in early June of 1998. I spotted this fish laying in a slick tailout. My movement spooked the fish, moveing it upriver twenty feet where it then resumed holding. I cast the small 1/16 oz. red and white marabou jig twenty feet upstream of his position and let the tiny jig float towards the fish. When the tiny featheres jig was about eight feet from the fish the steelhead raced up to the jig, then turned and slowly moved towards the deeper water in the middle of the river. I didn't realize he had taken the jig, because I was watching the fish and not the bobber. When I finally figured out that my bobber was not on top of the water, I quickly reeled up the slack and set the hook. To my surprise the fish still had ahold of the little jig. After a good fight I landed the buck, a nice ten pound native, which I released after a quick photo. Since that day I have used this technique regularly, and it has become one of my most effective techniques, especially for summer runs.

Steelhead jigs Most of the jigs I use are made up of marabou or rabbit fur, and range in size from 1/32 oz. to 1/4 oz. For summer runs I use mostly 1/16 oz. or 1/8 oz. sizes and in winter I prefer the 1/8 oz. or 3/16 oz. sizes for my cold water fishing. These jigs have a very lifelike motion in the water and appear to be alive when fished under a float. Effective colors for my summer fishing include pink/white, red/white, pink/purple, black/red, black/pink and black/cerise.

My favorite colors for winter fishing are pink/white, pink/cerise or hot pink. Other colors will also work but these are the ones I fish with 90% of the time in winter. In the winter and early summer I have also been having good results with bead jigs with yarn tails, tipped with a small piece of prawn meat. I like to use the 51/60 count prawns you can buy at the local grocery store. Peel them and cut them into pieces about the size of your little fingernail. Put these in a ziplock baggie and store them in your freezer until its time to go fishing. Tipping your jigs with a prawn can be a real killer at times. Be sure to check the regulations for the waters you are fishing to be sure bait is legal. You can also try dying your prawns a hot pink color using a commercial bait coloring, but usually I fish them just the way they are.

My winter float/jig setupI fish my jigs using a fixed cork bobber for my summer fishing, or 3/4" x 4" foam "dink" style floats for winter fishing. Here is how I rig up for summer jig fishing and winter jig fishing. Many times I fish the jigs only eight to twelve inches below the float. I catch many steelhead in less than three feet of water, both winter and summer. Don't be shy about fishing the soft current seams right next to shore. This water is often overlooked by drift fisherman. I have watched anglers walk right past a little seam on the Carbon River, only to have a fish take my jig on the first cast, much to their dismay. On other occasions I have watched anglers wade out to their knees or higher, to fish the far side of the river. They end up standing in the exact spot I was hooking fish in earlier that same day. Don't overlook the water right at your feet, right next to shore. Always start shallow and increase your depth if you are fishing deeper runs. Remember, you want your jig at least a foot or two off of the bottom. If the water I am fishing is four feet deep I would set my jig eighteen inches to two feet below my float. Fish cannot see down, so you want your offering to drift above the fish. They will come up to grab a jig, even during very cold water conditions encountered in winter. I seldom fish the jigs more than four feet under the float, even in deeper water. This has a little to do with the rivers I prefer to fish, which are small shallow streams with a lot of cover. I rarely fish jigs in water over six feet in depth, areas which can be more effectively covered with drift gear or spoons. I pass up such water and concentrate on shallow riffle's and current seams close to the bank, or pocket water behind logs and boulders.

My winter float rodI prefer to use a longer rod for this type of fishing. Good float rods are 10' to 14' in length, my favorite being a 10 Lamiglass I picked up a few years ago. This length is perfect for fishing the rivers I frequent, but I know of other float anglers who prefer even longer rods. A longer rod helps keep your line off the surface, helping achieve a drag free presentation. This drag free presentation is critical for success when fishing jigs. Although a longer rod is beneficial, it is still a matter of personal preference, use equipment you are comfortable with. My summer rods are light action spinning rods, while in the winter I use baitcasting rods. This is because the smaller floats and lighter weight jigs I use in the summer can be cast easier with a spinning rod & reel. In the heavier flows of winter I like the extra backbone and control I have with my baitcasting rod and level wind reels.

The float & jig technique provides a chance for the angler to cover water that cannot be fished effectively with standard drift gear. One such example would be a narrow slot of slightly deeper water right next to shore, along a brush-covered bank. The only place the angler can cast to this slot, is from a position directly downstream. A cast made directly upstream, above the slot, and allowed to float back downstream towards the angler will often produce a fish. Another advantage to positioning yourself downstream of the holding water is to avoid spooking fish during low, clear river conditions, such as during an extended cold spell in winter. These low clear conditions are also common during the summer months, and the upstream approach will prevent the fish from being spooked by the angler's presence. Fish cannot see directly behind them, and many times you can spot the fish before they see you.

Another advantage fishing floats provides for the beginning steelheader, is decreasing the amount of down time, caused by breaking off and retying. Seldom will you lose any gear if you have your depth set properly. Remember, you want your jig floating above the fish, at least a foot off the river bottom. Steelhead will come up off the bottom to take your jig. By decreasing your down time you will increase the amount of time your offering is in the water, thus increasing the chances of a fish seeing and taking it.

Float fishing can also be used for floating bait, such as sand shrimp or roe, over a steelheads position. This can be very effective in slow water, where standard drift gear will hang up on the bottom. Adjust your depth properly and present your bait with a drag free drift and you will hook fish. In the summer time try drifting a nightcrawler with no added weight uder a float. Summer steelhead readily take these morsels in the summer months, and the natural presentation under a float is hard to beat.

Try adding float and jig fishing to your arsenal of tricks used to entice steelhead. I am confident you will catch fish in areas you could not effectively cover with other techniques.

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All content and images © 2006, 2007, 2008 Brian McArthur