Float Fishing on Steelhead Alley

Some people have asked me “Why do you prefer to float fishing?” I replied that its the most simple and effective way to fish for steelhead. The reasons being is the bait or fly reacts in a natural way, you can cover more water and watching the float going under was exciting.

With the exception of the Cattaraugus Creek and the Grand River, most the Erie’s streams are small and shallow. They normally run low and clear, after receiving rain or snow melt. All of the streams run over shale bedrock, with a lesser mix of gravel, sand and mud areas. Flows during normal conditions consist of shallow runs, riffles, pools and pocket water. Pools of great length and depth are rare, with existing pools averaging depths 2 to 4 feet deep. During normal conditions the water is much slower than the typical streams found up north and out west. Because of the low and clear water conditions, many anglers have become accustomed to long rods, light lines and small presentations.

The average Lake Erie steelheader uses rods ranging from 10’6 all the way up to 15’6” long. The reason for using such long rods is line control as it helps keep as much line off the water. The less line on the water, the less drag there is. Longer rods also allow the angler to use lighter lines since the streams generally run low and clear. Some people often refer to them as noodle rods, because of their very flexible nature. The reason for using them is that long flexible rods can absorb a lot of energy. The true noodle rod blank has a soft, slow action. The entire rod bends from tip to the butt. This allows an angler to play a large fish on very light line. I’ve used a noodle rod in the past and I never liked the action as I found it too soft.  I prefer moderate action rods and these rods usually flex about 75% of the way below the rod tip. They have a stiffer midsection for hard hook sets and allowed me to muscle in fish quicker. This is the reason why I recommend these rods for the beginner. Some of the better rods on the market for steelhead are St Croix, Fenwick, Raven, Frontier and G Loomis. Both Frontier and G Loomis can be expensive. The top end rods can be over $500.00 and are marketed for the hardcore steelheader. Fenwick, St Croix and Raven are less expensive and are great for the beginner. They are good quality rods and they back up their products with an excellent warranty.

The majority of float fishermen use a spinning reel. However, the centerpin has started to catch on as a more effective method for catching steelhead. Spinning reels are cheap compared to a centerpin. You can purchase a decent spinning reel for about $40.00. On the other hand, centerpin reels are still expensive. But, there are several entry level models available for about $120.00. Both Raven and Okuma make great entry level reels. Reels made Kingpin, Miner, and Bob James can run over $500.00. For the serious float fishermen, nothing beats a centerpin. The biggest advantage it has over a spinning reel is its ability to free spool. By free spooling, the line comes off the reel effortlessly. This allows the angler to better control the float and presentation. Also the line is taut and the result is very quick hook sets. Its a difficult reel to master, but once learned you'll never go back to a spinning reel. 

Line selection is very important when certain conditions come into play such as water clarity and time of year. When using a float set-up, the line is broken down into 3 segments - mainline, leader and tippet. For the mainline, I like to use a strong thin monofilament. Over the years, I have used a variety of lines and one my favorites is Sunline’s Siglon F. What makes this line unique is its ability to float on the surface as the line’s chemical composition resists water absorption. By floating on the water it reduces drag on the float. For the mainline, I would suggest line about 12# or 15# test. The next segment is the leader. This is where the float and shots are attached to. The best knot to attach the leader to the mainline is the triple surgeon’s knot. I find the surgeon knot is much stronger then the blood knot. The leader should be about 6’ long and it should be a lighter test than the mainline. I prefer a leader that is about 8# test as its strong enough to handle a large fish. As for what’s the best line for a leader? I would suggest a line that is limp in cold water and is abrasion resistant. A line I like to use is Maxima’s Ultragreen and Perfexion. They come in small spools that easily fit into a vest. The final segment is the tippet. The tippet is attached to the leader by a micro swivel. Swivels are very useful as they prevent the line from twisting and if you get snagged only the tippet is lost. I like to tippets made for fly fishing and one my favorite tippet material is Orvis’s Super Strong or Seagaurs. All I use are 3X and 4X tippets, 5X is far too weak and 2X is too thick and stiff. There is the debate whether to use fluorocarbon when water conditions are low and clear. If your leader’s shots are placed properly, the fish should see the presentation first. I’ve tried both fluorocarbon and mono and I’ve found no advantage in the number of fish caught.

When it comes to floats, they range in sizes and shapes to choose from. There are thin floats, fat floats, floats made from plastic and others from wood. I don’t carry a wide variety of floats and I pretty well only use two types of floats. One is for fast water and the other for slower flows. My favorite floats are the ones made by Raven. Raven floats are made from wood and all of them have the same stem size. This is very useful when it comes to changing floats. With other types of floats, anglers have to cut the line in order to change float caps. My favorite Raven floats are the SS, FM and SM models. When I’m fishing faster water, I like to use a float that is top heavy. My favorite float for this type of water is the Raven FM. These floats are often referred to as inverted tear drop float. The heavier top helps eliminate the wobbling and the currents are less likely to pull it under. In slower flows, I use a thinner float. Thinner floats have less resistance, therefore they drift more efficiently. Since Lake Erie’s streams are small and shallow, I like to use the smallest float possible. The reason for using the smallest float is that light takes are more noticeable. When I’m fishing I like to carry about 6 floats with me. For the tubing, all Raven floats use the 3/32" silicone tubing on the top and 1/16" tubing on the bottom. If your knots are good you can go weeks on end without losing a float, but accident do happens.

Split shots are what make your presentation look natural to a fish. On the water surface the current might look fast, but on the bottom it’s much slower. This is due to objects on the stream bottom such as rocks, structures and logs. As the water hits these objects it slows the current down. This is why steelhead prefer to hold on the bottom. When placing shots on a leader, the heaviest shots should be placed on the top and progressively use smaller ones as you go down the leader. I usually never place a shot on the tippet, but there has been debate whether it effects the presentation. The reason for this is as I mentioned before the current is slower on the bottom. By doing so, the fish will see the presentation first and it looks more natural as there is no drag. For the majority of fishing, I like to space my shots evenly along the leader. But, some water conditions call for different shot patterns. When the water is fast and shallow, I’ll stack most of the shots high up and leave one or two at the bottom. For deep very slow pools, I’ll taper my shots. As I go down the leader, I’ll space the shots wider.

Over the years, I have tried different type of hooks. A good hook for steelhead should be made from high carbon steel. This gives the hook more strength as I’ve seen large steelhead completely bend or break a cheap hook. One my favorite hooks are Kamasan hooks. They are on the more expensive side, but they are incredibly strong and stay sharp longer. I carry two types of hooks, one for eggs and the other for shiners and plastics.

Float fishing is a great alternative to those who hate the complexity of fly fishing. I find it to be one of the most productive ways to fish for steelhead.

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