Float Fishing For Steelhead: Tips & Gear Choices (2024)

Here’s how to catch steelhead consistently using float fishing techniques. Gear, areas to fish and tips all included.

Float fishing for steelhead is one of the most popular ways to catch the species.

On paper, float fishing steelhead seems like a fairly straightforward process, but there are certain gear considerations and tactics that should be employed.

Float Fishing for Winter Steelhead

The winter months are a great time to fish for steelhead float fishing.

Float fishing in the winter is very popular in the Pacific Northwest and the Great Lakes region, as steelhead are abundant in the small tributaries that lead to the ocean or Great Lakes in these areas.

How to Drift Fish For Steelhead With Bobbers and Jigs

 Float fishing is an extremely popular, productive method used for salmon/steelhead fishing in a river.

Reading Steelhead Water – Where to Find the Fish

Reading the water is a critical part of float fishing, and you need to know what to look for when fishing for steelhead.

While you may want to check faster ripple areas of a river, in many instances, the steelhead will be on the “seams” of the faster-moving water.

The seam is where faster current and slower current meet and the steelhead will, in many cases, position themselves on this seam when feeding.

Places with slack water adjacent to the current, like the inside portion of a river bend, can be great as well in many cases.

Typically these slack water areas are used if there is cover present, and tree tops, branches, roots, or logs, are worth investigating.

Casting Accuracy Is Vital

When casting a float rig for steelhead, you want to be sure you are casting well upstream from the areas that you think are holding fish.

Your goal is to get your bait presentation as close to the steelhead by using the water flow and current as your aid.

You also need to pay attention to how the water carries your float and bait.

You can use the current to your advantage to bring your float and bait in very close proximity to cover structures like rocks and boulders, cut banks, and more.

It might take a few casts to get your float and bait positioning just right to hit these spots, but it is key to catching more fish.

Line Management Is Important

In order to keep your jig or spawn bags at the right depth and in the strike zone, you will have to pay close attention to your line.

Line management is one of the most important aspects of float fishing, and you need to ensure that your line is not bowed in the water, with the line upstream and your float below it.

If you have excessive amounts of line in the water, it will pull your float due to drag and lift your bait presentation from near the bottom.

You want your float to be vertical at all times, and if you keep your bait in the strike zone for the longest period of time possible on every cast, you will catch more fish.

Essential Float Fishing Gear

Float Fishing For Steelhead
Float Fishing For Steelhead

Winter Steelhead Float Fishing Rod & Reel Suggestions

Float fishing for steelhead needs a certain type of rod, and it will most likely be the longest rod in your collection.

Steelhead float rods are anywhere from 9.5 to 10.5 feet long, but you can get away with a shorter rod in smaller rivers or streams in the 8.5 to 9.5-foot range.

Shorter rods in areas with dense brush or cover also help from snagging your line and getting your rod caught in branches all the time.

When it comes to using either a baitcasting rod and reel or a spinning rod and reel, it’s entirely up to you and your preferences.

Baitcasting setups work great when you want to free spool easily, and it provides a great hookset.

Spinning reels and rods are great for running lighter setups and will cast easier and farther with a light rig compared to baitcasting reels and rods.

Float Fishing Line & Leader Suggestions

Fishing line and leader line are just as critical as your rod and reel, and a combination of a braided main line and a fluorocarbon leader line is your best choice.

For braided lines, we can go up to 30 to 40-pound test strength, and due to modern braid, this is fine due to the line having such a thin diameter-to-strength ratio.

The fluorocarbon leader line should be anywhere between 12-20 pound test line depending on the current and average steelhead size.

Float Fishing Bobbers

When float fishing for steelhead, you obviously need floats!

Floats come in many shapes and sizes, and the type you choose is totally up to you as long as it’s made with steelhead or salmon float fishing in mind; this isn’t like bobber fishing for panfish.

The Best Winter Steelhead Jigs

Jigs that imitate small baitfish can be deadly for steelhead, and there are a ton of jigs that will work.

Most steelhead anglers prefer to use skirted jigs.

Bright-colored jigs seem to work the best in most cases, and colors like orange, purple, chartreuse, and pink seem to hammer steelhead along with just plain old white.

Beads, Bait, and Yarn

While jigs are probably the most commonly used bait presentation for steelhead, other options like beads, bait, and yarn work quite well too.

Beads imitate one of the steelheads’ favorite food items, roe or fish eggs.

Beads are great because they can look very close in color to actual salmon or trout eggs, or they can be much brighter, and they come in a variety of colors.

Yarn baits simply consist of a few tufts of yarn and are another approach to an egg imitation, and can work very well at times.

You can also use dead bait, and if you fish saltwater tributaries, you can use store-bought prawns or fresh sand shrimp.

Actual salmon and trout eggs are also deadly, and the fresher, the better. If you catch and harvest a female steelhead, cure the roe and time them into egg bags/sacks to catch more.

See also:

Float Weight

Float Fishing For Steelhead 1

Float weight will be determined by the size and rating of your float, and you need to match this to present your bait and effectively catch fish effectively.

If your float is rated for 3/8 of an ounce’s worth of weight, that’s most likely what your float weight should be.

Your jigs will typically only weigh anywhere from 1/16th to 1/8th of an ounce and in most cases, won’t sink afloat if you have the same float weight to float rating the same.

Bobber Stops and Beads

Sliding floats are a great option in the majority of steelhead float fishing situations.

Using a sliding float requires you to use a bobber stopper and bead with your float fishing rig.

The bobber stop is a piece of thread on a sleeve, and this goes on your live first, simply by sliding the sleeve on your line and removing the line from the sleeve, which is then discarded.

The bobber stop is followed by the bead, which is then followed by the float itself.

The bead stops the bobber stop thread, with you set at the desired depth from the bait or jig, and the bead has a hole that is too small in diameter for the thread bobber stop to pass through.

See also:

Split Shot

Split shot can be crimped to your leader to get the bait down to the desired depth and strike zone.

If you are fishing a bead, yard, or roe, you can also use a bait weight.

Bait weights allow for dredging your bait on the bottom.

Bait weights look similar to roe and won’t give away your fake presentation to the steelhead.

See also: Types of Fishing Weights

Final Thoughts on Float Fishing For Steelhead

Float fishing isn’t as easy as bobber fishing for panfish, but then again, a steelhead is a whole different fish, and it can be quite tricky to fool them.

With some practice and refinement, you will become proficient when float fishing for steelhead, and you will see the true potential that is float fishing.

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Shawn Chapin is an experienced fishing writer and guide based in Wisconsin, where he loves targeting muskie and a range of other species. Shawn's fished extensively for pike, largemouth bass, smallmouth and panfish species. He's developing a passion for chasing trout on the fly rod.
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