A lot of modern fishing presentations are so complicated, mastering them can be like trying to tie your shoe laces with one hand. Fishing with slip floats is one of the few presentations that is easy to learn and productive on a wide variety of species. With just slight modifications to the bobbers, terminal hooks and bait, slip floats can be used to catch everything from bluegills to steelhead. What other fishing technique can make that claim?
Floats are also a fishing strategy that can be productive at any time of year and in a wide variety of water depths. Beyond these important virtues, it’s the sight of a float plunging under the surface that anglers young and old readily identify with. It’s hard to improve on this grass roots approach to detecting strikes.
Understanding Slip Floats
Traditional clip on style floats work well for fishing shallow water, but trying to cast with more than about three feet of line dangling below the float is difficult. Slip floats are the obvious choice for fishing in deeper water.
Slip floats slide up and down on the line and the depth is adjusted with a small device (usually called a bobber stop) that’s threaded onto the line. The stop is small enough to reel right through the guides and onto the reel spool. Meanwhile the float slips down the line to the terminal end. With the float positioned at the terminal end, casting is easy no matter what depth the stop is set to fish.
When the float is cast and hits the water, the bait starts to sink pulling line through the float. Eventually the stop reaches the float, causing it to stand up and effectively setting the fishing depth. A little weight at the terminal end is required to pull the line through the float and make the system work efficiently.
For the most part slip float fishing is a shallow to medium depth presentation. Because slip floats are so commonly used to fish structure and cover like weeds or sunken brush, the most common depth range is from six to 15 feet. Slip floats can however be used to fish water much deeper if necessary.
Most slip float rigs feature a hollow plastic stem. A small plastic bead is threaded onto the line after the bobber stop is installed. The bead hits the bobber stem and acts as a bushing that allows the line to pass through, but catches on the bobber stop. This system works pretty good, but the line doesn’t always flow smoothly through the plastic bead.
A Thill brand float called the Pro Series features a brass bushing imbedded into the stem. The Pro Series lets the line slip through the bushing smoothly, making bobber fishing a no hang up affair.
Slip floats come in a variety of sizes suitable for various species. For walleye, bass and other similar sized fish, a slip float with a balsa wood body about 5/8 to 3/4 inch in diameter is ideal. For panfish a little smaller float is in order and for larger fish like pike a bigger float will be required.
Slip bobbers can be rigged a number of ways, but keeping things simple is always good advice. The basic slip bobber rig consists of a waxed cloth bobber stop, a suitable float, No. 4 beak style live bait hook and two No. 5 split shots spaced about two inches apart. The split shots are approximately 12 inches above the bait.
Three popular types of bobber stops are used for fishing floats. One type is a length of Dacron line wrapped around a small tube. The line is threaded through the tube and the braided line slipped off the tube and tightened onto the fishing line to form a small knot. The tag ends are usually trimmed and this knot can then be slid up and down the line as necessary to adjust the depth.
The second stop type is a small piece of plastic with holes punched in it. The line is threaded through the holes so the plastic stop can be slid up and down the line and stay in position. This style of stop is a little larger and sometimes catches in rod guides and on the reel spool.
The third style of bobber stop is a small piece of rubber that the fishing line is threaded through. Different size rubber stops are required for different line diameters. Rubber stops work well except that after being slid up and down the line a few times they start to lose their grip. Of the three popular stop types, the knot style is the most fool proof, functional and popular with serious anglers.
Slip floats are made from hard plastic, foam and balsa wood. All are functional, but some perform a little better than others. Foam floats are the least expensive, but they are also the most easily damaged. Because foam is light they also do not cast as far as hard plastic or balsa wood floats.
Hard plastic floats cast well and unless they are abused hold up pretty well to frequent use. Because the plastic is hard, they are brittle and can be broken easily if stepped on or casted against a rock or other hard object.
Balsa wood floats are the most expensive, but also the most functional. They are naturally buoyant, durable and heavy enough to cast very well even in windy conditions. While balsa floats are more expensive than plastic or foam, the cost is not prohibitive.
Some slip floats are equipped with a weight on the stem to make them easier to cast. Most serious float fishermen prefer unweighted floats. An unweighted float has the advantage of being able to detect subtle strikes. Say for example a fish picks up the bait and swims upwards in the water column. A weighted float won’t move, but an unweighted float will tip in the water indicating the strike.
Also, an unweighted float will tip up if the weight touches the bottom. This tiny piece of information tells the angler to adjust the bobber stop accordingly. If a weighted float is used, there is no way to make these subtle but important observations.
Other Terminal Gear Options
The ways to rig a slip float are almost as numerous as the species of fish that can be caught with them. When fishing minnows using an ordinary leadhead jig at the terminal end works well. The jig provides enough weight to stand up the float and also when the minnow is hooked through the lips the bait is in a natural horizontal position. A 1/32, 1/16 or 1/8 ounce jig is ideal for this chore depending on the size/species of fish being targeted.
Certain baits like leeches or nightcrawlers that have a subtle swimming action require a different approach. Leeches enjoy the most action when a small and lightweight wire hook is used. A No. 4 live bait style hook works great for targeting walleye, bass or trout. For smaller panfish a No. 8 Aberdeen or Kahle hook works good.
When fishing with these ultra light hooks a small split shot must be added to the line to keep the float positioned upright in the water. Put enough weight on the line that about 1/3 of the bobber is floating above the surface. If the float rides higher in the water the fish (especially walleye) will feel the resistance and often drop the bait before they can be hooked.
For toothy fish like pike or musky a slightly different slip float rig is called for. The float itself must be larger to support the larger minnows typically used. At the terminal end a No. 4 or 6 treble hook tied to a short length of 15-20 pound test fluorocarbon line serves several purposes. The fluorocarbon line is tough enough to prevent most bite offs, yet clear in the water and difficult for the fish to spot.
The treble hook is placed just under the skin of the dorsal fin so the minnow is suspended naturally in the water. A small split shot is added just above the bait to keep the minnow at the desired depth and the float upright.
Steelhead and salmon fishing with floats takes yet another road. Instead of tying the hook directly to the main line, a small barrel swivel is added between the main line and the leader. A 12 inch leader of fluorocarbon line is tied to the swivel and then to a No. 4 or 2 beak style hook. When tying the leader to the swivel, leave a little tag of line to attach the split shot. This trick prevents the split shot from weakening the main line. This trout and salmon rig works well with live crawlers, spawn sacs, cut skein or yarn flies.
Spinning tackle is the overwhelming choice of serious float fishermen. A six foot medium/light action spinning outfit is about the minimum length for panfish or walleye. A seven foot rod is an excellent choice for both bass and walleye. Longer 8 to 12 foot rods are even more efficient for casting greater distances or when targeting bigger fish like pike or steelhead.
For panfish and trout select monofilament lines ranging from 4 to 6 pound test. Walleye and bass are best targeted with 6 or 8 pound test monofilament. When targeting pike or other larger fish 10 to 12 pound test line is ideal.
Fishing slip floats is a presentation that performs best from an anchored boat or a fixed shore position. It takes a serious anchor to hold a walleye sized boat in the kinds of conditions that favor slip bobber fishing. It’s better to have too heavy than too light an anchor. A 20 to 28 pound navy style anchor works well on most 18-22 foot boats. Waterspike style anchors with a few feet of chain also work well. You’ll also need at least 100-150 feet of quality 1/2 inch anchor line.
While having 150 feet of line to anchor in 10-15 feet of water may sound excessive, the longer rope is required not just to hold the boat fast, but to allow the boat to be moved periodically while fishing.
Try to anchor 20-30 yards upwind of the structure you’re trying to fish. By using a long anchor rope, I can drop back as needed to fish the reef or structure completely without having to pull the anchor and reset.
When a boat is anchored with a long rope, the boat tends to swing back and forth on a pendulum. This helps to cover more water.
Don’t be afraid to move the anchor and reposition the boat if the first attempt produces no bites within 15 minutes. The biggest mistake most slip bobber fishermen make is they aren’t aggressive enough at moving to better position the boat near fish.
The Ultimate Live Bait Presentation
Slip floats could well be considered the ultimate live bait presentation. Worms, minnows and leeches are all at home on the business end of a slip float rig.
For fishing walleye with floats, 99% of the time a medium leech is the best live bait. While minnows or even worms work at times, there is no beating a medium leech when it comes to fishing for walleye with slip floats.
Leeches work best for walleye and bass, but minnows are going to produce the most bites when targeting crappie and pike. Worms are most often the bait of choice for trout and even steelhead.
No matter if you’re fishing from the bank or from an anchored boat, the best way to fish a slip float is to cast it slightly to the side and allow the wind to drift it downwind. When this rig drifts up onto cover or structure naturally, the presentation is one of the most deadly in fishing. Few species can resist a wiggling and squirming leech, minnow or other live bait dangled literally in their face.
Summing It Up
Float fishing ranks as one of the most efficient ways to present live bait and when rigged properly just about everything with fins can be targeted. Float fishing has a universal appeal to anglers young and old. You’re never too old to enjoy the sight of a float dancing on the surface.
www.lindylittlejoe.com (Thill floats)
www.yo-zuri.com (fluorocarbon leader material)
www.fishingminnesota.com (Waterspike anchors)
www.stopperlures.com (Stop Knots)