March 01, 2013

Dealing with snag after snag is one of the most frustrating parts of stream steelhead fishing. River fishermen seemingly accept the fact that bumping bottom and snagging go hand in hand. The question becomes why are so many of the best fishing runs and holes a literal mine field of snags and inevitable lost tackle?

The simple answer is that steelhead feel more comfortable when there is cover nearby they can dart into should danger approach. Not only does cover make steelhead feel more at home, these are the same places that attract bait fish and the other aquatic life steelhead depend upon for feed.

The most experienced steelhead anglers learn that certain holes and runs just aren’t worth fishing. No matter how many fish they might hold, the snags making fishing almost impossible.

Enter Float Fishing

Specialty jigs like the Yakima Maxi Jig are designed for targeting steelhead in flowing water. This 1/32 ounce model has a 2X hook up for the challenge of landing powerful fish

The operative word here is “almost” because there is a stream steelhead fishing technique that eliminates most of the snagging hassles. Float fishing using colorful jigs at the terminal end is becoming wildly popular among anglers who target steelhead in the winter months when these fish tend to pack up in the deeper holes and most snag ridden runs.

Like most things in the world of steelhead fishing, float fishing got its start on the west coast and has started to penetrate the Great Lakes. Out west anglers fish in larger streams, faster moving water and often in deeper holes. Not surprisingly float fishing western style involves using a little larger jigs (1/8 to 1/4 ounce) than are necessary here in our Great Lakes streams.

The typical float rig used to fish the Manistee, Muskegon, St. Joe, Pere Marquette, Betsie or AuSable rivers consists of a cigar shaped float attached to the line via a couple pieces of surgical tubing. Below the float a small barrel swivel is added to the main line. The opposite end of the barrel swivel accepts an 18-24 inch leader of fluorocarbon line tied directly to a 1/16 or 1/32 ounce jig.

Shot is placed on the line above the swivel to counter balance the float so it just barely supports the weight. This rig is casted quartering upstream and allowed to drift naturally with the current.

At times these floats are simply let out the back of the boat and allowed to drift downstream on an open bail. Either way, the fundamentals of float fishing are pretty easy for the average angler to understand.

First off, depth is controlled by sliding the float up and down the line. The goal is to get the jig close to bottom, but far enough above debris that the bait will float downstream without snagging.

Secondly, the float itself will telegraph a bite by plunging under, making it pretty easy to detect a strike. With a little experience it’s easy to tell the difference between a fish biting and pulling down the float and the float dragging under because the jig is making contact with bottom.

Thirdly, the jig itself is attractive, but it takes a little extra sweetener to close the deal. Most anglers use wax worms as bait, but wigglers are also popular among float fishing enthusiasts. Both of these live baits can be casted off the hook pretty easy. Some anglers prefer to use soft plastics like Berkley Power Wigglers that tend to stay on the hook a little better.


The rods and reels used for fishing floats are a little different than those favored for bumping bottom. Extra rod length makes it easier to get the maximum amount of drag free drift. In terms of float fishing a short rod is 10 feet long and most anglers are favoring rods up to 13 or even 15 feet in length.

Okuma produces two versions of rods especially for float fishing called the Guide Select and Aventa Float Rods respectively that retail for $99 to $160. Both of these rods are produced with a fixed reel seat or sliding cork rings making it easy for anglers to customize their rod to the balance and feel they prefer.

Not only does the longer rod length allow for greater drag free drift, mending line is easier with a longer rod. It’s also easier to pick up slack line on the hookset when fishing longer rods.

A 30 or 40 series spinning reel with a good drag system is a must for float fishing. Steelhead are powerful fish that will test a reel drag like no other species.

Rigging Refinements

Float fishing is a pretty straight forward presentation, but there are ways to tweak this presentation. Most anglers fishing spinning gear are using monofilament as their main line and a fluorocarbon leader to the jig.

Guide Bob Ison of Another Limit Guide Service uses a 15# test coated braid designed especially for float fishing. The line is brightly colored and floats readily on the water making it easy to mend. Because of the low stretch characteristics of braid, Bob feels he can control hooked fish better than with monofilament line.

Because Bob is concerned with having high visibility line below the float, he ties in a clear monofilament leader 10# test to the 15# braid and then adds a swivel. Below the swivel he adds a leader of eight pound test fluorocarbon tied directly to the jig.

This rig gives Bob the ability to see line above the surface and eliminates fish being able to see the line below the surface.

For the guy who prefers monofilament as a main line, it’s a good idea to consider using a high visibility line that makes the chore of mending easier. Incorporating a six to eight foot leader of clear monofilament or fluorocarbon line will help duplicate the rig Bob Ison favors.

Another refinement for the basic float rig is to use an egg sinker threaded onto the line above the swivel instead of pinching shot onto the line. “I play around with different sizes of egg sinkers until I get the float to just barely support the weight of the sinker and jig,” says Ison. “When a float is balanced this way, fish bite and feel literally zero resistance from the float.”

Jigs And Floats

Despite the fact that float fishing with jigs is rapidly becoming the go to winter steelhead method, finding the right gear is not easy. Yakima a leader in steelhead fishing gear on the west coast recently introduced a line of jigs called the Maxi Jig that are designed with steelhead fishing in mind. Available in sizes from 1/32 to 1/4 ounce the Maxi Jig is a round head shape, with two beads and a tuft of marabou as an attractor. These jigs feature a tempered 2X Owner hook that is strong enough to handle even trophy class fish.

Yakima also produces the Maxi Float in three different sizes designed to counter balance the different jig sizes. The 1/4 ounce size float is the most popular as most anglers simply add shot to the line to counter balance the float even when fishing tiny 1/32 ounce jigs. The larger floats are a little heavier and they cast further, making them the go to choice among most anglers.

Final Thoughts

Float fishing for stream steelhead is an

exciting way to spend the winter months.

This method is hands down the best way to

fish snag ridden waters and when steelhead

move into deeper and slower winter water,

nothing puts more fish in the boat that the

unique combination of fishing jigs below


Important Contacts



• Bob Ison, Another Limit Guide Service:



For more tips on float fishing with jigs, visit YouTube and search Fishing 411 for on the water tips that help anglers put more fish in the boat.