Winter Steelhead Fishing with Floats & Jigs

Fishing with a float and jig has become one of the most popular methods for catching Winter Steelhead. Float fishing is one of the easier techniques to master, making it a perfect option for anyone new to fishing on our Northwest rivers. And while some really do consider this a beginners technique, most expert anglers realize the effectiveness and are float fishing converts as well. While fishing with a float (or bobber) is often identified with lake fishing for smaller trout or panfish, we clever river fishers have infused that simple buoyant apparatus into our world of salmon and steelhead fishing.

This post is designed to break down each required piece of the Float & Jig setup, plus share a few tips. I hope you find this informative and helpful… Enjoy!

December Steelhead caught with a Float & Aerojig

December Steelhead caught with a Float & Aerojig

Steelhead Float Fishing Tips

  1. Float size, jig size and simple arithmetic. Standard steelhead jig sizes are 1/8 oz to ¼ oz. Standard steelhead float size is 3/8 oz to ¾ oz. While a smaller 1/8 oz steelhead jig offers the perfect profile, often these are too lightweight to anchor the float (submerge half the float) or to sink quickly enough. Including a sinker to the setup is almost always needed, whether it be an inline weight, snap swivel/slinky, or split shot.
  2. Keep your mainline from impacting the natural drift of your float. If the float is tilted downstream, the mainline on the surface of the water down-current can be pulling your float faster than the speed of the drift. If the float is tilted upstream, then you might need to let more mainline out so the setup is not held back. The goal is to see your float pointing straight to the sky, or completely vertical. When the float/jig setup is drifting at the same speed as the current, then we’ve found the best presentation possible.
  3. Appropriate depth of a Steelhead Jig. Winter Steelhead will hold in the soft currents that lie closest to the river bottom. Even the smallest of cobble or boulders can break the current and offer an easier place for a Steelhead to rest which is usually within 2 feet of the bottom. Set the distance from your float to jig so that your jig is within a couple feet of the bottom.
  4. Floating braided mainline is crucial. A quality floating braid allows us to manipulate the line on the surface so that it doesn’t negatively impact the drift. Floating braid can be mended and manipulated in the same way a floating fly line can be controlled.
  5. Dancing floats and depths. If you notice your float is dancing or bobbing, that could mean that the jig is dragging along the bottom. If you are managing the mainline properly, and the float is also tilted down-current then this is almost a surety. Shorten the float-jig distance 12 inches at a time until you get a natural drift.
  6. Losing floats? When fishing in areas with extreme snags, if you find that you are losing bobbers because your weight setup breaks off, place a bead/stop below the float.
  7. Hookset? When a steelhead pulls that bobber down, think about what a hookset will actually accomplish. If you have plenty of slack line on the surface (lack of a direct connection), it might be better to reel quickly to get the line tight before setting the hook.
I caught my biggest Steelhead November 2012. Caught with a hand tied marabou jig.

I caught my biggest Steelhead November 2012. Caught with a hand tied marabou jig.

Float Fishing Rods

Many of the rod manufacturers that cater to Northwest salmon and steelhead anglers offer some great options for float fishing rods. A float fishing rod is usually the longest rod that a fisher will have in his collection. One of the most important aspects in float fishing is line management. A longer rod will allow for easier mending and manipulation of the mainline to provide the perfect drift. The exact length of the perfect float rod truly depends on where you fish. On larger rivers where long distance casting and serious line control is the standard, a rod 10’ or longer might be perfect. When fishing smaller brushy streams, a rod as short as 8’6 might be perfect. Typically 9’6 to 10’6 is the perfect range for an all around float fishing rod. Look for a rod with a medium power: 6-12lb, 8-15lb, 8-17lb are perfect options for most fisheries.

Float Fishing Reels

As with many techniques, the first question is whether to go with a spinning or baitcasting setup; both have their advantages. When using extremely light tackle, such as 1/8 oz to ¼ oz floats, a spinning rod can offer easier casting for most anglers. The advantage of baitcasting reels, however, is that they can be left in casting mode so that line will flow easily from the spool and allow the drift to continue. Spinning reels allow for this also but when you see a “bobber down!” and need to disengage the free spool it is more cumbersome to flip the bail over, especially once a steelhead draws the line tight. I prefer baitcasting setups almost exclusively for personal use, but use spinning setups when taking out novice anglers or kids who might have difficulty mastering a cast with a levelwind baitcaster.

Float Fishing Mainline

Monofilament or Braid? Braid. Floating braided mainline offers so many advantages over monofilament that there isn’t even a question of what to use. Many braided lines come in a high visibility color such as white, yellow or bright blue. Being able to see your mainline will allow you to more effectively mend and manipulate your line for better float control. I would recommend a line that is between 30 lb and 50 lb; we never need that kind of breaking strength for steelhead, but the thicker diameter of 30 lb to 50 lb matches a typical 8 lb to 15 lb monofilament. Bobber stops might not properly grip thinner braid, plus thin braided line can cut into itself on the spool causing major headaches while fishing.

Float Fishing Leader

Monofilament or fluorocarbon leader material between 8 lb and 15 lb covers our spectrum of steelhead situations here in the Northwest. Favor 8 lb or 10 lb when water conditions are low and clear. Favor 12 lb or 15 lb when water conditions are high and muddy, also when targeting trophy steelhead later in the season. I will typically use a leader between 24” and 36”.

Bobber Stop & Bead

Slip on bobber stops made of string are popular for steelhead fishing. They can be tightened around the braided mainline and easily adjusted for changing depth. On floats with a wide opening, a bead may be needed to keep the stop from sliding through the float.

Steelhead Fishing Floats

There is a wide variety of steelhead floats available including balsa, foam, cork, and clear plastic. Float style selection comes down to personal preference. Using a sliding float (versus a fixed float) and a bobber stop will allow the fisher to easily adjust for depth. I typically use floats between 3/8 oz and ½ oz for winter steelhead fishing.

Sinkers & Weight

Inline float weights, pencil lead or slinky weights are often needed to balance out the smaller 1/8 oz steelhead jigs and larger ½ oz floats.

Split Shot

When using a leader greater than 24” I almost always add a small split shot weight to my leader. A split shot will help the entire setup to sink and bottom out quickly, which is especially helpful when fishing faster water where you want your jig to get down immediately.

Steelhead Jigs

There are a great variety of jig patterns available, and the great news is that many of these are extremely effective. Generally speaking, 1/8 oz to ¼ oz are the preferred sizes. The beauty of steelhead is that they tend to not be too picky, there are a variety of colors that will tempt winter fish: hot pink, light pinks, blue, purple, white, orange, shrimp, black and any combination of these can be effective. I have found that one of the greatest factors to success is matching the size of the jig profile to the water conditions. During low and clear conditions I will tend to downsize my presentation, an Aerojig Hackle series or micro jig would be great options. When river conditions are higher than average, a full bodied rabbit fur jig or palmered marabou jig might be the better producer.

Overall, float fishing with jigs can be an extremely effective way to catch Winter Steelhead, and it’s a great tactic for anyone from a beginner to an advanced Steelheader. Regardless of experience, once you dive into this technique, you will realize why it has become a favored tactic for riverbound anglers across the Pacific Northwest.

Winter Steelhead caught with a float & jig setup.

Winter Steelhead caught with a float & jig setup.

Basic Float Fishing Setup

bobber-stop-steelhead

Bobber Stop & Bead



steelhead-bobber-float-fishing

Sliding Steelhead Float



float-sinker-weight

Float Weight



split-shot

Split Shot



steelhead-jig

Steelhead Jig





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Andrew Moravec

Andrew Moravec has been sharing his passion for fishing with folks around the Pacific Northwest for over a decade. He has worked in the Tackle Industry as a buyer, managed a Sporting Goods Shop, as an Alaskan Fishing Guide, a Westport Deckhand, and currently is operating Fishing Charters in Seattle, Washington.
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