May 09, 2022
The river rushes out of a mist-enshrouded forest as if emerging from a portal in time. The muted brown and gray of the trees merge into an impressionist backdrop. Wisps of fog drift over the water like ghosts.
Amongst all this, an angler drifts a bait beneath a float through a stretch of broken water. Suddenly, it disappears as though it was never there. The angler lifts the rod and it jolts to life, violently shaking as a 10-pound silvery steelhead twists, turns and races downstream.
This is what happens when things go right when fishing for spring steelhead. And an incredibly effective way to catch these powerful fish in the spring months is drift-fishing popular baits under a float.
However, how an angler presents these lures or baits with respect to current speed makes all the difference when stalking silver ghosts in Great Lakes tributaries.
So, let’s discuss the proper technique for fishing a float rig, the appropriate gear to use and some of the most productive places to fish these proven presentations.
Wherever you stand in a stream, you’ll encounter currents that vary in speed from bank to bank and top to bottom. The grade of the land determines the overall speed of the current, but the banks and floor of a river produce friction, slowing columns of water that brush against them. Air also produces friction, though less than earth. Meanwhile, the surface of a river moves slower than the current a few inches down, but much faster than the current near the bottom.
When you allow a float to travel at surface speed, the bait (often fresh steelhead eggs tied in a spawn sack), bead or fly tied below trails along behind like a reluctant dog on a leash. This is not an ideal presentation, though it sometimes works. The slower the pool, the more vertical the rigging remains and the more effective the presentation. In fast water, however, allowing a float to travel at surface speed is far less effective since the float passes over the fish before the bait reaches it. Instead, keep as much of your line off the water as possible, ensuring it’s behind (upstream of) the float, and periodically “check” the float.
Checking involves stopping and holding line off the water with a high rod, which stops the float’s drift for a second or two. If you can accomplish this without pulling the float out of its current lane, even better. When you check a float, the bait or lure suspended beneath continues drifting. It slips ahead of the float, where hooking tends to be most efficient and where the presentation becomes more natural. Keep tension on the line so the float leans back toward you. If it’s leaning downstream, your presentation is off.
The perfect float rig is a combination of an effective river float, proper weighting to reach the right depth in a natural way, a long float rod, good baits and a quality main line and leader. Twelve- to 15-foot float rods from the bank and 9- to 10-foot float rods from a drift boat or jet boat are ideal. In terms of line, I like an 8- to 10-pound monofilament main line, specifically Maxima Ultragreen and Ande Premium.
All monofilaments eventually become waterlogged and sink behind the float, and Ande and Maxima lines do, too, but it seems to take longer with them, and temperature and UV light also seem to affect them less than others. For leaders, I like 4- to 6-pound Raven and Seaguar fluorocarbon.
Float and weight requirements are a bit more specific. Any old bobber won’t do for steelhead. For the best results, you need a float specifically designed for river fishing.
Eagle Claw Steelhead Floats, Drennan Loafers and Raven Floats are prime examples. In general, river floats have elongated oval bodies that are narrower at the bottom, which allows current to slip around them when checked. Stems extend top and bottom for attaching the float to the line with silicone sleeves.
For weight, you want just enough to draw the float down to the “water line” indicated by the change in color from clear or natural on bottom to bright colors on top. Especially important, however, is the spacing and placement of sinkers (I like Raven Soft Shot), and this usually depends on current speed and water clarity. In slow, clear water, place all the sinkers up high, just under the float.
In average flows and clarity, a “shirt button” pattern, with shot spaced several inches apart, is in order. In fast, cloudy water, placing all sinkers together about 2 feet above the bait works best. In all cases, the largest shot needs to be placed highest and the tiniest shot lowest on the main line. Avoid placing shot on the leader.
The shirt-button pattern, where feasible, produces the most elegant presentation. Heavier shot, spaced a few inches apart, carry the rigging down through the fastest current quickly. Lighter sinkers below allow the rigging to be swept forward in an arc, even in slower currents near bottom.
Steelhead spawn in the spring in quick, shallow riffles with gravel floors. With water temperatures around 40 degrees, females carve out a nest and release eggs while a male releases milt.
Fishing for spawners is not recommended in rivers with natural reproduction, like Michigan’s Pere Marquette. In put-and-take waters, fly fishing is often the best way to approach spawners.
Float fishermen look for pre-spawn fish. Those steelhead are typically found somewhere near spawning riffles—usually in the closest run or pool downstream in water temperatures of 36 to 42 degrees.
“Dropbacks” (post-spawn fish), meanwhile, might be resting in any slow, deep pool. They’re exhausted and typically scarred up, but they fight like demons. I once had a dropback hen leap into a low overhanging tree, bounce off several branches, play cat’s cradle with my line and break free.
Early on, in very cold water, small 1/64- to 1/32-ounce jigs tipped with waxworms or spawn bags work best to anchor baits in the flow (steelhead won’t chase in cold water). As actual spawning nears, steelhead position ever closer to the upstream end of a pool or run. Casts should be made into the shallow water above the drop-off and “dragged” so the bait sweeps ahead and extends to the edge of the deep water. This is best accomplished with beads above or spawn bags right on bare hooks, such as No. 8 and No. 6 Owner Mosquito hooks.
Before or after the spawn, few things in angling stop hearts like a disappearing float and a suddenly thrashing rod. A silver bullet emerging from the flow to twist and turn in the air is a rush that simply must be experienced to be fully understood. And I would argue that—when done properly—there is perhaps no more effective way to experience it in spring than by drifting enticing baits beneath a float.
FINE FLOAT FISHERIES
Seven sweet steelhead spots to ply this spring.
- AU SABLE RIVER, MI: The Au Sable is a wide, navigable river with some shore access, guides with jets and access points for boats. The steelhead run from Oscoda on Lake Huron stops at Foote Dam. The Au Sable is famous for large steelhead in the mid to upper teens.
- BIG MANISTEE RIVER, MI: This is one of Michigan’s finest steelhead rivers, drawing fish in the upper teens each year. The run stops at Tippy Dam near Wellston—one of a few good shore-fishing spots on the river, which is largely surrounded by wetlands. Ground flow is excellent, making this one of the most stable rivers on Earth.
- MUSKEGON RIVER, MI: The entire lower stretch of the Muskegon up to Croton Dam offers fabulous steelhead fishing opportunities, covering 40 to 50 miles of perfect habitat with enough parks and public land for plenty of shore access, though this big river is best explored by boat. Gorgeous high, forested banks border both sides of the river in many spots.
- ST. JOSEPH RIVER, MI: The St. Joseph enters Lake Michigan at Benton Harbor in Michigan’s southwest Lower Peninsula. A dam at Berrien Springs stops the run some 30 river miles from the big lake. It’s the widest of Michigan’s Silver Coast rivers, and a fantastic steelhead spot.
- SHEBOYGAN RIVER, WI: The Sheboygan River enters Lake Michigan at Sheboygan, just south of Green Bay, Wisc. All fish are stocked. Access is good from town up to the Kohler Property, where a River Wildlife membership is required. Pools are slow and deep there, and the steelhead run is one of the most prolific in the region.
- ROOT RIVER, WI: The Root River is stocked with more steelhead than any other Wisconsin river. Its proximity to Chicago brings thousands of anglers every spring, so expect crowds. But there are so many steelhead, and so much habitat, that any open spot on the bank could produce. Most fishing is done on foot.
- TRAIL CREEK, IN: Trail Creek near Michigan City, Ind., is a bucket-list river for foot-patrol anglers. It’s known for drawing huge Skamania (summer-run steelhead) in the 12- to 18-pound range. Almost narrow enough to leap across in places, it runs pretty deep. Stealth is required to hook up. Wear camo, walk softly and keep your head low.
Read more articles about salmon and trout fishing