Ontario Trout Fishing

Trout Fishing Techniques

Floating for Spring Steelhead Trout


Of the various methods employed to catch migratory rainbow trout, or steelhead, in the tributary rivers, creeks and streams that flow into the Great Lakes, float fishing is likely the most popular. Float fishing allows the angler to present a bait at any level of the water column, including in the prime fish-holding zone located within 18 inches or so of the bottom. But these areas also tend to snag hooks and sinkers. A float can carry a bait safely above these tackle-eating snags, and right at eye level of waiting trout.

Don’t be afraid to experiment and vary the distance from your float to your bait, however. Deeper runs and pools, as well as float-shy fish in clear or shallow water, call for long leads. Conversely, if you spot fish suspended higher up in the water column, shorten your lead and get your bait up well off the bottom.

Besides providing tremendous versatility in terms of depth control, the other main function of a float is as a strike indicator. A properly weighted float can be sensitive enough to detect even the lightest bite, while at the same time offering virtually no unnatural resistance to the striking fish.

It’s critical to make your drifts as natural looking as possible. This means keeping as much slack line off the water as possible, to minimize drag on the float caused by the surface currents carrying your slack line faster or slower than your float. Periodically mending your line, by either retrieving excess slack or flipping it in the opposite direction of the line drag, is needed in steady flows. Maintaining a bit of pull on your float as it moves downstream of your position will also allow your bait to drift ahead of the float

The Floats
Gone are the days of the red and white plastic bobbers we used as kids. Today’s floats are significantly more advanced, and many avid steel headers carry an assortment to cover just about any situation and condition.

Pencil floats, tear-drop floats, clear-plastic floats and slip floats are the main varieties available.

The Tackle
Float fishing is the realm of the long rod; float rods of 10-, 13- and even 15-feet in length are common. Long rods offer several advantages, first and foremost being the cushioning and shock absorbing protection they provide for the light lines and leaders used for steelhead. In addition, longer rods provide more control when fighting fish, and help to keep your line up off the water during long drifts. They also aid in casting, especially with long leaders.

Centerpin float reels are also becoming the norm on many steelhead waters. Their primary advantage over spinning reels is their ability to smoothly pay out line to allow for long, natural drifts. Most models have no actual drag feature, requiring the angler’s hand to apply a gentle brake to the reel.

Quality spinning reels with smooth drags are the next best thing. Baitcasting reels, however, are not meant to cast the light lines and baits most often used in Great Lakes steelheading.

Whichever type of reel you choose, you’ll need a quality monofilament line to spool onto it. Eight-pound test main line, along with a lighter leader of at least three feet in length, is probably the most popular combination.

Fluorocarbon lines, meanwhile, have come to dominate the leader line market. These lines offer near-invisibility under water, as well as abrasion resistance superior to monofilament. But don’t take this as an invitation to use a heavier leader; between two- and six-pound test, depending upon water clarity, is best. High pound-test leaders are still more visible than light ones, and can also add unnatural stiffness to your bait presentation.

Another reason to use a light leader is to ensure that your main line is at least a couple pounds heavier than your leader. By connecting your leader to your main line below your float, either with a tiny, quality ball bearing swivel or knot, snags will usually snap off your lighter leader rather than your main line, thus preserving your float – often the most costly component of your terminal tackle.

Hooks and sinkers are the next pieces of the puzzle, and small and light continues to be the way to go. Size 14 and 16 octopus or egg hooks are not too small, depending on the size of the bait. As for weight, soft split shot, whether lead or some non-toxic material, from size No. 8 up to BB, are standard. The trick is to use just enough weight so that the float is “cocked” and ready to be pulled under by the lightest bite. Either bulk the shot together well above the hook or space them out evenly from 18 to 24 inches above the hook right up to the float. Using progressively smaller sized shot from the float down helps impart a curve to the leader, allowing the bait to drift ahead of the float, ensuring that the fish sees your offering before seeing your float.

The Baits
Roe, or spawn, whether salmon, brown trout or rainbow, is probably the number one bait for steelhead. Roe offers tremendous versatility, allowing the angler to use everything from single salmon eggs for finicky fish, to quarter-sized egg clusters tied into mesh netting available in a multitude of colours.
The general rule of thumb is to stick with small, dime-sized bags – containing about 10 rainbow eggs or three salmon eggs – in subtle colours such as white, yellow and orange, in clear water or on bright days, and larger bags in brighter colours such as chartreuse, hot pink and fluorescent orange, in muddier water, on overcast days or during other low light conditions. If you’re unsure of what conditions you’ll be facing, prepare a variety of sizes and colours to match whatever you may face.

When roe isn’t working, dew worms or nightcrawlers can be hot. Red and trout worms are also a dynamite spring bait.

Maggots, waxworms and mealworms are an overlooked steelhead bait, and that alone makes them a worth a try

Flies and Jigs
While roe is still the number one bait, artificial baits open up a whole other world of opportunities. In fact, many steelheaders now catch more fish every year with artificials than with roe.

Flies are not just for fly fishing. Stoneflies, woolly buggers, egg sucking leaches, Michigan Wigglers and woolly worms, as well as yarn flies, are all productive spring patterns under a float. Experiment with different sizes and colours until you find something the fish want.

Various colours of panfish-sized tube jigs have become an extremely productive trout bait in recent years. Again, experiment to match the colour to the water conditions and light levels.

Bucktail and feather jigs, as well as curly tail grubs up to two inches in length, are not as popular for steelhead as tubes, but they too can be a productive bait.

One of the most effective baits recently has been three-inch plastic worms, particularly in pink. An import from the west coast, these baits have taken Great Lakes steelheaders by storm. Other popular colours include natural, white, red, orange and chartreuse.

Float fishing is certainly not the only way to hook up with some steel this spring, but few other methods are as versatile and effective. So load up your vest and experience some of the fabulous steelheading the Great Lakes area has to offer.

By Don W. Sangster

Cottage Ontario.com