Float fishing is an extremely popular and effective method for targeting steelhead.
Like it or not, for those who chase this desired sportfish, you cannot deny that float fishing simply works.
Of course, there are many complexities to this form of fishing, and every angler seems to have a slightly different recipe for success. But at its core, float fishing employs the same four basic materials that are common to so many other forms of fishing – a rod, reel, fishing line, and something enticing at the end of the line.
Add in a float or bobber and we can officially coin the term “float fishing”. In this article, we’re going to focus on one of the key components to any fishing situation, the fishing rod, and its application in float fishing situations.
We don’t need to spend much time covering how important the fishing rod is to our sport. It’s the instrument that delivers our presentation to the fish, the tool that fights the fish, and the device that dictates what method of fishing we’re going to be participating.
In float fishing situations, a spinning rod, centerpin rod, or casting rod can all be considered a “float rod”. Casting rods tend to be a popular choice for float fishing in the Pacific Northwest, while spinning rods are the dominant float rod in the Great Lakes region.
Centerpin rods are quickly growing in popularity across the country and abroad. Of course these are generalities, and anglers can use any rod they like when float fishing for steelhead. But regardless of the type of float rod you use, there is a general consensus among anglers that steelhead are large and powerful fish that require adequate equipment to catch.
Pictured: Caylen Phegley with a steelhead caught on the Closer Centerpin CCP12MH
What is not so universally accepted is the rod attributes that produce the best results. That is, the power, action, length, line rating, and other characteristics of a float rod that tends to put more fish in the net.
I’m going to make the case for one specific consideration that an angler should take in selecting an appropriate float rod for steelhead fishing: fishing longer rods when the situation allows has a tendency to produce better results. In short, longer rods are better.
Ok, I can sense the eye rolls.
Saying that longer rods are better is a baseless claim at face value, so let’s imagine that all steelhead float rods had the same characteristics. They have the same action, the same line rating, the same power, the same weight, etc. For sake of this article, let’s say that all steelhead float rod models are spinning rods with a 6-10lb line rating, light power, and moderate action. The only thing different between the models is the length.
When length is the only characteristic we need to be concerned about, longer rods will have several very important aspects that give them a big advantage over shorter rods.
Pictured: Great Lakes steelhead caught on the Redline CenterSpin HS13CS
Arguably the most important quality that a longer rod offers vs. shorter rods is the greater ability to control and mend line. Float fishing is a game of inches, yet also a game of many yards at the same time. Putting your float and bait in the optimal strike zone may come down to a very small target area. Just a few inches too far to the right or left and you miss the target. However, anglers also need to keep their float and bait in the strike zone for as long as possible and over the greatest length of water that is possible.
For example, the strike zone may be a perfect current seam or bubble line that is only one foot wide, yet it runs for dozens of feet.
A longer rod is going to allow you to navigate that seam for a longer length. As your float drifts further and further from your location, it will become more and more important to keep as much line off the surface of the water as possible. This will help to reduce slack, avoid swirling currents, keep your float drifting true through the strike zone, and most importantly, keep your bait exactly where it needs to be to trigger a bite from a steelhead. Longer rods excel in these situations. This is a big reason why many centerpin anglers fish with float rods in excess of 11 feet.
Centerpin anglers often run long drifts with their floats, so proper line control is crucial. But longer rods shouldn’t just be reserved for centerpinners. Everyone that enjoys float fishing for steelhead can benefit from using a longer rod by means of better line control.
Similarly to better line control and mending abilities, longer rods allow anglers to pick up more line, and to pick it up faster, when setting the hook on a steelhead. This simply comes down to mathematics and physics. Imagine that you are standing in one location while fishing in a river. You cast your line and let the float drift downstream.
Now, you close the bail on your spinning or casting reel, or if centerpin fishing, you prevent any more line from leaving the reel. So now your presentation is downstream of you; let’s say 100 feet downstream of your position. If you are using an eight foot float rod and point the rod tip directly downstream towards your float, the rod tip will be 92 feet away from your float.
Let’s swap that eight foot rod with a 13 foot rod. Now, the rod tip is 87 feet away from your float. There may only be a five foot difference between the rods, but that 13 foot rod provides the angler with a closer connection to the float, bait, and fish. And a closer connection often means more control.
Ok, so now the float drops under the water as a steelhead takes your bait. You raise your arm and lift the rod tip to set the hook. Your arm acts as a fulcrum, or the point at which the rod moves around. When setting the hook while using a longer float rod, your arm doesn’t have to move as far to achieve the desired result. The long rod does more work for you. The rod tip travels a further distance, thus picking up more line than a shorter rod.
This is especially important when your float drifts a long way from your position. You need to be able to set the hook effectively; otherwise you shouldn’t let your float drift so far downstream. Shorter rods simply can’t produce the same result when presented with the same situation.
Long drifts require a long rod in order to be fished appropriately.
Another extremely important benefit that long rods offer over short rods is that anglers can fish with lighter line without compromising on fighting ability. We all know that steelhead can be a very finicky and skittish fish that is easily spooked. This is particularly true in waters that receive a lot of angling pressure.
So to encourage a bite, we often need to downsize our line or leader.
Reducing to a four pound leader is certainly fair game when the bite gets tough, but it can be very difficult to fight and control a big steelhead on such light line without breaking the line. A longer rod tends to have more “play” or elasticity than shorter rods which helps to reduce the strain on the line. They are better equipped to absorb the sudden shock that steelhead are known to produce from their acrobatic and energetic fights.
Shorter rods just don't have the same ability to handle a big steelhead on light line. If you’re practicing catch and release, you don’t want to fight the fish to exhaustion otherwise its ability to survive after the fight is compromised. At the same time, you don’t want to compromise having your line break during the fight because your rod wasn’t able to compensate for a light line. A longer rod truly excels when fishing with lighter tackle.
Pictured: Lucas Holmgren with a Pacific Northwest steelhead.
Popular models of longer float rods that steelhead anglers may want to consider are the (spinning rods) Infinity Salmon & Steelhead ISS 106 MLS, G1000 Pro GP116MLS, X-11 LX 106 MLSGH, (casting rods) SI 106 MHC, Infinity Salmon & Steelhead ISS 106 MHC, (centerpin rods) and all models from the Closer Centerpin and Redline CenterSpin lineups; among others.
Anglers should always look to match the power and action of the rod to the size of the fish they are chasing. When targeting strong, ocean-run fish with the potential of reaching 20+ pounds, anglers should look to some of the more heavy duty models. When targeting smaller Great Lakes steelhead that average 5-10 pounds, the ultralight to medium light rod models are ideal.
The arguments above provide some of the most beneficial reasons why steelhead anglers might want to choose a longer float rod over a short float rod. Of course, there will be situations when fishing with a long rod isn’t practical or feasible. For example, if you tend to fish in small streams, or streams that are lined with thick brush or has low overhanging tree branches, a long rod is probably going to be more of a hindrance than a help. Also, longer rods can sometimes require more skill or practice to fish with. They have a lot of real estate, and some anglers may find them to be cumbersome or difficult to control. A little patience and practice should alleviate this concern, but it may be a valid concern to some.
In my float fishing experience, I’ve found that my hookup ratio and landing ratio have both increased simply by moving to a longer rod.
I feel more confident in fighting and controlling a steelhead when I have them on a longer rod. I can navigate my float to areas of water that I simply can’t get to with a shorter rod. Plus, there is nothing like seeing a long rod completely doubled over under the weight of a big fish!
They provide a more enjoyable fishing experience all the way around and I encourage you to try float fishing with a longer rod as well. I think you’ll enjoy it. Talking about float fishing with a longer rod is all good fun and games, but the only way to really know if a longer rod is right for you is to get out on the water with one.
- written by Justin DiRado
- feature picture: Jason Harmsen engaged on a fish with the ISS 106 MHC