Tips for better steelheading

by Mike Borger | December 3, 2014

Picking my way through a grove of cedars, I emerged from the thicket on a rise overlooking the river. It was early November and a light rain was falling steadily. Hunching deeper into my Gore-Tex jacket, I stepped into the river to survey the scene. The water cycle was evident. Water coming down, river rising up, and water coursing around my legs as it sped its way to Lake Huron, only to become clouds once again.

Brushing a stray drop from the brim of my cap, I watched an angler on the opposite bank as he worked the seams on his side of the river. He was fishing the right water at the right time, yet he wasn’t connecting. Even from my faraway vantage point, it was clear that the lead beneath his float wasn’t long enough. The run was a deep one, at least 10 feet. And it was starting to rise and swell from the rainwater. Taking my time, I stretched out my lead and swapped out my smaller float for a hefty 12-gram version. Clamping a few extra split shot onto my shot line and spacing them out, I was finally ready.

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A jaunty line of small standing waves ran down the centre of the run bordered by a foam line, creating a perfect edge between the faster and slower water. Migrating steelhead love these seams; they’re the bread and butter of every good steelheader. Reaching it required a long cast, and finesse wasn’t part of the equation. Aided by the extra weight, I launched my rig and watched my float as it danced its way along, following the margin.

About 100 feet downstream, close to the tail out, my float violently shot down. Sweeping the long rod back, I was instantly connected to a large, bright steelhead. It rolled once in the heavy current then streaked downstream through the rapids as I struggled to follow on the slick, cobbled riverbed. I finally beached it in a small eddy several hundred yards downstream. Chrome bright, clear of fin, and fresh from the lake, she was quickly released to continue her journey.

A common mistake
Steelhead can be found anywhere in the water column, however, they do tend to hug bottom. Simply not getting an offering deep enough is the most common mistake among novice steelhead anglers. The dynamics of moving water is an interesting thing. What appears turbulent to the eye is most often vastly different beneath the water’s surface. Large boulders and depressions on the riverbed create calm havens for migrating steelhead in even the most violent of flows. Quickly punching through that upper layer to reach the fish below is key.

All too often I’ll watch an angler peg a float, set shot, and then work a lengthy stretch of river never once making adjustments. A river bed isn’t constant, so why run the same lead without ever changing? Savvy anglers are constantly tweaking their rig, pushing their float farther up or down the line, and sliding split shot around.

Less seasoned anglers might ask, “how do you effectively place your offering where it needs to be?” The length of your lead and the placement of the weight beneath is critical.

In deep, fast-moving water a bulk-shot pattern shines. All of your weight is clumped into one spot on your line, usually just above the finer diameter tippet, instantly helping your rig penetrate the water column. Split shot works well for bulking up. But on the biggest of waters, a small length of hollow pencil lead cut to size is even better.

In more moderate flows, a staggered pattern from top to bottom works well, with the larger shot placed close to the float and gradually smaller shot the rest of the way down terminating at your tippet. In many cases, it helps to pinch a few tiny dust shot right onto your tippet. If you’re fishing a super-light bait, the dust shot helps — as otherwise the rig tends to tangle while casting. In ultra-slow estuary waters, a pattern that places most of your shot directly beneath the float works wonders. It’s a stealthy approach as most of the line beneath your float is unencumbered by weight. There are countless variations, but for the novice these 3 patterns will cover the basics.

You must be able to slide your shot around, repositioning it as needed, and the round steelhead shot commonly available is simply too hard. If you attempt to move this shot you’ll bruise your line and weaken it. Plain old round Water Gremlin lead shot is best. It’s super soft, with a wide, deep cut that’s easily pinched on your line and won’t damage it when moved.

steelheading - steelhead-floatrigs

Not your daddy’s bobber
It was early March, the ice had just broken, and I was float fishing a harbour mouth for staging steelhead. Employing a long slender pencil-style float and a marabou jig, the morning bite was memorable and I banked several chrome beauties before the action began to wane. The long, slender float is ideal as it allows you to wiggle and twitch it like a pendulum in the calm water without pulling it off course — and makes the jig dance irresistibly underneath. It’s a subtle technique that’s often aided by wind; small waves will do the work for you.

Working my way upstream, I positioned at a neck-down, where the river compressed and flowed around a mid-stream island. The water was deep and turbulent and called for a different tack. Slipping my float off the tubing, I replaced it with a larger diameter one, fat on top with a long stem underneath. When shotted properly, the long stem acts as a rudder in heavy water and the float tracks better, not allowing the current to boss it around. This time, I placed my float along a seam virtually at my feet. With the early spring torrent, the only slack water was right in tight. Exactly where I expected a fish to be, the float dropped and I was connected to yet another fish.

Deeper more moderate flows call for a hybrid of the previous examples. In this type of water, I rely mostly on waggler-style floats. Long and tapered like the quill and pencil-style floats, they’re a bit girthier in the middle. Still sensitive, they’re able to carry more weight — necessary when plumbing the deeper trenches and slots.

Floats, and knowing how and when to use them properly, are the essence of the sport.

Reaching your target
This, I thought, is big water. It was mid-May and I was standing knee deep in the rushing waters of the St. Mary’s rapids in downtown Sault Ste. Marie. For the previous 20 minutes, I’d been trying in vain to reach a seam just beyond my casting range, carefully side stepping my way closer to gain a better vantage point. I soon realized it was folly. An element of danger can sometimes add to the experience, but I had no interest in drowning. Backing off, I made my way to shore to regroup. Returning to my truck, I grabbed a beefier, faster action float rod and a reel spooled with Berkley Nanofil, a slick no-stretch super line. Carefully making my way back out to the same spot in the river, I reached my target in one try without changing any of my mechanics.

Unlike other super lines, Nanofil is a gel-spun unifilament ­­— meaning it’s round, much like monofilament. It’s also ultra thin and has a slippery finish that literally flies off the spool. Happily, it also floats like a cork in the surface film, which combined with its no-stretch capabilities makes long-distance hook-sets a breeze.

I’m not a purist when it comes to casting a float reel; I’ll do whatever it takes to accomplish the task. Day in and day out I utilize a simple side cast 90% of the time. It might sound overly simplistic but impossible distances can be reached by simply side casting and employing a larger float and more weight.

Many anglers are too concerned with finesse and using the smallest float possible. The fish don’t care. It’s far more critical to actually reach your target with ease and get your bait down where it needs to be. Of course, side casting does have one big drawback — line twist.

Fortunately, there’s a remedy.

I run a tiny black 2-way swivel above the float, leaving a good 2- to 3-foot gap between swivel and float. This buffer is critical as it allows you the ability to adjust the position of your float when fishing deeper water. The swivel eliminates most of the twist associated with side casting. Another remedy is to use slip floats pegged in place above and below with tiny neoprene bobber stops. Much of the twist is caused by the float twirling and spinning in the air when you’re bombing out long casts. Because the slip float slides freely on your line, it doesn’t spin like a fixed float does.

Down and dirty
Years back, I was fishing out of a drift boat on the Manistee River in Michigan, enjoying a banner day. There were plenty of other boats about and my guide was loathe to pull anchor when a fish was hooked. Invariably, the fish would streak downstream and it was difficult work inching them back up against the heavy current. Not knowing any better I held my rod up high, which more often than not caused the fish to bolt even farther downstream. Exasperated, my guide finally snapped, “You need to get down and dirty, man! Jam your rod tip in the water.”

At that point, I had nothing to lose as my fish was far below us and about to become unbuttoned. I leaned over the side and plunged my tip deep into the current. And, within seconds, the fish settled down and stayed put. “Now,” said my guide “start reeling slowly and steadily.” I was amazed. With my rod tip in the drink, I reeled that fish right up to the boat. When my float hit the first guide I lifted the rod high, the fish rolled to the surface, and he instantly netted it with a deft scoop. “That,” he said with a grin “is how you do it.”

Since that day, I’ve integrated this tactic into my arsenal and it’s saved my bacon countless times. It’s an especially good trick to use when wading heavy current and a fish is far below at the brink of heavy rapids. More times than I can remember I’ve stopped hot fish dead in their tracks by plunging the rod in the water and have reeled in most of them. For obvious reasons, my buddies and I have coined this manoeuvre the “Michigan Dirty.”

Sideways thinking
When a long float rod is fully loaded and held high overhead while battling fish, it looks action packed and makes for some pretty pictures, but the fact is it’s not always the most efficient use of the rod’s power. An alternative technique is using side pressure. By holding the long rod parallel to the ground or water surface, loading it up and clamping down on the spool, you can easily turn the fish’s head toward the bank. This is a gorilla tactic akin to pulling heavy bass out of thick cover, but it works. Done correctly, I’ve seen anglers skid hot fish onto the bank in a shockingly short amount of time. Time and again, I’ve watched anglers needlessly prolong their fight with a big steelhead simply because they don’t know this. By holding the rod high, you’re often not applying the right type of pressure required to stop and turn a fish. This is especially true in tight quarters, when the fish is in close.

As fly fishing has evolved, we’ve seen a trend towards heavier tippet, thanks to the advent of fluorocarbon and crisper more powerful rods. I’m a big proponent, as they are a great aid when it comes to applying pressure and landing fish — far more efficient than the noodle rods of yesteryear.

Float fishing for steelhead with a centrepin reel is both incredibly effective and highly addictive. It’s a pure joy watching your float drop and fighting these strong bright fish on a long, light rod and single-action reel. I’ve always called it “the great equalizer” as even rank amateurs with some basic knowledge can flip a float onto a seam and catch fish. However, faced with large water and myriad changing conditions, it’s the finer details that often make the difference. Learn them, use them, and you’ll be a better angler.

First published in the Fall 2014 issue of Ontario OUT OF DOORS magazine. Subscribe today.