Successful steelhead anglers place a high priority on proper gear presentation.
Many methods can be used to achieve proper presentation when dealing with a variety of water conditions. Bankside, we have developed a long list of techniques over the years to fill our steelheading arsenal. Drift fishing, spoon fishing, spinners, float and jig, float and bait, flies, plugs, pink worms. The list goes on with many forms of crossing one technique with another providing hybrid gear presentation that can often be the ace in the hole in difficult fishing conditions. Likewise while fishing from a moving boat, many techniques have been developed to achieve the perfect presentation. Old standards include pulling plugs, divers and bait, boondoggling, backbouncing and hoverfishing just to name a few.
With the turn of this last century, one technique seems to be permanently imprinted into the mind of every jet boat operator’s reset button. Visit any river where fishing is legally allowed while under power of a vessel and 9 times out of 10 you will witness most fisherman free drifting.
For good reason, this technique is deadly effective.
Boaters can cover as much water as their hull type will allow them, effectively taking the guess work out of what section of the river the fish may be holding in.
Once you find the fish, you drift and redrift the productive stretch until you feel confident that all the biters have been given a turn. After that you move on to the next stretch. Pretty easy as long as the boat operator adjusts his speed accordingly so that his gear and his passenger’s gear drift freely through the likely holding lie.
Too much lead and the lines will hang up on the bottom, too little and the lines will be swept down without contact with the bottom at all. The purpose of this article is not to discuss the intricacies of a popular and proven technique but it is to maybe add a twist when you need that something different.
Why? because for success it sometimes pays to think outside of the box.
Years ago I was taught the fine art of float fishing while spending every waking moment on the Vedder River in Chilliwack B.C. To say B.C. fisherman know how to float fish is an understatement. Sure, adding a float above your terminal gear setup may sound elementary but I can assure you that precise float size to weight and leader length ratios can make the difference between success on a difficult day and going through the motions all day fishless.
To me, the locals with their long rods and center pin reels brought beauty and precision back to steelhead angling. It was a refreshing sight. On many occasions, I would approach these pros and ask for advice and suggestions on proper rigging. Eventually, I attained a level of confidence with the float rod and brought what I learned back to the states with remarkable success. Walking below crowds at terminal hatchery zones to fish fast shallow whitewater that most wouldn’t, paid off big time!
Sometime later, I purchased my first sled which was a 20-foot Wooldridge tiller and learned how to free drift. I was still a float fishing bankie at heart so there were several spots on my local river where I would use my boat for access only. I would drop the anchor and float fish these spots.
Many winter and summer-run steelhead took a nap in my boat on account of this.
So, just like so many other mornings prior, I decided to grab the float gear and a couple spinning outfits and hit the river. I started out the day float fishing all my favorite spots then moved on to free drifting. The water was a bit higher than normal with about three feet of visibility. I really wanted to concentrate on the slow edges and sides of the river but every time I would cast my gear beyond the fast seams into the slower water, my boat would eventually just pull my terminal gear right back toward me into the fast water.
I knew under these conditions, there had to be fish in the slower water near the bank.
Even if I applied more throttle to the kicker motor and slowed the boat down, my terminal gear would always just drift right back my way. Frustrated, I ran the boat right back to the top end of the drift to get another shot at the slow water beyond the seam. This time I left the spinning rod laying against the transom and grabbed my float rod! I cast my float and bait setup into the almost frog-water flowing current near the bank and mimicked the progress of the float with my boat speed by applying more throttle to the kicker motor. The 6-inch dink float didn’t make it far before it disappeared under the surface. I set the hook hard and felt the throb of a good steelhead! Minutes later I put a dandy hatchery fish in the bag and realized the real potential of this new method.
Would this just be an isolated episode?
Not even close! I’ve repeated this same sequence more times on the river than I can recall!
Power-floating for the lack of a better term is essentially a form of free drifting from a sled with the aid of a float to get into tight slow spots and stay there. To get started, a 9- to 9½-foot spinning or baitcasting rod rated 8- to 12-pound test will suffice.
A little heavier rod such as this is needed to accommodate a better hook set with the added weight of the attached float. It may sounds a bit backwards but I tend to prefer bait casting rods for better line control. First, slide either a thread or a rubber float stop onto your mainline followed by a bead. The bead acts as a buffer between the float and the stop. Next slide a slipping style dink float (or your personal favorite float style) onto the mainline. I prefer the “old school” dink type floats because I can determine what is happening beneath the surface of the water by watching the narrow tall shape of this style float change angles in the current.
This helps you know whether you are dragging bottom or getting a subtle bite.
After the float, slide on another bead and tie on a snap swivel below. At this point, you will need to decide for yourself what size slinky to fasten to the snap swivel as currents and depths vary. Too light and the terminal gear won’t sink to the desired depth fast enough. Too heavy and your gear will slowly drag the bottom creating an unnatural presentation. I find for most applications, a 4-5 shot (.250 size) slinky is just about right. For deeper holes, more weight tends to work better. Last, you will attach your leader. It is important to note that a smaller hook will always give you better penetration on contact but beware when using bait in conjunction with smaller hooks! Especially during smolt outmigration or when fishing for wild steelhead! We don’t want to deeply hook either of these fish as death can result. This combination kills far too many precious wild salmonids and should be avoided during these periods. Also, the custom of using longer leaders while free drifting doesn’t make as much sense with this method because often times you will be fishing shallower water. With a longer leader the bait may never get down to the fish.
The set up is complete and now it’s time to set your depth.
This is done by sliding the float stop up or down the mainline. The farther you slide the stop up and towards the rod tip, the deeper your gear will be presented. In water conditions with less than 3 feet of visibility, I like to let my slinky tap the bottom more often just as you would if you were drift fishing. To accomplish this, if the depth of the water is say 4 feet, I will slide my float stop 4½ feet from the slinky. This will allow the current to tap the slinky along the bottom of the river more often resulting in a slower presentation. In this case you will notice the float tilting slightly downstream. For generality sake, if the water has greater than 3 feet of visibility I would rather speed the presentation up causing a natural free flowing drift. So now if I’m in the same 4 feet (depth) of water, I would move my float stop to 3½ feet from the slinky. This will keep the slinky above the bottom of the river while it is drifting only tapping the occasional tall rock or bottom structure. The float should now be pointing straight up. I am giving these two basic examples of water clarity for reference only. There are no hard and fast rules to accomplish the perfect presentation because river conditions are constantly changing. Change it up a little and experiment with different weight and leader lengths to achieve this!
Boat positioning is important just as it is with conventional freedrifting. Typically, the boat needs to drift a bit slower than if you were freedrifting. This is true because the water you are targeting is often close to the bank. Because the boat is positioned in the faster current while casting to the slower water, more throttle must be applied to the kicker motor to match the speed of your drifting float.
I personally enjoy the satisfaction of finding fish in unconventional spots.
This is especially true on high pressured rivers where everyone is using the same technique over and over. It may take a full day to get in synch with how this method works but I promise if you put forth the effort, it will pay off! Next time you load up the boat to hit the river, be sure to throw a few float rods in your arsenal. You just may be surprised at how deadly this method can be!
- written by Danny Cook