I came across the float and fly technique while reading Bill Siemantel and Michael Jones’s book “The Big Bass Zone” and also, on an episode of Fishing University with Charlie Ingram. But for whatever reason I never employed this technique when fishing for bass. While fishing one day late this fall my friend pulled out some Spro Phat Flies. We were targeting schooling surface busting bass. He was not using the flies with a float but was simply swimming the flies through the busting fish, he gave me some and we were having reasonable success but there were times when our offerings were being rejected. I did not have any floats with me that day but I said to myself hmmmm (things that make you go hmmmm).
Well guess what, my next trip I was rigged with some floats. At first I was throwing all my shad swimming and shad busting baits with no hook ups. I spoke with other talented anglers on the water that day and everyone was scratching their heads over the tough bite. There was an occasional surface fish but not much was happening on top. I knew the bass were working the bait; I couldn’t see the bass but I could see the no see ums. No see ums is a nickname for a small minnow baitfish that is barely visible, usually you can spot the eyes and nothing more as the body is somewhat translucent and very small. If you observe bait fish, shad or minnows, they will have a certain attitude to how they swim about; you can tell when they are not happy. I like it when they look panicked; I call it ‘Cardiac Shad’. The bait told me that the action was subsurface. It was time to put that float and fly out there. I threw up wind from where the no see ums were and watched the bobber drift on a dead stick. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes, the bobber went down and the rod was loading up, that could only mean one thing. I set the hook and up came a large largemouth. Wow first time out with the float and fly and I caught a five pound bass while everyone else struggled. Now if that doesn’t grab your attention… On my next four trips to the lake I caught bass on the float and fly each time, another attention grabber, one of those trips was for a tournament. You should see the looks I get when I throw the bobber out there while surrounded by bass boats, , but sometimes I get the last laugh .
What is the Float and Fly?
The float and fly is a very simple technique that can be employed from a boat or the shoreline. There is more than one way to rig the float and fly, for this article I will discuss how I like to do it. A small fly/jig is tied to a leader and the leader is tied to a three way swivel. A bobber/float is attached to the swivel and the swivel is also tied to a main line. The set-up is cast on a long limber rod with light line. The fly is allowed to suspend subsurface below the float. When the bass takes the fly the float goes under the surface of the water and you set the hook.
Float and Fly Set Up
This technique has typically been associated with suspending fish in cold water. Personally I don’t see why it wouldn’t have applications throughout the year. Fish suspend most of the time and not just in winter. I have just started using this method this October but plan on throwing the float and fly all year. I definitely see an application on bed fish. With the right leader length I can put the fly right on her nose and keep it there. Updates will be provided as the seasons change.
The where is governed by the same principle as with all bass fishing. As we have been taught prime structure; points, flats, ridges, humps and creek channels. Find the bait at these areas and you will find the bass. Find the spot on spot and you will find the bigger bass. I look for bait balls either with sonar, by eye sight or from watching birds and then start breaking the area down with the fore mentioned considerations.
This is a specialized technique and you will need a specialized spinning rod. The rod will need to be very long and limber. The rod needs to be light and have light action. You will not be able cast and hook your fish properly with traditional bass spinning rods. On the advice from a certain someone I use a Lamiglass Rogue River Special. It is a steelhead rod 7’-6” in length, rated for 1/8 oz. to 1/2 oz. baits and 6 to 12 lb. line. I have a 9’ and 14’ steelhead rod that I light line surf fish with that are actually better suited, especially with the longer leaders which I will get to, but as tournament anglers we are restricted to a maximum rod length of 8’ during competition. I prefer to practice with what I compete with.
Most of us will already have a suitable spinning reel. I use a Shimano Stradic 2500FI. It is reasonably priced and balances nicely with the fore mentioned spinning rod. There are several choices on the market that will work just fine. Just remember that with all set-ups balanced equipment is very important. Also whatever reel you select the drag must perform extremely well. This is light action angling for big fish and reel performance mistakes will cost you.
I spool my reel with 8lb Berkley Fireline Crystal. The Fireline like all super lines/braid is strong and casts farther. My leader material will be 6lb fluorocarbon. I feel fluorocarbon is the best choice for leader material. The fly will be suspended under the bobber, and if something does not look right the suspended fish is going to reject your presentation. Fluorocarbon is less visible underwater.
I use a #4 Spro three way swivel. It is rated for 55lbs. Not too large and the main reason I use the Spro swivel is because it is black and is very well made. The black finish is subdued, something I like. Now in this technique the finish of the swivel is not that important when you consider that a red and white float is attached directly to the swivel. But I also use three way swivels with other techniques such as double rigs and the swivel is much closer to the bait and I prefer the black finish over a gold finish. So it just happens to be the swivels that I already have and I am confident with.
There are some special floats that are marketed specifically for the float and fly technique. With standard floats the pear shaped floats are the best as they are more sensitive to what is happening with the suspended fly. A standard round float will work so if that is all you have then use it. The float I use happens to be round but a weight has been added to the top inside of the float giving it the same sensitivity and balance as a pear shape. You want the float size to match the fly size, always balance things for the best action and sensitivity. If you rig your set-up the way I do you will want a float that has the plastic spring loaded button that you push down to expose the metal wire line catch. This is how you attach the float to the three way swivel. When attaching the float to the three way swivel push the spring loaded button to expose the wire catch. Rotate the catch 90 degrees so the catch will not go back into the slot. This creates a closed loop and allows the float more movement when attached to the swivel. That extra movement will provide more sensitivity and feedback from the fly. It is also important to have a two colored float. The two colors will tell you what your fly is doing below the surface of the water. With the fly below the float, and the float in the upright position the float will only show red. If the fly is dragging bottom the float will rotate and show white. Also some strikes can be very subtle; if the fish inhales the fly without swimming off the float will be the only indicator. Keep a close eye on the float, sometimes it is very minor jiggle or rotation. Watch the float as it rest in the water in the upright position. If the normal attitude of the float changes for any reason be ready, unless you are dragging the bottom you have a fish on your bait.
The fly is actually a jig but when you think about it a fly fisherman’s fly is nothing more than a micro jig. There are a few jigs on the market that are designed for the float and fly. Spro has this guy who has designed an excellent jig for them, the Phat Fly. They come in two sizes 1/16 - 1/8 oz. and five color patterns that match most forage. Punisher Lures also makes a very good jig with different craft hair and duck feathers. They come in a variety of patterns and they also sell a complete float and fly jig kit. I like the Phat Fly and the Grey Ghost pattern is my favorite for clear water. It does a very good job of matching the local bait fish and the bass have given their approval. Experiment with different patterns based on forage, water clarity, and your instincts. Whichever jig you chose it is very important that the jig is balanced on the line tie and rests in a horizontal position, especially on the dead stick. You want the fly to have a natural attitude in the water.
Spro Phat Flies
Punisher Float & Fly Jigs
First, I prepare my leader which is usually 5’ to 10’ in length. Leader length is influenced by water depth, depth of forage and depth of suspending bass. Fishing by oneself can also influence leader length. It is very hard to boat a big fish on a 7’-6” rod with a ten foot leader, but it can be done. Other elements that determine leader length is the bait and the bass, not me. Look for clues like bait balls on your sonar and it may be necessary to keep changing leader length until you find the one the fish want. It will be easier to start long and shorten up the same leader rather than tie a new leader each time. First, I tie the fly to the leader, then the leader to the swivel and lastly the swivel to the main line. The reason I rig in that order is I am a big fan of the “Palomar Knot” and tying in that order allows me to use the Palomar for each of the three knot connections. I don’t like using two different knots on the same rig, different knots have different strengths and I want everything to work the same way. If your preference is another knot such as the improved clinch then rigging order does not matter.
I like to use scent; however I am leery to put scent on fly hair and feathers. I feel the oil in the scent will affect the fluff of the jig hair. I want the jig hair to remain separated and have a subtle movement in the water. I use Smelly Jelly Shad Formula, it comes in a small plastic jar and I dip the head of the jig into the Smelly Jelly and I avoid getting oil on the jig hair.
This system requires a different cast than what most bass fisherman are used to. The weight of the float and the limber rod is what allows us to throw this rig. You must make a back cast first to get the float behind you and the fly behind the float. The longer your leader the more important this is. Make sure the fly is on the water behind you before casting forward. Once you have everything in position on the back cast then a simple overhand cast of the float will do the job. With a little practice you will be able to put your offering right where you want it. Just be careful of one and another and objects such as trees and bushes, it is a long leader.
My favorite is the dead stick, use the wind and wave action to push your fly into the target area. I should really say that my favorite retrieve is whichever one the fish want at any particular time, so let’s look at a few other retrieves. With a slow retrieve and a shorter leader length I can use the float to create a v-wake. The v-wake can draw bass in where they then detect the fly trailing the wake. You can move the float in short soft sweeps which will bring the fly up in the water column. When you stop the float the fly will pendulum back down in the water column. Tiny jiggles of the float will give the fly subtle action and conversely hard tugs will produce a more pronounced action. There is also shake stop shake, think about baitfish cadence and how you want a start stop action. Look for the strike on the pause. Experiment and see what the bass have to say about it.
The hook set is extremely important. You want to lift the rod straight up and over your head and wind the reel at the same time. A fast but smooth straight up lift and reeling will place the hook in the top of the fish’s mouth. Side sweeps and hard pops will usually take the fly away from the fish; I have learned this the hard way during a tournament, straight up and only straight up.
No Time Outs
Whenever I am re-rigging any set-up instead of just sitting there tying, throw out the float and fly. Now as you are re-tying or eating a sandwich you can keep an eye on the float. I will do this especially in a tournament, this way I at all times have a wet line out there with the bobber making an excellent hands free strike indicator.
Often I am in the boat alone. If I am at the front of the boat and working a fairly slow presentation such as a drop shot, jig, senko, spooning vertically or whatever, I will cast the float and fly out the back and let it trail behind the boat, occasionally glancing back at the bobber. This is a good way for a single angler to work two different rigs at once. It is always a rush when I look back and the bobber is gone from site and the rod is loading up. Make sure the rod is secure or a big fish just might take it from you. Also make sure you know the local regulations concerning multiple rods. Here in California you must first obtain a second rod stamp for your fishing license; it is very inexpensive only $3.00. Remember in most tournaments you are prohibited from using two rods at the same time, but not during practice.
No Tangles Please
Equipment management on deck is very important especially during tournaments. You will waste time untangling rods and fishing line if you don’t manage your gear well. Nothing can be more frustrating than having surface busting bass come up in front of you and you can’t get the right set-up off the deck fast enough because everything is a tangled mess. When I am using a leader that is longer than the length of my rod I will reel the three way swivel close to the rod tip but not right on it, then I take the leader and run it back to the post of the reel wrapping the leader behind the reel post and then run the remaining leader length up towards the eyes on the rod securing the fly’s hook on one of the rod eyes. If your rod is 7’-6” long you can easily manage a 10’ leader. Now this rig can be placed on deck or in the rod locker without 10’ of leader flaying about tangling everything. Make certain that the reel post is in excellent condition without any nicks or metal burrs otherwise you are likely to damage your leader and we know what that can lead to. I never place a hook on the ceramic eye guide itself; instead I place the hook on the eye post so I do not risk damaging the eye guide which is another prescription for disaster.
Above all be prepared, be smart and be safe. This is typically a cold water technique so be careful, especially if you are out there by yourself. If you go into that cold water you are not going to last long.
Bobbers in the Box
Give this technique a try; it will fool some really big bass. Despite the appearance of the small fly, light line and the noodle action of the spinning rod this is a big bass technique. It can be a look they don’t see too often. When the bite is tough and fish are being pressured I have found at times it is the only rig I can get the bass to bite. Just like a little kid I get a big kick out of it every time I see that bobber go down. I think you will to and I look forward to hearing your reports. Who is going to catch the biggest bass on the float and fly?