Let ‘Er Slip

I love slip floats. They dominate my fishing methodology all season, from spring forays after crappies and ‘gills to summer searches for early-weed bass and beyond. Trout, pike, cats, walleyes, bass, panfish—all are vulnerable to float rigs.

Indeed, in many situations—such as concentrated fish, tough bites and whenever you want to slowly ply the perimeters or pockets of thick cover or gnarly structure—the best way to present a bait is under a float. Odd, then, that so many NAFC members overlook slip floats or look down on them as "bobbers" built for child's play.

To set the record straight, I've assembled thoughts, tricks and tips to help you fine-tune your slip-float style to any situation and species.

Great Benefits
Slip floats offer two major benefits over their fixed fellows. First, you can easily fish water deeper than the length of your rod, without dangling unwieldy or impossible lengths of line below a fixed float. The second advantage: you can make longer, more accurate casts.

Add to these the long list of benefits inherent to all floats, such as the ability to adjust your bait's depth until you get bit—then return your presentation to the same watery stratum. Floats also let you hover bait over or aside fish-holding cover and structure; in current, you can effectively cover eddies adjacent to boulders, pilings, timber and more.

Plus, unlike cast-and-retrieve presentations that can zip through the strike zone too quickly, baits under a float hang around as long as you like.

In fact, I'd daresay floats rise to the occasion anytime finicky fish or tough-bite conditions dictate finesse. You can fish tiny baits on light line at any depth, and there's little or no resistance when a fish takes the bait.

Key Choices
Run-of-the-mill floats reside by the score in the bargain bins of sporting goods stores across the continent. Made of a round, oblong or egg-shaped piece of foam with a plastic tube in the center, they're cheap, but not the best choice.

The foam can separate from and slide along the stem, throwing the float off balance and wasting fishing time when you have to reel in and adjust it. A bigger issue: line wears grooves into the stem's relatively soft tip, which catch the line as the bait is falling. Constant friction also weakens line.

Balsa and select hard-plastic options cost more but are lighter, last longer and their sturdy stems don't groove as fast. The floats' smooth, stiff skins also provide less water resistance when fish pull them

down. To avoid the grooving problem altogether, some floats feature a brass ring at the top of the stem, offering a hard surface for your line to glide against.

Weighing options abound. Some floats are pre-weighted with a lead wrap or other ballast. This helps big floats stand straighter (and cast farther) without a zillion sinkers below. Most floaters, though, come weightless, letting you precisely balance them.

The key is achieving peak sensitivity with whatever presentation you are fishing. With light, small baits fished a short cast from your position, aim for near-neutral buoyancy, with just 1/8- to ¼-inch of the tip breaking the surface. There's almost zero resistance when a fish tries to take in the bait. Pay close attention and you'll also see lift bites, which occur as the float rises when a fish strikes from beneath the bait.

Large, rambunctious live bait calls for more buoyancy, as do long casts (it's tough to see the tip of a tiny stem). In the case of beefy baitfish, one option to using a potentially fish-scaring amount of buoyancy is to rig a small pilot float a foot or so up the line, then totally submerge the main float. Long-stemmed floats strike nearly the same balance.

When adding weight to the line, don't just gob slit shot above the hook. To minimize tangles when casting, try the "Double Distance" method of what float purists call "shotting."

It entails "bulk" and "drop" shot (note: the latter is nothing like the business end of a drop-shot rig). Pinch two or three shot six inches to a foot above the jig or hook; then add the lion's share of the sinkers farther up the line. Here's the key: The gap between the bulk and the drop shot must be at least twice that of the distance from the drop shot to the hook.

Angles of Attack
Many fishermen limit floats to live or cut bait on standard hooks, but they're actually far more three-dimensional. You can also float a variety of jigs, from classic leadheads dressed with plastic, meal or marabou, to swimming jigs like the Jigging Rapala.

And don't stop there. Spoons, swimbaits, even safety-pin spinners are deadly weapons when suspended beneath a slip float, particularly when you need a slow presentation at a specific depth, or in relation to cover or structure.

No matter what you tie on the end of the line, one ground rule holds water: "Don't spook the fish." This is a major concern in calm conditions, especially in shallows; when fish are suspended near the surface; and whenever you're dealing with gin-clear water. Keep floats small and light, and cast past the target area, then gently pull the rig back. When current, wind or wave action allow, use it to carry your rig into the drop zone.

When wind, waves or flow are right, you can also use them to sweep rigs along key areas, such as seams between slick and slack water, inside and outside weedlines, and key depths (where the thermocline meets a drop-off) or physical characteristics (lips or shelves, for example) on structural breaklines. Often, current will also carry a float rig into eddies quite nicely.

On the flip side, if the wind rushes your rig through the strike zone, try "burying" the line. Cast past the area you want to fish—say, a sunken island—then push the rodtip underwater. Reel in fast (pulling the float under) until it reaches the desired location. Then stop reeling, and keep the rodtip underwater. The float will bob to the top, while the line between it and you remains sheltered from wind and surface currents.

Drive It Home

If slip floats have an Achilles' heel, it's exposed during the hookset. The distance from you to the hook, coupled with a near-right angle between you and the fish, can make driving the steel home challenging—if not frustrating.

Here's how to up your odds of a solid set: When a fish bites, point the rod toward the float and quickly reel in as much slack as possible. When you feel the rod load with the weight of the fish, sweep the rod upward to set the hook.

Two of your allies in the hooksetting process are a long rod (consider 7 feet a minimum) to help pick up the slack, and a razor-sharp hook. One last tip: If you're not anchored, use your trolling motor to creep close to the float and get a better angle on your next victim.


Good for light rigs in deep water, but because the center hole creates a right angle between you and the fish, hooksets are harder to execute. Inlines work best when fished near where you're standing.


Cigars: A balance between sensitivity and extra buoyancy and a good choice in still water, moderate wind and gentle currents. Large cigar floats are great for beefy live baits.


Wagglers: Only the top of the narrow stem protrudes from the surface, creating minimal resistance. Best for still water and moderate breezes.


Ovals: A great all-around choice. Line slides easily through the center, plus there's ample buoyancy and weight for long casts and a variety of wind and wave conditions.


External Sliders: Polar opposite of inlines. On some models, your line slides through a hole at the bottom of the float. They're better for long-range hooksets, so use them when you're making long casts or drifting presentations far from the boat.


Floats for Current: Flotation-up, stem-down design keeps it upright and stable when you hold it against the river's flow. In deep, fast-flowing, double-ring sliders are hard to beat. Shallow flows call for bulbous designs. Rig a "brake shot" just up the line between rodtip and float, to bump bottom and slow drift speed while the lure and another shot trail downstream.


Big Fish Rig: The author's pick for floating live bait for large predators such as pike, muskies, cats and stripers.


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