Learn To Use Slip-Float Rigs and Catch More Fish

Bob McNally

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Bright-colored, cigar-shaped fishing floats aren’t the sort of gear you’d expect to see scattered about from recent use on the forward casting deck of a sophisticated, high-tech, $20,000 bass boat. And those same 5-inch long floats aren’t the kind of terminal tackle you’re likely to find attached to $200 bait-casting or spinning outfits designed to battle big bass, walleyes, northern pike and saltwater fish, too.

Fishing floats – “bobbers” if you will – are made for bream and crappie fishing, or for use with natural baits for bass, right?

Well not any more, at least that’s the feeling among a select and somewhat secretive group of bass, walleye and other anglers who are learning they can present lures in some fish-holding areas most effectively by using delicate, sensitive, but very simple-to-use modern fishing floats.

I learned that lesson recently while fishing a series of long boat docks on Florida’s St. Johns River with friend Rob Taylor of Jacksonville. Like many anglers, docks are among my favorite fishing targets. Plastic worms, jigs and crankbaits flipped under docks frequently result in jolting strikes, and in the St. Johns the bass can run to double digit weights.

The trouble with docks, however, is that many of them have areas that are very difficult to properly present lures. Piling clusters far under docks, for example, can be almost impossible to fish well with standard lures and techniques. Yet these are the places that frequently hold the most bass. For example, many St. Johns docks and boathouses are 10- to 30-feet wide, and they are positioned low to the water. Thus proper casts to shaded nooks and crannies under docks can be tough to achieve, even when fancy casting skills like pitchin’ and skippin’ are employed. But when a modern slip-float rigged with a tube lure, small grub jig or plastic worm is worked under a dock, all water having current can be worked effective, and bass at any depth can be tempted into striking.

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The first time I fished slip floats for bass around docks in the St. Johns I was amazed. I rigged a large Thill “Center Slider” float onto my bait-casting line, then tied on a crawfish-colored 1/4-ounce Lindy “Swimmin’ Fuzz-E-Grub” jig. The boat was positioned on the up-current side of the dock, and I cast the compact float-lure rig near a dock piling. When the float-and-lure set-up hit the surface, the “swimming” jig spiraled down enticingly, pulling fishing line through the float quickly as it fell. Fitted onto the fishing line above the float was a small knot called a “float stop,” designed to jam against the top of the float, which thwarts the fishing line from running through the float, and thus halts the fall of the lure.

The water under the dock was 10 feet deep, and I positioned the sliding “stop knot” eight feet above the float. So I knew the jig was hanging eight feet directly beneath the slip-bobber. The river current pushed the float-and-jig far back under dock pilings, to places I never could have cast a lure. The bright-colored float bobbed and moved around a piling here and there, near a dock cross support, and finally bumped against a large bulkhead. Periodically I twitched my rod tip, imparting up-and-down action to the jig suspended below the float, making the “Swimmin’ Fuzz-E-Grub’s” wispy marabou tail undulate in the river’s current. It was following one such twitch that the float quivered, then disappeared quickly below the surface.

I set the hook hard and fast, and a barrel-size boil welled-up beside the bulkhead. It was a sea-saw battle that bent my bait-casting rod into a tight “U,” all while the water under the dock was worked to a froth by the bass.

Somehow the fish didn’t wrap around pilings or cross beams, and I muscled the fish out from under the dock and into the open net manned by Taylor. The fish weighed 6 1/2-pounds on a hand scale, was photographed and released.

Before we left that dock we hooked six more bass, and boated three of them – all with jigs and small plastic worms fished below slip floats. There was no question we caught those bass because the slip-float allowed us to present lures to a school of fish that quite likely had never seen a lure fished that way before. Moreover, before the morning’s fishing was through, we’d caught over a dozen largemouths, and some bonus saltwater red drum (redfish) and lost about as many others to dock pilings and obstructions.

Since that day on the St. Johns I’ve learned that modern fishing floats, especially “slip” or sliding floats, can be used to improve lure presentations in a number of typical and tough fishing situations.

It’s important to understand that modern or “high-tech” fishing floats aren’t your run-of-the-mill “bobbers.” They are not the little round red-and-white plastic models you see dangling from cane poles in bream bedding areas. Instead, the floats modern anglers insist upon using are specialized models made from high-quality, very buoyant balsa wood. The floats are designed to do very specific things with very specific lure weights. These style fishing floats come in dozens of sizes, shapes, and colors. In Europe, such floats are a standard fishing tool for everyone. Here, in the “colonies,” we are only beginning to understand the sophistication of modern fishing float designs, and for bass, walleye and other in-the-know fishermen, the age of high-tech float fishing is still in its infancy.

Much of America’s blooming love affair with modern fishing floats is the result of the passion anglers like world champion “Match” fisherman Mick Thill have shown U.S. anglers about how and where to use modern floats for American fish. A day of pond fishing with Mick Thill changed my thinking about fishing floats. Thill showed me that sensitive and innovative float designs can be used with standard bass lures to tempt fish into striking like no other method currently in use among the nation’s bass anglers.

My day with Thill, I purposely fished with other standard lures and techniques. With Texas-rigged plastic worms, buzz-baits, spinner-baits and weedless jigs I caught a few bass from the clear, deep, weedy pond. Thill, however, by slowly and methodically fishing a weed edge with a slip-float and a small grub jig, was able to catch bass after bass to 4-pounds because he constantly kept his lures in proper position for the fish that were suspended along the weed line. He’d make a long cast parallel to the weed edge, the float would stand up and the jig would hang five feet below it in 8-feet of water. Thill would “pop” the float, retrieve it a few feet, stop, twitch the rod tip, pause, “pop” the rod again, and so on.

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“These are smart, spooky bass,” he said as he fought a 2-pounder. “With a slip float you can keep a lure in a single, suspended position, and ‘tease’ a bass into striking – all while the lure is kept right on the weed edge. It’s the only way I know to catch suspended, spooky bass. It’s a technique that’s terrific in deep, clear lakes during cold-front conditions, and works great for walleyes, pike and lots of saltwater fish, too. When fish are lethargic, you’ve really got to put a lure right in front of their noses, and keep it there, to make them hit. The only way I know to do it well is with a slip-float.”

The same slip-float rig and fishing technique also works great when working deep pockets in weed beds, like lily pads, floating dollar grass, hyacinths and hydrilla. A weedless plastic worm is excellent in this situation. I’ve had amazing success using plastic lures with built-in action below slip-floats in weeds. A six-inch, lightly-weighted plastic worm is superb because it falls slowly below a bobber. Another excellent lure for fishing weeds in this manner is a soft plastic jerk bait. Jerk baits fall very slowly and erratically as they pull line through a slip-float. It’s just the kind of tempting vertical-fall lure action that turned-off or angler-shy bass (and many other fish species) find irresistible. It’s an outstanding method of catching weed-living bass from ultra-clear water.

This technique also works well when tapping a sunken reef or rock bar from long range and up-wind for walleyes, smallmouth bass, and other clear-water, spooky species.

Most anglers know that low-light conditions often are best for fishing. But carefully watching a bobber in dock shadows, during overcast weather, or at dawn or dusk can be difficult. This is easily rectified, however, by using a small, cyalume light stick product that attaches to the top of a modern slip-float with a special plastic adapter. It weighs next to nothing, doesn’t interfere with casting or fishing in any way, is waterproof, and glows like a firefly in low light so it’s easy to see your slip-float while fishing.

Several companies make these glow-in-the-dark products for use with fishing floats, including Thill (owned by Lindy).

Slip floats come in many sizes, and one important key to their successful use is matching the right size float to the lure employed. Giant “Big Fish Sliders” up to 6-inches long made by Thill Tackle can be used with heavy jigs, plastic worms and live shiners in deep water. Small slip floats just a couple inches long can be fished with 1/16-ounce tube jigs or small plastic worms for spooky fish  suspended along rock walls or over sunken rock bars in clear water. Such little lures suspended from small, very sensitive floats allow anglers to work a single spot in the water column for as long as they choose for finicky suspended fish – a deadly method for tempting reluctant fish of many species into hitting.

The applications for slip-float use in many kinds of bass fishing are almost endless. On Texas’ Lake Fork Reservoir, for example, well-known, full-time bass guides Barbara and Mark Stevenson say the technique is deadly for suspended largemouths in flooded timber. The compact float-and-lure is easy to “flip” in heavy cover. It’s superior to other techniques because it allows for a precise, vertical presentation while slowly “feeding” line through the float, which works a lure in a tantalizing fashion down through the water column for suspended bass.

Barbara favors rigging a slip float with a soft plastic weedless lure having a slip-sinker and glass bead. As the lure is “dropped” through the water column from the slip float in flooded timber, bass-attracting noise can be made by wiggling the rod tip, which sends vibrations down the line to the sinker and bead that click and clack above the lure.

Big slip floats work for striped bass, too.

“My friend Bob Brown, a tournament bass angler from Kansas City, was having trouble catching big stripers in the tailrace water below Tennessee’s Pickwick Reservoir,” Mick Thill explains smiling. “He said the fish were in heavy current, near bottom, and it was impossible to fish them without hanging up on rocks and debris below the dam. I showed him how to suspend his lures just off bottom with a Thill Big Fish #3 Slider Float. I told him he’d never lose a lure, but still have a perfect presentation to stripers.

“On a busy Saturday, when almost no one was catching fish below Pickwick – including some professional guides -Bob Brown and his buddies caught 18 stripers weighing to 22 pounds using slip-floats – and they never lost a lure!”

My previous experience with old-style bobber fishing was that casting was very difficult, especially when deep water was fished because the distance the bobber had to be positioned above the sinker and bait made for an unwieldy, lob-cast motion. But because a slip-float rests just above the lure before the cast, a float and lure cast like one. So an easy, normal, accurate casting motion can be made. Once the float and lure land at the target they separate, with the float staying on the surface, the lure dropping to the desired depth (described previously by positioning a “stop knot” on the fishing line).

The additional weight of a slip float can actually improve casting efficiency when small, light lures are needed. This can prove helpful in fishing clear water or shallow structures where long casts are best. The use of a big slip float also can help catch schooling, spooky bass or trout that are selectively feeding on small baits. The added weight of a float helps “reach” distant fish when small, light lures are required.

Like most systems of fishing, using slip-floats won’t appeal to every angler. And it certainly isn’t the best way to catch fish everywhere all the time. But there are plenty of instances where a lure or bait fished below a slip float not only is the most efficient way to work a fish-holding spot, but it’s also the only way to catch the most and biggest fish available there.

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