Finesse Tactics with the “FLOAT & FLY"

By Bob Sirois

Much has been written about this specialized technique, but most articles I’d read back in the early 80’s were geared towards southern smallmouth fisheries. In fact an article I read a long time back in Bassmaster magazine by Charlie Nuchols got me thinking about applying it in my tournament largemouth fishing during cold water or tough bites. In some online correspondence through a smallmouth fishing internet message board I was told by some good old southern boys that Charlie did not invent the rig, but he perfected it and certainly was a master at marketing it. It was relayed to me that some folks down south didn't appreciate the fact that he got so much attention for bringing someone else's technique to the masses without giving credit to its creators. But, hey they didn't have the motivation to try and make a dollar with it and Charlie did. Charlie Nuckols drowned in a boating accident in 1996, just as his revolutionary bass system was gaining a following among southern smallmouth anglers. Today, Charlie's brother Eddie runs Bullet Lures, which remains the main source for the specialized lures and equipment used with the float 'n' fly system.

The reality is that the "Float and Fly" had been around for many years prior to Charlie popularizing the technique. It originated as a way to catch crappie in the winter. Fishermen used the rig to fish small jigs and minnows for crappie. The problem was that in East Tennessee where the technique originated, crappie and smallmouth liked to inhabit the same areas of the lake during winter. Winter crappie fishermen were breaking off a LOT of small jigs thanks to smallmouth bass, and not just any smallmouth bass; BIG smallmouth bass.

I experimented unsuccessfully early one spring, but like any new technique success brings confidence and I hadn’t found either in my early trials. It wasn’t until my brother-in-law joined me for a late November fishing trip that same year, that l saw the true potential for the rig. It was late November, with water temperatures a cold 49 degrees, so I took him to my rod and gun club pond because historically in late fall largemouth bass would stack up in very predictably spots. After blowing through 3 dozen live shiners in a little over an hour while anchored up on a point bordering the main pond and a weedy back cove, I switched to suspending crank baits with limited success. John had been having great success using the float and fly for smallies where he lived in Ellsworth Maine and it didn’t take him long to show me why. I was amazed that he was able to almost duplicate the catch rate we had with live bait and after he landed a number of nice bass in very short order, I was begging him to help set me up with a similar rig.

This technique continued to prove itself time and time again when the water is cold, bass are extremely pressured or conditions are tough. The rig really shines when it comes to catching quality smallmouth bass in early spring and late fall; however it is an extremely effective technique for largemouth, pickerel, crappie, bluegills and trout. I even caught a few winter holder stripers one cold day, just to prove it could be done.

Some of the larger fishing mail order catalogs offer Float & Fly kits, however I opted to have my friend make my jigs which insured me a good quality hook. A good quality fine wire hook insures a good hook set on subtle cold water bites and many of the commercially available jigs use either too heavy a hook or if they are fine wire; they aren’t sufficient quality to tame large bass. Look for jigs with 2/0 hooks and weights of 1/16 oz. and 1/8 oz. If you tie your own, I recommend Owner or Gamagazu jigs; both utilize good quality fine wire hooks in these weights. An easy hook set is almost guaranteed when using a good quality hook. Tying in some Chenille on the hook shank insures a good absorbent for your favorite scent and don’t forget to make some with eyes; more times than not jigs with eyes will out fish those without. 

The southern experts are firm believers that craft hair breathes best, but I’ve had good luck with simple ties utilizing buck tail in natural colors. Those same southern experts suggest that on sunny days and clear water; jigs should be light colors such as white, pink and baby blue/pink. With clouds and/or wind or in stained water, white/chartreuse and smoke/chartreuse are their recommendations. I’ve always been a subscriber to the kiss (keep it simple stupid) principle and I’ve found simple ties with natural bucktail colors work just as well. White for some reason seems to excel under cloudy conditions. I like them tied so the buck tail is about twice the length of the hook, with an overall length around 2-1/2 inches.

Those same southern experts are also firm believers in using fixed bobbers with jigs set from 6 to 14 feet, which necessitates using lightweight noodle rods in 9-12 foot lengths. I don’t know about you, but at the time I was experimenting with this rig, the last thing I wanted in my tournament bass rig was a 12 foot noodle rod; talk about an accident ready to happen. Luckily for me my friend John introduced me to his version of the rig utilizing a slip bobber, which I could fish on standard length rods. In my many years of use, the only disadvantage I have found is that on windy days it sometimes takes some work to get the jig to pull the line through the bobber if fishing depths beyond 6 feet, but staying with a heavier 1/8 oz. jig usually solves that problem.

I never experimented with a fixed bobber and noodle rod, the thought of trying to cast 14 feet of line hanging beyond a 12 foot rod just never appealed to me. For those that might be braver than I, I’ll describe those traditional southern rigs for comparison. From the rod, a 6-8 lb braid would typically be used to attach to a 3-way swivel using a uni knot. From the swivel one would attach a length of light 6-8 lb test fluorocarbon fishing line. Usually this dropper is from 9 to 12 feet in length. The third swivel loop is where you would attach the bobber. Learning the intricacies of casting this fixed bobber set up is important and the key obviously is a long noodle rod. You have to make sure that when you make your back swing that the lure hits the water behind you and that the rod is fully loaded before you cast. Certainly fishing the traditional set-up and rigs works for those that want to take the time to master it, but if like me you’d prefer to just break out the rigs and fish them on your standard spinning or even conventional rods, then the slip bobbers might be for you. If you want to go slip bobber, a 6-1/2 to 7 foot rod is all you need. Action should be medium light, stay away from fast actions, look for a more parabolic action and a rig rated for 1/8 to 3/8 oz and 6-15 lb line. With the advent of fine diameter braids, my rod of choice would typically be spooled with 10lb fireline, so when it’s time to break out this rig, I only need add a 12 foot leader of 6-8 lb mono or fluorocarbon.

There are a number of different style bobber stops available and I’ve tried them all with varying success, experiment with a couple styles and see what works best for you. I’ve found that the yarn stops work better when fishing deeper, as they don’t walk up and down the line excessively when reeled in past the rod tip. For bobbers, I’m partial to the 4-3/8” long Thill Center Slider balsa slip bobbers. A small package of glass beads will round out the terminal tackle. To rig run 6-8 lb mono through the bobber stop and slide it up your line. Run the line through a small glass bead, then through the slip bobber. Then tie on your jig and have a bottle of scent handy and your ready to go.

Set the bobber stop to suspend the jig just off the bottom, the top of the weed bed or the depth you think fish are suspended at. Put a couple of drops of your favorite scent on the jig and let her fly (no pun intended). The best action is no action at all, but in flat conditions, I’ll work the bobber ever so slowly back to the boat with slight rod twitches; letting the fly sit for minutes between movements. In a slight chop, let the wave action work the jig up and down for you, moving it only occasionally to change position. Patience is the name of the game, especially in cold water when this rig works best. Let the rig sit for a minute or two and then move it only a foot or two with subtle rod tip movements to give the jig a little action. Just repeat this until you are out of the strike zone, but I can’t over emphasis the importance of going extremely slow. Staying focused on the bobber at all times is extremely important. Yes there are strikes that are easy to detect, with the bobber being pulled completely under the surface, but that’s not the norm. The bobber might move differently or suddenly lay flat on the water, indicating a fish has taken the jig and its weight off the bobber allowing it to suddenly lay flat. Make certain that the drag on the reel is looser than it would be with monofilament, and set the hook by raising the rod straight up, that will put the hook in the roof of the fish's mouth. Assuming you are using fine wire sharp hooks, that is all that is required to set the hook. No need for that summer jig-n-pig fishing, cross your eyes hook set here. Remember also that with any light line fishing, it’s important to retie often, so after a few larger fish; retie and adjust the depth of the jig.

Where and When to Fish for Smallies

The float 'n' fly works wherever bass suspend in winter, with some of the high percentage spots including the following:

• Bluff banks

• Rocky points, especially those with a quick drop into deep water

• Sloping rock or clay banks, look for 45 degree sloping banks

• Flats or bars adjacent to any of the above structures, anything with wood to absorb warmth is a bonus • Open water channels or well defined V-shaped tributary arms

• Back coves with tributaries in spring, again wood is a bonus as it will warm quickly, coves or river systems that are too weedy to fish come summer can be hot spots in the spring and again in the fall when the water rises over the weeds

• In early spring search out current coming into a lake, these are prime locations; look for depth changes from say 4 to 18 feet, try drifting the rig with the jig set at 6 feet.

• In late fall river smallmouth love the float and fly, look for sharp breaks say 6 feet dropping quickly to 20 feet

• Utilize search baits like a X-rap to locate fish and then switch to the rig for considerable improved catch rate

Don't think of this rig for small buck bass either. I've caught countless bass over 4 lbs on this rig, with many smallmouth and largemouth bass to 6 lbs. It works extremely well for cold water largemouth bass, pickerel, perch and crappie. In fact this rig became the staple for our early spring traditional crappie fry, which we usually scheduled a short time after ice out and after a few weeks of warming would guarantee crappie would be moving into the shallow coves. One particular southeastern Mass river system was in summer so think with weeds you could walk across them, but that same skinny water and slowly immerging weeds in early spring insured warmer water and abundance of crappie, bass and pickerel. We would always load the boat with crappie and catch some nice bass and pickerel along the way.

I think one of the intangible rewards to mastering this technique, is that it instantly connected me back to my youth and those wonderful memories of waiting patiently for my bobber to go down. It’s a wonderfully relaxing way to start or finish your season, watching patiently for your bobber to telegraph a subtle hit, wondering as you set; whether it’s a crappie or better yet a nice bass.

If you want to kick off your season early or extend it well into the fall, I can’t think of a more versatile rig to fish for a multitude of species. When the water temperatures drop in the fall or rise in the spring into the upper 40’s and low 50’s, its prime time to break out the Float & Fly. The fact that it requires a slow deliberate presentation is also a natural fit for the bulky clothing required to maintain warmth during these colder months. Whether you opt for the traditional set-up or a slip bobber approach, this finesse technique is a guaranteed winner when the water gets cold and the bite tough.

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