A Beginner’s Guide To Float Fishing

Float fishing is one of the most popular methods of angling. Sheringham’s comment that the float is “pleasing in appearance, and even more pleasing in disappearance”, still rings true today, whether you cast a delicate stick float or a pike bung.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in float fishing is making the right tackle choices. But with such a bewildering variety of floats and tackle, where do you start? Dom Garnett steers you in the right direction and shares some of the joy that comes from successful float fishing.

Why use a float?

Chub caught with waggler float

A simple waggler float and slow sinking bait fooled this chub.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett.

Apart from the obvious pleasure of seeing the thing dip, why opt for a float in the first place? The broadest answer is that the float achieves things other presentations don’t. If the fish you want to catch prefer bait in the current, or mid water as it falls, a float is the answer. But for bottom fishing too, the float will often provide greater sensitivity than rod tips or bobbins.

Basic float types 

Fishtec's float fishing guide - floats

The main types of float. Image source: Fishtec

Waggler

Fishtec-Wagglers

A straight waggler, insert waggler and loaded float.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett.

Attached bottom end only, this is a great all-rounder, especially on stillwaters such as lakes and canals. For more information, see our Beginner’s Guide to Waggler Fishing.

Stick float

Fishtec-stick floats

A traditional stick float, modern metal stemmed float and a chubber, for big baits and boiling currents.
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett.

Attached by three “float rubbers” this is first choice for running water. The size and design of float will depend on the depth and strength of the current.

Pole float

Fishtec - pole floats

A slim pole float, plumper pole float and small “dibber”
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett.

With no need to cast far, pole floats are delicate and highly sensitive. They are held on the line with tiny rubber sleeves, like stick floats. Above, we have a slimmer pole float for slow falling baits (top), followed by a plumper bodied float for bottom fishing and last, a small “dibber” ideal for shallow margins. For close range fishing these floats also work a treat with rod and reel setups!

Sliding float

Fishtec - slider float

Sliding floats
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett.

Some species of fish demand a bigger, meatier float to support larger baits and cast further out. Pike and sea fish are good examples – ideal for casting into a wind or perhaps suspending a whole fish as bait.

What tackle do you need for float fishing?

There are many rods marketed for various float fishing tasks these days, but what should you use? Start by thinking about what you’d like to catch.

For general float fishing on rivers, canals and smaller stillwaters, a 12 or 13ft match rod will do nicely. A small reel, loaded with 3-6lb line should match this perfectly (lighter line for roach, dace and bits, or heavier for chub, tench or small carp).

For regular tench and carp fishing, a “power” float rod that will handle reel lines of 6-8lbs is better still. Again, at least 12 foot is preferable.

If you’re wondering why such long rods, the extra length helps in several ways. Most of all, it gives you better control, whether this means reaching out across the current or picking up all the slack line when striking into a fish at distance.

Here’s the thing though – you don’t always need to use a dedicated float or match rod to float fish. For young anglers, or those who find themselves in cramped swims, a shorter rod is often more practical. A light to medium lure of 9-10ft will work fine for a little float fishing.

For a spot of sea or pike fishing, a slightly heavier lure rod, or perhaps a stalking or carp rod is ideal. I like slightly lighter tackle than the big ugly blanks and heavy reels generally shoved onto rod rests, which are a bit bulky to hold for hours. A sensible sized reel loaded with heavy mono or 20-30lb braid will stop most sea fish and pike.

Typical Float Rigs 

There are many, many ways to float fish, but these three basic rigs will stand you in good stead for most situations. As a good general rule, the deeper the water and the more powerful the wind and currents, the larger the float you will require.

Stick float rig with “shirt button” shotting

Stick float rig with “shirt button” shotting

Image source: Fishtec

This is a typical rig for trotting a river. The evenly spaced shot give a gradual, even fall of the hookbait. The same principle often works with stillwater rigs – with a string of evenly spaced shot allowing a slow, natural fall of the bait that looks very convincing to the fish.

Bulk shot rig

Bulk shot rig

Image source: Fishtec

If you want to get down to the bottom quicker – because it’s deep, or you want to prevent tiddlers from pinching your bait on the way down – a bulk of shot is the answer. Notice how most of the weights are bunched together, just 18” from the hook. This is a pole rig, but the same is true of all float rigs – and if you begin with a string of evenly spaced shot (as in example one), you can always slide them down the line to form a bulk weight if conditions change on the day.

Sliding float rig

Sliding float rig

Image source: Fishtec

For deeper waters and bigger fish, a sliding float is a great idea. As the name suggests, this setup allows the float to slide up the line (unlike a “fixed” float). This means you can fish depths longer than the rod much more easily without casting problems.

We’ve shown a large float for sea fishing here, but the same principle works for very deep venues where you want to catch roach, tench, bream and other fish. You simply use a bulk of split shot rather than the bullet – and a giant waggler float rather than a bung.

Finer points of float fishing 

Fishtec - pike caught on sliding float

A pike on the sliding float. Don’t assume that float fishing is just for the small stuff!
Image courtesy of Dom Garnett.

When float fishing, it always pays to pay attention to the little details! Here are three key things you can do to instantly improve your float fishing:

1. Dip that tip!

Fish are not always prepared to pull inches of float underwater. In fact, many will let go if they detect too much resistance. Dot your tip down as low as is practically possible (as little as 2-3mm!) for best performance.

2. Include a tell tale shot

The “tell tale” shot is a tiny weight, usually positioned six inches or less from the hook. This tiny shot is crucial because when a fish takes the bait, the weight also moves and gives you immediate bite indication. Keep your ‘tell tale’ tiny (size 8-12) and close to the hook!

3. Avoid losing weight

Shot can easily ping off while you’re fishing and will need replacing. Cylindrical weights called “styls”, often sold as “Stotz” come off the line less easily and can be a better choice than traditional shot.

Further float fishing tips

  • Float fishing is an excellent way to test the depth. This is a vital skill to suss out where to fish on any water. Doing this properly makes a huge difference – you want your float set so that the bait is just touching the bottom at first, or just off if you’re trotting a river.
  • It’s usually cheaper to buy floats in bulk when you’re starting out. Mine tend to be bought in twos or threes so I always have spares, but bulk deals are often the best value. Fishtec sells sets of Middy Wagglers for under a tenner.
  • Use a float adapter (above) when waggler fishing and you can change floats in an instant should conditions change.
  • Always hold the rod when float fishing for faster biting fish. If you put the rod down, you’re not in a position to react instantly.
  • Bites don’t always mean the float sinking out of sight. If the float lifts, or “takes a walk” sideways, you may well have a bite too, so strike! You will sometimes get line bites from fish like carp though – where the float behaves peculiarly – and you’ll need to wait for a “proper” bite.
  • As a general rule, it’s often best to use a float that is slightly heavier than needed. This way, you needn’t strain to cast far enough. Rather than casting onto the heads of the fish, it’s often better to cast a bit “too far” and bring the float back carefully.
  • Always stay alert and fish positively. Feed bait and cast often to get more bites and explore your swim fully. An Airbomb mid-air baiting device won’t spook the fish.

A beginner’s guide to float fishing infographic

Read more from Dom Garnett

You can catch more from our blogger every week in the Angling Times, or at his site www.dgfishing.co.uk where you’ll find his blog and various books, including Canal Fishing: A Practical Guide and his cracking collection of fishing tales Crooked Lines.