Avoid These 10 Float Fishing Mistakes

News & Tips: Avoid These 10 Float Fishing Mistakes

No form of angling can match float fishing for providing a mixture of adventure and quality fishing combined with aesthetic and spiritual rewards. Drifting gently in the flow past ever-changing vistas, viewing wildlife in and along shore, listening to the soft music of rippling currents...it's a tonic for the soul. But it's also an effective and practical way to get into great, lightly-tapped fishing waters.

shop bass proI've been fortunate to float fish every kind of flowage from glacier-fed Alaskan rivers to tannin-stained streams in the Southeast. Each offers a unique sensory experience and special appeal. Trout, bass, pickerel, catfish, walleyes, pike, muskies and panfish are some of the species you might catch on a float trip, depending on your location.

But no matter where you float fish, there are pitfalls that can make for poor quality angling and logistical mishaps, sometimes even putting you in dangerous situations. To make sure your float fishing trips are a pleasure rather than an ordeal, you first should do lots of research and planning. Secondly, try to avoid these 10 common mistakes that can put a damper on what should be a rewarding outdoor experience.

#1 — Choosing poor fishing water.
The float fishing method can't work magic. If you don't choose a high-quality angling river to start with, you're likely to have poor fishing no matter how far you drift from the take-out point. Inquire with fishery biologists, local game wardens and retail sporting goods stores such as Bass Pro Shops for recommendations.

Besides getting the scoop on a good flowage, also try to pin down some specific sections that are especially productive. Fishing can vary dramatically from stretch to stretch. In general, I like to avoid sections with slow, unbroken water. The areas above dams are often fairly poor as well, with little current pushing you along. And you'll also have to portage around the dam.

What You Should Do. For the best results, choose a section with lots of riffles and maybe some minor rapids to break the flow and provide food, oxygen and cover for gamefish as well as good spots to get out and wade fish. Topographic maps and Internet sites like Google Maps can help you pin down potential rivers and specific stretches to try.

#2 — Choosing too long of a float. How much river to float requires careful consideration. I once bit off too long of a stretch and a friend and I wound up paddling downstream in a river we'd never seen before on a moonless night for two hours after the sun went down. We were lucky no major disaster occurred. But it was not a pleasant experience.

Always err on the side of too short of a section rather than too long. Rivers don't rush straight downstream like they appear to on road maps. What looks like a five hour trip could well be an all-day one. Study maps carefully to help plot out how many "river miles" the float is.

What You Should Do. For a half-day trip, 4-6 river miles is usually a good distance to cover. For a full-day adventure, you can bite off 8-12 miles.

#3 — Not packing emergency gear. Hopefully you'll never need it. But having emergency gear on float trips is a good idea.

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Always pack a fly and spin tackle on your floats (if necessary).

What You Should Do. Bring a complete change of clothes packed in a waterproof bag, matches or a lighter, flashlight, extra water, cell phone and enough food for an unplanned night on the river. A compact space blanket is a good idea, too, as is a first aid kit, extra paddle and boat repair kit.

#4 — Not bringing the right fishing tackle. I got a good example of the price you pay for making this mistake one day when I only packed a spinning outfit.

Shortly downstream from the put-in point, my companion and I found a huge bed of spawning bluegills in a back eddy. The finicky fish ignored my lures for the most part. But my partner, who had shown more foresight, pulled out the fly rod he also packed along with his spinning gear. The panfish devoured the sponge rubber flies that he gently dropped into their shallow spawning beds.

What You Should Do. Since that experience I've always packed both fly and spin tackle on most floats. A lightweight spinning rod of 5 1/2-6 1/2 feet with a reel spooled with 4-8 pound line will do for most lure fishing. For fly fishing I usually pack an 8-9 foot rod with a reel taking a 5-7 weight forward floating line and leader of 7-10 feet tapering to a 4-8 pound tippet for smallmouths, pickerel and panfish. If trout are the quarry I might go slightly lighter.

#5 — Picking the wrong boat for your needs. Several types of craft are usually used for float fishing — jon boats, canoes, rubber rafts and dories. Rafts and dories are fine choices, but they're used mostly by outfitters. 

What You Should Do. Jon boats are comfortable, stable and allow you to move around a bit. They hold lots of gear and are good for family outings. Canoes are easier to maneuver, though, when negotiating rapids and faster to paddle if you encounter a slow stretch. But they're easier to tip over than jon boats. Choose these if you have some experience using them and plan to paddle through certain stretches.

#6 — Not paying attention to boat handling. I have to confess this is a mistake I still haven't totally overcome. When a prime piece of water cries out for a cast, I'm often compelled to make it, even if it's my turn to be steering the boat and a rock or riffle is looming a short distance ahead. Usually these mistakes have just yielded a jarring bump and another small dent in the boat. But in fast water or heavy rapids, the outcome could be more severe and potentially dangerous.

What You Should Do. Always be sure one person is in charge of handling the boat at any time. They should paddle the boat so it avoids rocks in slow stretches and have the other person join in with a second paddle if a serious rapid has to be negotiated. And if you're taken by surprise and see that you're going to hit a logjam or rock, quickly warn the other person so they aren't taken by surprise and jarred out of their seat.

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Even though you're "float fishing," that doesn't mean you shouldn't stop along some areas to find hot spots.

Quite often both people can fish as the boat simply drifts freely in the current. But when attention is required, someone should be in charge. Besides the potential danger, the noise from bumping into rocks scares nearby fish!

#7 — Choosing dangerous waters. This is a sure way to ruin a float trip. Even if you don't capsize trying to shoot the rapids, you may worry about that possibility enough that it puts a damper on the whole trip. Plenty of good fishing can be found on safe stretches with just riffles and minor rapids to negotiate.

What You Should Do. Always try to talk with someone who knows the float you plan to take before embarking. Find out about any dams or whitewater stretches and when portaging is required. Also tell someone about when you expect to finish the trip for a safety measure.

#8 — Not stopping enough. This is common mistake among novices. After all, it is called "float fishing" isn't it?

Casting as the boat drifts downstream is certainly the major way you'll catch fish on a float trip. But this shouldn't be your only approach. Often you'll fool some of the heftiest fish by stopping and probing prime areas more thoroughly.

What You Should Do. You can either anchor out and fish from the boat or pull the craft onto shore or an island and wade fish. I've taken over a dozen smallmouth bass from a single spot this way. If I'd simply cast to the area as the boat drifted past, only one or perhaps two fish could have been caught.

The key is the pick the best spots for such thorough probing. You don't want to waste time stopping just anywhere or you'll never get to the take-out point. But some places just have all the right habitat conditions to hold good numbers of fish and demand extra time. The best way to discover these is by making the float more than once and marking on your topo or in a notebook or GPS unit where these prime fish-holding lies are located.

#9 —Spooking fish. Often in summer waters are low and glass-clear. While smaller fish may be gullible in this situation, it takes extra care to avoid spooking larger specimens under these circumstances.

What You Should Do. Put indoor/outdoor carpeting on the bottom and gunnels of the boat to help dampen noises. Also be careful not to thump paddles or rods against the boat or slide tackle boxes across the floor. Avoid being spotted by the fish, too, as much as possible. Don't stand up except occasionally, very carefully, to stretch. In a canoe it's usually best to never stand up.

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Don't miss prime fishing time — set up camp along the river (if legal).

Lure and fly presentations should mostly be to the side, away from the boat. Don't cast directly downstream since the lure or fly wouldn't appear natural swimming strongly upstream if it was a wounded minnow or dislodged insect. Lures cast to the side will swing past lots of fish and appear natural and lifelike as if they are struggling but being pushed downstream by the current.

#10 — Missing the prime fishing hours. Too often by the time we get to the river and launch it's an hour or two after sunrise. And just to be sure you're not on the water after dark you might get the take-out point an hour before sunset. That makes for a fun trip, but to be on the water at the very productive times of dawn and dusk consider camping on your next float trip.

What You Should Do. Make sure it's legal to camp along the river, and set up a camping tent about an hour before dark. Then you can probe the water in that area right until darkness. That's often when some of the biggest fish bite. And the next morning you'll be right on the water ready to cast during that magic time of dawn on the river.

This strategy of camping on the river yielded a 5 3/4 pound smallmouth for me on a recent float trip on West Virginia's New River right before dusk in front of our campsite. He nabbed a firetiger crankbait. If I hadn't been camping I'd never have been on the water right as darkness overtook the river and the fish struck. The next morning also produced several hefty fish right at daybreak.

Avoid these 10 common mistakes and I think you'll agree that float fishing is not only an aesthetically appealing way to fish, but also an extremely productive one.