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By Jonn Graham, Central Illinois Fishing Guide & Owner of Warrior Jigs

Jonn Graham float-n-fly Jonn Graham float-n-fly Jonn Graham float-n-fly Jonn Graham float-n-fly Jonn Graham float-n-fly Jonn Graham float-n-fly

Sometimes, when it comes to fishing, the simplest technique proves to be the most valuable. Techniques designed to target one species of fish are equally effective for others. Such is the case with the float-n-fly. Simple and deadly on cold water bass. The following is a comprehensive look at this unlikely bass technique that any and all bass fanatics should consider adding to their arsenal.

The float-n-fly first gained notoriety in the great state of Tennessee. About ten years ago, anglers in the Volunteer state began to use what was essentially a panfish technique to lure winter bronzebacks. The technique caught on slowly at first, but now is recognized across the country as a deadly technique when water temps. are down-right chilly. While many regard the float-n-fly as a technique relegated to deep, clear lakes, I have found this approach to be especially deadly in rivers as well.

First off, a little information concerning the act of fishing for smallmouth bass during the cold, winter months. Smallmouth bass are amazingly easy to catch during the winter months if anglers possess a little bit of knowledge. For instance, in our local streams, most smallies head to deep water in late October or early November. These bass normally stake their claims to these wintering areas and stay put until April rolls around. These wintering areas usually are at least four feet deep and are characterized by little or no current. In some respects, smallmouth during this time are said to be in a form of hibernation called hibernaculum. While not actually “sleeping” like a bear, these smallmouths are experiencing a very slow metabolic and feeding rate. What is great for a bronzeback addict like me is the fact that even though these riverine smallies are sluggish, they are still very catchable! I tell many anglers that it boils down to one thing during the winter months – find the fish and the rest will take care of itself.

So what is the float-n-fly, and why does it shine when other cold-water techniques fail? In its simplest form, the float-n-fly is the act of suspending a hair jig under a float. As you might guess, there is a little more to it than that, but in essence that is what the float-n-fly is all about. The whole technique boils down to three main components:

1. The type and size of hair jig used
2. The type of float needed
3. The type of rod needed to execute the technique

Let’s dissect these three main components and the way these three pieces of equipment work in a symbiotic relationship to provide for proper execution of this exciting technique.

Let’s begin with taking a look at the business end of this rig – the jig. First of all, any old hair jig really won’t do! Float-n-fly jigs are tied with craft hair, which is actually a synthetic material that is really not hair at all. If you are not familiar with craft hair, do you remember the troll dolls that were so popular years ago? These little dolls were adorned with wild looking hair in all colors. Well, that hair is craft hair and is actually how Charlie Nuckols (credited with the advent of the float-n-fly for bass) came up with idea of taking this wild hair and adorning it on a small, lightweight jighead. What the late Charlie Nuckols found out is that this synthetic material possessed incredibly, subtle, minnow-like movements in the water. In fact, it possessed just the right amount of movement to perfectly imitate the slow, lethargic movements of a forage minnow during the winter months. The story goes that Mr. Nuckols won numerous winter tournaments on his local deep, clear water lakes before anglers finally caught on to what he was doing.

Float-n-fly jigs are relatively small – usually measuring one to two inches. They are tied very sparsely, which means very little actual hair is used. A sparse hair jig provides for more movement of the individual fibers. A float-n-fly jig tied with too much hair will just look like a solid mass under the water and will fail to duplicate a small minnow or shad. Most jigs are tied on a 1/16- or 1/8-oz jighead and utilize a #1 or #2 size hook. I have fooled with many different sized jigheads and have found that a 1/48-oz jighead is just perfect for our relatively shallow flows. In addition, the jighead should be one that will allow the bait to hang horizontally in the water. This is crucial! A jig that hangs vertically in the water will fail to duplicate a bait fish. The jigs I utilize possess what I call a minnow head. Triangular in shape, this jighead always allows for a horizontal presentation. When it comes to hair color, I have found that many different color combinations seem to ring the dinner bell. I prefer a white/baby blue combination with a very small amount of tinsel strips tied into the jig as well. Another color that is a little “wild”, but seems to work is purple, chartreuse, and white. I must say that color seems to be of small importance. Jig size and presentation warrant the most importance.

Now, let’s talk about floats (or affectionately called bobbers by many). While any old float could provide success, an angler would be wise to select the “proper” float. From my own experiences and discussion with some of the best float-n-fly anglers on the continent, I have come to the conclusion that a 1 inch, weighted, fixed float is prime. Round in shape and usually made of hard foam, these floats are very cheap and easy to locate. The key to these floats is the small lead ring located on the bottom of the float. This lead provides many advantages. For one, the weighted float lends itself to longer casts, which, in turn, leads to more water covered per cast. Secondly, the weighted float ensures that the float will sit in a vertical fashion on the surface of the water. The reason this fact is so vital will be revealed later in the article. These lead-enhanced floats are built just like the plastic, round floats you used as a child. You push the top of the float and a small piece of wire extends from the bottom of the float. When you are rigging your float, make sure to only wrap your line two or three times around the bottom connector. There is so need to attach the line to the top of the float.

Moving on, it becomes important to discuss the type of rod that lends itself to proper execution of the float-n-fly technique. First off, a spinning rod and reel are a must! Secondly, the spinning rod should be at least seven feet in length, with an eight- to nine-footer being ideal. I use an 8.5-footer that is custom made using a St. Croix blank specially designed for the float-n-fly. The long rod should be parabolic in action, much like a “noodle rod.” When it comes to spinning reels, an angler would be best to match the long rod to a larger spinning reel. A larger spinning reel possesses a larger spool, which, in turn will provide nice, long, smooth casts. Spool up with six pound line (clear or light green monofilament or a copolymer), and you are set to go!

Now that we have covered all the equipment bases, let’s discuss the proper float-n-fly presentation. Winter smallies respond to this presentation due to its ability to exactly mimic the actions or movements of a cold water baitfish. Because of this, the angler needs to make sure not to “over work” the jig suspended below the float. First off, make sure to adjust your float often to locate the exact depth where the smallies are presiding. Normally in a stream, the bronzebacks are huddled very close to the bottom. I normally try to adjust my depth until I am fairly sure my float-n-fly jig is just inches to a foot off the bottom of the wintering den that I am fishing. Make very sure that your jig is not hanging or bumping the bottom.

Many anglers new to this system think the float-n-fly is a sedentary technique. Simply cast the rig out and let the current move it downstream through a likely smallmouth haunt. This is not the case! While you may experience limited success with the sedentary approach, an angler will strike brown fish paydirt if he learns how to “activate” the tiny hair jig. “Working” the jig is very important and is accomplished with a two pronged approach. First, anglers need to keep the amount of slack line from the tip of their rod out to their float at a minimum. Once that is accomplished, then the float-n-fly fisherman needs to jiggle the tip of his rod, which, in turn, will cause the float to lightly bounce up and down on the surface of the water. This is where the weighted float comes in handy. The weight at the bottom allows the angler the opportunity to “bounce” the float without the float going under the water. The act of bouncing the float causes the jig to ever so slightly jiggle up and down. This up and down motion causes the jig’s hair to undulate every so slightly – exacting the movements of a struggling, cold-water baitfish. Now, this is a very delicate process and practice is the only way to get the “touch” so to speak.

In order to completely sum up the float-n-fly, a few final points must be expressed. This technique is definitely a cold water technique. I do not even begin to employ it until the water temp drops below 50 degrees. It seems to really come into its own when water temps are below 45 degrees. When the water is so cold that nothing else seems to work, that is when the float-n-fly shines. Also, the float-n-fly is, without a doubt, a clear water presentation. If the stream or lake you are fishing does not have at least a foot of water visibility, then don’t expect the float-n-fly to be the best option. The small, undulating hair jig does not give off any scent or vibration cues to the fish. The cue that the angler is banking on is the visual cue. If the bass can’t see the bait, chances are they will not eat it.

When a smallmouth does decide to dine on the float-n-fly it is important that the angler knows how to handle the situation. Most of the time when a bronzeback takes the float-n-fly jig, the float will go straight down under the water. When this happens, DO NOT SET THE HOOK! If you have the long rod, then simply raise the rod, tighten the line, and begin playing the fish. Keep in mind that the long rod will be your shock absorber between your line and the fish. Setting the hook hard normally results in pulling the tiny hair jig away from the bass.

In conclusion, the float-n-fly, while widely accepted as a panfish rig, is equally deadly on cold water bass. Not only is it effective, but very simple and enjoyable to fish. Who does not enjoy watching a float sink under the water knowing that a feisty smallmouth is at the other end of the line? The long rod makes a twelve-inch bass feel like a whale. The only downfall is that proper float-n-fly jigs are very hard to find. I have an excellent supplier whose prices are right and whose jigs are second to none. If you are interested, e-mail me at and I will help you get a handful of them. Until then, get out and chase those winter bass. A few days of above-average temps will have those smallies chomping at the bit. I know I will be hitting my local flows as much as possible. And you can bet I will have my float-n-fly ready!

If you are looking for some great stream smallmouth instruction (float-n-fly included), then Camp Smallmouth is for you! Give me a call at 309-399-7055 and we can tailor a day to your desires and needs.


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© 2018 Fish The Fox. All Rights Reserved. | "Fox River Deadfall" artwork by Paul Turnbaugh. Used with permission.