Steelhead can strip a fly reel to it's backing in one run down the stream is one of the most sought after fish with a fly rod and rightfully so. These fish are pound for pound one of the hardest fighting fish I have had the pleasure of fishing for and catching. Steelhead fishing is an absolute addiction for many and has caused a many of restless nights thinking about getting up at the crack of dawn to chase these silver bullets.
There are several techniques that will make you a more successful steelhead fisherman but one of the least utilized methods by fly fishermen is the use of a float. Using a small float or strike indicator is a method used in the great lakes tributaries with great success. To use a float correctly you first must understand what it is to dead drift a fly. Dead drifting for steelhead is something that bait fishermen have done for a long time and have mastered the use of a float. By imitating what bait fishermen do fly fishermen can achieve a dead drift with a fly rod. The trick is related to how far up your leader you put the float and only putting your sinker half way between your fly or flies.
Probably the absolute most important part of dead drifting with a float is learning to correctly mend your fly line. Mending your fly line will keep your fly line from creating drag on your float and moving the fly faster than the current flows. The best way to get a perfect drag is to cast upstream at 11 o'clock then mend your fly line up stream once immediately then let it drift then mend your fly line again when your float gets to 1 o'clock mending your fly line upstream and then let it ride the rest of the way. If you are mending your fly line correctly your fly line should never pull your float faster than the current. It is ok if when you mend your line that you pull the float out of the water slightly. It is very hard to avoid this and doesn't seem to harm the drift of your flies.
Now for one of the best kept tricks when fishing for steelhead with a float is using a two files using a dropper rig. However, some states have regulation on using two flies or more than one hook on a single line. One such state is the state of New York for example which only permits for one fly to be fished. If you are able to use a dropper rig this is the best technique for picking up steelhead under a float. The best way to rig a dropper for fly fishing is to tie your first fly on then to connect a 2 to 3 foot section of tippet to the bend of the hook using a trilene knot to attach the tippet to the bend of the hook. Then simply tie on your second fly to the attached piece of tippet. Using this method of fishing two flies will keep you from getting tangled in your dropper much better than using a dropper loop or attaching your dropper to a tag piece of line off a blood knot.
There are several locations on a river that just scream using a float to keep your flies in front of steelhead at all times. If you look at a piece of water and look at the current that flows through the section of water your fishing look for current breaks. Rocks, logs, or other structure in the river or stream you are fishing causes current breaks to occur and they are easily spotted. These current breaks are key areas for steelhead to stop and rest on their upstream journey. Using a float and dead drifting these current breaks will get you some fantastic results. The best way to dead drift a current break is to cast just above where the current break is originating then mend your line up stream and let your float dead drift through current break. When your float goes under set the hook and hang on.
I have caught more steelhead by using these techniques to fish for steelhead over other techniques such as swing flies, dredging, or other technique. If you master dead drifting with a float you will be a more successful steelhead fisherman. When steelhead aren't willing to chase a streamer or are biting extremely softly using a float will allow you to pick up on these finicky fish. So go out and pick up some floats the next time you head out in search of the mighty steelhead.
Good Luck and Good Fishing!