There is nothing like the rush of watching a bobber dip below the surface. The excitement when a bobber goes under, mixed with the unknown of what type and size fish is making it happen, is what hooked me on fishing in the first place. Some anglers might turn their noses up at the apparent simplicity of float fishing, but it can be much more technical than dunking worms with youngsters. While it has been the gateway method for countless anglers, bobbers and bobber techniques have evolved over time. They still play an integral role in my fishing more than 30 years after first picking up a rod.
My earliest angling memories gather around the annual children’s trout derby in my hometown of Milford, Connecticut. Every fourth Saturday in April, on what always seemed a raw and soggy morning, my dad and I dug worms from the backyard compost pile before walking down the street to claim our spot along the crowded duck pond. On the business end of my push-button Zebco combo was a snelled Eagle Claw hook under a classic red-and-white bobber. When the air horn blared at 6 a.m., an armada of plastic floats smacked the shallow water and I zeroed-in on mine for the telltale twitch from a freshly stocked trout on the other end.
When I was turned on to snapper blues a few years later, my bobber fishing really hit its stride. After school on autumn afternoons, friends and I rode our bikes to the town dock and deployed minnow traps filled with scraps of white bread. Within minutes, there were enough spearing and killies darting around inside to bait our hooks. Then, we marveled at the vicious attacks from baby bluefish that pulled our bobbers under the brackish water. Float-fishing for snappers was good fun at the time and something I look forward to again when my daughter is old enough to join me.
A baseball-sized bobber played a key role in my first encounter with a largemouth bass large enough to be proud of. Young and naïve, I remember sneaking onto a private golf course with a friend and doubting him that any bass in the small pond would be able to take down the live sunfish we were using as bait. It felt good to be wrong when a bucket-mouth pushing 5 pounds swallowed my sunny and towed the bobber around like the barrel scene in Jaws before dragging it clear under the surface.
The continued progression of my connection to bobbers was an unexpected outcome of taking up fly-fishing. As my uncle taught me how to drift nymph patterns for educated trout in the Farmington River, he clipped an orange football-shaped piece of foam on my tapered leader. Though many fly purists rebrand them as “strike indicators,” bobbers in their simplest form they most certainly are. I learned how to track these small floats in swift riffles and to set the hook on the slightest tick upstream that signaled contact with bottom or a trout inhaling my fly.
One thing all of these bobbers from my past had in common was their fixed position to the fishing line. Fixed floats are great for detecting hits high in the water column, but they limit an angler’s presentation and casting distance when there are more than a few feet between the hook and bobber. What if an angler wants to present an offering and detect hits well below the surface? For the last several years, I have been experimenting with a clever float-fishing technique. Doing so has opened my eyes to a new way of targeting fish suspended throughout the water column, in any depth, and has helped me land some memorable catches along the way.
A reservoir near my home has served as a perfect proving ground for my newfound interest in slip bobbers since I first saw one in action there about 10 years ago. It’s a deep body of water swarming with trout, bass, and walleye that gorge on a rich population of landlocked alewives. When I started fishing there, I had little idea of what I was doing and my catch rates backed that up. I did a lot of observing of reservoir regulars catching good fish under peculiar-looking floats. These weren’t the conventional bobbers I was accustomed to; they casted well for a float and had a hollow core that allowed them to slide or “slip” to a predetermined location on the line. The bait fisherman in me was sold.
Two vital components of the free-sliding slip bobber system are the bobber stop and bead—this combo is what stops the bobber at the desired depth the angler chooses to target. The most common type of bobber stop is a fluorescent Dacron knot that comes pre-tied on a short section of plastic tubing. When purchasing a slip bobber, you’ll typically find them in the packaging along with some small plastic beads. To set the bobber stop, thread the tubing on your fishing line to the preferred position, slip the knot off the tube towards the rod tip, slide the tube back off the line, and properly discard it. Next pull the tag ends of the Dacron to tighten the knot and trim the excess. You are left with a low-profile bobber stop that can run through the guides and on to the spool, and can also be moved up and down the line if you want to change your target depth.
A small plastic bead is threaded on next as a buffer to ensure the bobber doesn’t slide over the stopper knot. After the bead, string on a slip bobber of your choice. They come in a wide range of colors, shapes, and sizes for different situations. For my reservoir fishing, I prefer a tall, slender bobber I can see from afar with lead built in the bottom that aids casting distance. Below the bobber you can add lead or tungsten in the form of a split shot or egg sinker, which helps pull your offering down to the preset depth. The split shot also prevents the bobber from riding down to the hook when reeling in, or you can add a small barrel swivel for the same effect and attach a short leader.
Once the rig hits the water after a cast, the weight of the bait and lead pulls the line through the slip bobber until it meets the bobber stop and—voilà—your offering is suspended right at the predetermined zone. One of the perks of this method is that you can set the bobber stop just under the surface or 100 feet deep—the only limitation is the depth of the body of water you are fishing. At my local reservoir, a slip bobber allows me to present live shiners inches off the bottom for walleye, 5 to 10 feet below the surface for cruising trout, or somewhere in between for suspended smallmouth bass.
To maximize the slip bobber’s effectiveness, it helps being familiar with the depth of the water you are covering. For example, when targeting walleye, I make an educated guess of how deep the water is in front of me so I can set the bobber stop between a few inches and a few feet off bottom. With any wind or current, your slip bobber will drift and you’ll likely cover a range of depths. A helpful tip is that if your bobber isn’t sitting straight up and down in the water, your offering is probably hung up on bottom and you should adjust the bobber stop accordingly.
Slip floats have more applications than just shiner fishing in still-water—the possible combinations are endless. They can be used to present leeches and night crawlers to walleye, cut-bait to catfish, dead bait to pike, hair jigs to crappie, and eggs to trout or salmon. Slip floats are used by ice anglers on their jigging rods to mark the depth of a hot bite so they can quickly get back in the action after landing a fish. They are also popular amongst lake-run anglers who drift egg sacs and jigs for steelhead. Slip bobbers aren’t the solution for every freshwater situation, but they are another handy tool for the toolbox.
The more I delve into angling, the more I realize the flow of information and learning never stop. Three decades after I started float fishing, here I am still tinkering with bobbers and techniques to improve upon ways of presenting bait to fish. While my target species and angling presentations have changed over time, the thrill of seeing a bobber get pulled beneath the surface has stayed constant. If you’re looking for a new and productive way to get an offering in front of suspended fish, give slip bobbers a try. And, remember, whether fishing for snapper blues with your kids at the town dock or targeting walleye hugging bottom in 20 feet of water, you’re never too old for bobbers.