Float Fishing For Salmon in Ontario Rivers: 5 Expert Tactics

Float fishing for ontario salmon can produce large salmon like this big chinook salmon

Float fishing for salmon is a skill and once learned you can catch ten times more salmon. These are the same tactics and tips that use and that I give to my clients to help them catch more salmon when float fishing.

Float fishing for salmon is simply presenting your bait below a float and then drifting it down the river to the salmon. Float fishing allows you to present your bait in the most natural way possible which can increase the amount of salmon hooked.

Float fishing for salmon well requires that you use the right gear, the right bait, and then knowing how to get a good presentation that looks natural to the fish.

In this article, I will cover all the tactics you will need when float fishing for salmon in Great Lakes rivers.

5 Fundamentals Of Float Fishing For Salmon

There are 5 fundamental or key things you need to get right if you want to catch a lot more salmon in the rivers.

  1. Use the right gear – Includes the right leader setup.
  2. Control the speed of your bait.
  3. Get your bait into the strike zone with depth finding.
  4. Cover the water effectively.
  5. Use the right bait.

I will discuss all of these in more detail below.

Most Important Guide Tip When Float Fishing For Salmon

As you may already know, I have guided thousands of anglers over the last 20 years and I have been able to pinpoint the difference between a guy that catches ten salmon while his buddy or another angler on the river only catches one or even none.

The best advice I can give any angler who is struggling to catch fish is to do all five fundamentals right and not think that any of them are not important.

When my clients and I catch 10, 20, or even 30 salmon or steelhead while float fishing and another angler asks us how we did, their next question is almost always, “What bait were you using?”

I can almost guarantee that if they are not catching any fish when we are catching lots of fish, the bait is rarely the problem.

Think of it this way.

You have the best rod, the best reel, the best line, you use my leader setup, and you even have the best bait, if you don’t control the speed of the bait and you drag that bait faster than all the particles drifting through the current at the fishes feeding level, few if any salmon will bite it because it look s out of place going faster than everything else. So then it’s not your bait, it’s your speed.

Or if your speed is correct, but your bait is way over the head of the salmon, and out of the strike zone nothing will bite it because it’s out of sight or out of their comfort zone.

Or maybe you have a great bait, but you put it on a giant hook that the fish can see.

Or maybe you have the perfect hook and the best bait, but the hook is tied to a leader line that is so thick the fish see it and ignore it.

All of this matters!!

Everything has to be perfect or you will struggle to catch salmon when float fishing. If one thing is wrong it can be the reason why you can’t catch fish. The same is true when float fishing for steelhead and when float fishing for trout, which I discuss in detail on my other info website about trout and steelhead tactics. See at www.troutandsteelhead.net

If I am catching more fish than all the other guys on the river, it’s not likely because of my bait, it’s because I’m doing every right!

Float Fishing Gear For Salmon Fishing In Rivers Of Ontario

It’s important to use the right gear if you want to catch more salmon when you are float fishing.

Float fishing for salmon requires long rods that are heavy enough for big salmon and reels with a good smooth drag system. You will also need a strong line that is good for float fishing. You will need a leader setup that allows you to present your bait effectively.

Best Float Fishing Rods For Salmon

I have been fishing for salmon since I was 13 years old and back then I used a 7-foot rod called the Berkely power rod, hey, I was a kid. In a river full of salmon I was lucky to catch 1 or 2.

The sad thing is anglers, adults, still do this and like me back then they rarely catch many salmon. I have seen hundreds of rods break under the load of a hard-running salmon simply because anglers use the wrong rods and then set them up wrong.

A long rod designed for salmon and steelhead of the Great Lakes will act like a big shock absorber that protects lighter leaders. Lighter leaders will allow you to hook more salmon!

The long rod also gives you more control of your line and your float, which gives you a better presentation, and that will also help you catch more salmon when float fishing.

If you are not catching any salmon or only 1 or 2 salmon a day is OK with you then go ahead and use a 7-foot rod. But if you would prefer to start catching 10 or 20 or more salmon a day then get yourself a rod that works much better when float fishing for salmon.

Best Float Fishing Rods for Great Lakes Salmon:

  • 13-foot medium-light Lamiglas “The Closer” Centerpin Rod – A high end rod for serious anglers
  • 13-foot Raven RPX Float Rod – If you are looking for the best rod for salmon and steelhead fishing this is up there with very expensive custom rods making it ones of the best you can buy.
  • Raven IM8 Float Rod Model RV14-IM8SR – A long rod for big rivers – A have used the Raven IM8 for many years and it’s one of my favorite rods for salmon and steelhead.
  • Lamiglas Redline HS CenterSpin Float Rod 12-foot Medium, model number HS12CS – This rod can be used with a spinning reels or a Centerpin reel – A great rod under $200.00
  • Raven IM6 Float Rod – Model # RV116-IM6SR – One of the best inexpensive mid-range rods for Great Lakes salmon and steelhead.
  • Fenwick HMX Salmon & Steelhead Spinning Rod – A very popular rod for Great Lakes salmon and steelhead anglers who want a rod for both float fishing and for casting lures. It’s a bit too short if all you want to do is float fish. I recommend Medium 10’6″ long 8-15lbs model # HMX106M-MFS-2 – Aprox. $99.00
  • Lamiglas X-11 Salmon and Steelhead Spinning Rod – The 10’6 Medium fast rod – Model LX 106 MLS are good options for float fishing and lure fishing with a spinning reel for salmon fishing around the Great Lakes. Aprox. $99.00

The Best Salmon Reels For Float Fishing

When it comes to spinning reels for float fishing for salmon, you want one that holds plenty of line for those big long runs and you want one with a smooth drag system. You also want a reel where the line comes off smoothly to allow for a better presentation.

These are some reels that have been tested over and over again by salmon anglers and are proven to be great reels.

  • Shimano Stradic FL Spinning Reel – This is a high-end reel that is perfect for salmon fishing – model number STC3000XGFL or for bigger rivers go with the ST4000XGFL
  • Pflueger Supreme XT Spinning Reel: If you are looking for the most inexpensive reel that you can get away with, this is it. It sells for about $89.00.
  • Pflueger President Spinning Reel is for those on a really tight budget. It sells for about $60.00

Best Centerpin Reels For Salmon Fishing

I have been a fan of Centerpin reels for float fishing since the day I saw one over 30 years ago and for good reason, they simply work better than any other reel. If you want a reel that will give the best presentation which will increase your catch percentage the Centerpin can not be beaten.

I would bet based on my many years of guiding guys with both types of reels that the Centerpin reel will help you land 2 to 3 times more fish. In fact, I have seen many days when one angler wants to use his spinning reel and his partner wants to use a Cneterpin, and sometimes the Centerpin will outfish the spinning reel 5 to 1.

You simply can not beat the Centerpin ability to get you the best drift and presentation possible.

But don’t just buy any Centerpin reel because there are a ton of crappy cheap knock-off reels online that will cause you all kinds of problems and prevent you from catching fish.

The best Centerpin reels for salmon fishing are:

I discuss more on how to Centerpin fish like a pro and catch the most fish possible on my other website.

The Best Line For Salmon Fishing

When float fishing for salmon you will need a line that is strong but thin and one that is light enough that it is buoyant. Thin light lines that are buoyant are important when float fishing for salmon yet most anglers go way too heavy which causes problems in their presentation.

The best line for float fishing for salmon is 10-pound Raven high viz yellow mainline, which actually breaks closer to 16 pounds but is still light enough that it allows for a good presentation. I only use monofilament lines on my reels.

I use this line on my Centerpin reels when fishing small to medium-sized rivers.

When float fishing with spinning reels, I like the 8-pound Sufix Elite Premium Mono in hi viz-yellow. It is a thicker line so I go a bit lighter.

The 10-pound Raven mainline is 0.28mm / 0.011″ and the Suffix Elite line is also 0.28mm in diameter.

Are Braided Lines Good For Salmon Fishing?

You could also use braided lines but I find that anglers new to the sport will break off more fish on braided lines due to them having zero stretch. Anglers that are experienced in fighting big fish will find braiding lines offer the advantage of better hook-sets when setting the hook at a long distance away.

Some braided lines will absorb water and become less buoyant over time so I don’t use them for this reason.

I also only use mono lines so that I can use them through the winter months for steelhead. Braided lines can freeze and cause problems when the temperatures are below freezing.

What Pound Line For Salmon Fishing Is Best?

Just because salmon can be 30 or 40 pounds doesn’t mean that you need a 30-pound line. In fact, heavy lines are bad when presenting your float and bait.

The reason for this is simple. The leader is your weakest link so you only need to use a line that is slightly heavier than your leader.

If your leader is only 10-pounds then the line on the reel only needs to be 2 to 4 pounds heavier than your leader, so 12 to 14 pounds is perfect.

The best all-purpose line for salmon fishing on small to mid-sized rivers is 12 to 15-pound Sufix Elite monofilament line, but for bigger faster rivers, I will upsize to a 15 to 17 to pound line.

Sufix Elite line is strong, thin, yet still supple and is good for all methods of salmon fishing.

When casting lures, 12 to 17-pound line on your reel is best.

A braided line is also a good option for casting lures. When I use braid, I use 25 to 30 pounds because I prefer the thickness of it which is close to about 10 pound mono.

If you are fishing the shoreline of the lake, or from the pier, or when fishing very large rivers like the Niagara River going up to a 14-pound line is an option, but I would never use a 14-pound line on most small to mid-sized great lakes rivers.

Caution: Line label ratings are rarely accurate on both the line for your reel and the leader. One brand’s 10-pound line might break closer to 20 pounds while another brand might break at exactly 10 pounds.

It’s always best to go by the diameter size when using lines and leaders because a brand that has a 10-pound line that breaks at 10 pounds might be as thin as 0.22mm / .008″ (which is pretty accurate) whereas a brand that breaks at 20 pounds might have a thicker diameter of 0.30mm or 0.012″. THIS IS COMMON!

It’s the reason why you will see below that I recommend five and 6-pound leaders from a company called Drennan for salmon. The drennan 5-pound test line breaks closer to 10 pounds, and I have caught hundreds of salmon on it. 6-pound Drennan is closer to 12 pounds.

However, most other 5-pound leaders from other brands would easily break because they are closer to a true breaking strength of 5 or 6 pounds which is too light for salmon.

Best Leader For Float Fishing For Salmon.

The leader that you use needs to be small enough that the salmon can’t see it so they will bite your bait readily, but it also needs to be strong enough that the salmon won’t keep breaking you off.

I only use fluorocarbon leader and I use it because it is less visible to the fish and more abrasion resistant than monofilament leaders.

The best leader size for float fishing for Ontario salmon is 10 pounds, which is around 0.22mm to .23mm. This size is perfect for most small—to medium-sized rivers. For larger rivers around the Great Lakes region, I will go up to a 12-pound leader, which is about 0.26mm.

For very large rivers like the Niagara River, or when casting lures, I will go up to 15 or 16-pound leader.

The 10-pound and 12-pound Seaguar STS Trout & Steelhead leader line is a really good leader option for smaller rivers.

The 15-pound STS would be good for dirty water, very large rivers, or very fast rivers.

This line gets great rivers and is well-liked by trout, steelhead, and salmon anglers

Other great leaders and sizes that I use and recommend are:

The Best Floats For Float Fishing

I only use floats with a pointed top. These types of float help you detect subtle bites but they also help you control your speed and help you with depth finding.

I use and recommend the 6-gram Eagle Claw Balsa Steelhead Floats or the Raven FM Balsa Floats for most rivers under 12 feet deep. For bigger rivers, you might want to upsize to the 8-gram float.

All The Best Gear For Salmon Fishing In Ontario

This is only a portion of the gear that you need for salmon fishing. To see everything that I recommend for salmon fishing around the Great Lakes, check my page Best Gear For Salmon Fishing.

For all the gear that I use on the river that is not specific to salmon, like waders, boots, jackets, release gear, etc. Check out my page, Best River Fishing Gear.

Float Fishing Leader For Salmon Fishing

My standard salmon rig for float fishing
My standard salmon rig when float fishing for Great Lakes salmon.

It is important to have a leader setup for salmon that allows you to get a great presentation.

This is the leader setup that I use when guiding and fishing for salmon and it has worked better than any other leader setup I have tried.

This leader setup uses what is called a shot line so that it can be used with any color or type of mainline without the salmon seeing it.

This salmon leader is made up of two parts and includes:

  • 2 different leader strengths – 0.26mm for the shot line and 0.22- 0.24mm for the bottom of the leader
  • Swivels – Raven micro swivels or size 8 SPRO Power Swivels work well.
  • Split shots – The best holding shots are SURE SHOTS and I use the AB size
  • Salmon Hooks – The Gamakatsu Octopus Straight Eye Hook in size 6, 8 and size 10. I change hook sizes depending on the size of my bait. I also really like the Raven Specimen Hook in size 10 for smaller baits.

Best Baits For Ontario Salmon

When float fishing in Ontario, I find that the best baits for the salmon are spawn bags, trout beads, plastic worms in pink, red, and brown, and flies.

The Berkley PowerBait Floating Steelhead Worm has been one of my best salmon baits.

I have done very well with flies under a float. There are times when the salmon see roe bags over and over again, and they just stop biting them, they wise up to the fact that there is something wrong with the spawn bags, but they don’t see flies often, and the flies can be my best bait on many days.

My favorite salmon flies include Zug Bugs, something about the shine of the peacock herl drives them crazy some days. I also like prince nymphs, pheasant tail nymphs, woolly buggers, and stoneflies.

Soft and hard trout beads have been a fantastic new bait that is hot for salmon and Great Lakes steelhead right now. Check out my page on salmon fishing with beads for full details, the best colors and sizes, and how I rig them up for the most hook-ups.

Presentation Is The Key To Salmon Fishing

Some anglers say presentation is the key to salmon fishing. However, as I said before, even the best presentation won’t matter much if your leader is too thick, your hook is too big, or your bait is the wrong one.

That’s not to say that presentation isn’t important because it is.

Presentation for salmon consists of speed control, depth control, and covering the water well.

Speed Control When Float Fishing For Salmon

The number one mistake that holds most anglers back from catching the most salmon is something they don’t really understand, and that is speed control.

Your goal when presenting a bait to salmon under a float is to make it look as natural as possible. If your bait is being dragged by the upper current at 8km per hour but down where the fish are feeding, it’s only 4km per hour, so your bait is not looking natural to them, and they will ignore it. It might even spook them and make them stop feeding.

Speed control is the number one reason why two clients will stand side by side in my boat with the exact same setup and the same bait and one client will catch ten times more salmon than the other. One is controlling his speed and the other isn’t.

Float Fishing For Salmon
An angler that keeps his float in the good angle position will catch far more fish than an angler that is in the bad angle position, or one that goes from good to bad throughout the drift.

Without getting into all the details of why this matters, all you really need to know is that you need to use the right floats, and you need to control the angle of the float so that you control your speed both at the surface current and at the bottom current.

You simply hold your float back so that it is slightly tilted upriver towards you and you need to keep it like that through the entire drift. If you perfect this you will catch a lot more fish.

Depth – How Deep To Set You Float

For a lot of anglers, this is difficult, but using my methods it becomes a lot easier to get your bait just off the bottom, which is where most of the fish are.

This is very important because if your bait is too far over their heads they won’t hit it because it’s out of the comfort zone and strike zone, and if your bait is dragging along the bottom they might not see it because it blends in with the rocks. It’s been proven that trout in a river feed downwards only 13% of the time and I would bet that salmon are no different.

To find the bottom first make sure I use a good float, one designed for river fishing and one with a pointed top like the 4 or 6.2 -gram Raven FM Balsa Floats.

I make a cast and hold the float straight up, and if it keeps hard tilting down or keeps bouncing I know I’m on the bottom. If it doesn’t drag or bounce I make it deeper on the next cast and try again. I repeat until I hit the bottom, and once I hit the bottom, I make it one foot shallower so my bait stays off the bottom and in the strike zone.

Covering The Water Effectively

Many anglers drift the same line or same area over and over and do not cover the water well.

Part of covering the water well is positioning yourself at the top of the pool and drifting the float downriver from you. This allows you to control your speed and get better float and leader angles.

I also start my drift in close, usually at the point where I can no longer see the bottom, which is where it’s deep enough. On some shallow and gin-clear rivers I just look for where the water starts to go darker, darker is usually deeper.

From there, I will make a drift, adjust my depth until I find the bottom and then move my float over one foot and repeat. I do this all the way across the river or until I think I have completely covered the entire spot.

Putting It All Together

To effectively float fish for salmon in Ontario you will need to be sure that you have the right rod for the job, A reel with a line that can handle the big salmon, and the right leader setup.

Now add a great bait, and rotate through your baits to find the best one for that day and then start finding the bottom and getting your bait in the strike zone.

Once you figure out where the strike zone is, try hard to control the speed of your bait by controlling the angle of your float and the leader.

The last thing to do is to cover the water effectively and don’t give up.

If you need help with this, the guides at A Perfect Drift Guide Company in Southern Ontario are experts at float fishing for Ontario Salmon.

See my latest article: Bobber Doggin.

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One of my clients with a large Ontario Chinook salmon
One of my clients with a large Ontario salmon he caught using the right methods and bait. Knowing what you are doing will pay off BIG!

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