Float Fishing for Carp - Iain Sorrell
I was weaned on float fishing from the age of 4. Almost everyone growing up in the 60’s & 70’s had an 11-13ft rod, plus a selection of floats designed for a variety of species and water conditions. One day we might be on an early dawn sortie for tench or bream with a float tight up against lily pads or on another day trotting a float down a river in search of roach or dace.
Now, in the post dawn era of the boilie and hair-rig, anglers are more likely to be tucked up in their bivvies waiting on their alarms to signal a bite than staring intently at a small colored blob. Is it the simplicity of the technique that makes float fishing so overlooked for carp or because it’s too often associated (and wrongly!) with catching smaller fish?
So why should you float fish for carp?
Not only is it great fun but also incredibly versatile! If you’ve never tried float fishing it’s a great way to develop key angling skills such as concentration, stealth and observation together with casting and baiting accuracy. Even for the experienced fisherman a couple of float fishing sessions at the beginning of a new season will help hone those skills that have gotten a little rusty during the winter months.
As a technique it allows you to very accurately and quietly position your bait in a specific feeding area. These areas are often ones that carp love to frequent but all too often are overlooked when fishing bottom rigs. In some cases you can even place the bait in front of an individual fish, such as the largest in a group.
A float can be lowered over reeds or into a hole in the weeds right under the rod tip or cast beyond the swim area and then gently pulled back into position. You can fish over any type of bottom without worrying that the lead or bait will get lost in weed, soft silt or a pile of debris. One day you might chose to set up in a particular swim for a longer session or on another remain mobile and carry just a few essential items to target individual fish.
So where do you start?
In Europe competition anglers regularly land carp of 8-18lbs on very light line (1.5-3lbs) but I would suggest starting with something a bit heavier. 6-20lbs will suit almost every possible need here in the USA. Low tests make casting easier and are ideal for clear water and spooky carp but don’t hesitate to go heavier for snaggy or murky water. I find 8-12lb in the softer nylon materials an ideal choice for most carp fishing with a float.
To begin you can successfully use your regular 11-13ft carp rod for most float fishing applications. However a purpose built float rod with a lighter tip action & test curve of 1.5 – 2.5 lb will certainly improve casting accuracy and ‘feel.’ My favorite for carp on the float was specially built by former St Lawrence carp legend Bernie Haines. At 13ft it has a very sensitive tip action and will throw a large float 40-50yds with ease but still has sufficient backbone to put the brakes on 20-30lb carp.
Almost any spinning or fixed spool reel can be used provided it offers a good drag that has been properly set for the rod and line being used. However, a smaller or lighter model will make holding the rod more comfortable over longer periods.
There are two primary options for setting up a float rig. The easiest is a fixed float arrangement where the float is attached at its top and/or bottom by clips, split shot or silicone bands. This set-up is ideal for fishing shallower swims (less than two-thirds of the rod length). Just for clarification, any float attached at the bottom only is known as a ‘waggler’.
The second option allows the float to slide up and down the line through its bottom ring until it meets a ‘stop’ tied on the line. This enables you to cast and fish depths that exceed the length of the rod with ease and also allows the line to be submerged to limit the effect of wind or surface drift. The stop knot is tied using a length of power gum, waxed dental floss or braid. Trim the end down to about ½ inch but if the ‘ring’ on the float is too big then a small bead can be slid on the line to prevent the stop knot sliding through.
There are plenty of floats to choose from but two or three firm favorites will cover most swims and conditions. A 6-8” straight ‘peacock’ float that carries 1-3 BB shot is ideal for shallow, close range fishing. For longer distance casting a ‘driftbeater,’ which has a buoyant body near the base of the float and a long tip, that carries 3-5 AA shot will not only cast well but remain stable in choppy conditions. Modern floats often have some weight built-in (known as ‘loaded’ floats) to minimize the amount that that needs to be attached to the line. You even can adapt your own by tying some lead wire around the base. On rivers, an Avon or similar float where the buoyancy is carried nearer the tip will allow you to run the float downstream with the current. And finally, if you are the creative type then its quite simple, as well as rewarding, to make your own floats from bird or porcupine quills.
Small weights or split shot are attached to the line to ‘cock’ the float and ensure the tip sits just above the water surface and will register any bites. The amount and size of split shot required is often conveniently printed on the side of the float body. They are usually measured by a series of numbers (1,2,3 etc) in lighter weights or letters (BB, AA, SSG etc) for heavier. You can buy these from carp tackle suppliers here in the USA or find suitable alternatives at your local tackle suppliers.
There are lots of good hooks out there and you can probably get by to begin with your regular models. I prefer tying my mainline direct to a straight eyed hook in size 10–6 (the bigger the carp or bait the bigger the hook) but if I’m fishing a heavy mainline and worried about the carp being spooked then a 1-3’ soft braid hook length is the way to go.
Once you’ve attached the required split shot now comes the most important part--correctly adjusting for depth. One of the quickest ways to set the float depth is to add a couple extra heavy shot and cast to your chosen swim. If the float sinks out of sight then move it or the stop further up the line. Likewise if it lays flat then move it down the line until it sits perfectly (don’t forget to remove these extra shot). It’s important not to fall short on this step as making those final little adjustments can make all the difference toward achieving maximum sensitivity in bite detection and successfully hooking fish. On a side note some States ban the use of lead shot under an ounce or so. Fortunately there are plenty of non-toxic alternatives available from North American tackle outlets.
If there is significant surface drift or wind then it pays to sink your main line (and in extreme cases the rod tip). I carry a piece of cloth soaked with some washing liquid solution. A quick wipe on the mainline will remove any grime or grease to help break the surface tension.
One of the more exciting times to float fish is at night. It takes a little more practice and organization to avoid potential tangles etc but its well worth the effort. The key is how to see your float. One option is to set a flashlight to shine horizontally just above the surface of the water so that only the float tip is illuminated. There are also floats which have a battery powered led built into the tip or you can attach a betalight or mini chemilume stick to the float tip with a piece of silicon tube. A word of warning… it can be quite mesmerizing to watch the float tip glowing in the darkness and not recognize that it’s actually dipped below the surface.
Baits & Chumming
My favorite baits for float fishing are sweetcorn or bread. There are plenty of other baits but these two offer an instant appeal that carp find irresistible. One, two or three sweetcorn kernels on the hook are ideal and sometimes I’ll even wrap some breadflake around the hook as well if the fish seem a little bit more choosy. You can also try your choice of particles (chick peas, kidney beans etc), pastes or a variety of live items such as mealworms, maggots and earth worms. Let your imagination run wild! Imitation baits from Enterprise or Mimik can also be used in combination with the real thing and will add a touch of color or help critically balance the hook. If I‘m fishing holes in the weed then just one kernel or bean often works best as carp seem less suspicious of a single hook bait surrounded by a small scattering of free samples.
If you wish you can still fish a hair rig under the float with any variety of baits but without any bolt action from a heavy lead weight it seems rather pointless. In most cases even the spookiest carp will happily pick up a single bait and all it takes is a little more concentration to watch the float movement and set the hook!
If fish are in the swim and feeding well then simply introducing a handful of bait after each fish capture is usually sufficient. However when the action is really hot or I need to get them going a bit more I’ll make up a ground bait mix that will entice but not necessarily feed them. Breadcrumb, grits or ground oats makes a nice fine ‘carpet’ and will retain the carp interest without them losing their appetite. You can also mix in some hemp, creamed corn and condensed milk for some extra added attraction. It’s very rare that I feel the need to add flavors preferring to leave that to the hook bait.
As with any form of carp fishing, accuracy is paramount to success. This applies to casting out and positioning the baited hook as well as introducing free samples and groundbait (chum). Careful preparation will allow you to throw (underarm is best) a few small balls of ground bait to land within a few inches of the float and a catapult works well for firing out particles etc. With a little practice you’ll soon be able to place them tight around the float each & every time.
One issue with certain baits will be nuisance fish such as bull heads, sunfish, shiners etc. Some times you have to persevere with these interlopers stealing your bait , but when they suddenly stop taking that’s when the carp have most likely moved in and displaced them, so get ready! The bottom line is that you need to be confident that the carp will show up and stick with it.
Most people will recognize free-lining as fishing with just a baited hook. However you can also attach a float (with the shot bunched tight around the float) to help achieve greater casting distance and bite indication.
Bite detection & strike
In many cases you’ll be watching the float tip sitting motionless and the next moment wondering where it went… After a particularly long, quiet period it can sometimes be difficult to instantly switch up a gear and remember the all important strike!
If the carp are feeding very actively in your swim there will be the potential for constant line bites. The float may get knocked around, sometimes quite violently and if it just dips under only briefly this again is more likely a line bite. The key will be recognizing when a carp has actually picked up the bait. I would certainly set the hook on any ‘lift’ bites. And if the float stays down or sails away to one side I prefer to simply tighten up rather than strike - then if all hell breaks loose you are clearly connected! But if there is no hook-up then it’s unlikely the fish have been spooked and you can quietly re-cast for another go.
If you are fishing ‘waggler’ style then you’ve adjusted the shot so that it lies on the bottom while still weighting down the float sufficiently so just the tip is showing above the surface. When the carp picks up the bait the shot will also be picked up and the float will rise up or lift, showing more tip above the surface, perhaps even laying flat. This is probably the most sensitive method but does require some ‘micro’ adjustment to get right.
In some cases the bait might be taken “on the drop” (before it reaches the bottom) so the float stays flat or at angle instead of ‘cocked’ so be ready as soon as you’ve cast out!
Lastly be sure to have your reel clutch set on the ‘light’ side, especially if the reel does not have a baitrunner. All too often I’ve dozed off or been distracted only to be rudely brought back to my senses by a carp that’s hooked itself and is tearing off line!
Stealth & Observation
Float fishing typically takes place at short range, less than 20yds in most cases and sometimes right under the rod tip in only 2-3 feet of water so it’s imperative to minimize any bank side disturbance.
One of my favorite ways to target carp with a float is to wander around a new lake or pond in search of fish. As I look around I will also lightly bait up a few likely looking areas where fish might cruise or hang-out. These might include holes in weed beds, bank side margins or along side reed beds and lily pads etc. Then, armed with my rod, landing net, some extra hooks and shot together with a bucket (that can also double up as seat or a rod rest) and a few bait samples, I can drop back in on the baited areas to look for any signs of activity. It can be quite difficult to stay calm and focused when you see bubbles rising to the surface or muddy and discolored water indicating some serious feeding taking place… If there are also some big tails waving around then you’re nerves can be really tested!
Perhaps the biggest benefit from this style of fishing is how much more you will learn about the water you are fishing and in particular the opportunity to study carp behavior, often at incredibly close quarters.
So there you go – why not get a couple of floats and give it a try!