Since the terminology from North to South is very different, it would be better to describe the basic language in this article at the beginning to help end some of the confusion.
A Float-N-Fly rod can be almost any rod that is about 8’ long to about 12’ long. I have used about every rod you can think of, from the long European Match Rods, Downrigger Rods, Noodle Rods, Crappie Rods and so on. I have settled on a Browning STS90N, which is a 9’ rod made of IM6 graphite and is what a fly fisherman would call a full flex rod, because it bends equally over the length of the rod. With the 9’ rod I use bobber to jig lengths 7 to 11 feet. If I have to fish deeper I go to 12’ graphite Crappie Rod that has good backbone and use bobber to jig lengths up to 15 feet.
A fly, any where in the country except in the south is hair, feathers, or synthetic material tied to a hook and fished most of the time on a fly rod. In the south a fly is a lead head jig that has hair, feathers or synthetic material tied to it. Simply called a hair jig any place else. Many, many people have tried to copy the fly that is made by Bullet Lures in Jonesborough, TN. (423-753-6151), but this fly took years and years to develop. It is made to resemble the young shad that die during a cold winter. Charlie and his brother Eddie, who now run the company, have found the secret to make the jig look real. If you hold their jig perfectly still in the water, it has the shape of a small shad. Most of the baits made to copy Eddie’s bait looks like a spider in the water.
A float in this case is nothing more then a 7/8 or 1-inch pear shaped bobber. Some people have made changes, but this is the original set up.
The original set up is to use a spinning reel loaded with 4 lb test that you start out by tying a 1/16 or 1/8 lead head jig, dressed with craft hair, to the end of your line. Then you move toward the rod tip 7 to 9 feet and take your bobber and only use the bottom end of the brass hook to attach your line. You take your 4 lb line and wrap it around the brass hook of the bobber 3 times. This makes your bobber stationary, but you must remember to tie often and also tie after every big fish. This is the original set up and is extremely affective, but when you guide and have people that don’t fish often, there are several changes you can make to save some headaches. When I guide I usually either jump up to 6 lb, test or use Fireline that is 14-6. I take a small 3-way swivel and tie my Fireline to the top eye. Since I am also a fly fisherman, I then take a tapered leader the length I need and tie that to the bottom eye. The tapered leader makes it much easier for new people to cast this rig. The third eye of the three-way swivel is where you hook the bobber. This saves a lot of broken lines and lost equipment.
Before I get into the real meat of this article, allow me to tell you how I learned of this method and how this whole thing got started. Sometime in the early 90’s, a great fellow, the late Charlie Nuckols, phoned me from east Tennessee and said, “I hear you know where those big Smallies are located on Dale Hollow Lake in the winter. I have a new way to catch those big Smallies in the winter when the water gets extremely cold and they get hard to catch”. To make a long story short, he came and showed myself and one of the best outdoor writers in the country, Don Wirth, how to use his new method and the rest is history.
This is a winter method in the South and could be considered a fall and spring method in the north. Almost every year at Dale Hollow Lake, we get a very hard freeze during the first or second week of Dec. that will drop the water temperature below 50 degrees. This hard freeze will stun the shad and cause them to start dying and most of the game fish will move under these big schools of shad for an easy meal. Each cold spell after that will cause the shad to group up in larger and larger schools and by Jan. and Feb. they are dying by the thousands. I will start using the Float-N-Fly shortly after that cold snap and will quit as soon as the water starts to warm again. That’s usually some time in late Feb. or early March. I’m a big lure big fish man and when I can I throw crankbaits, jerkbaits, and spinnerbaits, however, lots of guides stay with the Float-N-Fly method well into the spring.
The best place to start looking for these large schools of shad are in the little creeks and bays of the large creek arms. I usually drive around in the creeks, watching my Lowrance to get an idea of where the bait is located. When you find the bait in one creek, it will usually be in similar areas in the other creeks. Most of the time the bait will be located on fast drop off areas and most of your fishing will take place with your boat in fifty feet or more of water. You’re fishing for suspended fish so don’t worry that your bait is only 9 to 15 feet deep in 50 or 60 feet of water. Another reason that makes this method so effective at Dale Hollow is because the water is so clear. When vertical jigging spoons, I have actually seen Smallmouth and Spotted Bass come off the bottom in 40 feet of water to hit the spoon that is 15 or 20 feet deep. It gives you a lot of confidence to know that a fish will move that far to hit your bait.
If you have ever thrown a Carolina Rig, you will be in the ballpark making your first cast with a Float-N-Fly. You’re not trying to put your bait 6 inches from a stump or log, because most of the time you’re throwing to open water. As long as you’re hitting in the general area of the schools of shad, you’ll be in great shape. After you make your cast, wait for around 20 to 30 seconds for your bait to sink and suspend under the bobber. Start shaking or quivering your rod back and forth as you very slowly turn the reel handle. After 3 or 4 turns of the reel handle, stop and allow the jig to flutter back down under the bobber. Repeat this method until it gets back to the boat. At the same time your bobber is getting to the boat, open the bail and in one motion swing the bait back over your head, and as you hear the bait hit the water behind you, make your forward cast again. A hit can be so hard, that it sets the hook itself or so light that the bobber will just make little circles on the water. When they just barely tap your bait, stay patient and it will usually come back and take it hard. Play your fish easy, but remember that a long soft rod will give you a lot of help and is very forgiving. I don’t like a net, but I recently purchased one of the new rubber, shallow nets, because the fish are so hard to land by hand with all that line hanging below the bobber.
Just because you’re fishing a very slow deliberate method, don’t think you’re stuck in one area. You’re not going to cover the same amount of water as you do while running and gunning while throwing crankbaits, but you want to try as many areas as you can to come up with a pattern. Fish steep banks, pockets, bays, humps, roadbeds, etc., until you find where they are, and concentrate your efforts on similar areas.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re fishing the Float-N-Fly or throwing crankbaits, Smallmouth love that bad nasty weather and it seems it can’t get too nasty. Having that clear blue bird sky and you will have a hard time, just as with any other bait. This is like any other bait, you have to go out and fish it until you get confidence and then it is hard to put down.