Fly Fishing: Float N’ Fly Rig for the Fly Rod

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Fly fishing: Float and Fly Rig for the fly rod. Photo Louis Cahill

I wrote a fly fishing tactics post for targeting bass on reservoirs during the fall.

At the tail-end of the post, I touched base on how effective a Float N’ Fly Rig (basically a nymphing rig on my fly rod) can be for catching good numbers of bass during the late fall and winter months. From late fall through winter, when water temperatures begin dipping into the mid-50s and lower, catching bass on deep reservoirs with traditional fly fishing setups can become extremely difficult for two reasons. The first reason is because bass start becoming sluggish as their metabolisms plummet from cooling lake water temperatures. With lower metabolisms, bass feed less frequently and they also move shorter distances to forage on food (in an effort to conserve energy). This is bad news for fly anglers because it drastically shrinks the size of the strike zone (the hot zone around a bass that a fly or lure needs to enter, to consistently trigger bites) and it makes it much harder for fly anglers to find, present, and retrieve fly patterns through these small strike zones. The second reason the bass fishing is tough this time of year is because a good portion of the bass on the lakes will move out of the shallow water feeding grounds of the fall and back out into the main lake deep water areas, where they’ll often suspend in the water column in 10-25′ of water.

The main problem with cold water suspended bass is that it’s really hard for fly anglers to keep their fly patterns in the strike zone throughout the entire retrieve. It’s really only in front of the bass for a small percentage of the retrieve. The first half of the retrieve an angler struggles to get the fly down to the level of the bass, and the last half of the retrieve, the fly is coming up and out of the strike zone as it gets closer to the angler and the boat on the surface. With a Float N’ Fly Rig, the suspension/floating device (strike indicator set to a preferred depth) allows you to maintain a consistent depth with your fly pattern during the entire retrieve, even when you’re working it extremely slow to entice cold water bass. That’s critical for triggering lethargic bass that often need to be coaxed into feeding. What you’re trying to do with your float n’ fly rig is make that baitfish jig pattern look injured or dying. It needs to look like an easy meal and the bass will suck it in if you get it close enough to them. The best technique is to make a cast to the bank, let your fly sink, and then slowly bring the entire rig back to you with very subtle rod tip bounces or jiggling. All you want is the strike indicator to barely be moving as you’re bringing the rig back to you. I usually stop the twitching and pause for 20-30 seconds a couple of times during each retrieve. The more windy the day is or the more chop there is on the water, the less you have to twitch the rod tip, because you’ll naturally get action on your jig from the choppy or wavy water on the surface.

Four or five years ago, I spent quite a bit of time bass fishing with my head bass guide (who uses conventional bass tackle) during the fall and winter, and that’s when I first saw how he located and caught good numbers of suspended bass with his float n’ fly rig on our deep mountain lakes. He used a long spinning rod (8-10′) spooled with 4-6lb. test. Tied a three-way swivel onto his main running line, attached a small bobber to the second tie off area of the three-way swivel, and then tied on a long section of fluorocarbon tippet (8-14′), from which he tied on a small hand tied jig. Year after year, we caught huge sacks of suspended bass with the float n’ fly rig on his hand tied 1/8 -1/32 oz. jigs. One day, I told him, “Man, all we’re really doing is nymphing for bass, and there’s no reason I can’t do this with my fly rod.” The next trip, I did just that, tying on a 12′ 3x leader, attached a strike indicator at the far end of the butt section of the leader and tied on 1/16 oz. jig with a non-slip loop knot. That day, I held my own, catching just as many bass with my fly rod as my buddy did with his spinning outfit. I’ve modified the rig a little over the years, but it still largely remains the same as that first standard trout nymph rig, only with a longer leader and a baitfish fly pattern tied on a jig hook, not a trout nymph.

As for where to fish the float n’ fly rig, the best place to start is on rocky bluff banks (steep 45 degree banks) or main lake points. Every day is different though and you need to listen to the fish and try to locate the bait. Sometimes deep water humps, secondary points or big coves will be the ticket. Use your electronics to find the bass and the bait and set your strike indicator so that your jig fly will be at or slightly above the depth of the fish. This will keep it in view of the most fish. Don’t position your boat too close to the bank so you don’t run the risk of sitting on top of the bass. Pay attention to where your bites are coming during the retrieve so you can dial your boat position in. I’ve found it best to cast to bank and work the rig back to the boat in deep water.

Below are some hand tied float n’ fly jigs that work really well for me and my bass guide. Most of the flies are tied from craft fur. We do use some Krystal Flash and mallard flank at times. One thing I found is that contrasting colors in the patterns seem to work much better than all natural realistic looking patterns. I think a lot of that has to do with the flies being fished over ten feet deep where many colors turn grey. Lastly, don’t tie your jigs too big. I rarely fish jigs over 3 inches. Most of the baitfish this time of year will be three inches or smaller.


Get out there and try this fun Float N’ Fly Rig out on your fly rod during the late fall and winter months this year. If you stick with it and use the tips I’ve suggested, I’m confident you’ll catch good numbers of bass and have most of the lake to yourself. Just dress extra warm, because the lake can be brutally cold this time of year.

Keep it Reel,

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Kent Klewein
Gink & Gasoline
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16 thoughts on “Fly Fishing: Float N’ Fly Rig for the Fly Rod

  1. Really cool technique Kent. Where do you buy your jigheads for these flies? I’ll have to give this a shot one day. I don’t do hardly any bass fishing once the weather cools off, but if I do find myself on the lake this fall/winter, I’m giving this a shot for sure. Ever tried this for crappie or stripers? It’s gotta work fishing for them as well.

  2. Don’t forget river smallies! This is a good way to catch BIG winter smallmouths in moving water. Some people say it’s the only way to fish smallies in the winter. All I know is that the fish are few and far between, but are never small.

    • Dan,

      You know it. That’s how this technique was developed, to keep the jigs from hanging up when fishing up the river. It can be slow at times, but when you find the fish, it can be on fire.


  3. Great info and can’t wait to try this technique out on my local river – it looks like it would have great potential for stripers as well.

  4. Great post, I’ve been using a similar setup for bass. The only difference is instead of a weighted jig head or dumb bells, I’ll tie the fly without weight and add a little weight 12 to 18 inches up. My theory is to get a flutter action after the strip.

    🙂 next we’ll be drilling holes in the hard water to keep fly rods in our hands.


    • I looked at the float in the photo and it appears to be one that is marketted by Phil Rowley. Just google his name, he has a large web presence. The indicator is a sliding strike indicator. For really deep fishing, it works best if you can stand in the boat while casting. We use them a lot in the fall when fishing mini leeches and blood worms for trout. They come in all sizes and many colours.

      • Frank,

        Thanks for the tip about Phil Rowley’s strike indicator. It may be, not sure. The one in the photo is a trout bobber I buy at Walmart. It is pegged with a plastic insert and doesn’t slide on the leader.


    • Tim,

      The float in the photo comes from Walmart and can be found in the fishing aisle. I use two of them for heavy flies or when it’s really windy to help keep it afloat and viewable throughout my retrieve. They are jeep and have great buoyancy. The XL large size of thingamabobbers work really good as well.


  5. Awesome idea. I have been wanting to try this but I was thinking of using a weightless fly and strike indicator to get a slooooow fall for those wintertime sluggish smallies and spots. Either way I am sure this is a great way to not only catch a few bass but also have a great time on a cold winter day. Thanks Ken

    • Ken,

      The float n’ fly rig version for the fly rod is an awesome rig for the colder months. From now, through the winter it can be deadly. As for your weightless suggestion, I think it is important to have some wait, because often you are needing to get the pattern down well above ten feet. If you go weightless, you’re going to be waisting a lot of time, waiting on your pattern to get down in the strike zone. That being said, I do experiment with different weighted flies and will go as light as 1/32 oz. Sometimes, a slower fall will yield more bites. Every day is different and the depth of the bass you’re targeting should dictate the weight of your fly. Let me know how it works for you. I often use two strike indicators for my heavier flies and if the water is choppy from lots of wind.


  6. Thanks for the info. I have been checking this technique out and trying to modify it for a fly rod. Not a lot of info out there. From the pic above, I was wondering if you have used the dumbbell eyed clouser pattern with any success? I’m trying to figure out some adaptable patterns that I could modify to stay horizontal. (and not coming up with a lot)
    Also, good idea with the trout float, I’ve been missing that piece also but you gave me an idea. I’m thinking about trying that out, but with a small round lead shot on the top of it to counter balance it. So float would lay down in the absence of the weight of the fly, for “lift bites” or when fly is grounded on bottom and go back to vertical when weight of fly has pulled it down. Thanks again, you have got my “wheels a turnin”.

  7. I’m confused, was this article written in October 2013 or December 2015? And is it written by Louis Cahill? Or Kent Klewein?

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