Growing up in a bait shop in Ottertail County, Minnesota, I can still remember the pegs of Northland floats and bright, yellow bins of jigheads. One of my father’s favorite ways of catching walleyes—besides deep-rigging double-hook ‘crawler rigs on heavy egg sinkers with jumbo leeches (which we trapped and sold both retail and wholesale across the country)—was fishing slip bobbers rigged simply with best-in-class, fresh jumbo leeches in late-afternoon and evenings on the numerous walleye-heavy lakes throughout the county.
The technique—which largely became popular during the early 1980s—but was used years before by those in-the-know caught lots of fish—still slays ‘eyes today. Deceptively simple, the technique does demand attention to detail. There’s more than sliding a bobber, weight, and hook onto your favorite rod and reel set-up. And right now is the time to get that kit together. All over the Walleye Belt anglers are reporting a switch from jig and minnow bites to rigging, cranks, and slip bobbers. I talked to Devils Lake guide Steve “Zippy” Dahl of Perch Patrol Guide Service and he’s been filling clients’ coolers with limits of healthy North Dakota walleyes—all taken fishing slip bobber rigs tipped with big, fat, and juicy leeches.
So, what’s the best plan? Put together a small tacklebox of slip bobber essentials.
The author with a twilight slip bobber walleye.
Slip Float Rigging Essentials
The first component to any decent slip bobber set-up is the rod. Historically, anglers have used longer rods, old-timers opting for moderate-action fiberglass sticks capable of throwing the rig a mile, a big bonus when fishing from docks or the bank. But lots has changed. Most anglers today are fishing graphite but still sticking with longer rods.
St. Croix Rod has numerous models suitable for the technique—and at all price points. It doesn’t matter too much which you choose, just as long as you get the length, power, and action right. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Eyecon family, which provides excellent performance across all walleye tactics and doesn’t break the bank. The (EYS80MLF2) 8’0” medium-light power, fast-action “Drift-N-Float” Eyecon is a true gem, weighing in at a mere 4.8 ounces, which is astounding for a rod of this length. It’s also two-pieces which comes in handy for transport. And at just under $150, it’s Dom Perignon on a Boone’s Farm budget.
The Right Reel
When it comes to reels for longer rods, it’s best to choose something with a larger spool to hold more line and facilitate farther, streamlined, rocket-perfect casts and allow you to pick up line quicker when the float’s pulled under. Especially in clear waters—what with the tools of Side Imaging at our command to pinpoint individual pods of fish–even single, roaming fish—far off the right or left of the boat—long, pin-pointing casts are often key. It’s spot-and-stalk fishing these days with electronics, no more simple plunking a bobber next to the boat and cracking a barley pop.
Daiwa has really stepped up their game drawing a lot of converts from other reel manufacturers. Especially for the money, it’s hard to beat what Daiwa currently offers. Personally, I’m a big fan of the Tatula LT. With its slightly larger than 2500-size arbor, two models to consider are the TALT3000-CXH or TALT3000D-CXH. The Tatula LT reel is also one of the lightest spinning reels on the market. The state-of-the-art Air Rotor design is 15% lighter than previous models yet still strong, dispersing pressure evenly over every part of the reel. The drag, too, is silky smooth and effortless, a big factor in slip bobber fishing with a longer rod.
In terms of main line choice, more anglers are fishing braid with a fluorocarbon leader and ditching mono for longer casts, less stretch, and more sensitivity. Northland’s Joel Nelson fishes 15-pound braid terminated to an 8-pound leader. The heaver braid prevents the bobber stop from slipping and makes the line largely resistant to wind knots. Straight fluoro works, too, in 8- or 10-pound test. Daiwa’s J-Fluoro Samurai Hidden Concept fluorocarbon is a nearly invisible green-brown that blends in with most waters and background structure like weeds and mud, putting another trick up your sleeve for spooky ‘eyes.
Slip Bobber Rigging Must-Haves
Once a rod and reel are selected, it’s time to put together tackle for the all-import business end. More than just a float, weight, and hook, slip bobber fishing is really about finesse and the nuances of the presentation.
Starting with the float, best to choose something on the larger side. Northland Fishing Tackle’s Lite-Bite Weighted Slip Bobber in the 1-inch or 1 ¼” oval is a solid choice. With a lead weight sleeve around the bottom, these floats cast like a bullet and balance perfectly on the surface. Plus, they’re easy to spot on the water, not disguised by waves and wind.
Of course, you’ll need Slip-Knot Stops as the first portion to rigging a slip-float. I prefer pink as they’re easy to see, although Northland also has them available in chartreuse. A quick tip: Don’t trim the ends. Leave them hanging, which also makes them visible for easy depth changes—and given the guide size on most slip-bobber-ready rods, they shouldn’t interfere with casting. Historically, string slip-knot stops are easier to use than rubber bobber stops and far more resilient.
So, slide on the string-stopper and bead, the float, and then personally I like to use a small 1/8- to ¼-ounce egg-sinker vs. split-shots on the rig. Small egg sinkers don’t fray your line and balance the float and bait perfectly. Then comes a swivel. Eagle Claw and Gamakatsu both make good quality barrel swivels. A smaller size is preferred and black is standard.
Next comes the leader, which can vary in length depending on depth and the mood of the fish. For simplicity, I run a piece of 8-pound Daiwa green and brown, camouflage fluoro measuring a full-arm’s length. If you don’t know your arms’ length, measure it. Mine is just under six feet so I’ve got a good indicator when measuring out leader length.
Next, I like to add pink or green glow bead then tie on a small, 1/8-ounce Northland Super-Glo or small Fire-Ball Jig for spot-and-stalk slip float fishing; for anchoring on structure, I’ll go simple with a plain Gamakatsu glow octopus hook, which are available in packs of 25 specifically for walleye in five included glow colors, including de facto pink. A snell knot is recommended for running a plain hook and glow bead.
Live Bait Basics
There are times when nothing beats live bait. It’s sad but true – still, a good thing for trappers and bait shops across the country. And when fishing a slip float rig for walleyes in summer it’s hard to beat a jumbo leech, hooked to stretch and dangle delectably just behind the sucker on the wide end of the bait. Minnows like redtail chubs are also a good bet and sometimes ‘eyes love half of a plump ‘crawler. It’s up to you and your waters to determine the best bait option. The biggest thing here is keeping your bait lively, whether that means buying leeches in bulk before trapping comes to a close in late summer and freshening them up with cold, untreated well water every day and storing them in refrigeration—or having a flat of ‘crawlers on the ready in fresh bedding—also in the refrigerator or cooler—so you’re prepared bait-wise when the bite is on. For minnows, cool water and aeration are key. Engel makes some great live bait coolers like this massive, 30-quart model with dual rod holders on the sides, convenient pull out net, and two-speed aerator, plus a rare-to-the-product-category 5-year warranty.
Insiders’ Tips: More ‘Eyes on Slip Bobbers
Now that you’re fully rigged and have fresh bait on hand, it’s time to fish! We talked with several Northland pros and they shared some insider information often overlooked by everyday anglers plunking floats for summer ‘eyes.
Slip bobber anglers fall mainly into two camps—the trolling motor pedal-to-the-metal, spot and stalk Side Imaging and forward-facing sonar dudes, and the older school, find-some-structure and camp out crew. Both have their time and place.
“First and foremost, depth is of key importance,” says Nelson. “A lot of anglers obsess about being too close to the bottom, six inches to a foot above the mud, gravel, or weeds. I like to maintain three- to five-feet above their heads – after all, especially in clear waters like Mille Lacs, which has a great slip bobber bite – walleyes have no problem feeding up that high. I think that’s the case on a lot of waters.”
Always check the depth of your slip bobber stop after each catch. Use a clip-on depth bomb (the kind often sold right by bait shop cash registers) and examine your depth by the side of the boat to make sure you’re not dangling your bait in no man’s land.
Walleye fishing has become so technical over the past decade that we’ve forgotten how simple and fun it can really be, especially for friends and the family. There’s no better way to introduce newbies to walleye fishing than plunking slip bobbers.
Joel Nelson concludes: “I end up fishing in areas featuring a lot of multispecies. I’ll pull up to a rock pile or sunken island and try my best to catch walleyes, but we might get into smallies or largemouths—which also love live bait dangled below a float—and sometimes, which is really fun, we’ll get into big bluegills. And when the walleye bite is on, there’s nothing better—no pitching or trolling with kids’ tangled lines—just laughing, sitting back and relaxing with a beverage and snack and waiting for that yellow and orange float to drag and invariably sink signaling memory-making hooksets. That’s good times for everyone!”
Do yourself a favor and rig up a few slip bobber rods and take your friends and family out fishing. For starters, nothing beats early morning or evening for the technique. Find a reef, sunken island, point, break, or anomalies in the weedline where the cabbage transitions into deeper water and anchor up. Make sure to keep that livewell running—after all, countless tournaments have been won working the basics of a slip float—and vacationers still fill coolers with ‘eyes working the same program. If a meal of fish is what you’re after, just know there’s no better and more fun way to catch fish right now on a lot of waters throughout the Walleye Belt!